REMEMBERING THE BODY: An Exploration of the Centrality of Embodiment in My Own Work and Other South African Poets
In order to stand, I have had to forget. In order to walk, to bend, to step up or down or over, I have had to forget. Forgetting has become, and is, a process of survival for me.
I don't think I am unique in this. Forgetting. Looking away. Choosing not to see. Not to remember. Even not to feel. These are strategies everyone adopts in order to push through adversity and pain. To be able to cross the raging river, climb that insurmountable peak, traverse the sun-baked desert. But, of course, all these heroic comparisons I have used here only reinforce the myth we have of adversity, that it strengthens. They only reinforce the model we have of disability, that it ennobles the individual, that through courage and determination the disabled person is elevated above their personal 'loss' and somehow compensated, maybe even rewarded.
But this is romantic rubbish!
What about the shit, the piss, the vomit, the bleeding? There is no heroism in wetting yourself because the nerves in your bladder cannot control that humble little organ any longer.
I was born with the developmental congenital disorder, Spina Bifida. And I will say here, now, for the very first time, that I do not think anything else in my life has come to shape and define and refine me, the way that my disability has.
But stop. Did I really say that? And say it like that? Nothing else? Not desire? Not faith in something awful and transcendent? Not poetry? Is my experience of my body (in all of its lovely/terrible/terrifying/crazy complexity) the defining experience of my life? The fundamental experience that has made me who I am? As a man who desires, who has faith, who writes poetry in a lovely/terrible way.
Part of what I want to try and do in this essay is to be able to answer that question. At least for myself. And to be able to answer it in such a way that gives credit to the fact that everything in me wants to shout No to all of the questions above. No! Wants to carry on forgetting. Looking away. Choosing not see. Not to remember. Even not to feel. Because that is what I have always needed to do simply to walk, to stand, to look at myself in a shop window as I lurch by. And because also, and more importantly, that is how I have written imaginatively for a long time. That is how I have reasoned with myself the world wants to hear me. That the world wants to hear me not as a disabled writer. But as a writer, period. (Notice how the value in my writing is placed in the world outside. Writing for the external world, for others; where the approval of the Other is sought, where they set the parameters for the exchange. But perhaps it is inevitable that as alternately-abled people we will always be seeking the acceptance of the normatively-abled world.)
This tension between the self and the world, between conforming, wanting acceptance (wanting not to stand out), and the undeniable reality of difference (but difference in whose eyes? I hear myself ask), is cogently described in a short poem by Peter Esterhuysen. Esterhuysen was born with cystic fibrosis and worked as a literary activist, television scriptwriter and educationist in South Africa before his death in 2004. The poem is entitled, "a poem about myself", and it appears in the slim, unfortunately rather neglected collection, Comeback: Poems in Conversation 1984 – 1989 by Peter Esterhuysen and Paul Mason:
who am I?
I respond very deeply to the last two lines ('yet 'I' seems such a private spot / for so public a place'). Esterhuysen succinctly evokes that conspicuous experience of disability, and the conflict that in my experience is always borne out of the dialectic between being seen and not wanting to be seen. In another poem from the same collection, "A wreath of sixty-five roses" (apparently sixty-five roses is a euphemism for cystic fibrosis), Esterhuysen describes this dialectic in the following manner:
I draw into the shadows of a word
In writerly terms, I understand this dialectic as the tension between the desire to be recognised as a disabled writer (or a writer who writes about disability – maybe they are not the same thing) and a writer who happens to be disabled but is not a disabled writer. Do these terms make sense? Is there actually any difference between them? Is it perhaps a question of activism instead? No, I think not. The issue is critical, and is larger than disability politics or issues of identity activism. So let me try and express the dialectic differently. Somehow, somewhere, a distinct attitude toward my disability has occurred in my own writing, and this attitude can be tracked through my work. Perhaps it is better explained then as a distinction between writing that foregrounds the disability of its author (in some way or other) versus writing that does not, that does not draw attention to its author's disability and rather obfuscates, even completely avoids, this. And it is about how I personally have perceived these terms and experienced them both in my writing and in the flesh.
For a long time – with a few exceptions – most of my poetic work had been in the form of short lyric poems, dense with imagistic layers of references to the natural world (mainly the landscape of the Great Karoo, a large semi-desert area in the centre of South Africa) and to personal emotions; couched in a language that favoured allusion, elision and a deliberate type of esotericness (heavily influenced by Paul Celan and César Vallejo), rather than direct address and simple conversational language.
