When a child crosses a border, either towed by parents or not, a lifelong search for identity begins. This dual-identity is doubly complicated when war and political policies have put that culture through hell. Bunkong Tuon’s collection And So I Was Blessed is an exploration of the journey of a new father, a college professor, and an American of Cambodian descent who travels through Asia. Many of the poems occur in airports or roadside noodle stands with students trailing or on the back of a motorcycle scooting through traffic:
I caught myself
in the reflection.
even by Asian standards.
No running water.
Electricity powered by
on extension cord.
What am I doing here?
This except from the seventh in a 12-poem sequence titled, “Searching for Father in Kampuchea Krom” is a prime example of the self-awareness and displacement that Tuon continually illuminates. Many of the poems, mostly in formal stanzas, circle from landscaped travel-log to parenthood and emotional inheritance. In “Daughter,” Tuon advises his child:
Strength is not found in might.
It is your mother waking up at 4 a.m.
to check if you are breathing.
It is your father leaving home
searching for his own father
in the cries and laughter
of his aunts and in the furtive
glances of his uncles.
Although lacking in lexis flourishes and low on the risk-taking pole, Tuon’s lines are powerful and honest by employing direct emotion, cunning insights, and radical empathy. Keeping complex and conflicting ideas in the flow of the poetry is his forte. There is also pop culture and humor. In “How to Prepare Yourself for a Semester Abroad in Việt Nam” the readers are warned:
Don’t watch Platoon or Apocalypse Now.
That’s about us Americans.
Don’t rely heavily on those travel guides
like The Lonely Planet and Insight Guides.
Stay away from Food Network shows
like Bourdain’s No Resevations
or Zimmerman’s Bizarre Foods.
It’s not a freak show.
The poem concludes with:
Or trekking up a mountain in Sapa
when suddenly you feel small
in the presence of the eternal?
Listen, try not to have expectations.
And don’t read the poems in this book.
Like a good guide, or a self-effacing host, Tuon lures the reader—in this case his students—in with humor, often subtle political wise-cracks, and then when attention is peaked, philosophic, almost Buddhist insights. The roles of father, husband, professor, emigrant, and American change constantly, and at times the reader feels as if they are travelling vicariously or at least enjoying a post-trip slideshow.
And So I Was Blessed is a voyage into privilege, cultural-clash, media-representations, emotional journeys, personal responsibility, duty, and identity. Despite the swirling and conflicting themes, Bunkong Tuon plays the tender heartstrings best when writing about his daughter. And isn’t that how it should be?
My daughter cried and cried
the first few hours she saw me.
She cried until she exhausted
herself to sleep. When she woke
up, I was still in her room.
This poem “Stranger” and the collection, finishes delicately with:
The next morning, I took out
my guitar, strummed the C and A
minor chords, then she stopped crying,
watched my playing, and smiled.