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From The Asian Reporter, V16, #41 (October 10, 2006), page 13.
One of the ways we can fight oppression
Storytelling in Cambodia
By Willa Schneberg
Calyx Books, 2006
Paperback, 109 pages, $13.95
By Josephine Bridges
You wouldn’t think a book titled Storytelling in Cambodia would be an easy read, but Willa Schneberg’s collection of poetry contains just enough of the unexpected to keep us reading, even when there is also plenty of exactly what we expect. Inspired by the author’s work for the U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia from 1992 to 1993, these are ultimately words of hope. "Cambodia is still in a desperate situation," the poet said at a recent reading, "but writing is one of the ways we can fight oppression."
"She believes because I am Jewish / I must understand" begins the second poem in this collection, "You Know the Killing Fields." Reluctant to contradict this assumption, the author, who "read about the Holocaust like any goy," describes a tragic scene "as if it were my story," and thus creates a bond with her companion:
She says, You don’t know how happy
you make me, you know the killing fields.
Clearly willing to acknowledge contradiction, the author presents Henri Mouhot, credited with "being the first European to ‘discover’ Angkor after it was sacked by the Thais in the fifteenth century," as both hopelessly out of touch and endearingly enthusiastic:
People crowd around and stare and keep staring
in complete silence until I am a speck in the distance,
as if I were a god-incarnate given to destroying the rice crop
or making barren women fertile.
Willa Schneberg describes "To the Members of the Archaeological Society of London," as "very close to a found poem," based as it is on a letter written by Mouhot in 1860. In "With a Small Typewriter," she takes the found poem a dazzling and agonizing step further, extracting words "from the last message sent by AP reporter Mean Leang, who was killed in Phnom Penh on April 16, 1975." The poem begins:
I alone in post office,
losing contact with our guys.
Only guy seeing me is Moonface at 1300.
I feel rather trembling.
Do not know how to file our stories.
Ninety-seven percent of registered Khmers voted in the election the author helped oversee, among her other duties for the U.N. Transitional Authority, but Willa Schneberg points out in "Accident on Achar Mean" that bad things happened too:
But today you are not on foot;
you are above the riffraff
in the driver’s seat of
a U.N. vehicle buffed white,
the color Cambodians wear for funerals.
"I like to imbed a few poems that show the direction of my future work," says Willa Schneberg, and "Grief" is one of the works near the end of Storytelling in Cambodia that bring the reader home with the author and foreshadow her next collection of poems about family. Juxtaposed with monsoons, geckoes, and betel nuts, the familiar takes on a luminous strangeness:
The sorcerers are bored and frustrated
standing in their glittery robes and pointy hats
in the corner of my parents’ small kitchen
where the cupboards never close properly,
the pilot light always goes out …
The final poem, "Leaving Cambodia," was written in Ireland, a country with its own terrible history. Following a description of sweet milky tea in "delicate porcelain cups with matching saucers," the last line in the poem, and in the book, says volumes: "my stilt home practically abandoned." As U Sam Oeur and Ken McCullough write in their introduction, "Storytelling in Cambodia rings true, and it rings sonorously."
Willa Schneberg is scheduled to read from Storytelling in Cambodia at events this month and next. On Tuesday, October 17 at 5:30pm, she will be at Jackson’s Books, located at 320 Liberty Street in Salem, Ore. On Thursday, November 16 at 7:30pm, a reading will be held at the Oregon Jewish Museum, located at 310 N.W. Davis Street in Portland. For more information about the October event, call (503) 399-8694 or e-mail <firstname.lastname@example.org>; for the November reading, call (503) 226-3600 or visit <www.ojm.org>. To learn more, visit <www.calyxpress.org/StorytellinginCambodia.html>.