continent. maps a topology of unstable confluences and ranges across new thinking, traversing interstices and alternate directions in culture, theory, biopolitics and art.
Issue 1.2 / 2011: 70-75

Investigative Poetics: In (night)-Light of Akilah Oliver

Feliz Molina

continent. 1.2 (2011): 70-75.

cartography of ghosts
. . . And as a way to talk . . .
of temporality
the topography of imagination,
this body whose dirty entry into the articulation of history as rapturous becoming
& unbecoming,
greeted with violence,
i take permission to extend this grace
—Akilah Oliver
from “An Arriving Guard of Angels Thusly Coming To Greet”

Our disappearance is already here.
—Jacques Derrida, 117

I wrestled with death as a threshold, an aporia, a bandit, a part of life.
—Akilah Oliver

Moraine in geological lingo is that which is left behind. Moraine- a euphemism for the de-stabilizing referent of the writer-ly body as a “troubled and troubling landscape marked by cultural and historical signifiers, the body as flesh memory [...] the body as transitory” (Oliver, Author Statement). Moraine— a geological metaphor of the poet as a holder of memory, as an accumulation of rocks and debris carried along the edge, terminal, dropped at the foot of language (in language).

“Flesh Memory” according to Akilah Oliver is "that which my body recalls [...] everything has to do with the task of remembrance and its narrative reinvention [...] I was always translating an idea of the world as it presented itself at any given time. To write was a choice about how to be seen, how to enter the world as translator, actor, participant, in the dialogues that apparently made the real 'real'" (Levitsky).  Flesh. Memory. The stuff some poems are made from. The stuff that gets abandoned, gleaned, and picked up by more flesh and memory. "My body, my life has always felt like a kaleidoscopic rip in the dominant fabric [...] has always been a dialogue with the impossible and the apparent” (Levitsky). The impossible-body or poet's body anticipates and performs (through language) an irretrievable death.


    I realized everything I must have been doing must have been Death. It was Christmas or
    Labor Day—a holiday—and every time you turned on the radio they said something like
    ‘four million’ or ‘going to die’.”
    — Andy Warhol

    I’m trying on egos, [a justification for the planet’s continuance]. Oh
    hello transgressor, you’ve come to collect utilitarian debts, humbling
    narrative space. Give me condition and wheatgrass,

    I his body disintegrating. I his body is ossification. Death my habit
    radius, yeah yeah.
    I his body can’t refuse this summons. I can’t get out
    this fucking room. Tell me something different about torture
    dear Trickster.

    Tell me about the lightness my mother told me to pick the one i love the best
    how it signals everything I ever wish to believe true just holy on my ship.
    I jump all over this house. this is it [what I thought is thought only,
    nothing more deceptive than]:
    I his body keeps thinking someone will come along, touch me.
    As like human or lima bean.

    I’m cradling you to my breast, you are looking out. A little wooden lion
    you & Peter carve on Bluff Street is quieting across your cheekbone. Not
    at all like the kind of terror found in sleep, on trembling grounds.

    It is yesterday now. I have not had a chance to dance in this century.
    Tonight I shall kill someone,
    a condition to remember Sunday morning.

    To think of lives as repetitions [rather than singular serial incarnations].
    To understand your death is as exacerbating as trying to figure out why
    as schoolchildren in mid-nineteen-sixties Southern California we
    performed reflexive motions:
    cutting out lace snowflakes, reading Dick and Jane search for their
    missing mittens,
    imagining snow.

Disintegrating. The -ing gerund catapults from the non-finite verb into past, present, future. The -ing as a tail pinned to death, a dog spinning to bite and never fully reaching itself, always shy of the end, circumreferential; a double copulative: deathing. Possessively AO calls it “habit radius” (a virtual fetish attribute) or an inescapable death presence that “confronts us with the paradox of an unattainable object [...] through it’s being unattainable” (Agamben, 27). A flirtation or dialogue with an unknowable thing and aporia utilized as investigative instrument to engage (death) while (in Southern California) we “perform reflexive motions,” cut lace snowflakes, imagine snow, and pay rent like “yeah, yeah” what else is new.

    And this too, fiction. The book I wish to right.
    The restored fallen, heroic.

    Did you expect a different grace from the world? Or upon exit?
    I’m working on “tough.” They think I am already. All ready.

