“A Nail the Evening Hangs On” is a luminous first poetry collection from Monica Sok that deftly and lovingly weaves together fragments of Cambodian history and family memory to make some sense of a fraught past.
Already, delineating an impersonal “history” from a personal “memory” feels wrong for this book, for Sok shows that the two overlap so much that they may even be considered the same thing. In the first section of the collection, poems like “The Radio Host Goes into Hiding,” “The Death of Pol Pot” and “The Radio Brings News” show large historical events brought down to the level of the individual, and we are allowed entry into the emotional realm of those experiencing what we usually read about in the news. This could be envisioned as a purposeful fragmentation of a whole — the breaking up of a seemingly coherent historical narrative into its innumerable parts.
“The Radio Host Goes into Hiding” in particular plays with this idea, as Sok’s language is scattered, pieces of sentences littering the pages and spaced far apart from each other. The way these pieces are laid out over the poem’s nine pages — more visually horizontal than vertical — suggest a questioning of sequence, as well. How do we read this poem? Do we read the fragments across both pages before moving on to the next line? Or do we read page by page, like we’re supposed to? By blurring our normative understanding of what comes next, Sok examines the nature of historical reconstruction by literally forcing her readers to do the work of reconstruction themselves.
But, in an opposite motion from large to small, in these poems the individual is also being elevated to the monumental: Sok refocuses the lens of history onto the human, reminding us that, after all, the human is what history is about. And to follow through with the metaphor, photography plays a significant role in “A Nail the Evening Hangs On,” as Sok navigates the lasting representations of Cambodian history and histories of violence in general.
The second section of the book is comprised of a single long poem titled “Tuol Sleng” and documents the narrator taking her nephew to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh. Throughout the poem, the preserving forces of photography and memorialization contend with the way trauma and history live in personal and family memory. Her nephew “sprints down the halls” of the museum while tourists wonder aloud: “Does he have any respect for history?” As the narrator chastises her nephew, she reflects that “he doesn’t know — One — this was once / a torture prison, now a museum — / Two — though to him, it’s just an old school, / which is why he’s running … inside a sepia-toned cell.” The museum is a photograph itself, a “sepia-toned cell” that does not just preserve history, but actually imprisons it into immobility, a static representation of the past that does not allow for real or sustained empathy or understanding. The tourists: “They cry. They write on the walls NEVER FORGET,” but then, moments later, “Already [they] have forgotten while sucking sugar from cane / as they head to the Royal Palace / for the rest of their tour.” Their visit is ultimately empty. Meanwhile, the narrator joins her nephew in motion, chasing after him into the schoolyard.
In the final section of Sok’s collection, we enter further into the personal with poems like “Self-Portrait as War Museum Captions” and the last poem “Here Is Your Name.” The past dominates the present, haunting the now with its almost palpable presence. This is perhaps what “A Nail the Evening Hangs On” is working to do: making visible the invisible presence of what is supposedly past. History is not something that we have moved on from, nor is it something that we can experience from a distance, in glass cases and photographs. Instead, as Sok so masterfully shows in her final poem, it is here: “Here’s where you first wrote your name / next to your brother writing his name / next to your mother and your father / who both have their own names.”
Contact Lily Nilipour at lilynil ‘at’ stanford.edu.