A Review of Cynthia Dewi Oka’s Fire Is Not a Country

Review by Rogan Kelly

Northwestern University Press, November 2021, 112 pages

To break or/hold the line. The Power of Personal Inference in Cynthia Dewi Oka’s Fire Is Not a Country

Jose Clemente Orozco, Combat, 1927, Mexico City, Mexico

I love a poem with a sense of conflict that doesn’t directly ask a question but you feel one in your gut and are made unsettled by it. In a deeply personal collection that is firing on all the levels, Cynthia Dewi Oka’s “Elegy With a White Shirt1first published in The Kenyon Review is such a poem.

One of the most satisfying qualities of Oka’s Fire Is Not a Country is the duality of fire in this collection — how Oka, in all her power, wields it.

I keep returning to the words of Kenneth Burke, every question selects a field of battle. There is an intuitive style to Oka’s narrative and a trust she creates by it. Her line work compressed, she paints scenes like moving pictures, which implies a deliberateness in what the camera lens shows and doesn’t show. But there’s a long smoke quality to her deeper tell. Here, she delivers the field of battle before the question.

   In Orozco’s Combat a blade is thrust through the suggestion of a body

   inside a white shirt. I see a fist pushing
   the blade in, and the blade coming clean through

   the bracket where the ribs should be. There is no blood.
   The shirt is holding

   a line with other shirts like a wave

   cresting backward against its own dark sea
   pounding from the opposite shore,
   suggesting an endlessness to struggle and within, fire’s


This suggestion of a body creates such an interesting play. As if the poet is unsure. Or given that the poet is sure that the knife is sticking out the back of this semblance of a man, there is the lack of blood to contend with and a line of immediate future violence to come. Oka considers:

        From behind, I see what the white shirts cannot: faces

   afloat in the umbrage of raised blades, trying to make
   their way here. Maybe I am trying
   to make my way there. It is not always clear

   these days whether between here and there, I am supposed to break or
   hold the line.

Putting aside the line break wordplay (that’s so seductive), the inner/slant rhyme work, and subtle enjambment (again, so good), what stands out here is how Oka crisscrosses the personal self with the deeply impersonal white shirts and clouded faces in the umbrage of raised blades. The general here. The general there. And that unspoken question that hangs over all of us: Where do I belong?

Oka’s diction makes intuitive sense. I am supposed to break or/hold the line is a way of asking, who is my killer? War is impersonal, the style of killing is indiscriminate as is the scene depicted in Orozco’s Combat. And then there is the disturbing point of a knife and the equally disconcerting lack of blood. If you care about people at all, have any empathy for others, who among us has not felt stabbed by our country’s current course? How many of us are bleeding even if it doesn’t show? Of course, killing with a knife is actually quite personal, especially to the person wielding it and to the person receiving the blow. Oka understands this, too, but this is a long smoke we share.

I met Cynthia last October, first virtually over Zoom when we taped a podcast with Painted Bride Quarterly, and then shortly after in person at the Collingswood Book Festival. A beautiful homecoming of sorts for her that was a joy and glory to witness. She was the featured poet with a new book to celebrate. Shame on me for thinking any of the larger country issues were in our rearview. In those early days of reading Cynthia’s book, I was struck by the personal touches, the labor of love. The dedication to her son, poems of the father and mother. Her personal photographs line the book and their descriptions are parts artful and tender. I was struck by the clean, exacting prose in the photo descriptions. It reminded me of the footnotes in Lydia Davis’ collected stories. Such care and attention to detail. I know, this is what writers/poets do. Still, it felt striking enough to mention. Not a stitch of this book is throwaway.

Oka’s speaker may be grappling with purpose, and point, and how any of it matters. But her poems leave me believing everything does.

