Friends of Cambodia, a “Going Away” Poem

I leave Cambodia Wednesday night. I’ll be writing a long post on my experiences before I leave, to finalize this blog. Before that, however, I’ve decided to post a poem I wrote yesterday. It took a significant portion of the day and involved sitting in cafes, my apartment, and god knows where else. The poem is mostly composed of tercets (three line stanzas), alluding to my old mentor Michael Gizzi who, along with my biological father, actually, surprisingly provides influence on what “social emptiness” can mean. As I saw with Gizzi, friendship was key to support and life. My father always used to tell me “find friends, they are the most important thing in life.” And in most cases, friendships are pivotal, as they certainly have been in Cambodia. I decided to represent them in this poem. Each stanza is about a different person I grew close to in Cambodia, but I trust the ambiguity of some of the allusions will apply to multiple people, and it will be more of a personal exercise for the reader.

I will miss these people greatly. The degree of generosity, kindness, aid, and overall love I have encountered over the past eight months has provided fuel for ambition, creativity, and all elements in life. In many ways, my friendships here have been fundamentally different than those in the USA, more sobering, more adult, and more child, and far more attached. That’s probably due to the environment as well, as Phnom Penh’s expat scene is not too large, like an ethnic enclave, in a way.

My rant aside, it will be hard to leave these people, but they are friends for life.

Friends of Cambodia

If all the eyes were shut

and all the landscape cruel and craggly,

people alone with their breaths, scraggled, raggedy, managing,

people succumbing to the heat, mangled, real people, their noggins ruffled.

Images of people and images of breath, breathing, a ruckus, a rambling series,

through images of ungodly, stifling heat.


If all the eyes were shut

our canvas left to rot, left out to blot out present and past in the dust

there would still be the heat.


If all eyes were shut you would still be too.

And beautiful though dusty and hot you would be.


Closed eyes. Sounds etching across, forming pictures through black voids, mental skies,

the waves of light branded between human lids.

The memories organized, bidding the watchers to come forth and observe the people.


Breathing fire the smoke as wires blending the perception of the night.

Skin underneath those splendid rags, the way we claim

is the way everyone claims. You’re either in or you’re out.


Come to me oh caramel flared in silk, your skin the vision of ethereal wonders and shyness,

dreams layered on, lavish, with your narration in a stubbed tone coming from beneath a snubbed nose.

Your ache at once a loitering, and me lately hanging out with latency through this fantasizing.


Come to me gangling, your body forgiving, your chuckle bemusing,

you giving up what others have given to you over, and over again,

as you stand and wait calmly offering suggestions like one might pass on an extra mango.


She waits nearby for a sudden acknowledgement, a response,

her face weathered with the beauty of an age not yet old and not yet young,

her smile disabling my mature demeanor, like a drug, or a tickle.


In her nails, the shrieks of a thousand kisses reflected,

each connection between the lips at once dry and wet, like a vision of satin.

Strange the way the moonlight doesn’t exist like our knowledge and love exists.


He is committed, cooperating, and casual. Like the elements of the river

his eyes move and assess the rhythms of speeches, of our shadows.

I am moving forward towards him hand outstretched like a brother.


And then, eons later, calling forth, the storm above,

her tones long and elastic blasting through rooms, courageous,

mimicking the corners of our hiding places where we smile the broadest.


His eye left in the capsules we left to dry in the sunlight,

sprouts connecting with tissues amassing in clumps.

“Hold on,” he says, almost anyway, “Before we make you angle otherwise, in another direction.”


She is right there with him, her golden features frail and determined,

paging quickly through the pages in languages she understands.

Yet there is a quiver to her thought process, as though she was pondering life after a disaster.


Beyond, in the distance where I wash my hands,

I think about the freshness of the rainstorms.

And the gripping of hands on the a bicycle’s bars as potholes emerge,

ghosts of a forgotten construction,

creatures from the depths of a deadpan he never saw or got to hear me speak of.

I have seen him in all of you. I have moved my jaw in your direction.


She holds the scythe like a pendant to ward off evil.

The tufts of earthen growth climb up her legs

and you can sense the clever cry of dolphins calling in the distance.


And she morphs into a cat writhing in an ecstasy of a hot sun she never sees.

