Bombay Gin 39.2, 2013
In an interview with Coco Fusco, Akilah Oliver (1961-2011) said, “There is a sacredness in the profane, a spirit in the material and they intermarry.” This marriage is present in Oliver’s earlier work, a(A)ugust, The Putterer’s Notebook, and the she said dialogues: flesh memory, as a logic, an aesthetic, a political choice that makes audible the contradictory and the unstable. In Oliver’s more recent book, A Toast in the House of Friends, this binary of sacred and profane arises as a dialectic of mourning and violence, as in the lines from the poem “murdering,” “if I am to engage antiviolence work then by necessity I enter into contract with violence, / no shy slipperies here.” Yet, the richness given over by the marriage of the sacred and profane is also troubled in these poems as they explore the simultaneity, for instance, of cardamom and radiation, pasteurized milk and captured tribes. But the questions remain: how do we interpret these contradictions? what do we do with grief? how can one love the world and not kill it?
One way to read the ghosts that haunt the poems are as responses (not answers) to these questions. The speaker suggests that the dead are released from the logics of this world as when she writes, “Perhaps no one escapes this latched binary except the unattached, the dubious lucky.” But also we have lost historical perspective, we are unconscious of the horror of destruction and need a recognition of ghosts, as Horkheimer and Adorno argued in response to the atrocities of WWII. Oliver addresses this very issue in her meditation on graffiti. She writes, “I recognized in it an ugly ecstatic, a dialectics of violence, a distortion of limbs, a hieroglyph. It was only later when I read the names of the dead that I then saw the path of ghosts charted there; its narrative of loss for the visible unseen whose place in history has been fictionalized and rendered unseen under the totalizing glare of history.” To feel the ghost is to attend to that which hovers over dichotomy as well as to live alongside, in proximity with the absent.
In February, we asked you to submit work that explored “flesh memory,” a concept the late Akilah defines in her introduction to the she said dialogues. Grounded in dance and performance art, flesh memory becomes an embodied practice, an expression of culture and ancestral memory, as when Akilah writes, “This text is situated in the on-going work I’ve been doing in performance with the concept of flesh memory as it relates to a critical interrogation of the African American literary/performative tradition.” Your breathtaking responses indicate that our friend and teacher’s presence changed the flesh of this world. I have asked Associate Editor april joseph, whose MFA critical thesis was focused on Akilah, to introduce flesh memory.
For now, let me draw your attention to work by Akilah’s former students, friends, and colleagues, such as Shannon Ongaro’s essay, “Akilah Oliver and the Poetics of Grief,” and Travis Macdonald , j/j hastain, Michelle Taransky, and Joseph Cooper’s selections from their collaborative project, 4Play. We include work by Eleni Sikelianos and HR Hegnauer, as well as remembrances and a lament from Anne Waldman. Rachel Levitsky and Tisa Bryant “engage discursively and poetically with excerpts from an unfinished and unsanctioned draft of an unpublished work by Akilah Oliver,” as they say. In conversation, april joseph and Tracie Morris take up ancestral trauma, the othering of the self, and performance. We’ve also included a talk Akilah gave in 2000 for the Religious Studies Department. I want to thank Bobby Taylor for transcribing the talk and for working with me to retain the lilt and cadence of Akilah’s voice. In this talk, soon available through Naropa’s Audio Archives, Akilah invites her audience to “open up and let Blackness into your heart, the energy of Black, if it can enter you.” Akilah recalls her childhood and then asks her audience to relate their experience with Blackness, “to deny nothing because in that matrix of Blackness there’s a lot of complexities, and there’s pain, and there’s anger, and there’s fear, and there’s shame.” Akilah’s response is one of compassion and grace.
We are also excited about the work that comes directly out of the Jack Kerouac School and the work from beyond this community, such as Alicia Salvadeo’s “Err to Narrow,” the title of which is an anagram of “War on Terror.” I want to draw special attention to Indigo Weller’s “Elision I3.5,” which “documents” the plane crash of Iberia Airlines flight 062 in 1967 in the garden of his childhood. Weller describes his work this way: “The piece explores insubstantial memory: body: abscission: memorialization: archive as erasure: to feel: to touch what grows what mutates what is left behind.” The mix of the bucolic and nostalgic resonates with our art portfolios’ striking interpretations of “flesh memory.” Caity Lee’s images of the human body and Laura McAllister’s photographic documentation of a hog kill in Dayton, Ohio draw an uncanny proximity to the human and animal body, the body we live in and the body we consume. As Akilah writes, “no shy slipperies here.”
This is also the last issue in which I serve on the board of Bombay Gin. Three years ago, I began as the Book Review Editor then was invited to act as Editor-in-Chief in 2011. It has been an honor and satisfaction to work with each student board and to bring this lovely and thoughtful creative work into the world. The labor of publishing is vital to an arts community, which it builds, archives, and promotes. This labor is also equally inspiring and exhausting, and it is for this reason that I welcome rest and personal time so that I may contribute to this community with my own makings. I am so thankful for the support of my community and especially the students for whom I have so much admiration.
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