President Obama's trip to Laos brought back a surprising flood of memories for me. I remember the 1970's as a time of refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. I found myself wondering what happened to all those refugees, particularly one who attended my school in 7th grade. I remember riding the bus, unable to speak a common language, wondering what her life was like.
And of course, in the 7th grade, I had no idea of the horrors she had escaped.
Yesterday morning, as I was looking for a different poem, I came across one that I wrote about that experience of riding the bus, all of us out of place in so many ways. It was published in The Julia Mango.
Does it work as a poem? In some ways. In some ways, it's too prose-ey. In many ways, my poem doesn't trust the reader to make the connections.
But I still like it, and so, for a week where President Obama promises to help Laos, it seems appropriate.
Seventh Grade Refugees
They fled from Cambodia to Charlottesville
during one of the coldest winters of the twentieth century.
They left that harvest of corpses to come to the fertile
crescent that created vibrant democracy, Jefferson’s back yard.
I watched her on the bus, the first unfiltered blood
line I’d ever seen, her Asian features unpolluted
by the genetic codes of other races. Her nose blistered
and cracked in the uncommon cold. Her clothes, donated
by area churches, hung awkwardly off her frame.
But no one in my seventh grade class wore clothes that fit.
That time of enormous change, when the body
has plans of its own, when my own flesh
felt as unfamiliar as a refugee from a foreign land.
My best friend on the bus might as well have lived in the last
century, her home a tar paper shack with chickens
for pets, no indoor plumbing. With her bones broken
one too many times, she looked like what she was,
that no church group would step in to save.
I wish I could say that I saved
them both, that I befriended
the Cambodian girl and rescued my battered friend.
But pre-teens can’t perform miracles.
The Cambodian refugee and I shared no
common language. I had no words to summon
help for my abused friend. Their eyes haunt
me still, eyes that had seen too much already,
cold brutality institutionalized.