A Review of Cynthia Dewi Oka's "A Tinderbox in Three Acts"
Updated: Feb 27
In a burnt man’s stomach, there was my whole life I did not enter.
As a suburban poet living near Philadelphia, I have always seen Cynthia Dewi Oka’s name pop up at art centers and readings. She is a locally loved poet whose words reach far beyond the literary scene of Southeastern Pennsylvania. After reading her work, especially her poem, For the Child(ren) I Cannot Carry, in The Atlantic, I fell in love with her stark command of language.
I reached out to Cynthia and her team @boaeditions, who so graciously sent a copy of her most recent poetry collection, A Tinderbox in Three Acts. Big thanks to Cynthia, Genevieve, and BOA Editions!
A Tinderbox in Three Acts tackles the 1965 Indonesian Genocide, which led to the death of more than 1 million people, with ferocity and piercing integrity. Through a creative disassembling of recently declassified U.S. state documents, Oka delivers a collection that is at once a remembrance and a revolution. Oka herself sifts through layers of the genocide, revealing its intentions, its effects, and its harrowing stories about the belittling of human life. It is only through these checkpoints that she arrives at a shadowless destination. Oka’s collection led me through a labyrinth of realization, culminating in an electric reckoning of my own past– of the things buried, now needing to be unearthed.
There is a drive within Oka’s poems that urges each line out from the shadow of loss and grief. In the first poem, Apologia, you can see as much:
On earth, I have mistaken a rock for a voice. A voice for a listening.
To be real and living is to constantly search for life and movement in the world around you– Cynthia’s poems ebb and flow to create a collection that is not only defined by an individual experience, but by a shifting mosaic of disparate parts. These shared experiences are ever present in Apologia:
A man beat me while a woman
watched, crossing her wrists.
I would’ve liked to fall asleep being
held but held vigil instead
for the kites that tugged free of their children.
The collection is permeated by both strangeness and tension– one feels that the air around the work might just shatter like glass. In Aspirations, Oka physically illustrates this suffocation and fragility:
At 19, the roads in my oldest brother’s lungs narrowed until not the thinnest breath could pass.
Okra uses faux interviews throughout her collection to perpetuate a sense of simultaneous urgency and isolation. She compares herself to an interrogation room lacking a smoke alarm, and then to ghosts interviewing each other (and often aiming for each other’s throats) as can be seen in the first faux interview in this collection:
For three and a half centuries the Dutch forced us to murder and enslave each other. Without god all we have is the blood between us.
Nonik: But isn’t the history of god a history of blood, then?
Above all, this collection is a country of sleeping volcanoes, where every poem contains novel forms and surprising imagery. The ground on which this collection is built can only be described as erratic. In the poem, Math in the Post-Colony, you see experimentation with form, white space, and capitalization:
ROCK in my left
MACHETE in my
right until I
In a few pages, you might find a perfectly formed strophe. My breath never left my throat while I was reading this collection. Fear is carried like teeth throughout these poems and the brutalities of the massacre are translated into metaphors without losing their bite. Discovering such bloody history is a heavy weight on anyone’s conscience– especially for indirect victims living in the shadows of an atrocity. Cynthia’s work made me think about myself and all of the people who inherit history, as well as of the guilt we face when we fail to actively address it. Cynthia shares this weight as she struggles through the privilege of American life– the very privilege which enabled her to write at the heart of a nation. For me, all I can do to alleviate my guilt is to be sad in all the ways I’m supposed to.
This collection is a remembrance of history too heavy to not mention. It follows the poet in her journey to navigate through the ruins of the selfish, the selfless, and more and more and more. Self-reclamation runs as an undercurrent throughout this collection, and shines clear in the collection’s final poems, such as Fire in Act II:
Say it isn’t a country. Say it is
visible from the harbor.
In this particular poem, Oka reveals her desires intimately to the reader. Here we can see that she wants to reclaim her culture: she wants to imagine fire and life as something more magnificent, brighter, and not just existing. There is a longing for things never seen; and yet, what is more foreign than the whole sky? Foreign because never fully explored; foreign because we will never know how large it is, what life we can build under it, all the myriad of entities beneath it. Under such a large ceiling, we come to question resolution and revolution– revision and deletion. In Act III, Oka seeks an ever-elusive closure. She will be among the first to dig up the bloody past, using this collection as a rooster’s crow for what we have been told never happened, or happened in a way we have misunderstood, or is still happening. Oka calls for life instead of survival. She calls for us to stop searching and look up. Today is not to die. Here, on Earth, right now, you can build any world you love. In one of her faux interviews, she writes that she is not a razor blade– and neither are any of us. No one should live with violence in the negative space behind their bodies. We are the crest of a rooster’s crow, and if we remain beautiful, if we do not stray—