    Who is the dead person? Is "I'm sorry" real to a dead person?
    Browning grass. My hands on this table. A contentious century.
    A place to pay rent. Redemptive moments.

    Am I now the dead person?
    Dead person, dead person, will you partake in my persimmon feast?

    The body inside the body astounds, confesses sins of the funhouse.
    I too have admired the people of this planet.
    Their frilly, orderly intellects.    
    The use they’ve made of cardamom,
    radiation as well. How they’ve pasteurized milk, loaned surnames to stars,
    captured tribes, diseases, streets, and ideas too.

The living-body as archive: is it possible to experience the living-body as archive without a (kind of) death? Sifting the rubble, rummaging through hoarded debris, skin sheds, memory-napping, and re-awoken (in flesh and) on terrain. “An investigative poetics seeks to unravel staid communities of thought and grasp at what might always be just beyond reach; a poetics of inquiry that lies between language as meaning, and language as rapturous entry into the world of posited ideas and idealism”( Levitsky). Something snaps. Lights blow out prior to embarking upon an investigative poetics. It begins with a question (often a sexy aporia) that leads to openings. "Every politics of memory [...] implies an intervention of the state. It's a state that legislates and acts with regard to the nonfinite mass of materials to be stored, materials which must be collected, preserved” (Derrida & Stiegler, 62). It seems poetic investigation already contains the potentiality of an (invisible) archive if the writer is “always writing” especially when not. Here’s my stupid digital romantic inclination: the living-body (of a poet) is a self-sustaining archive of non-finite memories. But not even I really believe that.

AO innovated and sculpted an investigative poetic praxis. In a conversation with poet Rachel Levitsky, poetic-voice is viewed not as a precious identifier, but as a means to think through/about form, concluding that form is linked to framing. While poetic-voice may have tendency to precede form, it also erupts as a result of framing techniques. “They are frames that hold the shape of thinking (which is also to say of imagining) [...].”7 This reminds me of my rabbit who symmetrically chewed the corners of his hutch, which makes me wonder if it’s an expression of the shape of some animal anxiety tick I won’t ever have access to.

Beyond the form/frame, death is an unoriginal yet unique limit; death is a damn deathless thing. It functions as a source of poetic investigation; that thing always “just beyond reach.” And how is death not a fetish (in this case an obsessive reverence for something non-material)? “Insofar as it [death] is a presence, a fetish [...] it is in fact something concrete and tangible; but insofar as it is the presence of an absence, it is, at the same time, immaterial and intangible, because it alludes continuously beyond itself to something that can never really be possessed [...] The fetish is [...] a sign of an absence, it is not an unrepeatable unique object; on the contrary, it is something infinitely capable of substitution, without any successive incarnations ever succeeding in exhausting the nullity of which it is the symbol” (Agamben, 33). AO utilized absence (the absent body [catapulted by the death of a beloved]) as an apparatus to investigate. In the process of conversing with absence or that which is absent, the absent body is affectionately objectified, incessantly summonsed back to a place of recognition, of objects, a desire for the absent body to remain intact while exiting the structural limits of grammar and syntax by moving into chant forms “to say what cannot be said” (Levitsky).

    dear oluchi-

    the light is blinking rapidly on the black boxy machine. your
    room seems bigger than before and i am still planning to read some of
    those robert jordan books of yours. yesterday at the used bookstore
    where i was browsing the mysteries to “stall reality” (they are really not
    mysteries at all, they just employ death as the plot mistress but are unable
    to grasp its mystery at all)—well the point is, things were calm down
    here for a while and the world was little. i want to be big like you. or i
    want you not vast, not dead, not gone, but human small and here. i am
    so selfish. that is what i really want. to see you again. to oil your scalp. to
    hear you walk in the door, say ma i’m home. give me a chance to say
    welcome home son. or when leaving, don’t forget your hat. what do you wear
    out there? i wish you could have taken your new shoes with you. i’m so
    proud of you. i’m sorry for the way you died. i miss you all the time.
    even before, i missed you. out there, one time, some different men said:
    “shake for me girl, i wanna be your backdoor man.” who dat you love. 5/18/03

