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A Toast in the House of Friends addresses private and public fields of mourning, death, and the space of collapse and wholeness in elegiac writing. It is dedicated to my son, Oluchi McDonald (1982-2003).
My book grapples with the notion of the body as phantom, and as transitory. In so doing, some poems are written to mark the voice as an instrument, and other parts are written for the page as I explore the borders between poetry, theory, and memoir narratives. “An Arriving Guard of Angels” was written as a way to score the days of mourning, as a way to record traces (traces of memory, traces of bodies, traces of sensation) and to break the day into manageable parts. Envisioned as choral for multiple voices and instruments, this serial poem mark the voice as a living, bardic poetic voice. Though I have a background in theater and performance arts, I don’t consider myself a performance poet. Rather, for me, performance of my poetry is a way to score the pieces, to mold the written text into a spoken, performative gesture that always privileges language.
In the year following my son’s death, I was compelled, driven really by an instinct that seems to me to replicate a maternal yearning, to investigate the fields of death, grief, and of transition. I found refuge and camaraderie in the works of Jacques Derrida (Aporias) and Roland Barthes (A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments). Each of these texts, in different ways, approaches the body as both belated and beloved.
Derrida conducts an investigation into the impossibility of a marketable reconciliation with an aporia, such as death. The first poem in the book, “In Aporias,” is an obvious tribute to his influence.
In approaching the subject, the death of the beloved, I enter into an investigation of the ecstatic in the dual sites of rapture and rupture. For me, an absolute rupture occurred at the time of my son’s death, so that the world broke open, in a sense, and I decided to follow the opening to wherever it led, rather than try to patch it or close it. The opening, this rupture, this state of the world breaking open and me, being broken open, did not lead to any one rapturous state (as if rapture, or bliss, were a desirable closure), but rather led me to want to continue to go there, off, beyond the limits of language and cognition to rapture (an intense pleasure of transportation from one place to another, as in heaven). I think for many poets, at least for me, to write is a kind of difficult dance with rapture; it is a way to beckon the day as a beloved, a way to talk to the dead, a way to collapse the known world into the impossible.
Barthes I find compelling because he stages the loved one as the body of discourse. My work has always been concerned with the body. The body as a site of investigation, the body as a troubled and troubling landscape, the body as marked by cultural and historical signifiers, the body as flesh memory, the body as desire, the body as transitory. Though Barthes frames his Fragments around the site of the amorous loved one, the crossover to any loved other body was easy for me to make since the want for any beloved other is haunted by the absence of the beloved. Absence runs through A Toast in the House of Friends as both a spectral language and as a device through which I voice desire, which is ultimately, the desire for poetry to absolve the world, and ourselves, of our failure to hold the othered body as our beautiful loved own.
This book is really not about sorrow, but about being broken open and going down that passageway, or to transverse Janis Joplin’s adaptation of some other black blues motif, “you keep talking about sorrow, but you don’t even know my name.” Perhaps then, it is a book of naming.
Some additional anecdotes, thoughts, and little stories about the making of this book:
The title of the book “A Toast in the House of Friends” pays tribute to the many wonderful people, both intimates and almost strangers, who were profoundly touched by my son’s death, and reached out to me with cards, emotional and physical support, kind words. I also wanted to acknowledge all of my son’s friends, especially those who in commemoration tattooed his graffiti name on their bodies. (I was afraid at one point it would become a cult, and these nineteen, twenty year olds would look at their backs or torsos in thirty years and wonder why the hell they did that!) From the many memorials around the country for Oluchi in Boulder, Los Angeles, St. Louis, New York, I want to acknowledge all of the people who felt his transition, each individually. So a toast to everyone, and to him.
We were at home in Boulder, one Sunday, and Oluchi said he wanted to show me something, some painting he had been doing. So we got in our old green Volvo and drove down to an abandoned railroad yard where old cars sat stagnant and a tunnel like underpass lay hidden from the street beneath some tracks, the canvasses of the local graffiti crews. I had to ask him, when he showed me his piece, how to read the letters. It was a white piece with green borders, fat looking type, mushroomy like. He told me it read “LINKS.” This was my first lesson on how to read graffiti, that I should read graffiti. After that he would share his sketchbooks, pages and pages of drafts of his graffiti art, a serious practice of play with forms and styles. In the “Visible Unseen” section of the book I explore the signifiers of graffiti art. I am investigating the notion of ‘naming’ within graffiti as a public act of insurrection and naming as an elegiac gesture. Also I’m attempting to situate within this medium the notion of the body (phantom) and the author (transitory, unseen), as a way to talk about graffiti art as production of outlaw(ed) bodies, who by engaging in a largely illegal public art form, disrupt public space and discourses about the primacy of the identity of the author.
