Magic and Loss: Reading Akilah Oliver
Between last column and today, two people died: my grandmother, whose middle and last names are same as mine, and my friend S. But everything I want to write about them as people doesn’t belong here. For now it goes into my notebook, or else it stays inside my head while I hold rose quartz and try to follow my breath out like smoke.
Here I want to write about them not as people, but as gone. I guess that really means I’m writing about myself. Holding newly empty space makes me crazy sometimes -- I’m a person who wants to tear out her hair after funerals, or to stay in bed until I dream about these people I love, which I guess is kind of like calling them on the telephone.
When I’m in this space I don’t read anything but poems or science fiction novels. I started re-reading Dhalgren, and one of my favorite lines in it is like a poem too: “So howled out for the world to give him a name,” writes Samuel R. Delany. “The indark answered with wind.” Besides how “So,” “howled,” and “world” moan together, and “wind” working the way it sounds, I love “So” as a name -- especially at the beginning of a sentence. That makes the verb trip in the reader’s brain, and also, it hides the character while naming him, which is really smart and weird.
When S. died and my grandmother died, I felt like So. I didn’t want a name but there it was, I had one already, and so I put on my black dress and my black heels and I went to the ceremonies.
At Grandma’s funeral, my dad, her son, read a poem by Ted Kooser. Kooser is from Nebraska and so is my dad, and I was born in Omaha. “You asked me if I would be sad when it happened,” Kooser writes, “and I am sad. But the iris I moved from your house / now hold in the dusty dry fists of their roots / green knives and forks as if waiting for dinner.” When I first read that poem, my brain tripped again -- on their roots; isn’t “iris” singular? Isn’t there just one flower? But no, I realized it could go either way. Then the poem filled with flowers.
Then that table, or the window, or wherever Kooser put the iris in his poem, it filled with flowers too. S.’s reception filled with flowers. I do not mean everything became light and happy, I mean a poem reminded me to eat and care and communicate. To stay clear about how it was they who died, not me. I looked irises up and remembered how the word is Latin, first for rainbows and later, for the colored part of your eye. Iris are perennial and come in more colors than I realized: black, blue, apricot, creamy rose. The lilac and brown one looks like it could be in a clothing catalogue.
“Were it not for the way you taught me to look / at the world,” continues Kooser, “to see the life at play in everything, / I would have to be lonely forever.” Since Grandma and S. died I’ve kept flowers on my desk. Today they are marigolds, for the Day of the Dead, in a jar that used to hold jam.
Edra Ziesk wrote a diamond-cut short story called “In Another Language,” about a woman whose goes to her sister’s wedding in France. This woman brings her sister a silk slip and for “borrowed,” a gold necklace. This woman has a little girl, so sharp she talked at eight months. And in this story the woman calls her husband different names: “the man who is not here. Who I think that I probably love.” “The man, father of the child.” “The man who I love on-and-off.” “The man who I love… tender-voiced, tender-eyed.” When I told people what happened, I kept thinking of these names, which work together like different songs on the same album.
“My grandma died,” I’d say, or “I had a family emergency,” or else I just wouldn’t go out. It is impossible to talk about everything a person is, or everyone they were to you. Especially right after they go. Once I told my doctor I was late because the alarm was working wrong, which was a lie unless you count my brain as the alarm.
Friends who knew Grandma, I said she died peacefully, then segued into talking about all the different Jell-o salads we ate at the funeral luncheon. They looked so pretty, in the fluorescent lights of the gym where we ate. Some salads had sour cream too, or cherries or oranges or baby marshmallows, with nuts and cheddar on top. The church ladies served them on styrofoam plates, so you could try two or three at once if you wanted.
Mostly I read Akilah Oliver. Her book A Toast In the House of Friends is for her son Oluchi, who died from a twisted intestine and inadequate medical care in Los Angeles, 2003. The poems in Toast are about death and mourning, and rupture – the loss of future memory – also, there are essays about graffiti.
