He was gone, U Sam Oeur was gone. You could tell by his eyes, which were neither wide open nor shut tight, but which rested instead with their lids gently lowered, as softly as if he were in a trance. His eyes couldn't see what Oeur wanted to see: a time when his Cambodia did not know holocaust, before the carpet bombing from the B-52s, before the Khmer Rouge turned the rice paddies into the world's most infamous killing fields, before the Vietnamese invaded and piled new bodies upon the half-buried bones.
In the living room of his split-level home, halfway down an Eagan cul-de-sac, Oeur sits on plush upholstery but his posture is that of a straight-back chair, his hands gripped to his knees and his neck craned to the side like a man whose collar is too tight. You can see his throat vibrating.
The cadence of the poem Oeur sings has the bark and drone of a ring shout, a field holler that became popular in America during the days of slavery. The tone of his voice is thick with passion and strained endurance; it's a tone of survival. The words are in Khmer, but in Oeur's new book, Sacred Vows, the poem is translated as "The Fall of Culture," and the stanza he sings reads like this:
Back in the 1940s, when Oeur was growing up on a farm about halfway between Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City, some Vietnamese who lived nearby told him that one day they would take Cambodia. "I said, 'Take it? Take it where?' I didn't understand," he says, wincing, tears in his eyes. "I was just a boy, herding water buffalo. I had no clothes, just nude."
Oeur's was a lonely existence. His siblings would run off and play together, telling him it was his duty to watch over the family's 18 water buffalo, a huge undertaking. Says Oeur, "I was afraid of the water buffalo browsing near the rice shoots. They would destroy the beauty of the rice and the trees." He rarely saw his father, who would "get up with the cock and the birds" to go tend the fields. As Oeur puts it, "I knew the word father, but I did not call that old man father." At night, long after Oeur had gone to bed, he would pretend he was asleep as his father climbed up into the house and started chanting about work and coming home. These rhymes are among Oeur's fondest memories of the man.
Out in the field one day, Oeur started wondering if he could "fly beyond the horizon. I said maybe I could escape to another world and so I ran and ran but the horizon just kept going and going. I got scared and came back home again."
In 1946, at the age of 10, he was one of the few local boys to attend school in nearby Thlok village, taking some of his father's bamboo and palm leaves to help construct a shelter for him and the other students. Oeur's horizons expanded again when, after slipping from the back of a water buffalo and cutting his testicle on a horn, his father sent him to a hospital in Svay Rieng, a neighboring province. Soon after, he asked his little brother to help him steal his sister's chicken so they could sell it in the city market. By third grade, he had begun scouring the rice paddies for grain to sell.
Pushing farther and farther beyond the farm, he eventually landed at the School of Arts and Trades in Phnom Penh, graduating in 1961. It was there that his intelligence caught the attention of the cold warriors from the Agency for International Development, who recruited him to attend UCLA after an intensive course in English at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Oeur began writing poetry while in California, becoming skilled enough to earn a scholarship to the Iowa Writers' Workshop. After receiving his masters of fine arts at Iowa in 1968, he returned home to teach at a trade school in Phnom Penh.
By the time of Oeur's return, the Indochinese war had sent the region into political crisis. When Oeur began criticizing Cambodian ruler Prince Norodom Sihanouk for being a communist sympathizer, the poet was threatened with prison. After just six months of teaching, he resigned his post to manage a cannery. During his time at the factory, Oeur wrote 80 political poems for a never-to-be-published volume titled The Cursed Land.
When Lon Nol overthrew Sihanouk and established the Khmer Republic in 1970, Oeur enlisted in the republican army as a captain. Shuttling between the battlefield and the trade school (where the new government had reinstated him), Oeur joined in the fight against both the Khmer Rouge and the Viet Cong, who were camped in the north of the country. In a poem from Sacred Vows titled "April 1970: The Atrocity of War," he writes, "Peasants, the innocent/lay dead: not a word from God./Children, mothers, side by side/lay silent, no complaint."