Academic journal article MELUS

From Rupture to Remembering: Flesh Memory and the Embodied Experimentalism of Akilah Oliver

Academic journal article MELUS

From Rupture to Remembering: Flesh Memory and the Embodied Experimentalism of Akilah Oliver

Article excerpt

These undecipherable markings on the captive body render a kind of hieroglyphics of the flesh whose severe disjunctures come to be hidden to the cultural seeing by skin color. We might well ask if this phenomenon of marking and branding actually "transfers" from one generation to another ...?

--Hortense J. Spillers, "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe" (260)

The dense, blocky prose poems of Akilah Oliver's collection the she said dialogues: flesh memory (1999) are packed like the sidewalk shopping carts she describes, "with debris of lives / stacked high" (9, lines 16-17). Like those sidewalk shopping carts piled with the parings of popular culture and personal life, the contents of Oliver's poems crowd into and trace a center space of loss. This space of loss--what Hortense J. Spillers describes as the "African-American female's misnaming" ("Mama's" 258)--underlies and structures each poem. Oliver locates this loss multiply, in literal violence against flesh and in representational violence. Her poems cite corrupted historical narratives, undocumented lives, and contemporary systems of identity construction that are at once too limited and too determining. All these forms of loss, Oliver suggests, are the afterlives of the logic of slavery that produce "one meaning of blackness" (27).

Like Spillers in the epigraph to this essay, Oliver implies that the markings on and sufferings of past bodies "transfer" symbolically and representationally--that past bodily experiences and inscriptions shape contemporary meanings of blackness and black female identity. (1) Spillers expands on this idea, stating, "In order for me to speak a truer word concerning myself, I must strip down through layers of attenuated meanings, made an excess in time, over time, assigned by a particular historical order, and there await whatever marvels of my own inventiveness" (257). But Oliver proposes a further type of bodily transfer that has the potential to speak the "truer word" Spillers seeks, affecting and expanding future meanings.

Oliver's concept of "flesh memory," performed throughout the collection, augments the record of markings and loss, "attenuated meanings," and absence with an alternative epistemology of bodily presence. "Flesh memory"--what Oliver describes as the genetic memory or knowledge of the experiences of past bodies--engages the gaps and erasures of historical black bodies and experiences, but privileges presence over erasure or rupture. Oliver performs this pluralizing gesture in her prose poems through parataxis--juxtaposing, layering, and "stack[ing] high" the plurality of voices remembered and accessed through bodily memory.

By using parataxis, which is commonly seen as disrupting, minimizing, or decentering subjectivity, (2) Oliver undermines the conventional division between formally-motivated poetics (often called "innovative" or "experimental") and identity poetics as well as the aesthetic and philosophical assumptions upon which such divisions are based. While many poets and scholars, including Juliana Spahr and Erica Hunt, point out that the familiar critical division between "experimental" and "expressive" poetry does not adequately reflect the poetry being produced now--or the poetry that has been produced for the past one hundred years--these categories powerfully persist in criticism and reception. These critical categories are particularly pernicious because much of the poetry classed as expressivist is identified by the presence of a personal, autonomous, coherent--often gendered or racialized--lyric "I." Harryette Mullen describes "this idea that you can be black or innovative" (qtd. in Spahr 12) as "aesthetic apartheid" (Mullen 29). Houston A. Baker, Jr., Aldon Lynn Nielsen, and others have worked to problematize the critical and popular division between a formalist or innovative modernism and a formally conservative, identitarian Harlem Renaissance. (3) In addition, critics have sought to centralize and complicate the profiles of well-known African American writers such as Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, and Lucille Clifton. …

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