THE TROUBLE WITH I
I remember an early attempt at writing a personal essay about the night my father died. Nowhere in it did I mention that, except for light perception, I have been blind since birth. "Why should I?" I reasoned. I intended to focus this piece more on my father and mother than on myself. My blindness, I figured, had nothing to do with this story. To be sure, I belonged in the account, seeing as how I witnessed what I reported, and it did have a potent and permanent effect on me emotionally, but I hoped that a reader would feel the pain through a somewhat measured and journalistic telling of that night’s events, rather than by some lyrical evocation of my personal trauma.
Thus, when I mentioned that I sat watching the Phillies-Reds game with my father in his bedroom while he dozed, I did not make a point of saying something like, "Actually, I mean I listened to the game." To begin with, all the blind people I know hate calling that kind of unnecessary attention to their blindness in casual conversation. We don't want to be putting ourselves constantly outside the mainstream. Besides, it takes sighted people right out of the flow of relationship with us, just as poor diction takes a reader out of a piece of writing.
But I took this too far in my essay. I crossed the line from not drawing attention to my blindness to actually faking knowledge I didn't have about seeing. At that point in the essay, my mother, my brother and I had just sat down at the kitchen table to enjoy our ritual of ice cream before bed. When my father started gasping for breath and my mother rushed past me and Dave to run up the stairs to his room, I tried to show my shock, or my attempt to stay calm, by describing how, while she was half-talking, half-crying to my father, I was walking to the sink to rinse out my bowl. At the sink, I tried to tell the reader what the yard looked like and to imagine how our house must have appeared to someone walking by. In real life, I did walk to the sink, but I added the visual imaginings for ambience and for what I hoped would provide some kind of emotional depth. I can't remember now what tipped off a sighted reader that I didn't know what I was talking about—whether it was how I imagined being able to see into the dark yard, or how I imagined looking into the light of the kitchen would have worked for the sighted observer. After that gaffe, I made a decision never to write as though I had any knowledge of vision beyond my ability to see light, even if the "I" of the poem or essay was not specifically me. Even in fiction, and even if a character could drive, read the most basic of facial expressions, or see signs, I wouldn't attempt to go into visual details I didn't fully understand.
In retrospect, I think I tried to distance myself from the problem by sticking to short stories with third-person narrators. A year or so later, when I made poetry my "home" genre and nonfiction my home away from home, I tended to write what I'll call "generic" or "normative" poetry and nonfiction. In both, even if the "I" was really me, he didn't openly present himself as someone blind; he was simply an "I" who didn't use any visual imagery. Mistakenly, I loved love poems, in part, because they seemed to fall into such a universal category that didn't care much about those specifics that made the speaker different from other lovers.
A couple of years after I moved away from fiction and started living in poetry, I became friends with Ilana Blumberg, a fellow writer and graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania and a self-described Orthodox Jewish feminist. One afternoon at lunch, when we'd become close enough friends and she'd heard and read enough of my work to feel comfortable commenting on it, she said, "You write such beautiful poems. They're really good, but I can't help feeling that something is missing. Why don't you ever write from the perspective of a blind person?"
"I don't know," I said, a little surprised. "I guess I was proceeding from Joyce's (or Stephen Dedalus's) idea that the writer should be sitting back paring his nails, should be that detached. Besides, I'm not sure that people wouldn't feel kept out of a poem where the speaker seems that different from them."
"I used to think that, too," Ilana said. "I never used to create characters in my stories who struggled with the same dilemmas I do as an Orthodox feminist. But then, when I tried it, so many people came up to me and said how grateful they were to get a glimpse into that world because, although the particulars of that world were vastly different from theirs, the underlying problems and ethical challenges resonated with them. In fact, they said that my characters' different world gave them a whole new lens through which to view their own. I'm willing to bet that your blindness would serve readers in much the same way." That's when I resolved to try writing from a "blind" perspective.
Writing from that perspective has proven rewarding. It has allowed me to question and explore life and disability in ways I didn't dare approach before. Certainly, some of my reticence to write openly about my blindness stems from a more general ambivalence about how to carry and present myself in the world. (Witness this writer's rather ludicrous decision to try to look "normal" in college by traversing an 88-acre campus, navigating all its buildings, and crossing a busy street without the use of a guide dog or white cane.)
