Two Poems by Bunkong Tuon

Not Everything is About Racism

My friends say, it’s all in your head.
I tell them about Halloween ’85.
A bunch of kids cornered me,
kicked me around like hacky sack
and spat at me when done.
The hot streak of saliva still burns,
I say. And they say,
That’s just kids being kids.
I tell them about the teacher
who said I was a disappointment
to my people.
I was failing classes after
a letter from Cambodia announced
my father’s death.
My friends say, Some teachers are
plain ignoramus.
You’ve got to be more positive.
Change your attitude.

I think about their small high schools
where teachers
showed them how to argue in circles,
gaslight an opponent.
I tell them so,
and they come back with,
This is America.
It doesn’t matter where you go
to school. You can make something
of yourself through hard work.
Go to the library.
Books are free, knowledge
is there.
I want to tell them
what is wrong with their education,
the difficulty of imagining otherwise.
I say, the heart, the heart,
you forgot the heart!

Isn’t That How it Goes

I’m taking in students who aren’t mine.
They roam the hallway like ghosts from childhood.
This one feels so alone he wants to hurt himself.
That one wants to transfer to a place where, she says,
diversity isn’t just a number and the arts is celebrated.
My wife isn’t saying anything but I know
what she’s thinking. We have a daughter
and are expecting a son. Lord knows the last time
we went to the movies, shared popcorn,
stole glances at each other, smiling in the dark.
But the students need me, I think to myself,
or maybe I need them. When I see a child fall
knees scraped, I run, pick the boy up,
tell him it will be all right. This is life.
One student is considering dropping out,
like I did decades ago: hating my life,
hating school, hating my brown skin.
I’m searching for the right book,
the perfect poem, the one word that
could reverse the order of things,
key to the kingdom of light.
I’m reaching back across years
to save that lonely Cambodian kid
from hurting himself, maybe more.

Bunkong Tuon @BunkongTuon is a Cambodian-American writer and critic. He is the author of Gruel (NYQ Books, 2015), And So I Was Blessed (NYQ Books, 2017), and Dead Tongue (with Joanna C. Valente, forthcoming from Yes Poetry), as well as a contributor to Cultural Weekly. Nominated for the Pushcart numerous times, his poetry recently won the 2019 Nasiona Nonfiction Poetry Prize. He teaches at Union College in Schenectady, NY.

Banner Image: “Above and Below” by Robert Frede Kenter.

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