Cynthia Dewi Oka

For My Father Who Once Rubbed Shoe Polish Over His Bald Head

She said not to say anything, because it gave you hope, which

reminds me, here is the world

you cannot enter. Though you brought us, against

the wishes of the bougainvillea, grown in clay
pots arranged like soldiers between your daughters and the wrought
iron gate on the other side of which dogs

unleashed, licked themselves to sleep. I envy
sometimes, these days, their mud-hardened coats, shaved

as I am to a worry over my shrinking Antarctic

of time. No, it’s not even that. The poem I should have
written by now, I mean. What was sliding around inside you, all

those years: my painted face speaking English

as though it never knew another purpose, while you
knelt beside a creaseless bed, a man
reduced to nothing but hours. Oh, you kept

yourself busy. Cooking, cleaning, washing, sewing, tying

my mother’s shoelaces on the steps of the bus. But purpose?
That is a word for everything we have not

yet found the strength to cast away. It must have been

terrifying, your child, her thin wave

through the florescent walls of a McDonald’s, on the first shift of her
first job. You waited and waited. For me

       to come back, for anyone

       to say, you are not done yet.

And while you waited, other things happened. Eggs
spoiled. Mirrors rusted. A child

thought herself a dog, and the rain clapped. I don’t

to this day, question your version of events. When your grandson was
little, my body attacked the hair on my head. It  
fell in fistfuls, until I was half-

lunar. I felt close to understanding, then, why you did

what you did. He is sixteen now, and refusing
to cut his. All night I hear him talk with no one I can see

in a world I cannot enter. He is not worrying about getting a job.

He doesn’t say, leave me be. Clamps
headphones over the black grass, just like I once

       did, in my greasy uniform, not

       recognizing you, then

       not holding my laughter. Pa,

it wasn’t that you hurt me. You did. It was that you tried and kept

trying to do what you thought a father should. So that
gripping the wheel
with both hands, you picked me up

that night the moon was more touchable than any country,

from my first shift at my first job, like a man who hasn’t been
shedding himself in the dark. So that

right then, looking away from you, my whole world was

smooth, not a single blade survived.

Cynthia Oka

Cynthia Dewi Oka is the author of Salvage: Poems (Northwestern University Press) and Nomad of Salt and Hard Water (Thread Makes Blanket). Recent work appears in Tupelo Quarterly, The Undefeated, Zocalo Public Square, PRISM International, and Scoundrel Time. Originally from Bali, Indonesia, she’s currently based in the Greater Philadelphia Area and teaches creative writing at Bryn Mawr College.