The Operating System

4th Annual Poetry Month 30/30/30 :: Day 1 :: Diana Rickard on Akilah Oliver

[box]It’s hard to believe that today’s post marks the first of our FOURTH annual 30/30/30 series, and that when this month is over we will have seeded and scattered ONE HUNDRED and TWENTY of these love-letters, these stories of gratitude and memory, into the world. 20-odd books, 3 magazines, countless events and online posts later, and this annual celebration shines like a beacon at the top of the heap of my very favorite things to have brought into being. [If you’re interested in going back through the earlier 90 entries, you can find them catalogued here.]
This year will also mark the first year that we will celebrate this series — and the poets without whom we couldn’t imagine ourselves being who we are today — with a LIVE evening of storytelling and poetry, featuring fifteen New York based poets who have taken part in 30/30/30 over the years — on April 28, at 8 pm as part of the Mental Marginalia monthly series at The West. The (free!) evening will feature: 
Anthony Cappo, Gregory Crosby, Jeannie Hoag, Sabina Ibarrola, Clara Lou, Caits Meissner, Brian Mihok, David Moscovich, Joe Pan, Kristen Tauer, Ed Toney, Morgan Vo, Anton Yakovlev, myself, Mental Marginalia’s Alex Crowley and Marc Guararie, and Diana Rickard, to whose piece on the much missed, beloved Akilah Oliver I most humbly give this space and time over without further ado

– Lynne DeSilva-Johnson, Managing Editor/Series Curator [/box]


Akilah Oliver; personal photo courtesy of the author

[line][script_teaser]“it looks like the hearts on a valentine’s day card or one of those you made from construction paper in third grade when the teacher was nice to you and you wrote a story about you don’t know what and she said it was good and you felt visible. the sadness is that shape.” [/script_teaser]
This weekend I am awash in the arresting words of Akilah Oliver, a poet whose body of work searches meanings through language. She does this actively. Her work mines linguistic potential, challenges familiar tropes, inverts expectations. It seems through a facility with words and a truly earnest need to create, that she remystifies language. It is the constraint and the possibility. Through it, Akilah questions and creates her self, her singular “i”, her social identities. Her truths contain lies; her desire, pain. And all these are made visible through the act of writing.


“what the body remembers. it was not that complicated. the history,
divisions.     cut-ups.    intrigues.
a tattoo on the upper right flank where the skin bears     witness. a rose.
emblazoned there a lost lover’s shadow. an old script.
dilapidated desire. what becomes a fact. a factual encoding. a tussle’s negotiated outcome.”


This is a passage from the she said dialogues: flesh memory. I first met Akilah when she was working on this series. At Naropa in Boulder in the late 90s. I took a workshop with her that opened up poetry in a way there is no turning back from. Specifically, she introduced me to the language of theory, discourse, and the potential of writing to upend what we think is known. I began to let theory influence and infiltrate my poetic practice. Engaging with Akilah as a poet, teacher, and friend was a lucky pleasure. I remember reading Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse with her, our awed and energized conversation. It was a charmed and fruitful season. She was a generous teacher – was truly excited by her students’ writing. The above quote captures much of what she revisited throughout her writing life: “the body”, “history”, “a lost lover”, “an old script”, “desire”, “encoding”… I became alive to the complexities and nuances of these concerns as well, and to this day, almost two decades later, it is to these I return in my own work. Akilah helped me see intersections, tensions, between the selves we inhabit, the selves we perform. It is these that make writing exciting for me.

