in memory of Akilah Oliver
(1961 - 2011)
"...but I think also death itself, as an event, as a limit, as a field of investigation, is too many things at once. It's solid and it's slippery." (in her interview with BOMB Magazine)
It is horrendous, this world's condition of dying. Loss of life is the most arduous vista of pain. Let us honor Akilah's life and legacy, and honor her advance toward death as "a field of investigation" by writing a poem. One of her many appreciable gifts was her encouragement of others. Years ago when she lived in Philadelphia she taught workshops at the LGBT bookstore I co-managed at the time. Her students always seemed some of the most jubilant, motivated people entering the store. Let's share their enthusiasm TODAY! Bring your favorite Akilah Oliver book to this exercise. Consider creating your own (Soma)tic Reading Enhancement for the book you choose. The enhancements are to be created intuitively, a structure derived from initial sensations upon receiving a particular book. It is my wish as a poet to motivate readers to not be passive, and to take credit for a poem’s absorption. After all, we each bring a unique set of experiences and circumstances to filter and digest poems, making them part of ourselves and entirely in our own way. In honor of Akilah Oliver let’s inspire one another to have full participatory reading! Take NOTES while engaged in this exercise, notes you will later pull from to shape your poem. A couple of summers ago I created the following reading enhancement for Akilah's book A Toast in the House of Friends. Wanting to get OUT of my city for it, a visceral reaction transpired:
Maybe it was the trees on the cover, or the NEED for something MOVING around me, but I took this book out to the protected wildlife parks around Philadelphia and found a secluded stream, first for my feet, then…. Bring a battery-powered radio, turn it to a talk radio station, but put it far enough away from you that you can hear it, but can’t make out what it is they’re saying. Faint, keep it faint, go and adjust it if you can understand them, as we want the voices to be clearly voices, but the words unattainable with our senses. Get your feet in the moving water and start reading, “language is leaving me: ahhhhh—this victimization shit / is not stable and the victors: / when are we going to safari / we: [astounded exclamation] / nancy reagan out of my head” This is a book, and it feels like it is written right into your skin when you read it. I found an old scuba mask, and if you have one, please wear it and rest your head in the stream, submerging your ears at least for the reading of one poem, “well the point is, things were calm down / here for a while and the world was little. i want to be big like you. or i / want you not vast, not dead, not gone, but human small and here. i am / so selfish. that is what i really want. to see you again. to oil your scalp. to / hear you walk in the door, say ma i’m home. give me a chance to say / welcome home son. or when leaving, don’t forget your hat. what do you wear / out there?” That was the one I read underwater, under running water. This book needs time to be alone between poems. How is the water? How is today for you, reading Akilah’s poems? “i’d like all the stone butches to wave their hands in the air right now, wave em / like they just don’t care / (it seems to be unfortunate but true; corporate spell check does not recognize you / we are all too young to remember this”
Now let's listen to her voice! There are marvelous recordings of Akilah available online, but my favorites are on MATCHING HALF, poems written and performed by Akilah Oliver and Anne Waldman, with the exquisite music of Ambrose Bye. This is A MUST, find a copy! Borrow a copy! LIE FLAT ON YOUR BACK IN THE DARKNESS and listen to the entire CD from beginning to end without stopping. GO TO THE BATHROOM BEFORE you begin, do NOT interrupt the flow of the CD. Do NOT answer your phone or the door!
Prayer is palms pressing together, directing the circulating energies in the body through the extended fingertips and OUT of the flesh. Let's redirect that energy while listening to the CD. While on your back fold your fingers with fingertips pressing into your chest, this way you conduct the flow of energy back inside you. Occasionally PRESS your fingertips deeper into your chest to better sense your recycled circuitry. Listen carefully to the CD, let their voices SHAKE you out of the landscape where you meditate. Let the poems and music become an entirely new PLACE you go to. When the CD ends light a candle. WRITE THESE PARTICULAR NOTES BY CANDLELIGHT ONLY! Have the candle, paper and pencil sitting beside you so that you don't shift out of position. Notes about death, notes about living with death, notes about the topography of grief, of darkness, isolation, forgiveness, and what it means to give and receive mercy. For the next week keep your notes on you at all times. Walk everywhere with them and BE READY to add to them, or to begin PULLING them and kneading them into a poem, a poem you write for the living who are dying everyday. And STOP sleeping so much! We sleep TOO MUCH!