Book Review

"what collaboration can document is a poesis of interdependence"
            -Amber DiPietra and Denise Leto, Waveform

Waveform (2011, Kenning Editions) is a collaboration between Amber DiPietra and Denise Leto, poets with at least two things in common. Both experimental writers and both have disabilities. Perhaps to these a third could be added, they live and work in the San Francisco/Berkeley area. These commonalities all contribute to what could be the main problem that this small volume tries to resolve. In the words of one of the writers:

I have aligned myself with an avant-garde poetics – a realm of writing in which identity disappears or is ejected, is seen as aesthetically inferior passé – at the same time I have come to identify most strongly as a disabled person who has a set of political, professional, social and personal concerns relevant to that disability.

In some respects, this bifurcated purpose is not quite the contradiction that it at first seems to imply since the Romantic notion of the poet as the individualist who creates her own identity is looked at by many disabilities studies advocates as lending support to the medical modal of disability, throwing responsibility back on the individual rather than asking society to take responsibility for the way that it frames and contributes to disability. On the other hand, bodily pain is experienced by individuals and, is not going to disappear for anyone short of a bodhisattva by simply by redefining disability as social construction. This refusal of the body to be tamed is a major component of Waveform.

Leto and DiPietra are both sophisticated writers whose meanings are not all going to be taken in on a first pass, so readers can anticipate that, despite its slim size, Waveform is going to demand a great deal of their attention. Waves notwithstanding, it is not a book to take to the beach, though the best approach is probably just to dive right in and get a feel for the water. It will require several readings.

One of the first things a reader notices is that the book is divided into four sections, each beginning with a field title: Field of Reality (the world), Field of Representation (the book), Field of Subjectivity (the author) and "The Fields Converge: They never were not each other. Bodies. Pages. Perceptions."

The collaborative aspect of Waveform manifests itself within each section as a conversation of sorts in which one of the partners' contributions appears as sections of a text from an email to which the other may or may not be responding. For example,

woke up with pain and thought, again…how do I move
the world today? How do I explain (to myself or others) my
state when
just yesterday
it ws different? The fluctuations of my
are so unpredictable…I never really know how to claim it in
everyday of writing

At the same time, DiPietra and Leto purposely blur their individual voices so that just who is speaking a given passage or phrase is not clear. While hardly unheard of in poetry, this blending/blurring takes on special meaning for the for disability literature in its attempt to present disability not as an individual issue but as a communal effort.

Suspended in the text created by the two poets (which, by the way, will bring a smile satisfaction to Kindle readers in its refusal to use page numbering) are chunks of text quoted from other authors, much of which is from medical sources on topics such as "Reliability of the Perceptual Evaluation of Adductor Laryngeal Dystonia." This suspension reflects in visual form the centrality of the concept of suspension (and the concomitant concept sedimentation) to Waveform. Together with the title, it represents on of the major images of the book.

A definition of suspension as "a heterogeneous fluid containing solid particles that are sufficiently large for sedimentation" is presented to the reader on the first page. Throughout the book our bodies, our identities, and our forms for describing them are characterized as suspensions in time. These suspensions, however, are moving and this movement is the waveform in which gravity and time interact in a linear progression. Emblematic of this movement for DiPietra and Leto is the manatee: "A manatee gets to shift vertically while always remaining at a glide, horizontally."

Using the vocabulary of poetry, the second section of the volume, "the field of representation", describes how these forces impact upon our attempts to use pre-established forms to explain ourselves.

The upset-ordained pattern of length, the length of lines in a row. All rising. All supine. On division of uniform movement in the morning. Upward recurrence of refrain. Indentation, collapse. Indentation. Where to set the tabs? This movement is toward rising. A semantic function of time. We are expected somewhere. The linking of two things at once. Stanzaic collision. Strange enjambments. The heroic couplet dangling.

It is not just our forms of representation that change but the suspended bodies they represent. Though bodies are suspended, bodies themselves challenge static definitions and this in turn challenges identity.

For poets that seem to have a Quinean sense of boundaries, DiPietra and Leto at times sound amazingly reductionist. Each of the field definitions that head the sections is followed by an italicized phrase and two of these are particularly intriguing: "The more present the body, the more expendable the self" and "Body as coalescence whereby the universe can sense itself." Taken together these suggest that consciousness ( and hence identity) is an epiphenomenon of a materialistic universe. It is the firing of neurons through synapses that create not only the way our bodies function is (their structure and movement) but our capacity to think about ourselves as selves:

The water all around washes me up against myself. The water uncovers a thing that crunches against the land, now dissolving. Stranded agsinst a mass of remaining soft tissues. My own isolate shore, grey shot through with pink. A brain.

The quality and depth of Waveform is such that any attempt to nail it down in a few words is going to fall short in the same way that established forms fall short of what we subjectively desire to communicate to an external world. One can say that the book is characterized by repetitions and alternations in the manner of waves or by intersections of the various voices, "one line interrupting another…all speaking at once." It would, in fact, be instructive to hear DiPietra and Leto read their work aloud as they recently did at Humbolt College. Barring that, however, Waveform is a book that, in that tired phrase, truly has to be read to be appreciated. It is not for those who seek escape in reading, but it's deft translations of arthritic pain and dystonia into words and its ingenuous attempt reconcile the need to reconcile post-modern, avant-garde poetics with disability identity reward the effort put into reading.