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the poem
learkana chong
Frog and Squirrel and Possum Previous transformation Next

the poem

The poem is in the emotional abuse.
No, the poem is in the antidepressants.
Or hidden somewhere in that faraway gaze
she would put on by the sliding glass door.
Or in the Khmer newspaper she would read
with dollar store glasses on.

Actually, the poem is in her rotting teeth.
No, the poem is in her X-rays.
It’s lurking underneath her gaunt face.
Or somewhere in the conspiracies about her health
told to her by other elders
who warped her concerns
into an imminent deathbed
that crushed us with guilt
while the white nurse shook her head,
perplexed, and said, “You’re going to be fine.”

No, the poem was planted in that garden of hers,
a spiky green jungle in paint buckets
and Styrofoam cups,
back when we had a backyard.
The poem was on the canopy swing
before we threw it away.
The poem was on the bench by that busy road,
tucked into one of our plastic bags
as we waited an hour for the bus
in the cold.

Maybe the poem is in the dumpster
she dives in to find buried treasure.
No, the poem is in the dead flies
on sticky yellow traps
dangling from the ceiling.
No, the poem is in the little crevices
the roaches crawl out of.
No, the poem is in the dead rat
she brought to us
with a gleeful smile on her face
while we screamed our heads off.

The poem is her tears.
No, it’s the way she weaponized those tears.
The poem is our dad’s corpse.
No, the poem is the liver cancer that killed him.
No, the poem is the state denying his suffering.
No, the poem is the fact he is survived by
his wife, four children,
and a thousand pounds of festering grief
and debilitating anxiety.
The poem is me thinking
we’d all be a lot less fucked up
if he was still alive.
The poem is having more pictures
of his gravestone than his face in my phone.
The poem is me and my mother
visiting his grave one hot afternoon
and getting a free lighter to light our incense
from the white family across the way
(because mourning your dead loved ones
at the cemetery on Father’s Day
is one of the few times and places
you can foster some racial harmony).

Well, the poem should be the crying for my mother in the middle of the night because of the throbbing pain in my toes and her sitting at the foot of the bed telling me
plainly, “It’s not real. It’s only in your head.”
The poem should be the bachelor’s degree in English she doesn’t give a fuck about.
The poem should be the student loans
she blames us for taking out.
The poem should be all the property we don’t own.
The poem should be the money she gives us,
always with strings attached.
The poem should be the house we never bought her.
The poem should be the kids we never were to her.
The poem should be the failures she sees us as.
The poem should have universal themes of intergenerational family dysfunction.
No, the poem should be culturally specific for the purposes of authenticity.
The poem should have the conflict it raises resolved by the close of the last verse.
The poem should be as violent as it is mundane.
The poem should have a happy ending.
The poem should give white people clarity.
The poem should empirically prove our pain.
The poem should be emotionally compelling.
The poem should demonstrate progress has been made.
The poem should have no relapses.
The poem should heal us for good.
The poem should make sense (to who?).
The poem should involve some kind of mental health intervention.
The poem should be free family therapy from a culturally appropriate bilingual clinician with a sharp anti-oppression analysis and a heart of gold.

I know, I know, they want the poem in the genocide.
They want the poem in the Khmer Krahom.
They want the poem to live and die there.
But the poem fell with the bombs birthed by U.S. planes.
The poem was raised in the blood spilled
by Western colonialism and imperialism.
The poem is in my grandmother’s bones.
The poem is in my grandfather’s rage.
The poem is my uncle beaten and taken to the madhouse
and dropped from the sky to his death
when the regime took over in 1975.
The poem is learning this story in 2019.
The poem is all the dead relatives I never had the chance to meet.
The poem is not enough elders who lived to tell their stories.
The poem is my matriarchal bloodline riddled with names I will never come to know.

Really, the poem is a village in Battambang, Cambodia.
No, the poem is my mother never wanting to return.
No, the poem is the existential dread
that tensed up my jaw after the trip in 2016
No, the poem is telling her to leave me alone
and her telling me she should kill herself
No, the poem is all the missed calls
and voicemail messages left on my phone
No, the poem is the vaginal discharge she pathologized
No, the poem is pissing in the toilet with the door open
No, the poem is the slices of fruit she cuts up for me
No, the poem is all the tattoos on my body that she hates
No, the poem is the wig I bought her from the beauty supply store on Telegraph
No, the poem is my mother dancing with me to Taylor Swift in a rundown apartment on the west side of Modesto
No, the poem is painting her lips red like mine while I wore her black and white blouse
No, the poem is her laugh intermingling with mine
No, the poem is her affirming silence when I said “men are trash” in Khmer
No, the poem is writing words she will never read
No, the poem is realizing she didn’t love me the way I needed her to
No, the poem is empathizing with her
No, the poem is forgiving her
No, the poem is resenting her
No, the poem is hating her and loving her at the same time and at different times
No, the poem is both our suns are in Virgo
No, the poem is the language barrier
No the poem is the cultural divide
No the poem is the generational gap
No the poem is the internalized oppression
No the poem is the trauma it’s always the fucking trauma
No no no no the poem is the resilience don’t forget the resilience
The poem is our ancestors looking down on us,
shaking their heads, perplexed, and saying, “You’re going to be fine”
The poem is my mother
The poem is me
The poem is my mother and me
The poem is me and my mother and
my mother
and me
are the poem.

learkana chong (she/her) is a diasporic Cambodian millennial woman born and raised in the imperial core. Her work has appeared in All about Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color, the Asian American Literary Review, Stilt House, and Sample Space. She blogs about f*ckboys and feminism at Her first (self-)published book of poetry, speculum, is available through Barnes & Noble Press. Learkana received her B.A. in English at Mills College and currently resides in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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