Ken McCullough & U Sam Oeur


Ken McCullough

Translating U Sam Oeur

Notes on the Poet

U SAM OEUR is a Cambodian poet, born in 1936, who survived four years in Pol Pot’s concentration camps by feigning illiteracy and by destroying the manuscripts of his literary work. Since he had been raised on a farm, he was able to adapt to the brutal rigors of forced agricultural labor.

“Sam,” as he is known in the U.S., grew up in rural Svey Rieng province, studied in Phnom Penh, and was eventually educated in the U.S., receiving a B.A. in Industrial Arts from Cal State-Los Angeles and an M.F.A. in Poetry from the Iowa Writers Workshop. Sam and I were classmates at Iowa from ’66-’68 and had adjacent apartments for a time. We became close friends. It was my plan to eventually travel to Cambodia and work with Sam in translating Cambodian folk tales into English.

Sam returned to Cambodia in ’68 as soon as he finished his degree, married, taught for a short time, then entered light industry in several managerial positions. We corresponded until 1970 when Sam informed me that there was little point in writing anymore as all the mail was being censored by the government. I heard nothing from or about him until fourteen years later, when I learned that he volunteered as a captain in the army for two years (’70-’72), then returned to continue working his way up the managerial ladder of Cambodian industry. He was elected a member of Parliament and was selected as a delegate to the U.N. And he continued to write poetry. Then, in April ’75, the Khmer Rouge took over. Sam, his wife, son and mother-in-law were herded from their home and spent the next four years in a succession of six concentration camps. Somehow they all survived. At one point during this period, though, Sam’s wife gave birth to twins who were strangled by midwives at the order of the camp overseer — they were not only extra mouths to feed, but were the cause of a worker being out of circulation. Finally, after the Vietnamese ran off the Khmer Rouge, Sam and his family returned to Phnom Penh and he began to work in the Ministry of Industry.

I learned of his situation when the English Department at the University of Iowa received a letter from Sam, via an Australian non-governmental organization, asking for a copy of his thesis which he’d had to destroy at the outset of the Pol Pot takeover. A secretary in the department had heard me talking about Sam in the past (but never in the past tense), and passed on a copy of his letter.

Through the Australian connection, Sam and I resumed our correspondence. Immediately I started trying to figure ways of getting Sam out of Cambodia. I asked Clark Blaise, Director of the International Writing Program at Iowa, if he could invite Sam as a participant. When Clark began looking for backing from foundations, however, their response in general was to balk because Sam was not yet considered a big enough literary “fish.” (Of course if he had been an established writer, he would have been killed long ago.) Then in 1991, a co-worker of Sam’s discovered in Sam’s desk a poem critical of the Vietnamese-backed regime, which to the co-worker indicated that Sam was involved in the pro-democracy movement in Cambodia. He turned U Sam Oeur in.

But, although this was indeed his leaning, Sam was not actively involved in anything organized. Nevertheless, the Party forced him to sign a letter of resignation from his position with the Ministry of Industry. There was a mood of desperation in his letters to me at this time. Then, luckily, Clark was able to get the Dashiell Hammett-Lillian Hellman Foundation Fund For Free Expression to sponsor Sam as a participant in the program. When in September of 1992 I went to meet Sam at the airport I saw a badly-shaken but no less radiant version of my old friend.

Initially, we did not know whether Sam could stay in the U.S. beyond his three-month gig as a fellow in Iowa’s International Writing Program; but eventually we were able through the English Department to get him designated as an Independent Scholar and thereby have his visa extended. In any case, during his three months in the program we worked furiously to translate his work (I was still working full-time at my regular job as an academic adviser at the university), having no inkling of how much time we had.

Sam had arrived with very little down on paper — just a few tattered scraps, so most of what he was coming up with was from memory. To date, we have translated about 170 pages of Sam’s poetry into English, and are circulating the poems to magazines. (A grant from the Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry allowed me to take six months off from my job to work with Sam on the project.) We have a publisher who has indicated that he wants to do a bilingual edition of Sam’s book Sacred Vows. Sam has also begun translating Whitman’s “Song of Myself” into Khmer.

