"Memory does not stand outside or apart from the becoming and undoing that is history" / The visible unseen: Akilah Oliver on graffiti and grief

Akilah Oliver's the visible unseen is a part of her collection of poetry called A Toast in the House of Friends. The book is a dialogue with and about grief. This particular poem was written for her son Oluchi, graffiti artist "LINKS" who died at MLK hospital in South Los Angeles in 2003. Oliver intertwines her prose about the agency and visible invisibility of this art form along with images of Oluchi's work. I stumbled upon Akilah Oliver posthumously, she passed away this past February in Brooklyn, NY.

the absent visible body—writing comparable to guerilla tactics—to strike, retreat, in striking, to change the landscape, to alter the public, i.e. political, space, to force a discourse outside of the script, to flip the script—the body is present in the visibility of the language, in the style, in the technique(s) that inform the writing, but the actual body is coded, is phantom, is transient and nomadic, therefore evading nor subjectivity, but ownership and control over that body, over the writing itself, since the author(s) are apparitions. who is the nomadic body, who by its very evasiveness, transmutes a stationary location? this body that is not a locatable physical subject. how does this kind of writer who has abandoned attachment to the author as a position that must he located in discursive proximity to its production, its writing, convert the very systems and conditions of language = producer, receiver?

When I first saw graffiti, I recognized in it an ugly ecstatic, a dialects 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.

if by definition writing as cultural activism is concerned with engaging socio-political systems, then it is concerned with form as well as content. graffiti uses collage, bold gestures, concerns itself with fonts, stylistic conceits, concerns itself with not just its public nomenclature, but in upsetting and reconstituting the visual forms of public discourse, of public space. it advertises difference and insurgency, illegality, vandalism, distraction not just in its placement, but in its aesthetic, in its attention to the shape of the emotion , to the act of naming.

. . . it reconstructs the lies . . .

as a form graffiti is in a constant state of tension
shifting its nomadic position spatially
transiently. it upsets, redistributes through combat

disassemblage, distortion.
the bodies insist on painting themselves in markets they seemingly have no
legitimate right to.
in its refusal to disappear it forces a discourse in the public imagination
we are forced to see what we would rather not,
to make sense of an encoded language that we cannot read on the level of
it irritates, forces its agency upon us, speaks outside and beyond
semiotic reach.
that is, it is a glossary that shifts, mutates, has stable referents that are
constantly and seemingly arbitrarily defined,
codified, and discarded.

Graffiti (frGK -graph(os), something drawn or written, to diagram or chart}
attempts to stage the impossible: to erase the essence of its own subjectivity.
Graff is a cartography of ghosts, a mapping of elegiac rapture (the transporting
of a person from one place to another, as in heaven) and rupture a state of being
being broken open). Dwelling is friction of stasis.

complicating or troubling the position of the graff writer as phantom absent
author is that
we know very well that in fact the ghost is / was embodied, speaks to and
through cultural
productions, specific identities , home communities, but still manages
through encoding to
evade as it upsets and redistributes identities. each piece, each throw-up
chronicles the days.

The notion of the past as being something done with, a look-back event, inhibits
the possibility of reading graffiti as rapture, as rupture. If graffiti posits history as always in the process of becoming undone. And memory, then, is history's mistress. That is, memory does not stand outside or apart from the becoming and undoing that is history. If we can accept that history and memory are lovers,
then we can understand the desire for the bodylife to extend its grasp beyond
mediated temporality. Because what is the body, if not also a complex temple,
an unstable site through which to negotiate subjects, materiality, economies, gods, and modes of representations? The site where we are all already belated.

(taken from A Toast in the House of Friends, Coffee House Press 2009)

Akilah Oliver: Good Grief
(SOURCE: Bomblog)

Susie DeFord On the back of A Toast in the House of Friends the book is described as “an erudite, gripping manifesto of grief” which made me a little concerned that I was about to read a depressing book. Yet the poems don’t seem to suffer from the bleakness associated with grief, many seem hopeful. Can you speak about this?

Akilah Oliver Grief is a complicated emotion but also an inadequate word in many ways. Maybe it isn’t so much that the term fails to encompass a range of emotional states, 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. For me what I’m doing in A Toast is using language to walk through that field to find out about love, the collapsible body, what it means to be human, all of that. Also, I think that I am trying to transcribe rapture. I mean that in the ecstatic sense of the word. The opening poem, “In Aporia,” is taken from Jacques Derrida’s exploration of the limits of a border, language’s inability to capture the tension of this impasse, death. The poems in the first section of the book are written directly from that impossible field where nothing seems grounded. I am in a state of seeking. 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. This book is dedicated to my brother who died when I was very young, and he was very young, 28 years younger than I am now, so in some ways he has passed into myth for me, which is another kind of symbolic being-ness. It’s also dedicated to my son who died when he was 20, so there is that grappling with the loss of the body who has come through my body, a kind of intimacy that is almost indescribable. And it is also dedicated to my mother, who is still alive and kicking at 74, and the recognition of myself as the beloved body too, who has passed through another beloved. So there is this elegiac intent here as well. I am trying to trace the mystery of the bodylife, a term I’m borrowing from CherrĂ­e Moraga. So there’s hope in these poems of course. I want the reader to enter A Toast as investigatory poetics, and perhaps it’s not finished, since investigation requires ongoing query, which could be a hundred year project as my friend the poet Anne Waldman likes to remind us all! (full interview)

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