I think of Sarith Peou's work as a result of two states of repression, the first being the Khmer Rouge, and the second being his current state of incarceration. The first, the Khmer Rouge, in which one quarter to one third of Cambodia's population were murdered, executed, or died from sicknesses and starvation, is the central focus and point of Corpse Watching, and as Laura Moriarty reminds us, corpse watching is not a metaphor. Ed Bok Lee is quick to point out this title poem's cadence and rhythm: as the young boys (presumably including Peou himself, who was an adolescent during the time of the regime) witness this too regular occurrence, bloated bodies flowing down the swollen river become a nursery rhyme. They are so everyday an occurrence that if one corpse gets tangled in the brush, you just give it a good push so that the river current will catch it again.
And that's it right there, the crux of Corpse Watching is its searing starkness, its unadorned matter-of-fact language; the thing that makes it so beautiful and terrible is the fact that what Peou reveals here are not metaphors but things. Performing hard labor while suffering the effects of untreated malaria, having to crawl to the place where he will spend the day digging ditches. Wounds that refuse to heal, flies that lay their eggs in those festering, exposed wounds, maggots that hatch from those eggs. A seven year old girl abducted for hard labor. The return of a panic attack ridden, hairless, indiscernible girl, whose head is covered with cow dung. The speaker's aunt clutching the exhumed skeleton of her executed husband as the speaker and she finally find his unmarked grave. Finally, a cremation, and the speaker's admission that this is the most horrible thing he has experienced. More horrible than pushing a corpse of someone's father downriver. More horrible than maggots living in his festering skin.
Linh Dinh translates a poem from Corpse Watching into Vietnamese here.