One of the most satisfying qualities of Oka’s Fire Is Not a Country is the duality of fire in this collection — how Oka, in all her power, wields it. It is sometimes the murderer but also the murdered. Not dissimilar from how the poet sees the line of white shirts and dark faces with raised blades and wonders if she sees herself here or there. And this isn’t just borne of imagination. Many immigrants have come to the United States fleeing one kind of persecution only to find another kind here. Sometimes the duality of fire happens in the same poem as it does in “Redacted from a Know-Your-Rights Training Agenda—2first published by the Academy of American Poets which also speaks to the doubling down of persecution in the so-called Land of the Free near the so-called City of Brotherly Love.

   Like a first language bleeding hearts call, speaking truth to power.

   I don’t know how they don’t know that power doesn’t care.

   That watching fires go out will become a pattern.

   That fire is everywhere, and therefore cheap.

Earlier in the same poem, Oka brings the inference of the personal to her speaker, as she plays interpreter for her father. It is a poem passage of gut-wrenching heartbreak made even more so as she delivers it in fire’s wordplay, its second meaning: Tell your dad he can quit or I can fire him.

In this poem, there is also the appearance of water and of moths and their relationship to fire. The poem opens with all-consuming water instead of fire. The speaker of the poem is a body of water. Grief, like an army of moths ate away at the speaker’s father. But later in the poem, it is a moth trapped in the car with the speaker. That in that moment, in that space, the poem’s speaker has the power to be the moth’s killer. All of this crescendoes at poem’s end with water returning to biblical protector in a poem that calls out POLICE ICE and a moth returns to flame:

   That tonight, the night after, the after that, for as long as the distance between God and a pothole, a moth’s flight will spell,

        They are coming for you.

It is a credit to Oka that she never settles on what’s easy or simple. Even the most guttural emotions have complexity and nuance. Oka understands even a mirror can distort if you consider vantage. In “You Don’t Have to Be Tough All by Yourself, You Said,” 3first published in Scoundrel Time I text him my face when I think it most/untouchable. It is a poem that references the earlier “Know-Your-Rights Training” poem directly, but also indirectly. In the earlier poem, Oka cites Atlas holding up the heavens, [t]hat after the fall of the gods, half of the heavens is darkness. In “You Don’t Have to Be Tough…” Oka’s speaker grapples with her own sense of fall: In the selfie I sent, darkness/curtains one side of my head which hasn’t thought/of Christopher for years. Even a moth, the ocean and ice make their appearances in one form or another here. The interconnection of poems, and narrative, and the sequencing of the work in Fire Is Not a Country is so good that as I start to contemplate and count the ways my body begins to shake with this energy. Oka’s speaker may be grappling with purpose, and point, and how any of it matters. But her poems leave me believing everything does.

Another striking quality of Fire Is Not A Country is how I can’t pinpoint a specific style in form. Oka’s distinct voice is undeniable but she bends form to her will in these poems. Each poem, the space it occupies, she owns.

In W. Todd Kaneko’s craft essay, “Veering Your Diction,” 4from the book The Strategic Poet, edited by Diane Lockward, Terrapin Books Kaneko writes: “Diction is a tool, not a static feature because word choice is subject to change depending on the poet’s needs at any point in a poem. And as you begin to see opportunities to veer your diction one way or the other, to establish and disrupt a poem’s diction, you open yourself to new ways of creating and discovering meaning in your poems.” Oka’s readily-apparent love of language and shifts in diction make her such a pleasure to read. In her poem, “Driving to York Prison in a Thunderbird” Oka walks from title to poem and the lines:

   with a belly full of sausage, it’s hard not to give thanks
   for contradiction. I mean, this is not my Thunderbird,
   I didn’t pay for this perspiring cup of sweet iced coffee,
   I have no sway over the grayness of October infecting
   the miles of visible world it contains. But I do appreciate
   speed, and somehow, whipping past cows in their somber
   contemplation of the wet earth, their tails swatting at flies,
   which I guess could be the bovine manifestation of social
   anxiety, makes me feel like a body beyond history’s gambit.