In my first two books of poetry – Time Like Stone (2000) and Feet of the Sky (2003) – the whole question of my Spina Bifida was handled from afar. In the former collection, the poem "Flight" refers to a 'flightless man', while "Of Drowning and Drought" is slightly more explicit by referring to 'a broken set of feet'. Feet of the Sky, in turn, has references to 'blunt feet' ("Autumn Evening Rain") and 'broken bones' ("Defenceless") and 'twisted [feet]' ("Untitled"). In both books a process of symbolic transfer through metaphor distances me as writer from the parts of my body being described. This process then takes these particular parts of the body, and because they have been turned into metaphor, fragments them from the whole and the experience of the whole, and in so doing ends up abstracting them.
My debut collection, Time Like Stone, did indeed contain one very direct poem about Spina Bifida, a poem entitled "Apologia" :
The new trousers you bought me
The bitter sarcasm in the poem, however, acts to distance me as author both from myself and from the implications of the poem; so that while the poem might on one level be actually foregrounding the loss of the use of my legs, on another and more comprehensive level it undermines, or undercuts, this admission of actuality in the poem.
So whether it by through dark humour or through the symbolic transformation of separate body parts into metaphor, ultimately the body of the self writing the poem is pushed further into the background, deeper into the dark and messy unformed stew of experience, which all sensitive readers know not to identify with the author.
And thus the writer is preserved. His separation from his body is intact. He is able to forget once more. But … the writing just may be impoverished. A quiet nagging feeling that I could not get rid of as I carried on writing. The sense that my writing was becoming impoverished by its own aesthetic.
The poems of Lionel Abrahams are apposite at this juncture, and can help to take this discussion to another level. Abrahams, who was born with cerebral palsy, was one of South Africa's key literary figures in the 70's and 80's. Through the formation of Renoster Books he was influential in publishing many of the formative black poets in the country such as Oswald Mtshali and Mongane Wally Serote. He also edited six volumes of Herman Charles Bosman's idiosyncratic work, and started the magazine The Purple Renoster (amongst others). In the opening lines of his poem "Privacy", from the collection The Writer in Sand, he writes: 'Surgery has cut me back / to the beginning of things.' Clearly, in order for Abrahams to use the complex metaphor of cutting (complex because of its many levels of referral) he has to position 'surgery' as the subject of his line, and this decision problematizes the whole lived experience of disability. He substitutes surgery for his condition of cerebral palsy, and uses this more easily identifiable metaphor to move past his individual actuality, while at the same time still holding on the specifics of his bodily experience; one which we discover in the course of the poem forces him to have a nurse-aid sleeping near so that 'my need grants her the private parts of my life'. In another poem by Abrahams, "Journal of a New Man" from his collection of the same name, he writes:
Given back, I am less than I was, but more.
His focus here on the quotidian ('to lift up my voice, / stand at the basin, visit another city') shifts the poem beyond a mere aesthetic interest in metaphor, and grounds it in what critic Russell Vandenbroucke in his book on the South African dramatist Athol Fugard has termed 'truths the hand can touch'. This phrase has always held tremendous appeal for me. 'Truths', saying things that matter, that mean something; 'hand', the sense of the writer, and activity, action, as well as the body; and 'touch', a physicality again, but also the concept of groundedness, nothing esoteric or abstract, just plain and simple things, nouns actually.
The conversion of these related, though distinct ideas, began slowly to suggest some way forward for me out of my dissatisfaction with my work. My frustration with its narrowness and sameness; its limited imaginative universe with the same silences and crescent moons and small stars and wide open skies. The sense that I had just been recycling the same rather stale images, the same symbols and patterns, over and over in my poems. That my writing had become in some crucial ways only superficial; touching the surface texture of language, its flourishes and frills and elaborate fonts, but not able to penetrate deeper beyond the expected and the familiar (at least, the expected and familiar to myself).
On 6 June 2007, I wrote the following in my writer's notebook, volume sixty-one:
I must take myself and take my work to [a] deeper level. That next level that is calling. But seems distant. That level I know my work must, needs to get to. But I just don't know how to get there. For I feel that my work is stuck. I am stuck in a dull, ordinary sense of myself; and in dull and ordinary writing. Just writing about the same things over and over again; using the same words, in the same patterns over and over again. The same old tricks.
I had been feeling this boredom, a boredom leading to frustration, for some time. It is a sentiment that occurs and recurs in many of my earlier journals.
