Thursday Jul 18

salvage Salvage
by Cynthia Dewi Oka
112 pages, Triquarterly Books / Northwestern University Press, 2017
ISBN-13: 978-0-8101-3629-8
Review by Julia Bouwsma

To read Cynthia Dewi Oka’s second collection of poems, Salvage, (Triquarterly Books / Northwestern Univeristy Press, 2017) is an experience akin to entering a dream world, both lush with threat and glistening with beauty. Oka, who immigrated with her family from Bali, Indonesia to Canada in 1996 due to ethnic and religious tensions, is a poet who is “always approaching the edge of a foreign land.” Her poems are continually on the move—shifting and bleeding into one another, threaded by an intuitive dream logic where everything is disjointed and yet simultaneously true. One must pass through the pages of this collection as if through a house that is both as familiar as childhood and yet utterly strange, the kitchen walls collapsing without warning, giving way to “the sigh of kites ruffling crowns of coconut trees” or “the red net of city” before you fully realize what is happening. “I am somewhere the horizon is slippery, quartered; / a compost of insurrections mirroring the body,” she writes in “The American Dream Writes to Orpheus,” a poem that occurs near the beginning of the collection. And indeed, her poetry is at its most powerful when it is inhabiting liminal spaces or deftly following the internal rhythms of her incendiary imagination toward “this precipice we have been / led to in the wake of the flood” or “the black hole / war carves in a body.”

“Suppose the land like the body broke / apart, without a way to return,” Oka writes in “Suppose You Were a Komodo Dragon.” And this is the crucial, central query that rests at Salvage’s heart center: the question of what to do in the face of irreparable loss. This is the thread that Oka follows wherever it leads her: from the “boiling lakes of mud and falling / timber. Bones catching fire” of Mt. Merapi that often serves as metonym and metaphor for Bali to Camden, New Jersey where “we grope for insinuations / of welcome—rock wire graffiti—signs // that injury is what happened to / make of absence a place,” recalling, as she journeys, a father whose “calling was certain as ink’s garb of black” and a mother who “must grope blind / for shoes in the cement of night.” She circles history and the globe, private pain moving seamlessly into the empathy that resounds like a chorus throughout Salvage, as she gives voice to the horror of communities destroyed by drone strikes in Pakistan or the Black children who drown in a car during Hurricane Sandy as “their screams become / the moulted skin of water” while a white family refuses to open the door of their house to a mother’s desperate knocking. In poem after poem, Oka leads us to the battered coastline where body meets land, where memory meets flesh, where the rupture of self reaches out to touch and acknowledge the rupture of another, for, as she writes in “Breach”:

I know what it is to try to climb out
of the body, its walls of moss and melanin
by deprivation or desecration the wish
to quit standing in the middle of it like Jupiter’s hurricane
raging without end, the red navel, the hurt
that is topography and blueprint, crew and ship.

This is the feral empathy of learned pain, the resolute howl of someone who writes with the awareness that “every time I shield my face in the dark // I know it is because my ancestors chose to run.” This is the writing of someone who has, through language, reclaimed the self and with it found both a multiplicity and a singular steadfastness. “This here I touch,” she writes, “with my body, make holy with language // all the arms of wreckage, this we who will not be moved.”

One must be careful, however, not to mistake Oka’s empathy or the journey of her verse for deliverance. When light comes to these poems, it’s in the middle of the blast, in “the kind of beauty that incinerates / the shelter of the body,” not in a gentle guiding ray at the end of a hallway. For it’s not redemption Oka’s after. She eschews that notion in one elegant swoop at the end of the collection’s title poem:

   May memory, navel of the lost
                        arm of the vanished,
            rise. Wide-eyed, mortal, a whole world
    moving against redemption.

And it’s not forgiveness either, which she speaks of with a sidelong gaze that embraces both the power and futility of its journey, as in the final lines of the poem “Aubade”:

before we saw the white wall rise up behind each other’s
eyes, remnant from when we held a howl in our hands

and tried to write the story of forgiveness.

Because in Salvage, redemption and forgiveness are laced, always, with the threat of erasure, with the “white wall” or, as Oka puts it in the first of a series of linked sonnets “Promised Land: Sonnets for My Mother”: “a thick cloth between you and the wolves in your brain.” Forgiveness simplifies atrocities whose horror must not be untangled; it bows its head silently, accepts that there are hurts too great to name. And for Oka survival depends instead on “believing I am stronger than / the silence which swarms like beetles // around my heart.”

And so, in lieu of forgiveness, Oka’s poems seek an honest reckoning, an accounting of the myriad wounds that have been and continue to be unleashed the world over: the violences driven by greed, by power, by hate, or even by the well-intentioned but failed efforts behind a parent’s love. In “How to Watch The Act of Killing,” a poem drawn from film The Act of Killing, a 2012 documentary about those who participated in the Indonesian mass killings of 1965-66, she makes the task clear:

       You must open your hands & hold

the fate that is yours,
which isn’t to decide who lives or dies or where
the metaphor ands & pain is demoted
back to unthinkable pain, but to look again & again

at this blood of initiation, the hatred
that brought you here & stoops now
an old man behind the camera, sleepless immaculate

Thus in lieu of redemption, Oka demands accountability. In lieu of erasure, she demands that we not look away. In lieu of compartmentalization, she demands wholeness. Where other poets often take to concision when confronting the horrors of human suffering, Oka is instead expansive—her imagination both generous and volcanic as she makes a mitzvah of rage. Her goal is to look at it, all of it, and to stitch it together piece by piece, both what she has experienced herself and what she can only imagine. To do this again and again until she is able to reach through the profound and singular loneliness and isolation of the self to connect each person’s individual suffering—and thus to weave a web of collective sorrow and anger. Hers is a rage with deep roots, a rage that drops its ancient branches down so low they nearly kiss the ground and, in doing so, creates a shelter, a gathering place, a home for the wounded, the cast out, the ones still searching, holding within their chests “the lie of a homeland as the heart’s rest.”

JulieBouwsma2016 Julia Bouwsma is the author of MIDDEN (Fordham University Press, forthcoming 2018) and Work by Bloodlight (Cider Press Review, 2017). Her work appears in Bellingham Review, Grist Online, Muzzle, Salamander, RHINO, River Styx, and other journals. She lives and works on an off-the-grid farm in the mountains of western Maine where she serves as Book Review Editor for Connotation Press: An Online Artifact and as Library Director for Webster Library in Kingfield, Maine.