Autumn is well underway and the stores are already packed with Halloween tricks and treats, ready for the spooky, month-long festivities. Besides Halloween, when else are we connected, in any capacity, to the mysterious and supernatural? Specifically, how do we celebrate and remember those who came before us? These questions and more like these become more recurrent to me as Pchum Ben, a 15-day Cambodian festival, began. Pchum Ben is a ghost festival specific to many Theravada Buddhist countries where for the next 15 days, hungry ghosts travel from the spirit world to the mortal world, and as living descendants, we prepare food and honor our deceased ancestors through ceremony and worship. And like with most things, I search through poetry to help settle these inner thoughts and questions.
While sifting through my small but personal book collection, I was interested in the poetry that connects to the part of our lives that attempts to remember and celebrate the memory of those who came before us both living and passed on; and in turn ruminate on how that ancestral remembrance and celebration establishes and manifests itself in our present life in the capacity we recognize from it. Let us delve into the poetry collections that bridge our greater past and present.
When I saw my father walking I kicked the road,“Song of an Orphaned Solider Clearing Land Mines,” from A Nail the Evening Hangs On by Monica Sok
convinced metal brains at his feet
the humming they heard was a knife cutting,
not a living man’s voice.
They believed me. Like snakes in grass
they clicked their tongues. The gods I met
promised me they could make a life happen
after what had happened
if I knew who my father was.
Our first poetry collection is Monica Sok’s A Nail the Evening Hangs On. Sok’s debut poetry collection ruminates on the community tragedy of what created the major Cambodian diaspora and explores the way personal identity is affected by the community and familial identity and what occurred before. She relies on visceral memory and a sense of intense personal identity to communicate the intersection of past, generational tragedy, and the present. To Sok, our relation (or lack of relation) with our ancestors is a present interaction that affects who we are and how we are made.
There are wildflowers in my desert“Postcolonial Love Poem,” from Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz
which take up to twenty years to bloom.
The seeds sleep like geodes beneath hot feldspar sand
until a flash flood bolts the arroyo, lifting them
in its copper current, opens them with memory—
they remember what their god whispered
into their ribs: Wake up and ache for your life.
Natalie Diaz’s sophomore poetry collection, Postcolonial Love Poem, is a brilliant bundle of poetry and happens to be included in my top five favorite poetry collections. Diaz is a master of words and I am consistently in awe of her precise and compelling translation of thoughts and emotions onto paper. Diaz, a Mojave and a member of the Gila River Indian community, chooses to actively walk towards love over all things. As a Native, Diaz chooses to not be forgotten and fights the stereotypes that plague her people. There is strength in her vulnerability and her emotional confessions. To Diaz, she loves as active revolution and centers her native ancestry, an ancestry that has often been ignored by history but remembered through the words she breathes onto paper.
Like any good son, I pull my father out
of the water, drag him by his hair
through white sand, his knuckles carving a trail
the waves rush in to erase. Because the city
beyond the shore is no longer
where we left it. Because the bombed
cathedral us now a cathedral
of trees. I kneel beside him to see how far
I might sink. Do you know who I am,“Telemachus” from Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong
Also one of my favorite poetry collections, Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds is a gorgeous collection that ruminates on family, grief, war, love, and queerness. His family and himself refugees of the Vietnam War, the devastation of war was an image etched into his mind and memory, and he writes about the effects of war and the past onto the present with a gentle hand. Vuong ultimately reassures the past that its existence is valued and still viscerally present while also moving forward with absolute strength and tenderness. (His first full novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, is also just as wonderful and explores the relationship between mother and son through crushing, but compassionate epistolary.)
There was a smile dancing on his lips, although it was a wary smile, for the world is a bigger place than a little grave yard on a hill; and there would be dangers in it and mysteries to be made and many paths to be walked before he would, finally, return to the graveyard or ride with the Lady on the broad back of her great grey stallion.The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Although not a poetry collection, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book happens to be one of my favorite novels, and I do have many favorites. The story is about an orphaned boy named Nobody “Bod,” who after surviving a murder of his whole family in the middle of the night, literally walks to the town graveyard as a toddler. He is then raised by the ghosts and spirits of the graveyard and a vampire named Silas. What I love most about this book is the way Gaiman approaches death as not something fearful, but as something that can teach us and what we can grow from. The dead, in the book, is just as alive as we are. There is also a beautiful graphic novel available in addition to its print copy.
For more poetry recommendations, click here.
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