Another part, however, comes from a long-standing and widespread ambivalence we have had as readers and writers of poetry. Look, for example, at how quickly the tide turned from the formal, more outward-looking, poetry of Dryden and Pope to the poetry of self, heralded by Wordsworth's "Preface to the Lyrical Ballads." Indeed, no one subsumed more of the world into himself in American romantic poetry than Walt Whitman. Yet, not so long afterward, T. S. Eliot led the charge back to the "objective correlative," only to be followed, in turn, by Ginsberg and the "Beats," who saw formal and academic poetry as a form of institutionalized class oppression. Robert Lowell turned from the tidy, closed endings of the poems in Lord Weary's Castle to the more personal and open-ended poems of his ground-breaking Life Studies. He, along with Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and W. D. Snodgrass, created the "confessional" school of poetry, which after being the rage, then became a dirty word. It's no wonder that many of us poets with disabilities have had second and third thoughts about how autobiographical and, by extension, how disabled to be in our work.
Once you've outed yourself as having a particular disability, you can't very easily direct the reader not to read that into every poem you write unless, perhaps, you make the speaker so obviously not you as to figuratively hit the reader over the head. Maybe you make the speaker a black woman who speaks in visual imagery to counter the facts that you are male, white, and blind. The real problem comes when you want to speak as a general human being. Let's say you are putting together your first book of poems and, in it, you have some poems where the speaker makes it clear that he is blind, but others where he doesn't indicate either way. Can you mix these poems without the reader assuming the same speaker throughout? Perhaps the question boils down to this: Should the reader be expected to read each poem as a discrete piece, or do you want poems in your book to "talk to each other?"
I suppose you could say that any confessional poet had the same problem. Once Robert Lowell inserted himself autobiographically into his work, could he ever escape himself? Perhaps not. Still, for much of English-language literary history, the hegemony of white men made such distinctions unnecessary. Those were the people assumed to be doing the writing for all of the people. Hegemony and homogeneity go together. Maybe we don't really want to escape ourselves as writers with disabilities in the long run, but we don't want to be cornered, to be pigeon-holed by the facts of our lives, either.
I think a lot about Langston Hughes, the first black man I encountered who wrote directly about what it was to be black in white America. I wonder if he ever worried that he would be trapped by his identity. Did he ever wonder how critics would evaluate his work if they didn't know it came from a black man? I say this because I know that I and other poets with disabilities occasionally hear an insidious voice inside us that makes us question how interesting our work would be to others if it didn't contain any hint of disability as a subject. Of course, this question shouldn't surprise us. We already know that disability is the proverbial double-edged sword, a facet which makes us stand out both for better and worse.
In his essay "The Case for Writing about Disability," John Lee Clark remarks that he can’t stand most disabled writers because they don’t write disability literature. He writes: "Instead of following that old but vital advice, "Write what you know," most disabled writers seem to think their best chance at success is to write "mainstream" material. This is a sadly misguided notion, one that pours talent down the drain, the very talent that could otherwise have quenched the thirst of not only disabled readers but the rest of the reading public."
I agree with him about the importance of disability literature written by people who know, firsthand, what they’re talking about. Yet, part of his argument to do so goes straight to a reason some of us shy away from being labelled too strongly as "writers of disabled literature." He recounts an occasion when he, as editor, rejected a luminously written and well-researched story about the Titanic because "the Titanic, especially with a pair of tragic lovers, has been done to death." Fair enough. But then he posits that making both of the lovers Deaf might have been just the twist in the classic storyline to redeem such a worn-out subject. What concerns me most comes when he adds, "Now that’s far more interesting, and the writer would not have to be such a good writer to make it work." Milton and Swift, he says, could get away with being disabled and not writing about it because, well, they were Milton and Swift. "Writing what one knows remains the best hope for the rest of us." If he’s right—and let's imagine he is—how will we know when our writing made it into the acceptance pile because it was just that good and when it did because the twist of disability got us over the hump? John Lee Clark wisely skirts this unanswerable question by concluding with the exhortation, "Let us write disability literature and in so doing write literature, period."