In Cambodia (back in the days before Pol Pot), the traditional poets were itinerants, wandering the countryside, bringing the news. Thus, aptly, on the cover of a chapbook of selections from Sacred Vows, U Sam Oeur follows his name with the title — in Khmer — “Itinerant Poet.” At this point in time, the name fits especially well, in that he has no employment and no fixed abode. Only his writing is certain. Indeed, Sam feels that he cannot return to Cambodia — he wants to go back but has been advised by friends close to the situation that despite the recent “democratic” elections, it would be suicidal for him to return until things become more stable. He is thus thinking about applying for political asylum. Unfortunately, his wife and son are still in Phnom Penh. But if he does not apply for asylum, he cannot be gainfully employed in the U.S. Until the smoke clears it seems that he must remain here, living by his wits.

Sam’s ultimate ambition is to return to Phnom Penh and start a Writers Workshop at the college level, in which Cambodian writers can share their work and prepare themselves for participation in the literary community within their country and abroad. Sam is indeed durable, but his body has been through quite a bit. He is now fifty-seven. The clock is ticking. For the time being, however, he will continue to write and to chant his poems in exile. And, even here in the United States, he receives death threats in the mail. Similar to the way in which Navajo storytellers use indirection to deliver a possibly critical message, the wandering Cambodian poets wove recent news into their material by referring to parallel historical or mythological situations. They did not wish to become prophets shunned in their own land. Many of U Sam Oeur’s poems are allegorical as well — like those of the traditional poets — but others are not, and for this he pays a price of the above-mentioned threats — three of them, all postmarked from Long Beach, California, letting him know there are those who regard his writings as treasonous. But, those who know Sam at all regard him as a gentle, kind and abidingly peaceful person.

Nevertheless, idealists are dangerous people. . . .

 Notes on the Poetry

TRADITIONAL KHMER POETRY is usually chanted and invariably the poet accompanies himself on a two-stringed guitar as a drone instrument. For some types of poems, particularly laments, a wooden flute is used as accompaniment. U Sam Oeur’s poetry adheres to the tradition in that most of his poems, in Khmer, are written in strict forms with intricate rhyme schemes, as well as in that he chants them in dramatic fashion. The narrative portions of poems are chanted in a flat manner similar to recitative, while the more emotionally-charged passages are delivered in the manner of aria. The longest section of the book-length Sacred Vows is entitled “In the Concentration Camps;” hence, as one might assume, the predominant emotions are grief and despair. Despite this, many of the poems are tinged with irony and even whimsy.

It is difficult, to say the least, to translate Khmer poetry into English and capture its unique qualities — the languages are worlds apart. Khmer, unlike numerous other languages in Southeast Asia, is nontonal. Most of the indigenous words are mono- and occasionally disyllabic, while the polysyllabic words one comes across derive generally from Sanskrit through Pali and relate to religious or philosophical matters. Khmer words are not ideograms, although they sometimes have characteristics of ideograms. Thus, you can’t come up with a clean and consistent scheme of translating the word/picture/concept as you can in Chinese. Also, Khmer has no articles, pronouns, plurals, or possessives, while there are a number of grammatical and syntactical rules peculiar to Khmer.

The most fundamental difference, however, is that the music of the Khmer language has no equivalents in English. When looking for ways to transliterate the sounds of Khmer words (à la Louis Zukofsky) one always comes up woefully short. Remember that most of these poems are chanted, anyway — they are, in essence, song. Also, rhyme is more prevalent in Khmer than in English. Although the rhymes in Sam’s poems are rarely forced, many traditional Khmer poets will introduce an unaccented nonsense syllable to supply a ready-made rhyme. This kind of device has parallels, of course, in many other languages, including English.

What we’ve done in these poems is to give the reader a fairly literal translation while attempting to capture the spirit of the poems and get as close to the sound, rhythm and meter of the poems as possible. On occasion we’ve had to shift the position of a line or phrase to maintain the flow of the poem; hence, a reader fluent in Khmer will not find exact one-to-one correspondence. There’s certainly nothing innovative about this approach. I’ve always admired Kenneth Rexroth’s translations from Chinese and, after reading many other translations of the same poems, have felt that his come closest to capturing the power and intent of the originals. It is this group of translations I have attempted to use as a touchstone, although we’re working with different languages and cultures.

