Fly Away Home

Having survived Cambodia's killing fields, poet U Sam Oeur writes as a witness to the "Kingdom of Hell"

After some subterfuge and a series of close calls, he arrived in San Francisco on September 1, 1992. Since then Oeur has produced the Khmer poems, with English translations by McCullough, that make up Sacred Vows. The two have also been working on Oeur's autobiography and a Khmer translation of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, whose classic work is reflected in the nonpolitical, nature-oriented poems Oeur wrote both before and after Sacred Vows.

Sitting in his Eagan living room, Oeur sports a smile so soft and pacific it inadvertently reminds you of the terror he has withstood to get here. "Life for me now is peaceful, steady," he says. But hardly worry-free. His wife remains back in Phnom Penh, caring for her mother (his 28-year-old son currently lives in Texas). His own grant of asylum has not yet been finalized. And since arriving in America, he has received periodic death threats from the Long Beach area of California, a locus of Khmer Rouge party members and sympathizers.

Nevertheless, sitting together in Oeur's living room, Oeur and McCullough are enthused about the audience response to their recent nationwide tour in support of Sacred Vows, which they say is drawing sizable crowds of both first- and second-generation Cambodians as well as Americans.

Teddy Maki

"As good as the poems are, it is really quite moving to hear Sam do them aloud," McCullough says. "Go ahead Sam; do the one from the other night, the 'O home!' one."

Without a word, Oeur stares into his lap for a moment. Then he clasps his knees, lowers his eyes and starts to sing. Gone. CP

Oeur and McCullough will read from Sacred Vows at 7:30 p.m. on June 11 at Borders Book Shop in Uptown. A chamber opera based on the poems, Krasang Tree, is scheduled at Theatre de la Jeune Lune in the first two weeks of September.

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