I think it was Eavan Boland who wrote the essay I kept thinking about while reading Cynthia Dewi Oka’s first book of poetry, Nomad of Salt and Hard Water, published this year by Dinah Press. I don’t remember the essay’s title, or even when I read it, but it was about how the proliferation of first-book poetry contests has changed the nature of what it means for a poet to publish a first book, and for a press to make a commitment to that poet. Boland’s point, if I remember it correctly — if not, I guess I’ve now made it mine — was that the manuscripts which win those contests aren’t really first books anymore. Rather, because they have been so thoroughly revised as their authors resubmit them year after year after year, they are more like second or even third books, with all the roughness and spontaneity, the experiments and inevitable failures that characterize any first attempt at anything pretty much polished out of them.
Boland saw this as a loss, as do I, which made reading Oka’s book a refreshing pleasure. I could not help but feel as I read her work that knowing she has said what she has to say and that whomever she has said it to has listened, and listened well, means a lot more to her than any praise a reader might have for how technically accomplished a poet she is, and she is technically accomplished. Nonetheless, I’ll start by talking about some of the missteps in her book. I don’t, for example, understand why “advice for the young nomad” is even a poem:
all you need
for the journey
toothpaste, sandals, grit
As well, the pop psychology of “ain’t got no degree in psychology” is plain and simple unworthy of the depth and breadth of emotional and psychological insight Oka is capable of:
but honey, I damn well know
shame can be the loveliest smile
in a room: it can save you
These whole poems aside, Oka more commonly stumbles because she tries to push a good thing too far. Here are the first six lines from “to know beauty,” the last three of which are completely unnecessary:
Each year on your birthday, I see stars gather
they robes like queens at the seams of a black sea,
whispering to each other in a vernacular of light,
without sound, but with all the understanding
of the leaf, which blooms, sings and withers
according to the needs of each season.
It’s not just that “whispering…without sound” is a contradiction (or paradox, if you prefer) that does not contribute anything to the poem as a whole; it’s more that those last three lines actually narrow, because they try to explain, the dark, lovely and powerful metaphor in the first three. Indeed, metaphors are the building blocks of Oka’s poems, where the beauty and power of her work resides. She stacks them, juxtaposes them, explores them. In “soothsayer,” she describes resilience as something that “begins in the thighs, threads up//through the armpits and crouches under the jaws/like a smuggled jewel,” and in part three of “roads to a dance,” here she is describing a musician, “he was a back pocket/brew of molten lines/churned low under hat/& jazz sentinel eyes.”
There is violence in Oka’s poems — colonial, sexual, economic — and one of the joys of reading her work, if I can call it that, is watching her transform that violence into a meaning out of which beauty can grow. This is from “gentrify this!” Notice how she packs each line with a rhythm that moves the language towards the bigger thing it begins to name:
blister hands break night carve bold
out of frostbit bone grafting
life bigger than circumference of
beat cops property value city policy
In “prologue: exile/return/arrival,” she turns her metaphors to a different kind of political end, describing the violence wrought by the Dutch when they “drop[ped] anchor to take/Bali’s last standing kingdoms:”
The Dutch walk their bayonets
into the silence of the jugular and small intestine,
through the cups of the collarbone.
Their cuticles acquire bright ribbons of human tissue,
their beards rain with the dying spit of adolescent boys.
By the time they reach the palace, they are no longer men.
Unable to die, their shovels hit the ground
scraping enamel and brain matter for the first runway
to deliver industry, ammunition, anthropologists,
and hurl little girls with hooves stapled to their ribs
like so many stones at the sun.
The most intimate violence Oka writes about, however, is rape. I don’t want to make the mistake of attributing to her biography the specific details of any given poem, so I will say, simply, that “vulture” is visceral and terrifying to read and that “amulet,” which she dedicates to “sister survivors,” exhibits all the strengths and weaknesses of this book as a whole, pushing its incantatory, almost bardic form into plainspoken obviousness — “I write to learn with you/how to accept love on your own/terms and in your own time” — while at the same time giving such precise form to what it means to survive rape that it took my breath away:
there are no promises
after rape we choose
the distance and measure of our lives
For me, the emotional center of Nomad of Salt and Hard Water is “when you turn eighteen,” addressed presumably to her son. There is in this poem nothing superfluous, no pontificating, no plainspoken obviousness, just the seamless weaving together of all the meaning she has been trying to make throughout the book as she asks her son to
imagine a boy who became a father
before he was a man who raised himself
into a snare his own back twice opened
then closed in the structure of a dragon
imagine his silence like a thin gold chain
passed hand to hand in the acid almost
vomit of a ship’s human hull imagine
finding asylum in blocks of brick mouths
fists the pendulum of dead light on a string
as many pseudonyms as curbs to ring into
the local precinct’s crosshairs
imagine the blood cabling his forearms
in one frequency: Young and Dangerous….
“Nomad of Salt and Hard Water” is a book worth reading for its strengths as well as its weaknesses, which reveal a poet for whom poetry is a calling, not a profession. I am glad to know that a poet like Cynthia Dewi Oka is writing and that Dinah Press has made the commitment to publish writers like her.