Monica Sok’s debut collection, A Nail the Evening Hangs On, takes readers on a journey into the legacy of distrusting reality, not as an intellectual exercise regarding language but as shaped by the genocidal Pol Pot regime that Cambodians have had to survive. Distrust takes shape in paranoia and later in haunting, and yet it dialectically enables creativity and the imagining of healing. Metaphors become a practice of agency, an exercise against fear, since anyone could turn out to be a Khmer Rouge spy. Amidst this struggle to survive and in its aftermath, women weave each other into living, nourishing forms. Sok’s collection, which Publishers Weekly identifies as shining with “unexpected turns,” deftly represents what is so difficult to represent: the haunting of history, the twisting of lies into truth, forced misremembering or erasure, and the will to heal.
In the world Sok writes of, information is whispered and slogans are exclaimed. Here, nothing is what it seems. Here, any act could be considered seditious. Here, the truth will get you killed. Radio hosts must code their messages, must broadcast loyalty to the Khmer Rouge: “Angkar is everything we shout,” even as the host worries about finding help, “world can you hear me can you hear me.” Morality is complicated by survival. The radio host tells lies, so then “the grass grew so fast” and the men die with “flowers wilted over their bodies / in apology.” Here, the historian must memorize what he writes before erasing it for fear of being caught. To be a scholar is to risk being destroyed. Paranoia must be harbored, for even the pineapple in one’s soup has eyes just like the comrade walking by outside your house, again, spying. Hope does not come from world leaders like the radio host calls out for, but in finding “the sweet potato / in a hole dug up / look for the girl.” In small places, often with women, Sok points to the potential for living.
Since real life is the story, says the speaker, she remembers this warning: “do not story a story because life!” Life is real and that realness contains a violence inconceivable and even more dangerous in its depiction, in writing. Relaying the story will fail. I remember my professor, Marcia Douglas, challenging our fiction workshop to understand that magical realism in some cultures is more akin to realism. It seems a mistake to think of Sok’s poems as surreal or magical because they speak to a haunting that is felt, experienced, bodily. The poems’ surrealism or disorientations live in material reality. In this collection, history’s haunting is not metaphorical or imagined. The dangers, the paranoia, the plot are life!
These disorientations open space for creative work and healing. The loom takes on a monumental role. It is an ancestor, a shoulder to cry on. It is a structure for grieving. Weaving is a process that allows for suppressed feelings of grief to arise. At the loom, the grandmother sat and “the sound of gorges rushed / from her face.” Before the loom, anything can happen. An old woman runs her endless hair through it. This hair becomes a thread, which is actually a source for life—silt at a lake’s bottom, the eldest son’s swimming hole, water for tired animals to congregate in. What is made in the material world comes from deep within you, Sok asks us to believe. Grief, love, and the body are manifested in hand-woven silks. It is these hands that gently hold mothers, aunts, daughters:
…I bowed down
and easily picked her up
folding her inside a banana leaf
she who is my mother
sleeping off the world again,
I hold in my hand
when she wants to be held.
Generations of women do their best to keep each other well, to make space for gentleness.
Weaving takes place in poetic form as well, and again, with a focus on women. Sok’s poem about a family of sisters, “Sestina,” plays with intertwined lines yet lacks many components one would expect to find. The sestina form traditionally has six words that appear, rearranged, at the end of lines in every stanza. More like an anti-sestina, Sok’s poem does not repeat end words in the traditional pattern and omits the sixth stanza before the envoi, the final tercet that ends a sestina. Words and phrases that would be repeated are instead tucked in the middle of lines. The reader can only wonder if this form suggests an unpredictability similar to life during war; perhaps there is a missing sister, like the missing stanza; or perhaps the words themselves must hide and outsmart violence as the sisters do in the poem. The last line of the fifth stanza and the envoi are telling:
…This is a circle,
a time warp around us sisters, so we can go back
to when we girls were not hiding, when fear didn’t dry us up,
and we could be whoever we were, dear sisters.
Sok’s choice to break the stanza after “circle” is wittingly done. At the stanza break, we observe a disjuncture between what it stated and what is performed. This resembles the issue of truth throughout the book—what is stated is that there is a circle, but what exists is a break in form. The reader must wonder if the warped form reflects the very warp of this sister’s spell. Despite the sister’s effort to close the circle “hiding them safely inside,” the circle is actually broken because of the line break and the missing stanza. Thus, the spell to keep the sisters safe is faulty, and only their faith in this action can protect them. If the hope is to go back and “be whoever we were,” readers feel the treachery of this hope. A loss is a loss. Neither the circle nor the form can be completed. Sok forces readers to imagine the protective time warp and simultaneously to grapple with the losses imbued in its supposed safety.
Sok illustrates the intertwined nature of the past and the present, how the past continues to live in the present, though shifted. Outside Tuol Sleng, which was a school later used as a Khmer Rouge prison and torture site, today wagons screech with fruits to be sold to tourists who visit the museum. The tourists’ position in the book and at these sites of remembrance are ever-present and dance between judgement of Cambodians and performances of solemnity, what earns them easy credit for becoming so learned and yet removed from the past’s presence. As the speaker’s nephew runs through the room, the tourists shake their heads at him while others “have forgotten while sucking sugar from cane” as they head to their next tour stop. The tourists take on positions of superiority though their connections to this site are superficial. Meanwhile, the speaker, her nephew, and the neighborhood girls she is with “come here to look for someone.” This simple line ends the page, illustrating the group’s painful relationship to this history and projecting their determination in the face of loss. This offers stark contrast to the tourists’ performance of somberness and respect. On the other hand, the speaker still searches, achingly, when a ghost who appears “cannot point to me / where my uncle died.”
The section of the book spent in Tuol Sleng holds some of the most surprising appearances and transformations. The nephew acts as a thread in the last section, as he runs through the loom of space—the rooms in the old schoolhouse. He runs and he runs as himself, a young boy, then he appears as a Khmer Rouge torturer, then a teacher, then a prisoner. One moment the boy is innocent and the next, the narrator sees the boy otherwise:
a boy plays
as if on a playground. Rope
hangs from a high wooden frame.
Below he fills an urn with water,
takes someone prisoner,
and bobs his head with rope.
He plunges the head
and the legs struggle upside down.
These moments provoke fear in the reader, not only by imagining waterboarding, but in asking us to consider what it might be like if our young nephew was a spy, an agent of the regime? And what if we never release those fears, even decades later? Distrust and paranoia can live on in the body as trauma. Throughout A Nail the Evening Hangs On, Sok points readers to how these practiced sentiments haunt generations of Cambodians and Cambodians in diaspora today.