[box]“Who we are when we are not love has always caused us shame.”[/box]

Her open and serious relationship to language allowed her to create poems that transgressed the expectations of literary tradition. She troubled binaries and boundaries. She did so in masterful ways, using sophisticated experimentation to explode sentimentality and reveal in unappeasable truth the shivering (shimmering) lone moments of human suffering.
Akilah Oliver was also one of the greatest love poets of our time. Her enormous gift was to evoke love in its many forms, including its absence, its loss, its trickster ways.
[box]“in my own way there was a time when i stumbled over a tense: says/said
now, bereft, in anticipation of how night collapses
into its own effluence i conjugate occasions, ask for time, just a little time,
to get love right”[/box]
I first read Akilah’s work in “real time” – each book as it came out.  the she said dialogues: flesh memory in 1999; then The Putterer’s Notebook in the middle of the aughts, and finally A Toast in the House of Friends, closing the first decade of the new century. The last time I saw her was at the New Year’s Marathon Reading at the Poetry Project, 2011. We shared a love of Patti Smith, vowed to get tickets to see her in concert soon. Akilah’s favorite was “Wing” (… And if there’s one thing could do for you, you’d be a wing in heaven blue…). Revisiting her beautifully crafted poems is a painful process, and I do not know how to write about these intimate and magical words without writing about the loss of a poet who died too young, and whose life touched so many in various communities of poets, activists, and scholars. Anyone reading this who was fortunate enough to know her personally, – her unique warmth, her intelligent eyes, that amazing smile – knows that it is impossible to reencounter her work without being profoundly moved, without re-experiencing the shock, the horror of grief her death caused. I have been crying reading her books, and am crying as I write this.
For those unfamiliar with the life and work of Akilah Oliver: her own grief over the untimely and socially unjust death of her son Oluchi permeates her powerful and deeply sad A Toast in the House of Friends. This book is a tremendous poetic achievement. In it Akilah creates heartrending poems that never for a second resort to cliché. Love, death, mourning are old as the hills, and many contemporary poets do not sincerely take these on, or do so only obliquely, as in a knowing nod to the great themes. Akilah went right there – she had nowhere else to go – and produced a book of poems that moved me so much I have literally given copies of it to strangers. She acknowledges the difficulty of writing something new and meaningful about motherhood and loss: “… already this is sappy mothers can never really write of sons and get it right we are too much writing about our own small dilapidations as we tally their gains.” – But I think she did get it right. Because here I am, a woman who has not had a child, has not lost a child, and I am feeling something, a deep, important feeling that would not happen were it not for Akilah’s perfect words. Clearly each line of A Toast in the House of Friends came at great cost, and I hope it is read by others as the rare and valuable and essential art that it is.
Here’s a poem in its entirety from that book:
(keep going)
when you left,
i mean when you had to go,
— i intend an old saying
when He called you home
(literally, as if jesus beckoned or something)
i was so unprepared for the earth’s
grace as it disintegrated beneath me
: what is being found –
days = artificial temporal demarcations
sometimes moon
your shame ephemeral & shy
a love language, that is:
a language grasping for consonants
shape the unspoken
as in: you are my first love, as in:
seeing eyes,
as in: you witnessed me
i wept you
when will I see you again – see,
like that,
a love language
it is as hard as it seems
i know you’d been crying
Finally, I would like to share the last stanza of a longer prose poem, “Gardenia”, which I composed in Akilah’s workshop so long ago. I remember how much she liked this piece, particularly the last line:
[box] After she petted me and scratched behind my ears and under my chin, I realized that my body was insulation. I tried not touching any colors for a while but it was hopeless. I drank things I shouldn’t have and spent too much time riding the county buses. I told you I tried the carnival thing, the cheesy music. I tried everything I could think of, but all I could find was my grandmother touching my face to see me. [/box]
[textwrap_image align=”left”][/textwrap_image] Diana Rickard is a born and bred New Yorker. In addition to writing poetry she beads office supplies (particularly tape dispensers) and teaches at BMCC, CUNY. She is currently working on a poetry manuscript tentatively titled What’s Not to Love? Some older poems are highlighted on the blog Each Nervous Sense (
Diana was handed the 30/30/30 torch by Dia Felix, whose (kickass) piece on Philip Lamantia graced the series as day 6, last year. Read it HERE, then go buy her book, Nochita, for which the same descriptive is appropriate, here, from City Lights/Sister Spit.
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