Cynthia Dewi Oka
Elegy with a White Shirt
The way we waited for the year to end
made me think of walking backward under a mandrake
sky, cloth rough and hot with my own breath on my cheeks
as the hill began to resemble an eyelid,
the line of men in black, shields pressed side by side like a howl
spelled out, its lashes.
In the solid lake, one of the shadows had started a fire; heavy things
spilled across the asphalt. I remember thinking
I knew what violence was: verdicts left under stones
in my body and how recondite
the shapes I could fold into at the imagined end of an arrow which appears
as a train writing the red of gone
on glassy spines; how
electrifying, those veins appearing in the window, the city’s false
sleep, lashes separating as they swept down
toward the dark mass in which I was
one strand of smoke.
That was years ago, in another country,
where as a rule, people carried rain inside
them like small hammers.
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
vanity. 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.
In my homeland, the people wear white to signify readiness to die.
My homeland lives like a witch in my house, turning the rice
yellow and filling my mouth with marbles
when my mother calls. She puts up strange lights
in the air of my mind; sometimes they bark like dogs and when
the mask of gasoline sticks too zealously, I pause my breath to lick it.
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, a fleck of bloodless
on the bomb-encrusted we
some call necromancy and others,
I’ve never seen the witch in my house in a white shirt.
I’ve never seen her write. But her verdict I feel
behind every line, burning
or not. For instance, mingling ashes with snow, wondering
where “my” portion of pavement begins and if today
the kids at Berks Family Detention Center are wrapping bandages
around their own snow-people.
Kids whose cards to Santa have found The Guardian
instead, questing that old burglar—pinnacle of red in whom grows fat
our love for the obsolete like wet
fruit in jaws of snow—para
la libertad. The iron-clad
irony sticks in an old hole in my ribs. On white paper, neon-
colored squiggles, erratic lines suggest
hands of endless sea.
On “Elegy with a White Shirt”
A) I have been haunted lately by Descartes’ dictum, “I think therefore I am,” in relationship to the question of the personal as political. How confident it is in the fist of the mouth, which sits in the skull and tunnels down through the body, its seasons of blood and bacteria, its decadent, peeling bones. How godly in its simplicity, a wire thrown from the bank through frivolous air, its hook breaking water into the foreignness below where lips open and close like silence.
B) The way bones and therefore were nothing but noise until English mapped itself onto heat and the promise of breakage. I was eleven then, and I relive the process now in my work organizing with Spanish- and Indonesian-speaking immigrant communities. Do you know that scene in Cinderella when she is being transformed by the fairy godmother for the ball? The swirling blue dust obscures her entirely for a few moments until rags settles into gown, ashes into woman. She becomes thinkable for the prince and illegible to the people she lives with.
C) It does not surprise me that the dominant (read: white) narrative would equate the use of personal voice in poetry to a confession, i.e. a disclosure of one’s sins . . . a written or oral acknowledgment of guilt by a party accused of an offense, according to Merriam-Webster. White supremacy, that is, the collective achievement of white people, is responsible for untold suffering across the globe, and I mean untold as in not narrated or recounted. It occurs to me that confession as a prerequisite for absolution functions to preserve the status quo, where absolution is intended to restore oneself to some prior condition of blamelessness, that is, the condition of possibility for the re-accumulation of blame (and further confession, etc.). When the label “confessional” is applied to writing by women and people of color, I understand this to mean that the labeler is interested in preserving the right of white people to violate and the capacity of women and people of color to endure violation.
D) Even so, the disappeared grow into leaves that riot at our windowpanes, at our hands and eyes.
E) The (Trump) administration represents unabashedly the interests of white, neoliberal, heteropatriarchal supremacy. Put simply, an organizer’s job is to build a We capable of defeating those interests and advancing the interests of those on whose exploitation, erasure, and pain such an order depends.
F) Beware how language might appear as a beggar beside you. If you offer her bread, you may find yourself crumbling at the extremities, a blue dusk moving in, becoming thought. The power of language grows in what has not been said: that is why she begs. Later she will leave you, naked in the company of dust bird swirl
G) As a poet, my job is to rip open the cloth of the We—to reveal its contingency, temporality, the seductions and banishments committed in its name.
H) Because America is not god, there is no absolution. “Elegy with a White Shirt” spans a protest on the streets of Vancouver, the everywhere of losing a homeland, children held at an immigrant family detention center, an afternoon at the Philadelphia Museum of Art—spaces near and far, direct and mediated, that constitute the body and the I that stretches like a white shirt (or a myth) over it. There are moments—like 45’s inauguration—that like a knife stabs through these layers of experience, conjoining them.
I) That body, nerved by language(s), does not bleed out, does not weaken, does not flutter its eyelids at the coming of the angels, does not belong to me, is not comforted, nails everything that flies to itself, cannot surrender what it does not possess, should have, would have but did not die.
Philadelphia, June 2017