“Her American Life” by Sokunthary Svay
She prays to her altar, says God
but means something else.
The incense hangs in the room
like her ancestral spirits.
Cambodian karaoke blares through the steel door.
In the hallway, neighbors mistake it for Chinese.
Down the elevator, Spanish speakers
pretend she can’t understand “Filipina.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses ring on weekends.
She holds her breath until their voices fade.
Fearless German roaches dot the kitchen,
the walls coated yellow from past deep-fried dinners
A frozen bird defrosts under a trickle of water.
Home from work, a plate of dismembered meat.
Sequined and puffy sleeves old as her adult daughter
are tucked away in the closet.
Boys play basketball late.
The windows only keep out the bugs.
She kisses her husband goodnight to separate beds
in the lonesome room where their sons once slept.
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I am a Pushcart-nominated Khmer poet, writer and musician from the Bronx. My family and I were refugees from Cambodia who survived the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. As of 2016, I am the poetry editor for Newtown Literary, and a founding member and Board President of the Cambodian American Literary Arts Association (CALAA). My work was a subject in New York magazine’s “Living in a Sanctuary City” portfolio and featured in the New York Immigration Coalition’s This is Our NY, broadcast in Times Square. I have been published in Women’s Studies Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, LONTAR, and Mekong Review, Perigee, and Margins. I am a recipient of the American Opera Projects’ Composer & the Voice Fellowship for 2017-2019. My first poetry collection, Apsara in New York (Willow Books) was published in 2017 and had a debut at Poets House.