Friday, April 08, 2011

Poem: Akilah Oliver

Tonight I participated in a celebration of the life and work of the poet Akilah Oliver (1961-2011, photo at left by Theresa Hurst), a poet, lyricist, teacher, mentor, activist, mother, friend, and inspiration to many. (She was also a native St. Louisan who grew up in Los Angeles.) It was an incredibly moving event, and brought me closer to Akilah, I think, than I had ever experienced during the period that I knew her and her work, which was mostly from afar. One of the highlights of the evening was hearing so many of her former students from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, Naropa University, Summer Writing Program, talking about how important she was to them, how her charge to "keep writing" really served as a creative spur, and the work they read testified to this.  I read a snippet from an earlier version of Akilah's book The Putterer's Notebook: an Anti-Memoir, that I found online, on Trickhouse's site; it turns out that Akilah, a meticulous editor, had pared it away, but I loved the memoiristic anti-memoir feel of it, and, as reading it aloud made clear, it is as much poetry as it is prose.

From an earlier version of The Putterer's Notebook: an Anti-Memoir:

you were not concluding a desire, backed
  against the wall, your upper thigh
  exposed through the riddling stockings   

as  an event can simultaneously be happening
  and not be occurring, a very first morning

a passing across the self, & my old friend
  the radio, red velvet hot pants,
  a fashion show graduation from the Sears
  Charm School for girls, mix and match 

I wanted a self so badly, I turned the dial
  to see what was on the other side,
  joan armatrading, we tried chance translations
  of ‘jah’ based loosely on context clues, that girl
  my sister, I saw her last month in l.a. at the wedding,
  I thought she’d be a surfer or the wife of an O.G.,
  surprise all the time, Christian lady, you look so much
  younger now, as if all the blighted
  apartments have been repaired 

 what a pretty world out there

I am a new occupant, but this particular morning,
  for example, found me wandering in terrorist shadows 

The death dreams are often sexualized, the first,
  a morphing pool of consecrated limbs floundering
  and touching in what appeared a murky body pool

to get to, one had to pass through a portal,
  not a door exactly, more like a veil, it was duplicitous
  its appearance, both sensuous and repelling, quicksand like,
  pleasure in the going down, the limbs indistinguishable
  from the souls,  a man who was neither good nor evil
  seemed to be the sentry

I kept telling him not to go, I couldn’t stop him
  from going, I tried to trick him with an earth-based
  attachment to me to keep him from going, I had to witness
  him go down there with the altered bodies,
  there to that feast


a recovery that exposes itself as an expectation

            as if to speak requires dream

            single lines staged as tracks

            we are not stating a truth

            a truth would require more negotiation
              than water rights

            an expectation relegates mystery to a rack

            it may be true that he was saying “dismissal”

            it may be true we expected more, then
             gradually less

            as if a dream expires

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