NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
A Toast in the House of Friends by Akilah Oliver
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2009)
That old adage, “you can’t judge a book by its cover” does not always ring true. Here, you can get a pretty good idea of what is to follow. The winter trees with their bare branches speak of loss against a stormy backdrop that could represent some kind of sunset but they also hold the promise of new growth in the Spring. As outlined on the back of the book, this is “an erudite gripping manifesto of grief.”
At the time of publication, Akilah Oliver, was on the faculty of the Summer Writing Program at Naropa University, lived and taught in Brooklyn, and was the author of the she said dialogues: flesh memory and a recipient of the PEN Beyond Margins Award. Prior to that she was, among other things, artist-in-residence at the Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center in Los Angeles, curator for the Poetry Project’s Monday Night Reading series and a co-founder of an avant-garde feminist performance group. A Toast in the House of Friends was her final testament to a subject that all of us have to face up to and deal with at some point in our lives.
The poems in this book represent an exploration of the way we deal with the absence of a loved one during a sustained period of grief: the comforts we cling to, the ways in which we try to make sense of things as a means of coming to terms with loss, and the way in which we take stock of what remains behind.
In green fibs we are told:
bards are the official grief scribes
They know how to put it all down on paper, how to map it all out in words. In point of fact, Oliver wrote for the LINKS Community network in 2005 that the book was not really about sorrow but about “being broken open and going down that passageway.” The book is dedicated to members of her family and, in particular, to her son Oluchi who died tragically of a twisted intestine in 2003.
Language is pushed to the limit, it rests up against a kind of shadowland, a dream world where it fragments into nothingness leaving the reader to pick up the pieces of a much-loved broken vessel. Escaping into dreams is one way of dealing with loss. In fib # 198291 she writes:
We should all learn magic.
“Follow the fellow who follows the dream,” her father tells her that.
The feeling of not really being in control of oneself or one’s thoughts is aptly brought to the fore in Fib #7809:
…whatever’s happening to us seems to be really strange but the strangest thing is nobody seems to be in charge of it.
The endless monotony of days that can be experienced when one is in a state of grief is also alluded to in the same piece:
dear; i,m sorry I didn’t return your call right away but the days just seem to run into each like one endless sentence…
Elsewhere in the book, in the poem Crossover, days are described as being
artificial temporal demarcations
The absence of any sense of order is sometimes paralleled by the style she chooses to adopt. In Fib#7809 she writes:
I call for a language of shared possibilities…disfigurements in expected speech.
At one point, Oliver says
i don’t desire narrative structure
and then she goes on to say in the piece called “our good day”
…but I want you to hear this story in a way that you’ll “get it,” like once upon a time.
and the piece unfolds oscillating uncertainly between poetry and prose:
this is a travel story, about how a boy and girl leave home separately,
go off to play dress up and other important games in the big world.
(working title) our good day.
It is one example, among many, of the way she chooses to express her subject. Other forms of expression work themselves out in repetition (the comfort of routine); the all-important word grace which acts like a mantra throughout the book; spaced lines (redolent of fragmentation and the need for space to grieve; chant (which adds to the colour of the work) and visual abstraction. The section headed the visible unseen has at the heart of its subject matter her son’s graffiti and how she tries to reconnect with him through the artwork that he left behind.
At other points in the book, lines from popular songs sometimes break in as if there is a radio playing in the background. In green fibs, for example, there is the line:
should i stay or should i go.
In meditations (redemption chant) universal truths come to the surface of the text:
the space of everyday is precious
I have already forgiven myself my angers. I have already walked into the field of
my darkest angers.
These are lessons well learnt.
After the anger and the questioning there is a sense of closure. There is a tenderness in the wording of the last three letters in the book. The first addressed to a named person, the second and the third remaining anonymous.
There are some haunting passages and beautiful phrases in this book. To my mind, much of the text would sound a more powerful note if it were spoken as performance poetry rather than read from the printed page. Sadly we will not be able to hear that performance from Oliver herself. She passed away in February 2011, and this in itself somehow affects our reading of the text. It makes it more final at the end of the day. A Toast in the House of Friends is studded with the jewels of anger, redemption, impermanence and love. It is agony and ecstasy rolled into one. We owe it to Akilah Oliver that she was able to share this subject with us in such an open, honest and beautiful way.
Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, essays, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011) The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013) and The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, Bristol, England, 2014).