RACHEL ZOLF is a poet.
In response, I think of Akilah. Akilah Oliver. She is never that far away. I think of her body, transformed, alone, dead. I think of her words, rapture and rupture…a gone time…a calculated blue. Would she have died if one of her adjunct poetry teaching jobs had provided her with healthcare? Would her 21-year-old son Oluchi have died eight years earlier if one of her adjunct poetry teaching jobs had provided her and her dependant with healthcare? Some would call these rhetorical questions.
After Akilah’s death in February 2011, the fight began in earnest to get healthcare for adjuncts at Pratt, spearheaded by some who had known and loved Akilah. At the end of protracted contract negotiations, the adjuncts were given minimal healthcare coverage, but in turn lost the right to employment security, as the number of permanent part-timers was capped. A Pyrrhic victory is the cliché that comes to mind.
As I write this, I am back in Canada, no longer in Brooklyn. In a precarious limited-term teaching job, but there is a living salary – and there is healthcare. This is my first full-time teaching job, at age 43. I’m sure people have already written here about the pros and cons of poets teaching poetry, the stupefying stupidities of the academy, etc., so I won’t go there. Suffice it to say it was easier to adapt once I realized the university’s a corporation like everywhere else. Not much different from my life before as a copywriter or documentary producer or bartender or office cleaner or crisis worker or retail worker or babysitter or newspaper delivery boy. I do wonder whether I have made a mistake, though, enmeshing myself in the academy’s impure suck. I haven’t written any poetry in over two years, since before Emily Beall, Rachel Levitsky, and I paid an Israeli locksmith 200 bucks to break into Akilah’s Brooklyn apartment, so we could find her. Almost exactly a month after Akilah died, my dad died, while I was alone with him holding his hand. We had never been close; he suffered from mental illness, had no idea how to father. But somehow it was right to be there with him, that day. Akilah helped me be there, she was with me, an arriving guard of angels. Akilah embodied presence – one of the reasons her absence – flesh memory – is so keenly felt. Perhaps the task of the poet, her true labo(u)r, is to be, and to fight, ec-statically, beside oneself and others. To the end, dust. Rupture and rapture.