In the Shadows

Sal stood on the tiled balcony an arm draped casually around the chalky pink column. Her other hand rested on the damp balustrade, fingers flicking at a rotting papaya leaf that had been swept there by the afternoon rains. The post rain breeze carried a pungent waft of leaves, moist and decaying in the ditches beside the road, and cleansed away the fumes of the traffic below. Petrol and oil would soon resurface as the traffic geared up again and would mingle with the symphony of smells that told her she was home: the neighbour’s drifting incense, the steaming food carts, the open drains.

She gazed at the scene laid out below and thought about leaving; distracted herself by counting. No radio, no television, this was her favourite game: people watching, people counting. The most people on a motorbike (seven), most on a bicycle (four adults but they quickly fell off), biggest family in a cyclo (seven again), largest load on a bike (a fridge freezer), most cops on a motorbike (five), weirdest thing on a cyclo (a motorbike? A curb side petrol station?) She’d even tried counting tourists (one looking lost). The balcony was her window into another world. The sun’s descent had left an earthy glow on this side of the city, the daylight not yet gone but the cool moving in. Tuol Sleng stood a street away surrounded by green grass and palms, trimmed with barbed wire. The shady confines were tinted red. She shivered at the sight and as she scanned the street below she felt simultaneously removed from it and a part of it. The exertion of the afternoon had shined her face and arms and sapped her remaining energy as she moved back into the house.

Guy lay on the bed. Sweat glistened along the coarse, wiry blonde hairs that coated his arms and chest, shone in the dark hollows beneath his eyes and slicked his upper lip. Continue reading


Going to Work (Triolet Re-structured)

I set out for school today but a man was in my way,
dead and bloating in the sun, dredged in the dust of the road—
well seasoned for death and fully tenderized by the fray.
I set out for school today but a man was in my way.
He lay dead in the street, causing my delay—
surrounded by a crowd staring bug-eyed like toads.
I set out for school today but a man was in my way,
dead and bloating in the sun; tossed in the dust of the road.


© Ammie-oy 2010

Playing with Form: Triolet (2)

On My Way to Work

I set out for school today but a man was in my way,
dead and bloating in the sun, dredged in the dust of the road—
well seasoned for death and fully tenderized by the fray.
I set out for school today but a man was in my way.
He was lying in the street gazing sightless to the sky,
a crowd gathered round him, buzzing like flies.
I set out for school today but a man was in my way,
dead and bloating in the sun; tossed in the dust of the road.


© Ammie-oy 2010

The Sounds of Phnom Penh


Noom-bpung man

The Sounds of Phnom Penh

The scrootching brooms the
universal alarm,
followed by the bread man’s call.

Early morning and late afternoon
the singing tones greets us—
noom-bpung, noom-bpung
drift through open windows raising
a scuttle of feet, a swish of doors
rustling wrappings peeled back from an enormous basket
that teeters on the bicycle rack.

The voices and sounds of a waking city:
school children chanting—
Chinese lessons
drift and hang in the early morning air
outside un-shuttered class rooms;
babies mewling, mothers scolding,
beating of mats and shaking of sheets;
monks chant and hawkers hit the streets,
motos rev to customers’ calls and the clattering
open and close of metal gates.

Ice cream man cycles down the street
hand bell ringing out, a
blast of music escaping from a bright tangle of wires that
coil around the rear of his bicycle. I hear the excited
chatter of children then the suck
and metal slide as tubular ice creams
are slid from the steel barrel.

A high pitched scream of sound
emerges from a battered wooden box
accompanied by the tinkle of keys and
the clanking of cans
as the key cutter negotiates
the pitted road on his jangling, clanking bicycle.

By early evening the cicadas
are deafening—
drowning out all thoughts,
blanketing me, muffling my home,
with their chirping shrill vibrations—
obliterating all else,
even the television’s drone.

karaoke pierces the night
barely distinguishable from
the sporadically howling dogs—
that discordant chorus that tracks around the city
punctuated by squalling cat spats.

As peace settles in with the deeper dark,
the noodle man clacks his rhythmic call on sticks,
his creaking trolley jerked along
river bed roads destroyed by the wet—
metal and glass grinding dolefully, sticks
beating in the dusk,
unseen, he serenades the night.

