I keep coming back to the title of Cynthia Dewi Oka’s new book, Fire Is Not a Country, perhaps because I was raised in a faith that saw a future filled with fire and welcomed it. For years I prayed every day for a start to a sin-cleansing apocalypse that would then leave fertile ground for the faithful survivors to grow and build a paradise on. Fire is a romantic metaphor in that sense, a way to clear away all the detritus and debris and make space for new beginnings. In order to accept that metaphor, of course, you have to ignore the destruction of everything that currently exists. That’s fine if you can abstract it, shunt all the people with their lives and loved ones and the things that hold memories and beliefs and histories into a class of stuff that doesn’t matter because it’s not you, after all, and they were bad in some way anyhow.
If it seems like this attitude might be applied beyond the comparatively small number of people I once shared a church with—could even be applied to empires and colonialism and economic systems—then I think you’ll start seeing some of the ways the poems in this collection work.
Before I tell you more, a quick reminder that in order to receive your early copy of Fire Is Not a Country, read along with the Poetry Book Club, and participate in our exclusive chat with Cynthia Dewi Oka, you’ll need to subscribe by October 15!
The fire in Oka’s poems is not a cleansing fire. For instance, in the poem “Pastoral in Which a Deer’s Thirst Is the Tragic Hero,” a church burns. “It sang // through its steeple, of the deer’s longing for the stream and mine / for something I couldn’t name, something like a throat / of white silk, like the gown my mother bought me from / a secondhand store hours before she gave the doctors / permission to unhook my father from the machines.” The deer has been driven by thirst to seek water in a dangerous place, the other side of a busy road, where the speaker waits and watches while the church burns. The whole poem is dry like tinder; everyone and everything is thirsty. The road is broken and “pieces / of the sky fall like leaves on a dry streambed.”
There’s a moment about halfway through the poem where the speaker steps outside of the poem a bit. They say, “I wish I could tell / this story like someone who believes in anything—for instance, // that the journey ends with a room of blue ribbons,” and I read these to be blue ribbons like you might win at a county fair, so that this story ends in victory. But it doesn’t. It can’t, because fire doesn’t work that way. Even when we end up with regrowth, we still have to move through loss to get there. Maybe it’s worth it, and maybe it’s for the best—or, more likely, that depends on your position in relation to the fire.
I’m not going to tell you how this poem ends, but I do hope you’ll join us in The Rumpus Poetry Book Club so we can talk about “Pastoral in Which a Deer’s Thirst Is the Tragic Hero,” and the other poems (and very short plays!) in this collection. Subscribe to the Rumpus Poetry Book Club by October 15 to receive your early copy of Fire Is Not a Country and to take part in our exclusive online chat with Cynthia Dewi Oka in early December!