Book: Apsara in New York by Sokunthary Svay (Willow Books, 2017)
In Sokunthary Svay’s debut poetry collection, Apsara in New York, we are confronted by “living deities” who have turned “into halved beings”—Khmer immigrants residing in one of the nation’s poorest boroughs: the Bronx. We are introduced, both formally and informally, to the resiliency of the immigrant body. We see the mother figure who looms in and out of dialogue, chasing a Cambodia that is neither present nor absent in the ghettos of the Bronx; the father whose shadow lives in gambles; the grandmother whose face bears the “map [of]…lineage / like a family recipe”; and then the gentle, rising deity in the body of a young girl, also known as the speaker’s daughter, Soriya. It is here in New York where we bear witness to a crimson history that is steeped in love, curry, bombs, borders, the dead and the missing, and in the folds of monks’ robes—images that recur throughout the narration of these poems. Apsara in New York is unapologetically candid and moves within us a kind of love that can only be met in the celebration of grief and light.
Svay’s poems move across the page and transport the reader in surprising ways. Some stanzas appear in short, terse lines creating an urgency in voice and tempo, serving almost as pillars to the collection. Other times, there are poems lifted into blocks of text that take center stage, or at least, become a central room, in which we find ourselves in constant witness of immigrant life in the U.S. These poems take risks and turns where the language often leaps between generations. We are met with a pantoum that hauntingly portrays the rituals of early motherhood and one-liner poems that beckon our whole presence as we face intergenerational trauma. There is one particular poem that is especially honest, delicious, and heartrending, which comes towards the end of the book. Titled “Dear Grandmother,” this poem opens with the striking image of
…the red sandstone of Bantei Srei,the citadel of women.Ornate arches curvedinto the thighs and hips of women:homage to the devata,a fortress of deities.
The grandmother’s affection for the speaker is presented in a dish of eggs and somlau machou, as the speaker spends her last day in Phnom Penh. While there is no dialogue in the poem, one can see its shadow, an overpour of a living history. While the mother appears as a dominant voice in earlier poems (“At Least Prostitutes Bring Home Money,” “Make Room for Tenderness,” “Mother Monologue #1” to list a few), the grandmother is a rather quiet and mysterious presence—one that enters as quickly as it exits into the next poem, suggesting the passing of the grandmother. What makes this poem special is that it not only depicts an ordinary family experience—sharing a meal together—but also reveals an intimate scene of survival—survival, or afterliving, in the old world, and survival in the world of New York as a Khmer. This poem is an homage to the grandmother, who is very much a fortress, a fortress that has housed many deities. When we consider the mother, the speaker, and the daughter, Soriya, we are taken by their answers to prayers that dare move even in the darkest corners.
In the open currents of war, genocide, and trauma, Svay leads us in weather and melodies, taking us through floods of dance and “dismembered meat.” Khmer food and lore enter with “generations in every utterance,” and we are swept into an “urban rock formation / …mistakenly / called a mountain,” dreaming of rebirth and women in “robes of bone.” Where palms come together in “makeshift Bronx temple[s]” to the trespasses of language, Svay bestows to us a home that did not have “bug screens,” a world of invasion and evasion, a life in constant attempts “to make chords with [us] / in the right key.” Apsara in New York is a fresh, rich, and colorful debut ultimately about family and the homes that, through loss and fortune, immigrants and refugees return to in the hungry coos and cries of their descendants, warm and alive, “rife with landmines.”
Khaty Xiong is the daughter of Hmong refugees from Laos. She is the author of Poor Anima (Apogee Press, 2015) and three poetry chapbooks: Elegies (University of Montana, 2013), Deer Hour (New Michigan Press, 2014), and Ode to the Far Shore (Platypus Press, 2016). Xiong was awarded a grant from the Ohio Arts Council in recognition of her poetry in 2016 and has received a fellowship from MacDowell Colony (Fall 2017).