celebrating okla elliott

In the Days of New Wonder – Okla Elliott

Nikola Tesla watched a brown bear
climb the persimmon tree
and shake her snout
at the sour bites she took.
He nursed
his sickness
by an open window,
seeing death in stellar signals.
The brown bear
climbed down and gamboled
to Tesla’s darkened frame and snorted
her animal displeasure.
This is why
he did not sharpen the razor
purchased secondhand for loneliness.

This is how electricity made a home
in his disintegrating mind.

*

okla2This week I’d like to use this space to celebrate the work of poet, translator, essayist, and critic Okla Elliott who passed away earlier this week. While his death was surprising, the outpouring of fond reminisces and informal testimonials to his enthusiasm and belief in writing more than reflect the man I knew briefly.

Okla and I became friends when I reached out to do a review of his book of translations. Since then, we corresponded via email and social media. He was always encouraging about my review work, quick to emphasize the value of doing the work of literary citizenship and community. It’s the kind of encouragement that keeps one from feeling lost in the world. I remain ever grateful for that.

The two poems I share this week highlight some of the range Okla explored in his poetry. In the poem above, the directness and subtle richness of description quickly moves a narrative about the inventor Tesla into the realm of something fantastical. The reader follows the lyric’s logic and is left with the “electricity” of the poem in their minds, a sense of something almost glimpsed, and charged with meaning.

In the poem below, rich detail plays a central role again. Here, however, what the poem would have us glimpse is made clear. The image of the blackbird “[screaming] out from memory” parallels the speaker who claims he has “everything / I could wish for — this air, this sea, this night.” Where the Tesla poem in a way reaches after the ineffable and unsayable, the speaker in this poem is striving to not say, but rather to be, like the blackbird, “pleased / with its sour chirping.”

*

Tilting Toward Winter – Okla Elliott

The air is gray and quiet as the sea’s
wet-dying warmth. A blackbird
screams out from memory and, pleased
with its sour chirping, keeps at it undeterred
by the browning season. I have everything
I could wish for —this air, this sea, this night.
We tilt toward winter, though the sand is spring
sand, erotic and youthful. Spirits are light
as May lasciviousness. But blood swells
to shore in cool disintegrating waves—
gone summer and gone winter aren’t real.
I walk into the unwarm froth, say farewell
to my selves that have died and pray for those still
to die — their wet wombs, their thick-salt graves.

*

Happy chirping!

José

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