Turning from theory to practice, let's look at poems in the first person by five blind writers, starting with two of my own.
Vigilance and Dissembling
Since I don't see, and have no visual cues,
I say this because, in conversation,
It's often a matter of tone of voice:
A Friend's Sudden Death
We were sitting in the kitchen
His cat went on
Through a thin wall
I remember how deliberately
and paused to inhale
the way he ran his finger
I chose these poems, as I did those of the other writers, because one clearly belongs to a blind speaker, while the other comes from a more ambiguous "I." If you read those poems in reverse order, would you imagine the speaker of "A Friend's Sudden Death" any differently? Is the narrator of "A Friend's Sudden Death" blind or sighted? Ultimately, does that matter?
I think the answer to that depends on context. Certainly, when the poem stands by itself, you have to trust the reader to do a close enough reading to figure that out. But if this poem stands flanked by poems where the speaker is blind, aren't you as the writer making a kind of contract with the reader, even inadvertently?
Let me be clear: this is not about making sure the reader gets the autobiographical truth about me. In fact, except for what I'll call "autobiographical feeling," "A Friend's Sudden Death" has no literal truth. This never happened, and the speaker isn't factually me. In fact, I think you would have to say that the narrator is more likely sighted. He would have to observe the neighbour laughing by ear, and he could conceivably gather that the cat is cleaning itself aurally. But without seeing the relationship of nose to teacup, and unless his brother's cup sang like a wine glass, how would he know exactly what his brother was doing? Still, in the right context, it seems you could tempt the reader to make the wrong assumption.
(A brief aside: You may have caught me breaking my own rule about visual description. Actually, I just caught myself; I wasn't aware of that when I wrote the poem. Maybe it's time I let the pendulum swing back toward the middle.)
Speaking of brothers, let's move on to some poems by my real and factual brother, David Simpson:
A basketball bounces by the pharmacy as I go in.
Talking on the Phone
"It’s like settling for the scent
In the woods, not far from Canaan, West Virginia,
Even at the height of day you can hear
The thrushes were at least as far above me
I was trying to hit him with a ball, aimed at his voice,
then try to make contact with each other.
the waterfall and the white pines' silence
"We're always running," I say,
These phone calls are our touches,
on one of these pine shelves that once was
Why I Never Married
Of course, I meant to, having been raised
but then I took Physics and found out
with Miss Caisley, my Physics teacher.
and something about mystery:
I couldn't stop thinking of gravity
and that I couldn't help but be orbiting Miss Caisley
I love the way that these three poems, put together, tell different versions of the story of connection and disconnection, and how the element of fantasy in them implies, of necessity, intimacy and distance. "Spring Fever" lets able-bodied readers into our world where we must do awkward and intimate things with virtual strangers. At the same time, I think it fulfils Ilana Blumberg's predictions that such poems will provide them with a lens for viewing some parallel aspect of their lives.
I find it interesting that the speaker grows less clearly defined as a blind "I" as you progress from poem to poem. The two brothers (should we just concede that this is autobiographical?) in the second poem don't exhibit strong traits of either vision or blindness. There's only this one subtle indicator that they might be blind: they aim their missiles for each other's voice. As far as the third poem, "Why I Never Married" is concerned, I thought about presenting its poet, at first, as a mystery poet, to give you an unbiased chance to read the poem with minimal outside influence. Obviously, I gave that up quickly. Nevertheless, try reading it as if you didn't know anything about the poet and see if it changes anything about how you see the narrator.
Next come three poems by Nancy Scott:
Temptation of a Spoon
They are hammering across the hall,
I carry my prize flat,
Drinking Chai on the Autumn Equinox
It's not from my quiet kitchen
One long-sleeved syllable
Some things must be offered.