But the desire for change, for transformation in my work, was not simply a question of altering or extending my vocabulary of images, of finding more and more weird and wonderful ways of expressing myself. The solution lay not in wilder flights of fantasy. In greater leaps between the tenor and the vehicle in my comparisons. Something else was missing from what I was writing. Something fundamental and basic and simple, and most importantly, something physical. Something I had continually turned my gaze away from. Deliberately tried to forget. Or, when I had addressed it – when it had slipped in, almost accidentally – had been so aestheticized through language that it had lost much (if not all) of its elemental energy and its power to surprise.
A month after the extract quoted above, I wrote the following in the same notebook: 'This is me talking. This is me holding up my hand and looking deep within. This is me closing my eyes and listening to the voices speaking within. This is me talking to me.'
These words, with some revisions, would later form the opening poem, "The Hand", in what I consider a watershed collection in my work, the slim poem cycle, Anatomy. Between July and about October of that same year I worked on these opening lines and extended them and opened them out.
As I explained before, much of my early work had been in the form of short lyric poems. So one of the first aspects I focused on in the "Hand" was length. Perhaps it helped in pushing the piece beyond my usual shortness that it was originally written as prose broken up into short paragraphs with sentences that were consciously built out of a main clause and a number of connected, although sometimes rambling, subordinate clauses. This generated a driving or forward rhythm in the writing that also helped in extending the piece. For example:
I look at my hand and see the scars of fires and knives.
The final piece was first tested in a public forum at the Poetry Africa Festival in Durban in October 2007 where I was an invited guest. The audience's enthusiastic reception of the piece gave me the confidence to grasp its subject matter (a particular part of my body) and to own it. In the poem the first overt reference in all of my work to the source of my disability is found. The 'hole in my back' is a direct reference to the specificities of Spina Bifida. Pardon the brief medical diversion here, but Spina Bifida is caused by the incomplete closing of the neural tube in the foetus. Some vertebrae overlying the spinal cord are not fully formed and so remain unfused and open. If the opening is large enough, this allows a portion of the spinal cord to protrude through the opening in the bones. Hence the 'hole' in the back.
However, this literal reading of the image – this understanding based purely on autobiographical fact – is confounded in the piece by the complex use of the figure of speech known as synecdoche. Synecdoche in Greek means 'simultaneous understanding'. It is a term for a speech act in which a part of something is used to refer to the whole of the thing. So, firstly, on a very straightforward level the hand is clearly a stand-in for the author, and specifically the vocational sense that he has of himself as a writer – hence the representation of himself through the machinery that he uses to write with. Secondly, the hand is also that which holds him up, holds him 'onto / the narrow path, where there are no handholds, / only deep and empty falling.' Now the part that is being referred to is no longer the writer, the person, but the writing itself. The words. The things he writes. See how the Greek notion of synecdoche as a 'simultaneous understanding' is in operation.
However, for all their usefulness, these are still fairly limited and basic ways of utilizing and interpreting synecdoche. As a template for understanding the poem these readings cannot take us very far. Something else is required. They cannot, for example, account adequately for the 'hole in back'. What is the 'hole in the back'? Brokenness, you might say. Disability? Yes. But, once again, that interpretation sticks at the literal. It reaches so far into the realm of meaning, but no further. It fails to account for the way in which 'the hole in the back' is a hole not in the back of the author, but of the author and the reader; because the poem, like any work of art, cannot stop at the territory bordered by the identity of the author and remain long alive within that prescribed arena. How do we understand the image of the hole now when it is no longer literal, no longer personal, no longer even physical? When we cannot reduce it to its literal sign as a marker of a congenital disorder. And it is this deeper, broader, more active, more participatory use of metonymy that was for me at the heart of the poem. That was actually its intention.
But it is only one poem. One poem that had to try valiantly to break through to that 'deeper level' referred to earlier. Plus – and I knew this inside myself – it was not actually the most well-written of poems; to be absolutely honest.
And so I began to form the rough concept of a cycle of long poems made up out of different parts of my body. In an entry in my writer's notebook dated 25 November 2007, I wrote:
An extended series of pieces about parts of my body, like my piece 'The Hand'. A piece about my left foot. Then "The Foot (the other one)". My other foot is stupid. And small. And not worth talking about.
But I could make no progress with the concept.
Then I was invited to take part in a three-week residency at the Caversham Centre for Writers and Artists in the Midlands of KwaZulu-Natal. Run by former master printmaker Malcolm Christian, small groups of writers and visual artists (there were six of us on the residency, three Americans and three South Africans) are brought together in the beautiful hills of Lidgetton to interact and create individual and collaborative pieces.
