Coffee House Press recently released a pair of fascinating books, by poet Akilah Oliver and prose-poet Donna Stonecipher.
|a toast in the house of friends by akilah oliver (2009). the cosmopolitan by donna stonecipher (2008). both published by coffee house press, each $16.00.|
Akilah Oliver’s A Toast in the House of Friends is not going to cheer you up. In fact, you may want to stay away from it on those listless, gray afternoons when it’s overcast or raining. Don’t come anywhere near it when you’re depressed. It’s devoted to grief. Death, dying, that sort of thing. And Oliver truly gets into her subject. “A friend told me a story,” she recalls. “Her nephew was killed in yet another unglamorous and way too common incidence of gun violence in Los Angeles. After his death, his mother stopped speaking and suffered a stroke. For me, the story is symbolic of the way grief has become internalized to the point where it chokes us, to the point where it cripples us, to the point where we are rendered silent by the commonness and horror of death. Particularly in this case, the loss of young black men we as a culture, as a people, have almost eerily accepted, as if their lives have no social currency outside of statistical reductions. So, what happens when there is no public space for grief? I think my friend’s story is all too common. The body becomes the holder of a kind of terrorizing silence that in turns decimates and continues to maim.”
A Toast in the House of Friends is written in a free-wheeling hand that evinces distinct originality. Oliver is a rhythmic writer, and an exceptional one at that. She strikes the cadence of each piece so effectively, you can feel the poem on the page.
Her voice is candid with a hard edge and a clear love of words anchored in African-American culture. “I’ve had a life-long love affair with poetry,” she says. “My sisters and I were introduced to library cards at a young age and spent hours at our local public library. We discovered Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Countee Cullen, and other Harlem Renaissance writers. Later, [it was] the poetry of the Black Arts Movement: Don L. Lee, Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka and others whose writing cross literary movements, including Gwendolyn Brooks.”
A poet, performer, and teacher, Akilah Oliver is the author of the she said dialogues: flesh memory, recipient of the PEN Beyond Margins Award and has been artist-in-residence at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center in Los Angeles. She was curator for the Poetry Project’s Monday Night Reading Series, co-founder of the avant-garde feminist performance group the Sacred Naked Nature Girls, and is on the faculty of the Summer Writing Program at Naropa University. Her performance with collaborator Anne Waldman can be heard on the CD Matching Half.
Donna Stonecipher’s The Cosmopolitan has the richly contemplative feel of haiku. It’s called a travelogue adventure and philosophical intrigue. Fact is, it’s also a companionable tour de force of reflective wit, urbane sensibility, and a strongly talented pen. She notes that “all I wished for was the ability to write short poems, very short, haiku-short, which it seems I am incapable of doing.” So, instead Stonecipher crafts the ingenious glimpses into idle moments—and is most entertaining while she’s at it, engaging with a wistful sense of humor that keeps her from taking herself too seriously.
“There were,” she says, “a lot of little stories in my head during the time I was writing these poems, the best form for them turned out to be the prose poem, which offers a more horizontal platform than lineated poems, which are more vertical. These poems needed the time afforded by the long horizontal line to unfold their stories and make their connections and circle back around in the languorous, fugal way they do. Vertical poems hurry the writer and the reader down the page, but I wanted to linger, and I wanted my reader to want to linger in the world the poems were creating.” That is exactly what she accomplishes.
Donna Stonecipher is the author of two previous poetry collections, The Reservoir and Souvenir de Constantinople. She grew up in Seattle and Tehran and has lived in New York, Paris, Prague, Iowa City, and Berlin. She is currently studying in Athens, Georgia and lives part-time in Seattle and Berlin. Clearly grass does not grow under her feet.
A Toast in the House of Friends and The Cosmopolitan are different as night and day—except that Akilah Oliver and Donna Stonecipher both are profoundly gifted.
Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.