A Nail the Evening Hangs On
“A Nail the Evening Hangs On is fiery, trauma-stricken, tender, and complicated. Sok weaves together a remarkable collection wrought with memories of those who are alive but not living and those who are dead but not yet gone.”
Monica Sok is a name not soon to be forgotten in the poetry community. A Nail the Evening Hangs On is fiery, trauma-stricken, tender, and complicated. Sok weaves together a remarkable collection wrought with memories of those who are alive but not living and those who are dead but not yet gone.
The variation of Sok’s speakers in her impeccable debut is critical; the university student, the
immigrant father, the radio host, and the young adult coping with history all share the same heritage. Each comes from a different stop on the journey of grief, and their voices reflect a sharpened, omniscient perspective that arises only out of personally comprehending the depths of humanity’s cruelty.
“The Radio Host Goes into Hiding” illustrates the author’s powerful ability to wield recurring images as metaphor. This poem, divided into nine parts, and takes the perspective of a Phnom Pen local who is trying to evade the Khmer Rouge. The reader is briefly flashed an image of a young girl planting a sweet potato in a small village; this image does not surface again until the final part of the poem. Strikingly tender amidst Sok’s depictions of anguish, the young girl appears as an extension of the speaker herself and directs the reader to remember the generations of trauma being manufactured by endless and unnecessary war:
“world can you hear me can you hear me
find the sweet potato
in a hole dug up
look for the girl who planted it there.”
The girl acts as an image of supplication: her innocence is a foil to the inevitability of violence. She begs the world or anyone who will listen (pointedly, the United States) to acknowledge—and, perhaps, put an end to—the carnage in her country.
Sok masterfully manipulates tone through repetition to alter the reader’s expectation of how her poems will progress during the entirety of A Nail the Evening Hangs On. At times reminiscent of folklore, the repetition is hypnotic and tangible: “The city, a crowd disappearing. The crowd, evacuated to the provinces.” Here, in “Americans Dancing in the Heart of Darkness,” the speaker references the city of Phnom Pen and later on her family members; absent first names, only “auntie” or “uncle” indicate their relationship to the speaker.
This disassociation is a prevailing theme: Sok’s poems are personal, yet purposefully kept at a distance. The reader senses that the author’s adroit understanding of human suffering is simultaneously exacting and delicate. Thus the speakers in Sok’s poems must simply tell their truths without being bogged down by sympathy-seeking syntax.
One of the most remarkably warm and heart-breaking moments in A Nail the Evening Hangs On is found in “The Weaver,” a poem that we may take as an homage to the author’s grandmother:
“Sometimes, when she was tired,
she’d tie it up
and let all the tired animals around her house
drink from her head.”
The speaker personifies an elderly weaver’s hair as a source of water for tired animals. The weaver, too, is tired. In a moment that reaches across years and years, we, too, may drink from the reservoir of this poem to satisfy our thirst for kinship that Sok’s writing so effortlessly gratifies.
The author’s narrative thread never wanders far from ancestral grief; whether the speaker of the poem is in Cambodia or Brooklyn, Sok incites in the reader a feeling of communal suffering. A Nail the Evening Hangs On permeates the very essence of our humanity: the connection we have with undergoing hardship while knowing that, regardless, time will continue to pass. This book is about healing ourselves when time does not, and the people and memories that help us to do so. Monica Sok’s flawless collection holds the reader in rapt attention and there is no doubt that her writing will continue to cross innumerous borders—geographical and emotional.