On the first day of the residency, 22 January 2008, I wrote the following in my notebook:
What do I expect to get out of this residency? To finish something. Complete a project. Write up my notes from my Karoo trip? [Beaufort West / Loxton / Carnarvon] Revise those poems? Written beneath that sun and that sky? Write new poems? Begin the play about the family and the lost woman? But is this real? True. Right. Isn't there something deeper – which I don't know – something I cannot expect because I do not know what it is. But which is the real thing that will come out of this residency.
So half-way through that residency I turned to the earlier idea of a cycle of poems based on different parts of my body. I worked on "The Hand" first and changed it from its heavy prose with rigid paragraphs into a long and loose poem. There is no coherent structure to the stanzas. Some are short, maybe only one line, the longest is eleven lines – in obedience to an internal logic of rhythm and sense rather than a fixed pattern. The lines themselves are relatively short. The average is about six words per line. (I have always counted the words in my lines, and tend to prefer lines that look on the page more or less of similar length.) The poem acquired a kind of incantatory rhythm as it changed its form, and this method of moving forward by moving in circles helped me move from this piece to the next. And the next. It also gave a structure to the poem that was not a narrative one. This was important. I did not want the pieces to be narratively driven. They have no plot – neither as independent poems, nor when read as a unit. Nor do they have a clear beginning, middle and end, but rather as I have already said, a cyclical quality.
The poems were all written in one sitting. Very, very quickly, and with relatively few revisions. It actually surprised me that such long poems were written so quickly. ("The Hand" and "The Foot" were at that point two of the longest poems I had ever written.) And it took me a couple of days to recognize their significance and their merit. I remember feeling that because they were written so quickly with so few changes that they must be just drafts still and not the actual poems themselves.
The poems were written in the following order: after "The Hand" came "The Foot", then "The Foot (the other one)", "The Shoulder", "The Foot Revisited" and "The Wrist". There was a seventh poem that was written on the same residency, but a few days later than the others. This poem was called "The Back". I think I felt that I needed to make the cycle of poems longer, that seven was not enough. But eventually I decided that the poem did not match up to the quality of the others, and so I scrapped it, together with the idea of needing to add more.
The collection Anatomy was eventually printed as a hand-bound limited edition chapbook with powerful graphic work by a talented intern at the Caversham Centre, Witty Nyide, who produced images by scratching through ink on acetate. However, because only fifty copies were printed, and because I knew that the collection had somehow broken some kind of threshold in my writing and needed therefore to be more widely circulated, the poems (without the illustrations) were subsequently re-published in my 2010 collection, Light and After.
The deeper resonances of synecdoche – the 'simultaneous understanding' that had been present in Anatomy, but still not sufficiently mined and exploited – have emerged in my most recent collection, Left Over (2013). Here the body takes centre stage. There are no parts. But a whole. There are few metaphors. Little figurative language. It is straightforward confessional, while at the same time conflating the ground between the imaginary and the experienced. It brazenly claims the liminal territory between the inside and the outside as its subject.
Disability Studies in South Africa is a very, very limited field. There are few researchers, theoreticians, writers and artists exploring its complexities, pushing at its boundaries. So internally there have been almost no models for me to turn to in order to understand the new direction my work was taking. A new direction that I felt was taking me deeper into my own identity as a disabled man while at the same time opening me out wider and wider to the implications of the body as a shared human experience. It took an essay by Petra Kuppers from the University of Michigan to help me conceptualize a new aesthetic for my writing. In her essay, "The Sound of the Bones" from the groundbreaking (and personally enormously influential) collection, Beauty is Verb: the new poetry of disability, Kuppers argues for claiming: 'disability as an identity, rather than a shape for an individual body . . . '.
This rather simple statement sums up the place that I find myself stumbling about in now, bumping around in, falling over, standing up in. It is a space that is neither one thing nor the other, neither this nor that, but instead a process, a continuous slippage that insists on multi-positionality. That is both profoundly literal and actual and figurative and imaginary at one and the same time.
The poem 'There is something about his right hand . . .' from Left Over illustrates this determined and intense claim to 'disability as an identity' and the refusal to be limited and proscribed by this:
There is something about his right hand too,
In order to stand now, I no longer forget. I remember. In order to walk, to bend, to step up or down or over now, I no longer choose to look away, to not feel. I feel instead. With all my misfiring nerves. I claim and I inhabit fully this ramshackle house of bone and skin. Remembering has become, and is, the real process of survival for me.