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BOOK REVIEWS


From The Asian Reporter, V16, #7 (February 14, 2006), page 13.

Cambodian poet writes three books in one volume

Crossing Three Wildernesses

By U Sam Oeur
Coffee House Press, 2005
Paperback, 367 pages, $16.00

By Dave Johnson

Internationally cherished poet U Sam Oeur has written three books in one. Itís called Crossing Three Wildernesses.

The first slant on this richly detailed volume is the compelling memoir of a writer who grew up in the Cambodian countryside, received an impressive education in Phnom Penh and the U.S., and returned to his country to serve as a soldier in a newly formed democracy that collapsed under the weight of its corruption, allowing the Khmer Rouge to unleash its horror show.

We first meet the author while he is riding a water buffalo, herding others away from the rice fields. Born in 1936, as part of a prosperous farmerís family, Oeur had a strenuous yet idyllic childhood. He lived in a house on stilts near groves of fruit trees, cotton fields, savannas, and swatches of mulberry trees. He swam in the river and nibbled the fruit of the sugar palm tree.

"These pods are edible when they get soft; they have the consistency of hardened jelly. We would pick the fruit off the ground under the trees. They didnít have much taste but we ate them like candy."

Due to his fatherís affluence, Oeur attended high school in Phnom Penh, the nationís capital, with a focus on industrial design. In 1961, as part of an aid program, the U.S. government awarded him a scholarship to study in the United States. Here he earned a degree in industrial design and memorized the Gettysburg Address and hundreds of lines by his favorite poet, Walt Whitman. His interest in writing led to the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he earned an MFA.

Lonely for his home and his fiancťe, Ouer returned to Cambodia to marry her and join the army in the freshly minted democracy that followed the overthrow of King Sihanouk. After hauling a rifle around for a couple of years, he was elected to the National Assembly. In 1975, a government reliant on foreign aid, rife with bribery and fraud, was a sitting duck for the Khmer Rouge and its dubious ally, the Vietnamese communists.

The second subtext threaded through this book is Oeurís informative and colorful portrait of the myths, traditions, and history of Cambodian culture. Using memories of his childhood and the interplay between contemporary history and the yearly calendar of traditional activities, he offers a captivating primer on ceremonies that define and sustain the Cambodian identity.

A good example are the many events celebrated during the Full Moon in November ó a glowing disk in a clear sky I gazed at just a few months ago. If I were in Cambodia at this moment, I would be celebrating Sampeah Preah Khe (Salute to the Full Moon), Awk Ambuk (Eating Flat Rice), and the boat-racing ceremony.

The third in this trio of transcripts is a vivid account of the grim and bloody years when Oeur and millions of other Cambodians were forced to journey across three wildernesses ó death by execution, death by disease, and death by starvation. Not only does the author tell his own story during this chaotic, murderous era, he provides us with blow-by-blow historical events that led up to, through, and beyond the days of "The Killing Fields."

Caught in the onslaught of trigger-happy insurgents, Oeur faded into the outback where he and his family survived with the horrendous exception of twin daughters who were murdered by a midwife ordered to kill all newborn children.

History raged on as the Khmer Rouge declared war on Vietnam in 1978, resulting in the Vietnamese armyís invading Cambodia to establish the Peopleís Republic of Kampuchea (PRK). That puppet government lasted until U.N.-sponsored elections in 1993, when the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of its assistance resulted in a Vietnamese pull-out and the emergence of the independent Cambodian leadership in power today. During this post-holocaust era, Oeur worked for the PRK Ministry of Industry, operating a bike factory, until he was fired for writing subversive poems. A fellowship at the University of Iowa bailed him out of this lean and tenuous situation and he has been in the U.S. ever since.

U Sam Oeur, author of the bilingual collection of poems, Sacred Vows, lives in Texas, where he is translating the poems of Walt Whitman into Khmer.

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