Oka is dangerous in cars and on trains and sitting in airports. The nature of these things give direct route to her wheelhouse of moving picture narrative telling. In these poems, she’s so good it’s almost unfair. Here, there’s a basic, low language or conversational style to belly full of sausage, the cultural appropriation of Thunderbird (which isn’t Oka’s fault but she would know what it’s doing). That the cup is perspiring in grayness of October while they “whip past cows” is both clever and elevating the language and image. To land on bovine manifestation is an awfully smart and funny way of saying the air smells of cow shit. And then a general body and history’s gambit which has the feel of landing us back in Orozco’s Combat. It’s also elegant language and beautiful. Oka is all over the place in the best way. But consider the lineation of the poem; each line in formation. It could be a prose poem but then that notion undercuts Oka’s gift for enjambment and that the poem is 55 lines and that among the end lines, she doesn’t have one bad hinge. If I’m being unclear, let me state plainly, Oka’s craft work is masterful.

                  Ahead of us the prison,
   with its crown of barbed wire, rises out of the dead grasses
   like solid blocks of rotten milk. I’ve never been here, but I almost
   cry with recognition. Of course. Of course. There is where I’ve
   left my heart, in the box of metallic things you can’t bring inside.

In moments when Oka shifts her diction, driving fast down a country road, or pulling up to York Prison, the crown of barbed wire, the play again in there and here and the added weight of these words in Oka’s hands, the view from my vantage steals my own heart box of metallic things.

There are associative elements to Oka’s poems, sometimes across multiple poems, which only makes the read deeper, richer. An image introduced early on will trail off only to return in new light. Oka doesn’t take superficial routes with her subject. She always gives depth of field. Her touchstone gift for narrative; this smoke we share. I return to “Elegy With a White Shirt.”

   Under the white shirt, the wound is longer
   than any blood. Under the parade of the pure, the wind-defying
   veils of redemption, my bones suggest spill.

              I dig

   around them day and night for the poem as irrigation; myself

   as probable. Which is to say here, not there, part
   of the we, not sweeping bloodless

      liquidity time and again some call bad magic and others,


It will not surprise you to learn before poem’s end, Oka’s speaker will make a stand, [w]hich is to say here, not there, part of the we, an old hole in [her] ribs like the white shirt in Orozco’s painting. Fire Is Not a Country is a personal triumph, a prophetic and damning truthsayer for our times, and an essential read for the revolutionary and the poet. We’re holding a line and we’re losing, I am aware, but from a certain vantage, Cynthia Dewi Oka’s poems fill me with hope, which unlike fire, is in short supply.

1. “Elegy With a White Shirt” first published in The Kenyon Review
2. “Redacted from a Know-Your-Rights Training Agenda—” first published by the Academy of American Poets
3. “You Don’t Have to Be Tough All by Yourself, You Said” first published in Scoundrel Time
4. W. Todd Kaneko’s craft essay, “Veering Your Diction” was published in The Strategic Poet, Terrapin Books

Rogan Kelly is the founding editor of The Night Heron Barks.

Originally from Bali, Indonesia, Cynthia Dewi Oka is the author of Fire Is Not a Country (2021) and Salvage (2017) from Northwestern University Press, and Nomad of Salt and Hard Water (2016) from Thread Makes Blanket Press. A recipient of the Amy Clampitt Residency, Tupelo Quarterly Poetry Prize, and the Leeway Transformation Award, her writing appears in The Atlantic, POETRY, Academy of American Poets, Poetry Society of America, Hyperallergic, Guernica, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her experimental poem, Future Revisions, was exhibited at the Rail Park billboard in Philadelphia in summer 2021. An alumnus of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, she has taught creative writing at Bryn Mawr College, New Mexico State University, Blue Stoop, and Voices of Our Nations (VONA). For fifteen years, Cynthia worked as an organizer, trainer, and fundraiser in social movements for gender, racial, economic, and migrant justice. As an immigrant and former young single mother with working-class roots, her aesthetics are guided by her core values: self-determination, collaboration, and attention to the peripheral. Her fourth poetry collection, A Tinderbox in Three Acts, is a Blessing the Boats Selection forthcoming in fall 2022 from BOA Editions.

Fire Is Not a Country from Northwestern University Press