Later, there will be kaddish
But now I smile with milk-covered lips,
He Watches the Sky
My fingers walk across the phases
In an attempt to destabilize your reading a little, I broke my pattern of presenting the most clearly "blind" poem first. In fact, the first poem in this group is also the first poem I've presented where the writer makes it explicit that the speaker can see. Of course, the subject of this essay precludes any possibility of reading these poems with no prior conceptions or context. Still, I wonder if you felt even a slight disorientation by suddenly encountering a narrator who drives, when the pattern has been to first meet a speaker who makes clear that he or she is blind.
For my part, I wonder why the poet chose to have the speaker (who experiences everything through smell, taste, touch, and sound) drive, rather than walk, to the store and post office. Was that a conscious or unconscious choice? Either way, could it have been an attempt (one I find healthy, albeit somewhat cosmetic) to get outside herself as a writer with a disability, to destabilize her readers from assuming that, though several of her poems have blind protagonists, readers shouldn't make too many assumptions from poem to poem?
If so, I can understand the pull to do this. The more poems I write with a blind speaker, the more I feel a desire to throw my readers off-balance, especially when thinking about organizing a collection of my work, by creating visual poems or poems with sighted narrators.
Face it, our society has no shortage of preconceived notions about us and the nature of our lives. On one hand, that argues strongly for us to convey the truth and depth of our lives through our work. On the other, it explains my fear (and perhaps yours) at getting boxed in. I draw a parallel with the opening lines of Pat Parker's poem, "For the White Person Who Wants to Know How to Be My Friend":
"The first thing you do is to forget that I'm black.
If we as blind people live in a similar tension, how can it not affect the way we think of our writing? How can it not affect a reader? After all, we have all experienced the presumption by some able-bodied people that our darker feelings must come, at least in part, from living with disability. It's not that big a leap, then, to imagine a reader attributing the darkness and wistfulness of "Drinking Chai" to an assumption, stolen from other poems, that the speaker can not see.
Indeed, I am aware of my own presumptions about narrators. I am also aware that, when we aren't given explicit information about a speaker, we have to make some assumptions; that's what interpretation is all about. Thus, in "He Watches the Sky," I hear the narrator as a woman, probably just because the poet's name is Nancy. It works, though; it doubles the intensity of the hurt. It's heartbreaking enough that the "he" of the poem has all the information that comes from seeing and is, apparently, generally impatient with her. Add sexism to the mix and it's all the more painful. Here she is with all her curiosity, all those questions, yet too afraid to ask anything, lest she set him off.
The following two poems by Lynn Manning work well as companion pieces and add to this consideration of multiple identities:
The Magic Wand
Quick-change artist extraordinaire,
It is always a profound metamorphosis-
Naturally, we all inhabit multiple identities, and so can our narrators. I chose these two poems because they give us a chance to see a poet creating narrators who speak forcefully from each of two significant identities. (True, we have met brothers and an implied woman earlier, but no narrator with a "second" identity this "front and center.") These poems, taken together, provide me with a way to think past the quandery I worried over—how to write poems of disability without getting trapped by the identity. The answer: Write from all the identities you can—those you know firsthand and, perhaps, even those you are brave enough to imagine. We can also gain wisdom from "The Magic Wand," even though it was not intended for us as writers. To paraphrase, when it comes to our readers, our poem's final form may not be of our choosing. Readers will likely read them as they "read" us: with their own particular mix of life experience, critical thinking and bias, and we can't let that hang us up as writers any more than we can afford to as vibrant human beings.
Finally, let's turn to two poems by Stephen Kuusisto:
Up late, reading alone,
The body, stalled,
Pico della Mirandola,
An old professor,
I’m the fool
Just as water breaks
Light sweeps grains of sand,
Boats return to harbor
A persistence without tears.
We have again a pairing of poems where the speaker in one seems to be blind, while the speaker in the other does not. In fact, he sounds like he can see.
In his essay "Digressions on Poetry, Prose, and a Lingonberry Bush," Stephen Kuusisto writes: "Poetry differs from other forms of expressions in two essential ways: it does not aspire to tell the literal truth and it can get at the truth with unreliable methods." Following this line of thinking to its logical conclusion challenges the whole autobiographical question as beside the point. Indeed, we all have heard that to bind oneself in one's poem to the way things "really happened" will almost invariably kill the poem. So, yes, I want to embrace this approach to poems; it liberates us. And yet, the oppositional part of me wants to caution against working too hard to deny the occurrence of the autobiographical in our poems, as some poets have done. The middle ground, of course, is not to wed ourselves to the factual and, simultaneously, to not pretend that it isn't in there sometimes.
