Lines Before an Iron Bedframe, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum: A Collection of Four Poems


The bar with the U-shaped clamps
to lock the prisoner’s feet
still lies on a bedframe where
a sleeper like me always assumes
the freedom of my legs

Non-stop were the interrogations
so that the iron checkerboard-rectangle
permanently sagged

A simple wooden chair
before this rusting pattern
of crucifixion

The interrogator:
more of a playwright

The interrogated:
his Theater of the Absurd

By the end of the interrogation
the prisoner confessed to killing
everybody even his or her
–whose legs
were free
like mine

And so the play ends:
Who the writer was
Who his never satisfactory
rewritten characters
–there are just these simple

And perhaps in a cell
in Syria or elsewhere

being used again


Iron nets
–hundreds padlocked
and tortured on these
bedframes to leave
a concave shape

always a chair nearby
where the Khmer Rouge
torturer sat but without
leaving any indentations

How light & airy
were the killers
(who escaped before
the Vietnamese
entered this prison)

How numerous
were the victims
(in order to prove
how flesh could
bend steel)

Ideologies make bodies
do strange things

And ideologies can even
make banalities seem

just like it seems that
no one ever sat
in these chairs

to make a body
do the impossible


Iron bedframes with padlocks
for prisoners’ hands & feet

Simple wooden chairs
before each of them where
the Khmer Rouge interrogators

Close your eyes
Imagine the classrooms
when this was a girls’ high school
–before a regime that erased
everything about the old
society: even the calendar

In 1975 when the Khmer Rouge
took power in Cambodia
the year was now declared
to be Zero

All that stands between a torturer
and his or her prisoner   
is a teacher
–and his or her questions

Oh   get your students
to question everything

most of all answers
that come quickly

–and with promises
of utopia


On the walls behind each
bed frame where prisoners
were padlocked for hours
or even days a picture
of one of the tortured
victims but with a piece
of tape erasing their eyes

Victim after victim
after victim
–but we are not
allowed to see
whatever pain
or fear or helpless-
ness they felt before
they were going to die

We must be respectful
–but are we also
being protected?

Un-taped we can
uneasily imagine
their mouths crying
and screaming

But just like I could
not help them now

Neither could I have
helped them back in
1978 or 1979 just like
I cannot help others
like them today beyond
my outrage & sympathies
as they look out at me
from my magazine or
newspaper that I open
in Paris or New York

Image: originally posted to Flickr as Detention and torture room, Security Prison 21 (S-21), Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Kenneth DiMaggio

Kenneth DiMaggio is a Professor of Humanities at Capital Community College in Hartford, Connecticut. He will have a poem in the upcoming issue of The Paterson Literary Review.