In his first full-length collection, Gruel, Bunkong Tuon documents the lives of Cambodian refugees and explores the poetic landscape of a Cambodian America. Written tenderly, with honesty, intelligence, and occasional humor, Gruel is populated by survivors such as a boy who loses his mother to the Khmer Rouge regime, a grandmother who risks her life to steal a few grains of rice for her grandson, an uncle who is beaten by Thai military police for night fishing outside a refugee camp, an aunt who leaves the East Coast to buy a donut shop in California, a father who re-experiences the traumas of the Cambodian Genocide, a young man who discovers Charles Bukowski in a Long Beach public library, a professor who teaches about the horrors of war to college students at a private college in Upstate New York, to name a few. It's a book about memories, ghosts and haunting, personal loss and historical traumas, losing and finding home, discovery and self-invention; above all, it's a book about love, sacrifice, and hope.
"There are many ghosts here," writes Bunkong Tuon in the poem that opens Gruel, his profoundly moving first book of poetry. Here are ghosts of those who perished during the genocidal terror of the Khmer Rouge, ghosts that include the poet's own mother. And here too is the story of those who survived, refugees who, like the poet himself, had to flee to a strange land. Arriving in the United States as a boy, raised by his extended family, Tuon came of age struggling to understand his hyphenated identity, and in the process fell in love with poetry, and poetry, one can see, saved his life. Thus there is an epic sweep to this work, yet in its crystalline, intimate lines, we glimpse a place within where ghosts still live and a soul might be forged, that place where, as Emily Dickinson said, "the Meanings are."
—Fred Marchant, Author of The Looking House
Gruel is a book that goes beyond courage to a willingness to let fire mesh with skin in order to make the journey inside what we call the American. Carried across the back of his grandmother through the mountains as they fled the Khmer Rouge, the poet puts the reader on the back of universal human trauma to travel toward the deepest commonality of the human, a willingness to love despite the dangers of attachment.
—Afaa Michael Weaver, Author of The Plum Flower Trilogy
Gruel is hauntingly beautiful with a deep yearning for love and normalcy like those who have been blessed to have been spared by war and tragic loss. Bunkong's gift as a poet is reflected in his remarkable ability to visually and vividly tell his stories that make you want to keep reading his poetry collection. Gruel is heart-warming and inspiring.
—Chanrithy Him, Author of When Broken Glass Floats: Growing up Under the Khmer Rouge
How can a poet's work at once seem artless and be deeply moving? As writer myself, I have no idea. As reader of Gruel, I can only say, behold. One might lazily conclude that BK Tuon has no need of art, so compelling is his personal narrative, so pervaded by the heroism of a grandmother too extraordinary, anyhow, for artifice. But that surmise would miss how deftly the poet selects his emphases—and how subtly. His story as man and thinker, for example, hinges on his random choice of a Charles Bukowski collection from a library. Listen:
I am telling you this, so that you know
in the worst storm of your life this mad love
can hit you, smashing you into a billion pieces,
interconnecting with everyone and everything.
Just as the most straightforward protestations of emotion—I love you, I'm afraid, I'm angry, I feel helpless—are often the most moving, the honesty and directness of Gruel are what move us both to tears and to joy here. A marvelous debut.
—Sydney Lea, Vermont Poet Laureate