Remembering Okla Elliott

FlowersNon-stop news of death and dying this week and last week. When that starts to overwhelm I wonder why my friends are dying. Why seemingly everyone I know as a friend, family or colleague is losing a family member or friend. The air is pregnant with death I cannot wait for it to break. I anxiously hope for good cheer. Those not yet gone are battling cancer and other terminal illnesses. I look outside my window and see tulips dying. They look beautiful even in their impermanence. For a moment I dwell on how transient we all truly are. I check in with those dear to me who have lost their loved ones. I long to comfort them even when I know there’s nothing I could possibly say to melt the grief swelling in their hearts.

News from home arrive with more death. Cruel, bitter, accidental death. I delete the texts as soon as I read. I log on to facebook and discover that Derek Walcott has died. Poems he’s written over the years that have touched folks across the world populate posts. I take comfort in knowing that he lived to a ripe age. At least he grew old and then died. There’s this extract from a long poem of his.

“Thank you, life”? Not

to enter the knowledge of God

but to know that His name

had lain too familiar on my tongue,

as this one would say “bread,”

or “sun,” or “wine,” I staggered,

shaken at my remorse, as one

would say “bride,” or “bread,”

or “sun,” or “wine,” to believe—

and that you would rise again,

when I am not here, to catch

the air afire, that you need not

look for me, or need this prayer.



So, I shall repeat myself,

prayer, same prayer, towards fire, same fire,

as the sun repeats itself and the thundering waters

for what else is there

but books, books and the sea,

verandahs and the pages of the sea,

to write of the wind and the memory of wind-whipped hair

in the sun, the colour of fire?


And my all time favorite, “Love After Love

More news of my godfather’s son, so young, so young. Apparently he got a wound that would not heal. Turned cancerous. What began as a motorcycle scratch developed into a fatal wound. I examine my skin for signs but then know of invisible wounds capable of translating us into the next life as much as the visible ones, perhaps more lethal than the visible ones.

As I try to shake off the death dust, to focus on poetry and teaching, I walk into my creative writing class and all is well for a time. Until one of my students shares his favorite poem from the book we’re discussing, Platero and I. The poem is called “The Death.” Of Platero. Poignant in its imagery. For a time we discuss the relevance of the three-colored butterfly that flutters away when Platero ceases to breathe. I take a deep breath that fills my lungs.

Kabir singers

Prahlad Tipanya, 3rd from left, and his group of the Kabir Singers

In the evening I conclude the day with the 15th century Indian mystic poet and saint, Kabir, who comes alive through the performance of the Malwi folk singer Prahlad Tipanya and his group of the Kabir Singers. They have travelled from India to share their music with us at UNCA. I’m thinking the concert will uplift me. Yes, it does. Kabir is pretty much a death poet even though he’s joyful in his approach. The music instructs us not to be carried away by illusions of the body and its magnificence, its form and tangible presence. Death is a thief that comes to rob us, enters this body and turns it into dust. What’s worse, this body is made of clay that’s not even baked clay! As I sit there absorbing this beautiful and sad music, I do accept that we die, period. I know that. But being reminded brings me back to what matters most—



There’s a song about staying close to the center so that when the grain that we are is churning in the millstone, the ones closest to the center survive getting crushed.

In that moment I realize that we long for deep and searchable things among which is the desire to know how to keep the body and soul together. This makes me think that the “keeping together” is the integrity of body and soul.

When the music ends, I’m soaked in its import. I buy the CD and drive home.

When I check my phone, there’s a message from my friend in India about a friend we share via facebook who has died. My Indian friend wants to know if I am okay. At this point I’m thinking I’m all right. I log on facebook only to find that the friend we share is Okla Elliott. I refuse to believe. It cannot be. Once more it is too personal, too too personal. I scream at death to stop, oh, stop, you have taken from me enough.

Okla Elliott.

I think of calling his phone as if that would bring him back.

The summer of 2015 we shared a house in Ithaca. I was reading for my PhD comprehensive exams while at the same time participating in seminars at Cornell School of Criticism and Theory. We were in the same seminar group. The first day I arrived it was raining so we shared an umbrella as we walked to the school and once we got to Cornell bookstore, Okla bought his own umbrella. Later we had coffee and Okla asked if I was interested in reading my poems at his book launch. He was generous to ask me, it was his book launch and he wanted me to read alongside him. I accepted and he asked one other lady to read as well. After the launch and poetry reading we took pictures and once we got home we started a “poetry group,” perhaps as a welcome break from all the philosophy we were reading. Later he welcomed me to New American Press and spoke tirelessly of new projects he wanted to do. He was very much a doer, incredibly productive and accomplishing whatever he set out to do. I was always in awe of his energy, intelligence and generosity. He was an unstoppable force, indefatigable in his literary pursuits. He was full of life as though he’d just been born, untarnished by life, as though he was already advanced in years, keenly aware that we live only once. There was a child and adult at work in him all at once. One weekend still at Cornell he convinced a large group of us to go dancing. The music was actually bad but the vigor with which we danced was memorable we couldn’t help but laugh at ourselves. When I decided that I was ready to go on the job market, Okla shared his application materials with me and carefully read my portfolio. He had just got his Assistant professor position at Misericordia University so his firsthand experience was invaluable. Without his feedback I don’t think I would have been confident enough to step out.  

VLUU L200  / Samsung L200

Left: Andrew Gilbert posing with Okla at Cornell SCT farewell dinner

You can imagine my shock when I learnt that Okla’s spirit had left his body and he was no longer on this earthly journey to share his work with us. I was numb at first, and the more I read tributes from his friends on facebook and other online sources, the more I continued to disbelieve. But you know, it is said that disbelief is as much an act of faith as belief. Eventually, the new reality wins. And because love is pouring out from the four directions for Okla, I acknowledge that I’m not alone in my grief. In fact, it is not my grief but every writer, every poet, every scholar and student who has known Okla in some way. I wonder how his two sisters who raised him are feeling. He was only 39, 38? yet even in that short life he wrote, published and translated several works. In his honor I’ve written the following take away points:

  1. Dedicate to art
  2. Do everything you can in the name of creativity and love
  3. There is no time even when you think time is exactly what you have
  4. Anytime now, any time
  5. Embrace life and befriend death because both are inevitable guests to your house
  6. Read experiential poets that comfort: Antonio Machado, Juan Ramón Jiménez and Kabir.
  7. Touch people physically, enjoy the warmth of bodies while you still have a body
  8. Live each day as though it were your last. Some say, as if it’s your first, that too works.
  9. The past, the future, they don’t matter because the present is what you can bank on
  10. Think about incarnation, resurrection, formlessness/beyond form, spirit energy
  11. Communicate to all you care about that you do care
  12. Grieve and announce to your heart to beat again
  13. Life is always changing.
  14. “Death is something we shouldn’t fear because, while we are, death isn’t, and when death is, we aren’t.” Antonio Machado.

Rest in peace, friend.


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