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To Fill the Absence

By Wanda Coleman

…and what if thou withdraw
In silence from the living, and no friend
Take note of thy departure? All that breathe
Will share thy destiny….
—from William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis”

Thanatos.” The young man who uttered the word didn’t know it had been years since I’d heard it or any variation on it. It immediately lanced me, because a number of recent deaths have been heavy on my heart, stomach, or haunting my thoughts. Particularly the poets + one. The youngster was referring to a variation on the name used for a character in a video game. But that name sent me reeling with frustration and leaking quickly concealed tears.

I only knew Leslie Scalapino’s work, had met her once, introduced myself, and had her autograph my copy of way. I had met Ai on two occasions in the ’90s, briefly when she visited Los Angeles for book events. She once appeared on The Poetry Connexion, a Pacifica literary radio program co-hosted by my husband Austin Straus and myself. Akilah Nayo Oliver lived and worked on the periphery of my circle of literary friends while still a resident of Los Angeles. She had offered her enthusiasm and her services, a dedicated woman at the word processor, when I put together a post-riot issue of High Performance magazine following the 1992 violence and verdict in the Rodney King Beating case. She left L.A. after the death of her son Oluchi at King/Drew hospital (known to us locals as “Killer King”). Akilah and I had met again, briefly, 3-4 years ago at Naropa University where she mightily enjoyed working and teaching. Our last contact was a little over two years ago, when she asked me via email to review A Toast in the House of Friends. That review never found a publisher.

More disturbing, because of the closer proximity to my life, were recent losses of three very dynamic individuals: The death of Australian poet and activist Roberta “Bobbi” Sykes from nursing home neglect, in a suburb of Sydney, was dramatically traumatizing. I moaned. This news came via email with photographs. It’s been several months now, but the cold horror of that transmission recurs quite often. I blot it out with images of me and Bobbi the night we cruised King’s Cross by limousine then stopped at William discotech and cleared the dance floor as we stomped-and-ponied to The Weather Girls’ shout It’s Raining Men. Hallelujah.

As I scanned the letter from award-winning poet and translator Stephen Kessler (Written in Water: The Prose Poems of Luis Cernuda), he told me that I should know that F.A. had died. I yelled, and my loved-ones came running. I had just missed F.A. at California’s Petaluma Poetry Walk organized by Geri Digiorno last September. Leaving L.A. in the ’80s to become a permanent resident of Beatty, Oregon, F.A. Nettelbeck passed away January 20th in Bend, Oregon. I had reviewed his finest book Bug Death for one of the last issues of Lee Hickman’s Bachy. F.A. had helped organize the 1981 Santa Cruz Poetry Festival, which is being revived by Daniel Yaryan (Sparring with Beatnik Ghosts), one of the new generation of poetry mavens. I agreed to join Yaryan & Company in 2012 as a tribute to the spirit of F.A. — if I’m still kickin’.

But seemingly worse was the death of Audrey Christian, longtime friend and runnin’ buddy. Our birthdays fell days apart, and the last time we smoked the dance floor was to Curtis Mayfield’s Ain’t Got Time. Unlike my friends in poetry, Audrey wasn’t a writer or an artist, so the joy she brought into the lives of those who knew her will have to suffice. Originally from Rodessa, Louisiana, Audrey was not a poet if poetry in laughter, a lovely level-hearted, hard-working soul who was the mother of five children, one adopted, and one grandchild. The woman was a joy, a great cook and what some would call a fine “Mami Wata.” We shared many a story, trial, and get-high-off-life out loud. Trapped in a poverty no one deserves, she handled it with grace and aplomb. Colon cancer would stop all of that. She was a heroine of mine — a true inspiration.

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Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, April 4th, 2011 by Wanda Coleman.