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Repost: Review of “Nomad of Salt and Hard Water,” by Cynthia Dewi Oka

I wrote this review back in 2012, when Cyn­thia Dewey Oka’s Nomad of Salt and Hard Water was first pub­lished by Dinah Press (which, as far as I can tell, no longer exists). I am repost­ing it now for two rea­sons. First, since I am start­ing this blog from scratch, I have been going through the old posts I was able to sal­vage and decid­ing which ones are worth keep­ing. Cyn­thi­a’s book moved me and so I want to keep this record of that expe­ri­ence. Sec­ond, I found out that her book has been pub­lished in a sec­ond edition—and how many of us who are poets can say that?!—by AK Press, and so I think it’s worth let­ting peo­ple know about the book all over again.

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, 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
from liv­ing.

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
their 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.

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