By Akilah Oliver
Coffee House Press, 2009
Spirit is another person.
Neo-traditional forms in which case a constant attunement is required.
I was once dreaming.
I recall a group of people me included.
How do we embrace memory and the desire for imperishability with the language we use everyday, a language that conceals what it is meant to disclose? In A Toast in the House of Friends, the late Akilah Oliver approaches Mynemosyne, remembrance, the mother of all muses, through a poetic language which grapples with the nature of thought and how language can, paradoxically, immobilize personal experience but also open those definitions up to personal and embodied experience. Oliver expands language through careful rhythm, chant, and lines that contextually heighten the flexibility of a word’s trajectory and create an expansive space for its full resonance.
Poetry is the art that is closest to thought: both use the material of words. As Wittgenstein argued, the thoughts we
think are more influenced by the language we use than the language we use is influenced by the thoughts we think. To get out of the trap of consciousness that this constructs one must approach words as entities that are not evacuated, rather as entities embodied with personal experience. The opening poem, “In Aporia” examines language as a body, as an entity or skin, that embodied experience can stretch:
I his body is disintegrating, I his body is ossification. Death my habit
radius, yeah yeah.
I his body can’t refuse this summons. I can’t get out
this fucking room. Tell me something different about torture
In this room the “dear Trickster” is addressed as the entity that deceptively traps the speaker who both hungers for a new experience, and is familiar with the barriers of communication as a form of persecution and torment, to the summons of fixed definition. Death, the ultimate release from such a body, is just a line that cuts across the circuitry of existence, like a habit or an addiction.
I jump all over this house. this is it [what i thought is thought only,
nothing more deceptive than]:
I his body keeps thinking someone will come along, touch me.
As like human. Or lima bean.
Perhaps nothing is more deceptive than the belief that a thought is more than a thought because a thought needs a body to act. In this language, the speaker as a body tests the limits of language’s construct and thus transforms thought into the hope for touch, for a thought that can be embodied and reach for an intimacy that all humans, lima beans, all living entities mundane or complex necessitate. The speaker looks to the structure of narrative to state, “And this too, fiction. The book I would want to right.” How does one write / right to reveal the Trickster as the paradoxical nature of language? Oliver creates an intimacy absent from a language body’s illusive confines.
Oliver manifests, “a love language, that is: / a language gasping for consonants” This language to “shape the unspoken” is perhaps best exhibited in the long poem “an arriving guard of angels, thusly coming to greet.” The poem begins, “i am grasping at hosts” Oliver’s words act as hosts for the chronicling of days, words act as hosts for the names that when spoken and chanted connect to the pulse of the unspoken and unseen behind them. Oliver’s words claim the space of the page like a Trickster as both imprisoner and emancipator. The breakdown of words that occurs in bold stanzas such as:
serves to gather and empty the potency of simple, yet very abstract words. How can these words mean what they say? The rhythmic energy of the voice that speaks through them, the grace of their stature on the page create a space in which the barrier between what they stand for and their representation becomes a “screaming hieroglyphic wall and the wall began to whisper, the wall was prayer, the wall was a sage, it sang.” The wall is no longer a barrier but a sight of thought as prayer, as emotion, as touch, as the live dynamic currency between. This might be a utopian dream but it’s a dream that is only realizable through conscious poetic thought that entertains the trickster. Oliver’s poetry points to language and thus consciousness’ capacity to be both a prison house of enforced servitude to social definitions as well as a house of loving relationships with embodied experiences. A decision between the two is dependant on the speaker’s reception and gifting of words.
Oliver continues this work in “the visible unseen” poetic essay. Graffiti “throw-ups” (otherwise known as tags or ad-hoc bombs that sometimes serve as memorials) are the “cartography of ghosts” embodying the human for whom they are painted. Oliver notes that in them, “we are forced to see what we would rather not, / to make sense of an encoded language that we cannot read on the level of meaning.” The tags/throw-ups created by the “phantom absent author” defy codified definition because their signs are imbued with non-standard glyphs and created with the intention to reveal “that in fact the ghost is / was embodied”—the sign was / is its signifier. Oliver asks us to read graffiti “as rapture, as rupture” as a site similar to her poetry wherein “history and memory are lovers” and the desire for imperishability is met through a language of pulse, a language as “The site where we are all already belated.”—a language that recognizes our bodies as sites of detention as well as potential sites to be overtaken by night, by emptiness, by shadows that shift distinction, a language that “reconstructs the lies…” to right/write honest experience.
Akilah Oliver notes, “without speech i / would be insane yo” however, in speech resides the “ultimate betrayers. how words distort their meanings straight from / the horses mouth.” She writes, “i don’t desire narrative structure but i want you to hear this story in a way that you’ll ‘get it.’ like once upon a time.” What we get from Oliver is a space that holds, a space that invites a continuance of Mynemosyne as lover, an intimacy that embodies its own meaning and so doesn’t need a scripted intro or static narrative frame. Because “(it seems to be unfortunate but true; corporate spell check does not recognize you” and the “you” here in the house Oliver creates in antithesis to corporate/mediated/regulated speech is not closed by the parenthesis but opened to the continuation of its aside. “we are all too young to remember this” We’re too young to remember that the “you” is I, the “Other” is self, held inside the “lover’s vocabulary” of embodied experience.
Anna Elena Eyre is poetry editor for Open Letters Monthly. Her chapbook “are me” is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press and her book “Faceless Names: Three Books of Letters” is forthcoming from BlazeVOX. Currently she lives in Albany, NY where she is working on a doctorate in twentieth century American poetry and poetics.