The last curtain was pulled in the evening when she set off through causality,

when she started defining her movements as forward momentum.


I have a memory of his black eyes pushing forward into my skin.

I have a memory of riding the bicycle but not touching the pedals.

I have a memory of trees hanging low, the leaves not moving at all.


He says, “Frazzled you will betray yourself before you find stability.”

There are looks of confusion and the roads moan past us.

His helmet reminds me of tiny neighborhoods in tiny towns with parents yelling loudly.


It was as easy for us to meet and it was easy for your lips to curve

while the music exploded behind us and the people melted into puddles

and there was a strange man with glasses watching our hips shake.


In the cold confines of an A/C café there are the pink tides cascading,

slowly filling the room up. I find myself in these situations

and I slowly, slowly start to listen to everything she confesses, almost cries.


And at once the world vanishes, gets folded up into tiny squares.

The origami a complex coordination, a ritual, a reaction.

She begs to be free but for now it is not her decision to make.


He makes decisions as frequently as he makes friendships.

His body is a beautiful piston, a measure of performance.

When he emerges from the aquatic cloak I hold my breath.


When she emerges from the stairwell I hold my breath.

Light scatters in correct places revealing incorrect postures.

Her hair is greasy and short, and I watch her and wait as she speaks sparsely, like a bird.


The mosquito that held itself so close to me before darting away.

Like when you held me yourself, before giving me back to the mosquitos,

my hollow intentions no longer a weight worth bearing.


And bearing truth like you bear your name, you got up and left.

You took our history and paced down the steps, the hallways, the to and the from.

My mouth is agape like a cave glinting with gold through this day and all future days.


And we will be born again as we have our conversations.

You, standing there, shortest hair, the look of a maniac, twisted features,

and I, slumped over, dangling, dragonflies in my hair, my head, my eyes.


And so will he live up to his reputation

laughing at the same joke over and over again

and I pushing him on and on again, like a son, or the carrier of his ashes.


She meets to reveal that which is serious.

There is a significant buzz of transition in the breeze.

I have seen no one hurt on the streets today.


She is still skinny, and she stares at me while seated on the floor, waiting for some signal,

or perhaps I wait for her signal, wait for her to raise her hand,

or her head, or her eyes, while the nightlife scrapes across the café windows offering no assistance.


There is little resistance except in the mind of the device

you carry like a child in front of you on this rooftop, your claws offering protection,

and my claws wanting to reach out and pull you close to me.


There is little to say of you sometimes, and yet then without thinking the flow of goodness ripples open.

As you hobble along the stairs, I catch my breath and attempt to unravel your mysteries, your histories.

These neon lights are distracting, as is your faint call for me to help you yet again.


As though this light emerging in morning was good for you, to you,

and the sweat covering my body as second skin liquid could only be alive,

could tell us something more about the habits of my calves on the streets.


These habits are not forced habits, but those we share and speak of like family,

those understandings and the awareness of owning something larger.

Something bigger than we know how to describe accurately, like how we all hate this building.


Back home, you sit and then stand and then listen.

And then you move, you own the space that glides you.

Your rapture is as calming as a plastic and metal fan eternally on setting number 3.


Her eyes open and shut and the world is forever more complex.

At what point do you crush your explorations of relationships?

At what point, do you take the hit and exhale a renewal of exuberance into the urban air?


I wish I could ask: what do we think about together amidst the chill?

Whose actions mean more: yours to me, or mine to you?

I ponder that our faces are rarely masks; they always reveal our true internal tigers.


She stayed as a statue stays. Filled with love and loved by many.

Her voice carried to me once but now she does not speak.

Her age, her life, continues to be as marvelous as a rain storm at midnight.


It is midnight in Phnom Penh. I turn on the nightlight,

turn the room’s lights out, spin the knob, push the bolt, locking the doors.

I squeeze and hold my pillow like a lover or a friend and think of what thanks to give.

I think of what dreams tonight’s sleep will carry me to giving thanks.

There are lines of faces and lines of trees:

papaya, rubber, rambutan, mango, cashew, and so on, and

there is the equivocal grace of the creation and destruction all around us.

There are the memories of the limits of desire,

and there are the memories of the extents and horizons of camaraderie.



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