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A Space for Writers of the World

Cynthia Dewi Oka – Poetry

The Men Who Turned Into Air

circled caverns of broad daylight

where no two souls speak     the same inferno
hope glinted on sidewalks like needles    & burst
condoms     you think you know the lyrics  

big-knuckled boys     chinning up to challenge
one hundred feet above glimmer

flower on concrete    wassup brotha, keep ya head up

chalk & sheer belief         the sun begins to drown
in the red net of city   balloons drift    humans
& windows opening           

                                                           we was made     

detonated you think you know      sin must be
inevitable      color their skin      in the image of god

this middle of room where love was made

& vodka spilled      negligent means by which cleave  
slipped in     then through     doubling as goodbye
you were almost there when their mirrors broke  

listen                  sometimes pretend to be
stronger than the rain clinging you     like hurt  

singing please, please      put your mouth around my song


Garden State

Sunset.  Bellies empty we glide
into summer, slit by fireflies. Muslin fluorescence.
Cops & cabbies in glades of smoke.  The streets
panoptic.  The brick of our bones thinking
of rain.  Newport conspiracies.  Espionage,

           god of torn membranes, god of imagined lives
          eating palm-shadows on dustless patios
          god of geranium & African violet
          god of the promise of harbor

A candle for each moth.  The shutters of nostalgia.  
Rooms to smuggle horizons & grandfather clocks.
Fingers, pearl studded force. Armoire
of regrets.  Garden gnomes then dogs
in the turned over earth.  Our silhouettes
like blow

      god of the besieged, god of mug shots
      taken by streetlight, god of waste bins
      squeezed like men waiting furiously for work
      god of phantom-limbed refusals  

The oak explodes.  Veins over roofs.  Ink spilled
on faded-jeans sky & salmon.  Clouds,
memories of the last great fire.  White-socked Teresa
of Calcutta.  The parish where desire thieves
our hands & spins.  A fifties
black and white

      god of hypothetical verandahs
      god of halcyon days are over
      god of waxed skin & fishnet kisses all year
      Dancing with the Stars, god of merciful

      amnesia, in bodies of trespass, hallowed be thy name


Time Stops on Mount Batur

In one version of the story, she never made it to the peak.
There was the ice of a thousand darts.
Red light dying against the moss.
A ceramic glass of tea: steaming, jasmine.

Some of the tourists – beefy, pink-nosed, zipped up to their chins –
watched her pee behind the crumbling rampart where barefoot women,
babies suckling at their breasts, sold corn nuts and bottled Coca Cola.

“How shall I describe the stars to you? It’s like God were
punched in the face and his teeth sprayed across the sky.”

On the rotting wood one cigarette after another
she was a thin blanket
wrapped around juts of bone.

There was the blue water below, sober, spoon-like
the way she imagined each particle of lung.  The mist dense as dust
that lay at night between her and the husband.

There was after all the old man who extended his hand
like a freshly sanded tabletop, and pulled her up
over the blade-sharp edge.  Her grip was solid,
her feet bled, she could have made the scramble

on her own.   “I took it to be kind
so he wouldn’t think I thought myself too good
but of course he expected to get paid.”

The brambles had fingernails like her mother’s.
They waltzed on her face and arms like soldiers at their last
ball before the war.  Her neck felt like
a subway tunnel echoing with rats.

Banana sandwiches.
Raw eggs that broke and made her palms stick
in reluctant prayer.
The ice of a thousand darts piercing
the body’s ember.

Enter the green-walled kitchen with the broken light bulb.
The saturation of garlic in the walls like a secret
ancestry.  There are the finely shaped legs, irascible hair,
the barely perceptible film of grease on the clean pots and pans.

In another version, she listened to the guide’s warning and torn
feet and all, threw her bones into the tar-darkness like flares.
Of course she was thinking of the book, the son, the coming winter.
Of course things drown at great heights.  

“Where are you? Where did you go? Why have you come back?”
He is earnest as a seagull scanning the waves.  
The silence hangs between them, a curtain of bees.

There was no way to cheat how steep it was.
Or the blackness of the ash, which had crystallized to sand
pouring warmly, needling the lines of the palms.
“The angle of the climb was such that I couldn’t look all the way

down.”  Who was she trying to fool?
Dawn was delayed for over an hour.  No electricity.
She heard voices like swinging lanterns and couldn’t see

a damn thing.  Her fingers refuse to uncurl.
It seems silly to say, “Well, the sun was a juvenile act of arson,
it was quickly put out in the fog,” or
“I could have used a ladder.”

Other versions are possible, maybe.
She’s not sure which to tell.
In another one the pretty guide gives everyone the finger,
quits and goes home to her daughter and her man
who teaches by day and is a sharecropper by 3:00pm.  

They never speak of the woman who left her skin all over the mountainside.


Cynthia OkaCynthia Dewi Oka is a Chinese Indonesian poet and author of Nomad of Salt and Hard Water (2ndEdition forthcoming via Thread Makes Blanket). A 2015 Pushcart Prize nominee, her poems can be found in a wide range of online and print publications. She is a proud VONA alum.  

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