A letter-poem in sixteen lines “dear oluchi-” is safe-housed in epistolary form. Poetic voice is rendered as internal thought meanderings, a not-so-much  confession, private/(pillow?) talk in the desire to be heard/witnessed by the referent and reader with an intent to absolve. The diminutive “i” bears a relation to poet Fanny Howe’s “little gGod” in that “One of the (many) things I like about little gGod is that you can have a vodka tonic while you talk to little gGod, sing along to Bowie’s “I’m Afraid Of Americans,” and hum Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” though maybe not all at the same time” (Oliver, 2009). Towards the middle of the poem AO is at a used bookstore and remarks on the funny employment of death as a ‘plot mistress’ that ‘they’ (the dubious employed mystery authors) are ‘unable to grasp’, thereby giving death a mouthpiece, a modeling job, something to do to pass the time.   


    When I first saw graffiti, I recognized in it an ugly aesthetic, 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.

Inscriptions, traces, specters. Graffiti begs a public face just as ghosts require non-ghosts (humans) to sense them. The “visible unseen” is a game of hide-and-seek between public viewer and graffiti-inscriber, an ephemeral-violent aesthetic on an ephemeral-policed canvas. Graffiti-inscribers already submit to being forgotten, expect to be washed away; perhaps it’s a holy urban mandala created by gangster-type monks without Buddhism.

    [...] 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 meaning.
    it irritates, forces its agency on us, speaks outside and beyond
    semiotic reach.

An epic font-size pervading the public’s imagination, illegible, I could just close my eyes, remain passive, drive past, abandon it beyond reach, push it further away beyond death walls. In Barcelona I watched a clean up crew wash walls with an awesome water hose but I was more intrigued by their bodies; not a distortion of limbs, not hieroglyph but also not entirely legible; the laboring body permanently erasing specters of the city, and of course they knew it was also an invitation for the ghosts to return. Graffiti is death’s little sister, is also an aporia.

    [...] Graffiti (fr GK -graph(os), something drawn or written, to diagram or chart)
    attempts to stage the impossible: to erase the essence of its own subjectivity.
    Graffiti 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 (the state of
    being broken open.) Dwelling is a fiction stasis.

    [...] 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.

    [...] 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.

Graphein meaning “to write.” “Derrida says every archive makes a law, and the law of genre is its own rupture” (Bloch, 39). However, graffiti is an (non/anti)-archive of erasure due to (the politics of) washing out its subjectivity, which only adds onto (or is symptomatic of) its character. The inhibition of “reading graffiti as rapture, as rupture” is partly due to it being a “look-back” event in that it’s process involves scratching through layers to reveal previous specters underneath. Graffiti (as an ancient genre) has always been a thing of ‘becoming undone’, and therefore ‘belated and always in arrival’ (Levitsky). It’s a Dionysian activity done at night with it’s back turned toward us. "The specter [...] is of the visible, but of the invisible visible, it is the visibility of a body which is not present in flesh and blood [...] appearing for vision, to the brightness of day [...] something becomes almost visible which is visible only insofar as it is not visible in flesh and blood. It is a night visibility. As soon as there is a technology of the image, visibility brings night. It incarnates in a night body, it radiates in a night light" (Derrida & Stiegler, 115).


Agamben, Giorgio. Stanzas. Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 1993. Print.

Bloch, Julia. Lyric Descent: A Soft Polemic. P-QUEUE: Polemic Vol.7 (2010). Print.

Derrida, Jacques and Bernard Stiegler. Echographies of Television. Cambridge: Polity, 2007. Print.

Levitsky, Rachel. On A Toast In The House of Friends: Akilah Oliver in conversation with Rachel Levitsky. News From Coffee House Press. Print.

Oliver, Akilah. Akilah Oliver: Good Grief. Interview by Susie DeFord. BOMBLOG, 26 Aug. 2009. Web.

--- Author Statement. News From Coffee House Press. Print.

Issue 1.2 / 2011

Feliz Molina
Brown University

Feliz Molina recently earned an MFA in poetry from Brown University. She has appeared and is forthcoming in Dark Sky Magazine, Jellyfish Magazine, Titular Journal, Shampoo #39, Electronic Literature Organization vol.2, and others. She lives in Buffalo, NY. You can look at her drawings at Museum Of Expensive Things at: Her blog is The Undercastle Radio.