The Poetry of U Sam Oeur

By September 18, 2015 No Comments
U Sam Oeur and Ken McCullough Image Source

U Sam Oeur and Ken McCullough
Image Source

If you want to truly know a culture, look to its poets and writers.

Though we want to stress that the history of Cambodia consists of much more than the singular narrative of oppression brought on by the Khmer Rouge, it is important to let the Khmer people tell their own stories.  Often, writing can be not simply a form of therapy for the poet, but also a way to spread messages of hope and resilience: we look to writers to translate the human experience.

Much of famous Cambodian poet U Sam Oeur’s work deals with the survival and the aftermath of the Cambodian genocide, which lasted from 1975-1979.  U Sam Oeur’s 1998 book of poetry, “Sacred Vows” is among the few works of Khmer poetry to be translated into English.  The work recounts his survival in the Killing Fields and the fate of his friends and family by weaving in mythology, folklore, religion, and an exploration/break from traditional Khmer poetry.

After winning a scholarship to the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop in Poetry, U Sam Oeur met fellow student Ken McCullough, who would eventually translate his work into English after the end of the Khmer Rouge regime. After Iowa, U Sam Oeur returned to Cambodia to teach English.  He wrote to McCullough in 1970, expressing the frustration and the futility of writing in an environment where his words were consistently censored.  He later became an army captain, and then, in 1974, served in the Cambodian delegation to the UN.   When the Khmer Rouge took over, U Sam Oeur, thinking of his family and knowing the regime’s propensity to go after academics, artists, and intellectuals, burned all of his poems.  By the time he was captured and placed in the Sre Pring forced labor camp, (where he pretended to be illiterate) most of his friends in the States assumed he had already been murdered.

U Sam Oeur Image Source

U Sam Oeur
Image Source

It wasn’t until 1984, when he wrote to Iowa to request a copy of his thesis, that McCullough realized he was alive. The two worked together to bring U Sam Oeur back to Iowa, where he and McCullough worked to write and translate what he had written in his head during the regime.

Read two of his poems below:

Dream After Composing the Appeal of the Cambodian League for Freedom and Democracy

for Rose Rutherford

I am swimming across a wide river
when swords start falling from the trees
They must be swords left by the Japanese
I pick up several to save as collector’s items
but the blades are rusty with deep nicks
They must have been used to butcher many Cambodians
whose tormented spirits may still inhabit the swords
I decide not to take souvenirs

And now I must cross another river
The ferry has just pulled away from the shore
Two little men run after the ferry
calling it back for me to no avail
A young boy falls in the quagmire of filth
the mud and hundreds of putrid chicken carcasses
As he sinks I rush to grasp his hair
too late. Too late. He disappears
in the foul mess as I just stand there. . .

(Translated from the Khmer by Ken McCullough)

Searching for Dad

March 1979

for Lorraine Ciancio

When I left, dad sat on his bed,
wanting to go through his shakes in private.
With no food or water, dad lived on Buddha
while his body became covered with sores.

He refused to leave. He wanted to meditate.
Pol Pot separated me from my Teacher.
When I return, I find he is gone.
Dad, what miseries did you suffer?

In ’75, it was ashrams everywhere.
Old men and women who were fed up
with reincarnating into this life of pitfalls
sought ways to reach Nirvana.

Now, in ’79, I see only aquatic bushes.
I break into a cold sweat. I get dizzy;
No matter what the ideology du jour,
there is always the same lament.

Oh trees in whose roots the fish spawn,
in the dry season of ’75, my dad was still here.
He was alive under the sanctuary of worship.
Now in what grave does his skeleton lie?

He was a builder, followed the precepts, gave alms.
He built temples, chateaux, palaces, stupas.
Yet Pol Pot killed him.
Annihilated his genius without regret.

O grasses, your grandson begs you-
if the grandfather grasses know
the whereabouts of my father’s grave,
I shall shave my head in thanks.

O grass of thickets, grass
of sticking burrs, where is
the skeleton concealed?
Tell-and I shall ask no more of you.


The horizon is like the hem of a mosquito net, pelican feet
like duck feet. We’ve been living in misery
because of our king, eclipsed because ladies adore diamonds,
our forest turned to deserts out of ignorance.

Oh, God! Why Cambodia?

(Translated from the Khmer by Ken McCullough)

To learn more about U Sam Oeur, we suggest reading this article from The New York Times.  You can order his book “Sacred Vows” on Amazon by clicking here.