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!


* the staying noise of jürgen becker


Hell, Sartre Said, Is Other People – Jürgen Becker

L’heure bleu, it could be, but it’s
the do-it-yourself handyman who makes the mood
for his and my evening. Powerless this entire building –
seventh, eleventh, fourteenth floor; the man
drills into the walls, yet no one
sees him. In case I see him, I’ll, I’ll
do nothing. Like always, complaints go
in the poem, which makes a large staying noise.

translated by Okla Elliott


One of my goals in starting this blog four years ago was to celebrate the short lyric, which I see as personal and brief expressions whose tradition extends back to the ancient Greek poet Sappho’s love poems. The way whole worlds, worlds within moments, can be evoked and experienced in a handful of lines is powerful.

Elliott-Cover-250x386I recently did a microreview/interview of Blackbirds in September, a book of German poet Jürgen Becker’s shorter poems. Time and again I was moved by the personal insight and wisdom found in lines about everyday life. If there are slice of life stories, then I believe the best short lyrics present slices of moments. A short lyric can, indeed, create “a large staying noise” by highlighting what one chooses to recall and archive in a poem as well as giving the reader the artifact of the poem with which to investigate life, the speaker’s and their own.

The following poem struck me as ingenious not simply for the formal structure but for the inventiveness with which the title’s set up is followed through.

Here, the short lyric serves as an insight to sensibility as much as theme and focus.


Possibilities for Paintings – Jürgen Becker

Dark Tree in front of a Bright House.
Sad Eyes at the Shutting of Doors.
Wood and Milk; a Lamp.
The Wind, which Extends the Hand (in quotes).
Balloons, Dripping from the Mouth.
Peace in the Valley.
The Patience of Landmines.
Now the Meadow Grows through the House.
Leaping, over a Mark in the Air.
The Coasts of Exile (since 1957).
Winter Branches in Summer.
Triumph of Waiting.
Falling Pears. Lying Pears.
Bicycle on the Horizon.
Soldiers and Bicycle.
The Night of the 7th of November.
The Misery of the Liberated.
Glass, between Figures.
Groups of People before the Horizon.
Fog; the Fossilization of Fog.

translated by Okla Elliott

Check out my microreview/interview on this book and its translator on the Cincinnati Review blog! Thank you to translator Okla Elliott for making these poems available in English!

Happy noising!