Meditation on the Worth of Anything

Cynthia Dewi Oka

A tall man wipes ashes from his lips. “I’ll pay you,”he says. “If you’re worthy.” From the lamp of his skull, a steeplerises. Roaches seek warmth in the dead bells, while cherryblossoms burst their green corsets. My mother at the endof a 12-hour shift at the factory will heat rice-and-vegetable soup,cooked last weekend and kept frozen to last her six workingdays, to eat while watching reruns of The Good Wife.She does not always understand what Julianna Margulies issaying. Sometimes she weeps because memory is long andbendy, a red line that curves around the globe instead ofcutting through the center. It begins on a piece of rockrepresented on the globe by a bump under the fingertip. A bodyat the bottom of a well. Which is a good place—ifsomeone’s kid could lower a piece of mackerel down to youin a pail, twice a day, cleaned of its bones. Strange howexpensive rice was then with so many bodies inthe river, puddles, trailing their red ribbons. When I toldmy mother I was going to start organizing workers, sheslapped me with the same hand that used to soothe the long,bumpy scar on my father’s chest. I have to make time to cry, andeat. Fuck that kamikaze shit. It was not just from grief thatshocks of hair fell from my head to the kitchen floor. I worefour-sizes-too-big-but-ironed jeans for the better part of highschool and threatened kids by thumbing a knife acrossthe skin of an orange because my parents believed evenan ordinary man of no particular feat or achievement couldbe brought back to life when God wanted to provea point. In other words, there could be a universal languagein whose syntax fire is not a country. Sometimes, it’s like I’m almostthere. Some mornings, smoking, I lock eyes with the squirrelperched, perfectly still, on the lip of the garbage bin. Ipicture its soft, little lungs, flaring like a dahlia. It’s true, mymother refused to howl like the dog they called her; my father onceglowed. Inside, there is a desk, and on it, a flower head madeof paper. It says Mom. It has six petals around it thatunfold, a list of possible destinies—                You take great care of me.                You cook for everyone.                You hear what I have to say.                You always cheer me up.                You love me.                You are the best.—and a wire stem wrapped around the frame of a faded photograph:a man with thinning hair and jutting cheekbones, his arm arounda girl, six or seven, in a traditional yellow kebaya. The drawncurtains behind them admit no stones. Her eyes squint, she issmiling. Mouth small. Red, like a liar’s word.

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Photo of Cynthia Dewi Ok
Jose Quintana

Cynthia Dewi Oka is the author of the newly released Fire Is Not a Country from Northwestern University Press. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, POETRY, Academy of American Poets, The Rumpus, PANK, Guernica, ESPNW, and elsewhere. Her experimental poem, Future Revisions, was exhibited at the Rail Park billboard in Philadelphia in summer 2021. Originally from Bali, Indonesia, she is the 2021-2022 Poet in Residence at the Amy Clampitt House in Lenox, MA. Her previous collections are Salvage (2017) and Nomad of Salt and Hard Water (2016).

Cover of Fire Is Not a Country

Evanston , Illinois

Northwestern University

"There is something exceptionally brilliant about this collection’s attention to fatigue, to the body overwhelmed, to the idea that one should not have to be or perform super humanness in order to survive."
—Megan Fernandes, Harriet Books

"Reading Cynthia Dewi Oka is an EXPERIENCE. In Fire Is Not a Country, the devotional is alive and freed from those who have abused it. Reverence is as honorable as irreverence. Sorrow is subterranean and always fighting valiantly to come to the surface. Ghosts live vicariously through the living. The ancestors are calling and calling and calling. Sometimes images precede meaning and sometimes meaning creates images. I kept this book by my pillow for weeks. Night after night, I returned, wanting to experience it again."
—Jenny Zhang, author of My Baby First Birthday

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