© Ammie-oy 2010

Cambodian Buddhist monks

Cambodian Buddhist monks

Pong tea khon (fertilized duck eggs)

Street trade


Cambodian Fruit Salad





Photo by: Margaret Mendel

I long for the fresh fruit again:
reaching up for mango, papaya, bananas and water apples—
watermelons piled, pineapples peeled, bananas baked
translucent gob stopper longans,
with beautiful choke stones;
red curling skin of dragon fruit, opening to reveal black flecked flesh
the colour of unwashed lace,
green coconuts in handcarts, machete to lop the top,
straws to drink;
basket bearing trees with prickly
green-armoured jack fruit bending the boughs
heavy with yellow waxy sacks—
mindful of durian but for scent;
fresh green oranges crushed with ice, startlingly sweet—
mauve dimpled lychees hiding translucent white flesh
and a sweetness comparable to the red hairy
rambutans dripping juice, or the
soft velvet white segments of
deep-purple-shelled mangosteen
melting in my mouth,
the outsize pomelo
(none of the bitterness of its hybrid child)
milk fruit, patched purple and green and huge Chinese apples
all neatly polished and piled up in pyramids—
abundant, fresh. I long for the fruit…

Cambodian fruit stall





Photo by: JR

© Ammie-oy 2010


‘But what is Bongdir?
Is it the rats?’
But we don’t have any rats. Not here—
even Dara can’t find any rats here.

‘Rats, no, rat gondol’

Only lizards: teukei, jinja…

‘Not rat, Janie.’

And Girly never lets a mouse pass…
Not like the first house where
they ran over my feet at night
whilst the cats fought on the tin roof.

‘But I’m scared of Bongdir Ammie-oy.’

Always Bongdir.
So I ask Sivin — again —
‘What is Bongdir? Nor naa?’
And she gives that shrug she gives
when I’m being strange and foreign
when I mispronounce and confuse the language
that Gallically borrowed shrug.

She inserts her culture seamlessy into ours
with strange omissions
of chopsticks and no admonitions
of his pointing feet (those impolite soles)—
just slides the rest in to reside amongst our own
and he runs to pray when the monks pass
and Bongdir lurks
beyond my grasp—

a hidden part of a foreign culture
coiled like a krama around my son’s head
like the scarves twisted
to balance baskets on hawkers’ heads—
but Bongdir weighs heavy on Dan.

He saves his bad behaviour
for Ammie-oy who doesn’t believe in Bongdir.

I ask her again.
‘Sivin… bongdir? Nor naa?’
‘Danny make mistake.’

I start to ask friends, neighbours,
but nobody knows
and Dan’s fear grows and takes control.

I give it to him straight,
I clearly explain the evil Bongdir’s fate:
‘Bongdir s’lahp, s’lahp heuy Danny,
there is no Bongdir, Bongdir is dead!
Ot mean Bongdir—Bongdir s’lahp
k’nyom dtoh salarian, taup mouy, lea heuy!’
Then Sivin laughs, walks Danny away—

‘No Bongdir
you not hear’

I not hear or I’m not here?
But she doesn’t say…

Coming home from school, his legs
kicking free, care free,
dangling from the bike
I sit side-on, my arm around his waist
and we sing
as the moto-dop takes us home,
takes us home to Vin.

And I ask him — ‘where do you think Sivin is?’
I know he knows; we have our routine.

‘She’s on the balcony—’
A glint in his eye

‘Not making your lunch, not waiting for you?’

‘No. Bongdir is eating her feet.’

About this poem

© Ammie-oy 2010

Playing with Form: Villanelle

The Grave in the Road
The morning light is tinged with gold.
The city awakes with a chorus of sighs,
and a new-born breeze skims dust on the road.
Dutiful husband does as he’s told.
I watch from my balcony way up high,
the morning light still tinged with gold.
The digging and the sun both take a toll.
My eyes on his flexing back and thigh,
as the new-born breeze skims dust on the road.
It looks like a grave, some kind of hole
dug into the dirt of the road, so dry,
but the morning light is still tinged with gold.
The freshly turned layers of earth unfold.
Averting my eyes, I do not pry
but watch new-born breeze skim dust on the road.
Incense sticks send prayers for the soul.
The wife breaks down with a silent cry
and the morning light remains tinted gold
but the new-born breeze dies on the road.

Further information

© Ammie-oy 2010