But as Oliver wrote for LINKS Community Network in 2005, the book is not really about “sorrow, but about being broken open and going down that passageway.” She calls it “a book of naming.” Naming your grief is different than being named So, which is already a fact. My grandma and I have different first names, though she rarely used hers.
Akilah’s grief is different than mine, obviously grief always is but more importantly, she’s a mother writing about her son. Your son is not supposed to die before you do, and yet.
In Oliver’s poem “go,” she writes “often now when i imagine life i think of what should / be finite, the guise of limitability, the desire for stop / / are there greeters there [are you one] when we former ghosts arrive.” My god, “go.” Oliver’s naming herself ghost now, lower-case, alive when her son isn’t. Akilah Oliver died in 2011, and I hope she and Oluchi are together. If she is still a ghost then I hope he is one too.
On the morning of S.’s reception, I was zipping up my dress when my friend Geeta said Lou Reed died. Usually I just get angry at the internet, when a public figure dies, but this time I sat on the floor and listened to “Who Loves The Sun?” while looking up pictures of Lou with Rachel and Laurie Anderson, two of his lovers.
My boyfriend had ordered Morrissey’s Autobiography from the U.K., since it wasn’t available in the U.S. yet. The night before I heard Reed died, Ed and I were eating toast at the kitchen table, and I flipped to the page in the book where Morrissey wrote about 1972, when he saw Mott the Hoople and Lou Reed live. His senses never returned.
“Lou Reed is unimpressed by applause,” writes Morrissey, “and lives a life detached from custom. His stare is cold and his romanticism is brutal. His songs are half-sung melodies of menace. He might drop dead any second, and is therefore the real thing.”
Reed dropped dead for me, but of course he didn’t drop dead for everyone. In the obituary Laurie Anderson wrote for The East Hampton Star, she said he died at home in Springs, “everything shimmering and golden.” She said he died on Sunday morning, looking at the trees and doing tai chi, “with just his musician hands moving through the air.” S. of course knew Lou Reed, and I know my grandma heard him at least once, when she listened into my radio show from her computer in Plattsmouth.
In Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H. -- about a lady who goes into a room in her house, finds a cockroach coming out of a wardrobe, and kills the cockroach -- this lady says she is afraid. “I am so afraid that I can only accept that I got lost if I imagine that someone is holding my hand.”
Death freaks out your brain sometimes, for example this morning I woke up and saw all the red-gold-orange leaves and panicked, because soon they’ll fall and then it’ll be even further from when Grandma died. It’ll be even further from having a drink with S., plus then all I’ll see will be branches.
But we can’t sleep all the time. What about grocery shopping or teaching, or at the laundromat? I wasn’t sure if I should wear black everywhere, or green and purple because I wanted to wear black but shouldn’t be selfish. “When writing and speaking,” G.H. continues, “I will have to pretend that someone is holding my hand.”
Every day? “Oh, at least at the beginning, just at the beginning. As soon as I can let go, I will go alone. In the meantime I must hold this hand of yours -- though I can’t invent your face and your eyes and your mouth. Yet even amputated, that hand doesn’t scare me.”
What is scary is that Lispector almost did have to amputate her hand. She fell asleep smoking and got badly burned. What is beautiful is how neither Lispector nor G.H. are freaked out by seeing a hand, not a person: a part of a whole.
Here too I think of something M. NourbeSe Phillips said in a lecture at Naropa last summer -- the need to “remember but not re/member.” To recognize our missing limbs but not necessarily, she said, to build a prosthetic. (Here too I think of Julie Doucet’s giggling, anxious altar-ego in My Most Secret Desire, who regularly grows, amputates, eats, or morphs her body.) Holding loss and space requires you to be present, to exist afterwards. I choose to wear my grandma’s turquoise ring every day. It’s not black.
Mairead Case (@maireadcase) is a writer, editor, and teacher. An MFA-W candidate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and graduate of the 2013 Summer Writing Program at Naropa, Mairead is Youth Services Assistant at the Poetry Foundation Library and an editor-at-large for Yeti Publishing, featherproof books, and elsewhere.