Universal healthcare advocacy and ritual performance. The two came together sort of organically. I wanted to present a collaborative performance, a stepchild ‘operetta’ for live audience in an attempt to hold a space of witness and to use these performances to raise awareness around the inequities in American health care. Some of the performances included speakers on health care advocacy, and then there would be the poets, musicians, tripping through the layers of the underworld. The performances became a way of showing a story about the body falling, literally and figuratively, through the cracks of the healthcare system. (My son and I did not have insurance at the time of his death, which did impact the lack quality of care.) These collaborative performances were presented under the title “Hold the Space”. They were an absolution of sorts, a way to take the audience and myself through what was an experience of witnessing. For me, as a poet who reads and performs often with musicians and other poets, the theatricality of this piece spoke to my enjoyment of ‘live’ work, work that engages an audience and creates, sometimes at least, a sense of ritual. In presenting this piece from 2003-2006 in various forms, I’ve had the privilege of working with the musicians Steven Taylor, Tyler Burba, Todd Burba, Latasha Diggs, Bethany Spiers, and Rasul Siddik. Poets who have come in on this collaboration include Anne Waldman, Bhanu Kapil, Fanny Ferreira, and Sabrina Calle. These performances provide me with another way to talk about the loss of the body and it’s relationship to inadequate health care, both directly and indirectly.
I miss everything about my son, Oluchi Nwadi McDonald. I miss his original spirit, his laughter, his searing and gracious wit, his old man eyes, his brilliance, his smile, his beauty, his hands.
Oluchi was very involved with the local graffiti arts community in Boulder. He painted large scale murals, traveled around the country to graffiti conferences and was meticulous about his art form and his articulation of his vision within that form. His artist’s name was LINKS. Linking the people together. In the Spring semester of his senior year, while in South Africa with the Institute for African American Leadership, he took photographs and documented graffiti art there as he did around the U.S. For his high school senior project, Oluchi produced a beautiful, full color documentary graffiti magazine.
Most of all I remember his hands, holding mine. One of the last times I held his hand was on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder. We were walking from the Army Supply Store back down to Snarf’s, a sandwich shop, where he worked. Oluchi and I were shopping for camping supplies, preparing for the solo mountain bike ride he would be taking in early September 2002, from Boulder to Los Angeles.
Oluchi was only in Los Angeles for six months—rediscovering the city, connecting with old friends and relatives, meeting new people, working in a restaurant, hanging out in Los Feliz cool and sage, just being young and having a good time. He complained to his roommate of severe abdominal pain in the predawn hours of March 12, 2003. Oluchi was temporarily uninsured at the time of his death. He was not adequately diagnosed at the Los Angeles hospital, Queen of Angels, which noted on his medical chart that he lacked insurance, which I’m sure influenced their decision to transfer him to one of the most beleaguered hospitals in the city, King Drew Medical Center. Oluchi’s death resulted from complications from “midgut volvulus,” commonly known as a twisted intestine. If he had been diagnosed within a reasonable time of entering either hospital, the condition could have been surgically corrected.
Oluchi’s uninsured status relegated him an undesirable “client.” His race and gender—black, male—so often hyper-visualized as dangerous, endangered, and disposable, paradoxically, rendered him invisible. He died the morning of March 13, 2003. He went into code blue minutes before his roommate had arrived at the hospital to check on him. I am told that the hospital personnel found him slumped by the side of his bed after having choked on his own vomit. I know that in his final hour he stood. I know that even in the face of what was by then the last moments of his life, he stood up.
It is simply not acceptable that in a first-world country such as ours, with the amount of resources available, that we should begin to accept that the “standard of care” in our hospitals can mean that one just may not be given all the diagnostic options available, that decisions regarding treatment may be based upon what is cost effective for the hospital, and that the human impact may very well increasingly be that people continue to simply die in overburdened, understaffed hospitals.
Originally written for LINKS Community Network, 2005