These poems appearing in Artful Dodge represent three distinctly different contexts in the life of U Sam Oeur. “Sacred Vows” is set during the third of Sam’s four years in Pol Pot concentration camps; “Searching for Dad” is set a few months after the Vietnamese “liberated” the Cambodians from the Khmer Rouge; and “Dream after Composing the Appeal” is set in 1994, after Sam had been living in exile in the U.S. for about eighteen months. The first two poems represent atrocities recollected in relative tranquility, in that Sam did not attempt to write them down until recently, while “Dream” was written the morning after the experience.

A few terms in the poems warrant explanation. In “Sacred Vows,” the term “Red-eyes” refers to the Pol Pot clique. They acquired red eyes from eating human livers and swallowing human bile, especially from freshly-killed virgins. Their usual method of obtaining a liver was by axing an unsuspecting girl from behind, then tearing the liver from the body and braising it slightly over an open fire. This was believed to bring immortality. U Sam Oeur claims that he can, to this day, spot these men because their eyes have stayed the same color. Several of them are in high positions within the newly-elected government.

In that same poem, “Angkar” is the term the Khmer Rouge used to refer to their collective organization as well as to an individual overseeing a concentration camp. Then, in the “Pronouncement” section of the poem, the Parabhava Sutta to which Sam refers is a Buddhist scripture whose translation would be roughly “The Twelve Causes of a Man’s Downfall,” while the Boddhi Tree symbolizes Buddha and the Sugar Palm represents Cambodia.

In “Searching for Dad,” the specific ideologies Sam intends to implicate are Maoism and Meanism. Meanism is the philosophy of the Indochinese Communist Party, passed down from Ho Chi Minh. Achar Mean, for whom it was named, was appointed Secretary General of the Party in 1951. He died in Hanoi in 1972. Incidentally, the “dad” in the poem is not Sam’s father but his father-in-law-in Khmer, “dad” is used generically.

In the title of “Dream after Composing. . . ,” Sam mentions the Cambodian League for Freedom and Democracy. This organization came into being in 1973, with Sam as Secretary General, and went dormant in ’75 at the outset of the Pol Pot regime. Sam has been trying since his arrival to revive the organization among expatriates here in the U.S. and to reestablish its link with the World League for Freedom and Democracy. The gist of Sam’s appeal was that his fellow Cambodians see through the smokescreen of the “democratic” election of 1993 and to recognize it as a travesty.

Also, a few words about the forms of the Khmer originals — “Sacred Vows” is written in the “crow-hopping” form, which consists of seven-line, four-word stanzas, and a tightly-woven rhyme scheme of end rhymes which are linked with internal rhymes. This is the form in which laments are almost always written. “Searching for Dad” is written in four-line, eight-word stanzas — a more discursive form, though even this form has a weave of rhymes similar to the “crow-hopping” form. In “Dream After Composing the Appeal of the Cambodian League for Freedom and Democracy” Sam abandons the tradition and writes in free verse-what’s the point, after all, of being traditional when everything militates against that tradition.

And, after all, there is no traditional Cambodian form for the nightmare, anyway.

Iowa City, June 20, 1994


U Sam Oeur

Sacred Vows

for Michael Dennis Browne

I. Kapok Plantation
May 1978

I was assigned, one among seven,
to clear the land, 500 acres worth;
to transform it into the site
for a kapok plantation: mid-May ’78

One afternoon, on a scorching day,
the Red-Eyes sat in a circle in the shade.
Their leader proclaimed: “This season, Angkar
will start more intensive work
to finish ahead of schedule.

And after harvest, in the cold months,
Angkar will wipe out all useless people,
and leave the seed of fifteen families for each cooperative—
we will consider this the model.”

I stared at the sky.
I murmured
“O, Almighty One!
Do you hear the proclamations of these monsters?”

II. Pronouncement
October 1978

I knew I could never escape. I remembered
what the Great Spirit had told me: in time of danger
I should burn incense and invoke Sakadevaraja, the King of Angels,
to save the lives of my countrymen and women.