I do understand, however, a poet's impulse to avoid discussions where a questioner expects her to parse out exactly what is literally true and what is not. After all, one of the beauties of poetry, one that contributes to its mystery and alchemy, is that we can tell a secret and a lie in the same poem and not disclose which is which. Since we have Kuusisto's memoir and personal essays, we can feel on pretty solid ground to assume that a good bit of the autobiographical informs "Night Seasons."
But "Prism," with its rich visual imagery, raises a question which, Kuusisto says later in the "Digressions" essay, hundreds of people have asked him. They want to know how it happens that his writing is so visual when he is obviously blind. "I'm getting used to it," he tells us. "Yet I think I would like the question more if I thought it had merit."
I think the question does have some merit. I believe that a person who has never seen anything will probably answer it differently from someone who has seen some things, even if what he has seen is severely limited and his vision is, like Kuusisto's, kaleidoscopic. In fact, the lexicon of description that comes in part from Kuusisto's particular form of vision and blindness enlarges and enriches his poetry for totally sighted and totally blind, alike. I don't say this to quibble about who has it better; we all have our distinct experiences and advantages. I say it, however, because I suspect that Kuusisto's limited vision may have some sway in how he describes things. While I would never want to be so presumptuous as to place my mere speculations above his knowledge of his own experience, I can't help wondering about this. I doubt, for example, that he would have made the same mistake about light and darkness that I described at the beginning of this essay.
I can imagine that my friend Steve Kuusisto might not agree with my assessment regarding the influence of vision on his imagery. He insists, "I do not write about what I see, I write about what I do not see with words that feel good to the ear. When I write about the morning skin of ice on a birch tree I'm saying it because it feels right, not because I've watched it."
Any difference of opinion he and I might have on this matter pales in comparison with what I gained by encountering "Digressions" in the course of writing this essay. At its start, I told of my decision not to write visually. I've changed my mind. I want to try it again--not the way I did it before, pretending I could see, but by writing "about what I do not see with words that feel good to the ear." What is causing me to rethink my position? It boils down to these two brief passages, taken together:
"Poetry differs from other forms of expression in two essential ways: it does not aspire to tell literal truth and it can get at the truth
with unreliable methods."
Reading what I've just written, I realize that I have entangled myself in a contradiction. I say I want to relax my moratorium on visual imagery, but I don't want to pretend I can see. Exactly how I'll resolve this, I don't know. I'm merely writing my way into the unknown. Perhaps I'll only use visual imagery in a surreal way, so I don't have to worry about verisimilitude. Then again, maybe I'll take a few risks in verisimilitude, bolstered by the hope that, through reading and asking questions, I may know more than I think I know. I guess you could say it remains to be seen.
I don't doubt that I have raised more questions than I have answered, created more shadow than light in some places. I like to think that's the beauty of it: we have to write through our confusion to get past it. These questions about how much autobiography can or should be in poetry, how to write about disability without getting trapped by it and, in general, what to do with the troublesome "I" remain compelling. Maybe they will always be with us. That certainly wouldn't be the worst thing. But I take some joy and comfort that we have journals like Wordgathering and anthologies like Beauty Is a Verb where people with a variety of disabilities and perspectives can find each other and come together to share their ideas and their creative work.
Daniel Simpson, former church musician, computer programmer, and high school English teacher, currently serves as Access Support Specialist for the Library of Congress's Braille and "talking book" download service. He studied poetry with Judith Moffett and Gregory Djanikian while earning an M.A. in English at the University of Pennsylvania. For five years, Simpson apprenticed with Molly Peacock in poetry and memoir writing and has been recently working with poet Stephen Dunn. His work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Atlanta Review, The Courtland Reviewand Margie, among others. In 2008 he and his brother David Simpson produced Audio Chapbook, their first record book. Simpson's work is included in the anthology Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. His recently completed poetry manuscript is entitled Inside the Invisible.