Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism. Become a Member »

Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism.

Kohei Nawa, “PixCell-Deer#24” (2011) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (via diegotresdes1 on Flickr)

Pastoral in Which a Deer’s Thirst is the Tragic Hero

Years ago, I walked just like this, from a town’s one end
to the other under a church’s bouquet of fire. 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 for me
from a secondhand store hours before she gave the doctors

permission to unhook my father from the machines.
The walk I’m thinking of is not that final one

toward the worry lines of the hospital, though cars passed by
just like this, with shadows inside wrapped tightly around

their own plots; the metal and glass pretending to protect them
from the wind’s agendas and the deer seeking water

on the other side of the road. I’ve learned through
sheer repetition to go in a specific direction without a plan

for how to survive. Now, as then, warnings in the periphery:
a rake’s waxed tines by the hardware store’s entrance,

a field throbbing with boy-pride and sweat, the white dashes
of a broken road. A deer put in motion by desperation defies

all these orders. Come here. Cease and desist. Do not. Pieces
of the sky fall like leaves on a dry streambed. The church

begins to hiss and fall away. Underneath, an abandoned cinema,
shiny black bones, rows of seats packed so tightly

even as a child I had to hug my knees to fit in. 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.
He said, “Kneel,” and I did. My mind a white gown

caught in his antlers. From this distance, you could read it
as a sign of surrender to the plotlines authored by

poverty and dead grass. I couldn’t turn away. Metal on metal,
metal on flesh, flesh in flesh. His cinematic rage, reels of it,

in the clicking brightness. When it was spent, I walked back, hiding
my wounds from the church my father had built with his hands

and placed over my head with love, with what I must believe
was love. I wish I could have named the riches I passed

on my way – the human doubts, the red in a cemetery of apples.
“Kneel,” he said, and pushed my head into the ashes.

The sun on my back was my audience, though I couldn’t
hear it, what I felt, behind the water scrubbing cold

over my thighs. What could have been language appeared
as a gown ripped from my arms mid-bloom. My mother lying

on her side, turned toward the empty half of the bed.
You understand – I had to save the life I was ashamed to live.

Now here I am, walking with a deer’s instinct for water,
one drought to the next, sorrow’s repeating center

cut out of its premise, its aftermath.

*   *   *

Cynthia Dewi Oka is the author of Salvage: Poems (Northwestern University Press, 2017) and Nomad of Salt and Hard Water (Thread Makes Blanket, 2016). A 2017 Leeway Foundation Transformation Award recipient, her poetry has appeared in American Poetry Review,, Kenyon Review, Guernica, Painted Bride Quarterly, Black Renaissance Noire, Scoundrel Time, Women of Resistance: Poems for a New Feminism (OR Books, 2018), and elsewhere. Originally from Indonesia, she is currently based in the Greater Philadelphia Area. Visit her at

The Latest

Required Reading

This week, the National Gallery of Art finally acquired a major work by Faith Ringgold, the director of The Velvet Underground talks film, North America’s Hindu Nationalist problem, canceling legacy admissions, and more.

Did Judy Chicago Just Troll Us?

Nowhere in the museums’ advertising blitzkrieg for the performance were we told to bring our wildfire-season masks as well as our covid masks, and covid masks don’t prevent smoke inhalation.

Wendy Xu

Wendy Xu is the author of the poetry collections Phrasis (Fence, 2017), winner of the 2016 Ottoline Prize, and You Are Not Dead (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2013). The recipient...