Under the light of the full moon, while
guarding the rice paddy fields from marauding beasts,
I burned 21 sticks of incense I’d made from kapok leaves
and set them in a termite mound.

Then, three times, I recited:

“Namo tassa Bhagavato Arahato Samma Sambuddhassa”*

Then I pronounced my Sacred Vows:

“Oh God in His Highest Form
the King of Angels
higher than the Universe,
all the Great-Grandmother
my Mother and Father from the Heavenly Island
             I pray to all of you.
Great-Grandfather Raja
all the local deities,
deities of the six directions,
Great-Grandfather Suos,
King of the Sacred Cobras,
deities of the mountains and seas,
               bless these benedictions.
May the Boddhi Tree be free to grow.
May the Sugar Palm be free from blame.
May the supernatural devils be banished from Cambodia.
May Peace be restored
to the people of this land.
When Cambodia is independent,
when Human Rights are respected,
alms for my Father
the people free from fears,
I promise to offer
to more than 500 monks
            at Angkor Wat. 
May my Great-Grandmother Cobra
and the King of the Mountain
witness my Sacred Vows.
these three wildernesses,
After I have crossed
after I have reached
                the shore of genuine Freedom,
I will invite the monks more than 500 of them
to preach the 24,000 propositions
to chant
the Parabhava Sutta in celebration of
               the rebirth of my beloved Cambodia.”

On the night of the full moon, October ’78
the moon shone brightly over the jungle
where the cold north wind
swept the rice paddy fragrance
through the silent midnight.

And from the top of a termite mound
the smokes of incense curl,
soaring to Heaven,
carrying my Sacred Vows to the Almighty
as the moon revolves westward.

(Translated from the Khmer by Ken McCullough)


*Translator’s Note: “Namo tassa Bhagavato Arahato Samma Sambuddhassa” could be translated as “Praise be to Him, the Blessed One, the Fully-Enlightened One.”


U Sam Oeur

Dream After Composing the Appeal of the Cambodian League for Freedom and Democracy

for Rose Rutherford

I am swimming across a wide river
when swords start falling from the trees
They must be swords left by the Japanese
I pick up several to save as collector’s items
but the blades are rusty with deep nicks
They must have been used to butcher many Cambodians
whose tormented spirits may still inhabit the swords
I decide not to take souvenirs

And now I must cross another river
The ferry has just pulled away from the shore
Two little men run after the ferry
calling it back for me to no avail
A young boy falls in the quagmire of filth
the mud and hundreds of putrid chicken carcasses
As he sinks I rush to grasp his hair
too late. Too late. He disappears
in the foul mess as I just stand there. . .

(Translated from the Khmer by Ken McCullough)


U Sam Oeur

Searching for Dad

March 1979

for Lorraine Ciancio

When I left, dad sat on his bed,
wanting to go through his shakes in private.
With no food or water, dad lived on Buddha
while his body became covered with sores.

He refused to leave. He wanted to meditate.
Pol Pot separated me from my Teacher.
When I return, I find he is gone.
Dad, what miseries did you suffer?

In ’75, it was ashrams everywhere.
Old men and women who were fed up
with reincarnating into this life of pitfalls
sought ways to reach Nirvana.

Now, in ’79, I see only aquatic bushes.
I break into a cold sweat. I get dizzy;
No matter what the ideology du jour,
there is always the same lament.

Oh trees in whose roots the fish spawn,
in the dry season of ’75, my dad was still here.
He was alive under the sanctuary of worship.
Now in what grave does his skeleton lie?

He was a builder, followed the precepts, gave alms.
He built temples, chateaux, palaces, stupas.
Yet Pol Pot killed him.
Annihilated his genius without regret.

O grasses, your grandson begs you—
if the grandfather grasses know
the whereabouts of my father’s grave,
I shall shave my head in thanks.

O grass of thickets, grass
of sticking burrs, where is
the skeleton concealed?
Tell-and I shall ask no more of you.


The horizon is like the hem of a mosquito net, pelican feet
like duck feet. We’ve been living in misery
because of our king, eclipsed because ladies adore diamonds,
our forest turned to deserts out of ignorance.

Oh, God! Why Cambodia?

(Translated from the Khmer by Ken McCullough)


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