Bunkong Tuon teaches writing and literature at Union College, in Schenectady, NY. He is the author of the full-length poetry collection, Gruel (NYQ Books, 2015). He is currently working on his second poetry collection, which is about his experiences leading a semester abroad in Viet Nam. “She Hit the Bully with the Red Hair” is a tribute poem honoring his friend April R. Selley, who was a writer and professor at Union.
She Hit the Bully with the Red Hair
“So soon, so soon,” I repeated.
A recantation of Death’s dominion.
My one-year old daughter
squeezed her stuffed monkey.
Her body bent,
nose nestling in his fur.
My shoulders shook,
The sound was ancient,
a language some priestess sung,
In another city, my friend’s body
lay lifeless on her bed.
Her caretaker texted me,
“She’s not waking up.”
I texted back,
“What do you mean?”
The question, a recantation
of Death’s dominion.
And so I write to keep you,
to keep the ash gray fingers of time
and false memories from betraying,
to keep hope in the goodness
where friendship remains as sweet
as the first rain drop in spring.
I write to honor you
who, in grade school, hit the bully
with the red hair
with a metal lunchbox for taunting
your little brother.
You who tapped away
at the old Remington typewriter
and sent your work to the local newspaper.
People would call your house asking to speak
to this opinionated April R. Selley,
the author in The Newport Daily News.
Your father, in his clear, calm voice, said,
“She’s working on her homework right now.”
You who completed a novel and sent it
off to a publisher in New York.
The editor took it immediately,
but when he found out your age
the contract offer rescinded.
And with it went your dream
of writing the great American novel.
You who in your first stint as professor
were strict, tough, and won
the hearts and minds of students,
with some following your footsteps.
You, who was tiny and bursting with energy,
with your red puffer coat and winter hat with pom-pom,
pulling your suitcase full of books,
crossing the campus, wheeling it in Karp Hall.
You who championed the underdogs,
glowed all night writing recommendations.
The next day you attended afternoon mass
praying for their success.
You who did the unimaginable:
left the security of tenure
for the freedom of travels.
Tokyo, Moscow, Hong Kong,
Puerto Rico, Portugal,
your ancestral land.
I was one of your underdogs.
A newly minted PhD, a refugee kid,
at a school where I didn’t belong,
parking my grey Corolla between
a BMW and a Mercedes.
We talked on the phone
late into the night.
You were a night owl,
wise and supportive.
I was a scared kid stepping
into a classroom thinking:
What would they notice first,
my face or my clothes?
And so we talked.
It came easily, like old friends.
We were both outsiders.
It’s why we like the underdog.
It’s why we wrote.
I felt less alone after our talks.
Your brother and I have been cleaning
out your office: putting books in boxes,
saving your teaching notes and syllabi
in folders, going over photos, postcards,
and letters from friends and students.
We are taking our time.
Not wanting to throw anything away.
Not wanting to let go of another trace
of your existence, of your world.
Not wanting to experience another unfolding
of self, another unfurling into hurt
where the stomach curls up,
twisting, and the gasping of air.