Astronauts claim it takes
to know earth, how alone and woven
we are, o zone, how
the layer of glow defending
us from obliteration.
From “March in the Garden of Ghosts”
Cynthia Dewi Oka draws on newly classified documents around the 1965 genocide of millions of Indonesian people in her stirring fourth collection, A Tinderbox in Three Acts. As the title suggests, Oka arranges the collection into three acts which work to contain and further the histories of an invented cast, which Oka refers to as “ghosts.” The author begins the collection with a foreword that offers brief yet essential information around the historical context that inspires the collection, setting the stage for a deliberate and effective counter-public to the colonial histories that perpetuated silence around the genocide for decades.
The first poem in the collection, “Apologia,” immediately evokes Seamus Heaney and his poem, “Digging,” as the speaker describes how she has “mistaken a rock//for a voice. A voice for a listening. With [her] shovel//by the sea.” As the poem progresses, the speaker unpacks the silence that pervades familial relationships, as well as the stark contrast between the Pacific Northwest and Indonesia. The poem closes with the speaker committing to uncover her history: “My shovel makes the rocks leap. ‘Open,’ it/says with it stern and/painted edge.” The poem is situated outside the three acts, effectively acting as a prologue through which readers understand the compulsion that drives Oka to create and enliven the characters that populate the poems.
As a collection, A Tinderbox in Three Acts invites comparisons to recent documentary-style collections from Mai Der Vang (Yellow Rain), Courtney Faye Taylor (Concentrate), and Joshua Bennet (The Study of Human Life). Like Vang, Oka makes use of numerous textual features to create poems which resemble telegrams, official interviews and retooled government documents. This works to historicize the fictionalized narrative that carries through the collection, reminding readers of the concrete implications of both surviving genocide and living as a survivor in diaspora. While Taylor and Bennet draw on real people, Oka invents her “ghosts” and includes the disclaimer, “Resemblances to characters living and dead, fictional and non-fictional, are coincidental. Coincidences are sparks that flew from the flame which was thrown into a box woven of human wire.”
One thing that sets Oka’s collection apart is the overarching sense that the poem’s speakers are continuously aware of their participation in creating alternative histories. The meta-poetic style urges readers to approach the collection as an intentional effort to undermine the narratives presented by anti-communist Indonesian powers and the American government. This is a deliberately political collection which, in part, aims to re-center historically silenced and erased Indonesian refugees, to demand visibility for injustices that claimed millions of lives and imposed a trauma that the children of survivors continue to carry.
A Tinderbox in Three Acts does not read like a traditional collection in that few poems are as powerful in isolation as they are in the context of the collection. Readers will benefit from reading the poems in order, approaching each as an essential chapter in the larger narrative at play. Those who do will appreciate the richly developed “ghosts” and the layered implications at play in each poem.