Monday, December 19, 2011



A Toast in the House of Friends by Akilah Oliver
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, Minn., 2009)

Wading In: Akilah Oliver’s A Toast in the House of Friends

Grief at its epicenter is beyond language, beyond symbol. Poetry continually returns to it as subject, trying to contain it even as it evades and spills beyond the confines of the page. For the poet, the words used to transpose grief must be a sign of walking away from it or, at least, stepping back from it to look as it as object. Akilah Oliver’s A Toast in the House of Friends is a text that approaches grief, turns it around and around, and tries in some sense to move back into language in order to enter into a dialogue about that oldest of human emotions: the mother’s lament. In song, in meditation, in chant, and in heart wrenching details, Oliver brings the reader into the labyrinth that is grief, and her wanderings unearth testimonies to her own personal experience with not only loss but with what remains after loss.

That is the opening paragraph for the review that I started writing in 2010 for Akilah Oliver’s book. I struggled with getting it “right,” with returning again and again to what Oliver was doing with her texts, with her images, with her voice, and with her performances. There was so much that it seemed impossible to capture it on paper. It seemed flat to talk about grief in a review when Oliver was opening up cathedrals of emotion and depths of questioning in her verse. In February of 2011, Akilah Oliver passed away leaving a sudden, quiet space where once her bountiful and giving spirit had been on this earth. A text changes in a strange way when the author is no longer there. It becomes more final, more permanent; it becomes in some sense more the author than it had previously been as we cull it down in syllables and tones for some measure of where and why and what now. It would be remiss to not draw attention to the title: A Toast in the House of Friends and not make mention of the many tributes and toasts among friends, relatives, colleagues, students, and new faces who came together to mediate that topic that Oliver so constantly approached in her work: Grief. Oliver’s grief is any mother’s worst fear, to lose their child, and as a poet, Oliver seemed to be both constrained by the need to formulate some way to contain it but conversely so inspired, so beautifully able to take the rest of us to that place and to sing of angels. Not the corny angels or the pedantic ones who tally human orders, but the angels of sound maybe, the angels that record our deepest wails and our most secret whisperings of release from this sorrow of loss.

From a 2009 interview with Susie DeFord (at, Akilah says of the writing of A Toast in the House of Friends: “Grief is a part of that seeking, but so is redemption and anger, the forgivable and the unforgivable, this ecstasy of being in a kind of light, the simple astonishment of the impermanence of absence.” In the poem, “Crossover” Oliver writes: “a love language, that is:/ a language gasping for consonants/ shape the unspoken/ as in: you are my first love” (34). The voice in the poem is at the window of loss looking out on the world and trying to form the sounds that define it. Oliver is always concerned with the shape of the world in the face of grief and how this translates into the poem, both on the page and in the performance. The section of the book “an arriving guard of angels, thusly coming to greet” was originally issued as a chapbook with Farfalla press and was accompanied with a CD of Oliver performing the text. The form of the poems in this section reflect this performative aspect moving in the white space, repeating and resounding so that the words seem to undulate, the breath seems to rise in the lines. While this section seems to be haunted by the unseen, the one not named, the next section, “the visible unseen,” enacts Oliver’s engagement with her son’s graffiti through her texts. She combines her discerning and analytical discourse to what most people probably dismiss as a public nuisance, if they consider it at all. This section works on several layers displaying Oliver’s ability to explicate in an objective matter that gives the reader much to contemplate, but on another layer, the discerning reader is allowed to read the deep symbolism of the mother who uses language to connect with her dead child via the artwork left behind. For the poet, a lover of artifacts and symbols, this discourse is sacred; the eternal space created where they are always in communion, always using their art to reach not only one another but also the world around them.

In “our good day” Oliver states “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” (82). This line captures what made Oliver an amazing poet. She knew how to break the rules, how to play with forms and to pull performances off the page, but she had a story to tell and she was willing to let the poem lead the way. She knew what she needed and desired but still was willing to throw caution to the wind and let the poem guide her in making that communion between words and understanding. To write not only for your own satisfaction and to not only be concerned with telling the story, but to be conscious of how it will be received, how it needs to be received, because Oliver has something to teach us about grief. And A Toast in the House of Friends is the book that does this, we needed to hear it and Akilah Oliver told it to us.


Megan Burns blogs here.

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