REFERENTIAL DISABILITY POETRY
The title of Raymond Luczak's most recent book The Kiss of Walt Whitman is Still on My Lips immediately links his work as a Deaf gay poet to the mainstream American literary tradition. There is nothing new about claiming the legitimacy of one's work through affinity to an acknowledged master. Whitman is a particularly good choice in this regard because in his own day, Whitman's work itself was consider suspect by many mainstream critics. It is no one wonder that poets who write about disability want to reference writers that other readers recognize.
Disability poets, however, have an additional responsibility in this regard. It is not just enough to claim mainstream writers. They must also recognize and reference each other. Incorporating references to the work of other writers with disabilities into one's own work, not only makes the connection to others but it adds an air of respect and authority to that other writer in much the same way that citations in scholarly work give credit to the scholar cited. Tasha Chemel's poem "Planet of the Intermittently Blind" in the last issue of Wordgathering, for example, calls attention to the work of Stephen Kuusisto, both through its title and a direct quotation from Kuusisto introducing her poem. It lets the writer know that whether Chemel agrees with him or not, Kuusisto is someone who ought to be read.
In order to explore some of the possibilities for giving recognition to the work of other poets, Wordgathering invited poets who have published work in this journal in the past to submit poems that somehow related to another writer with a disability, either as a person or their work as a poet. The results provide a broad range of possibilities. They are presented here shorn of thesis or conclusions; only minimal commentary stitches the poems together. The hope is that reading these poems will have a twofold result. The first is to make readers aware of the work of these poets– both the authors of the poems themselves themselves and the poets they feel connected enough to in some way to write about. The second is to provide a group of poems that might not only encourage readers to seek out more work from these writers and but also jumpstart their own ideas for writing.
As Luczak's choice of Walt Whitman illustrates, connecting one's work to writers of the past is one way of helping to pull disability poetry onto the literary main stage. Perhaps no one does this better than Lisa Gill whose work is a model for studying and incorporating the work of other poets. Gill offers two examples about how this might be done. The first is for Muriel Ruyseker.
FOIA & Nerve Cells Shaped like Trees: File Number 77-27812
O Muriel, at bedtime, curled up in a corner of my own cranium,
I mean, on page two they misspelled your last name, "Rekeyser."
What if the mind's infrastructure is a form? A bunch of blanks (blank
The universe is made of neurons, stories written in acetylcholine
When your neighbors are interviewed, I learned you had thirty guests
What saddened me was the job application where you proved you could write:
Is it that a poet can either sell
In the second poem, Gill shifts her focus to depression. While not an uncommon topic among poets, to be sure, Gill braids its effects into the relationship between poets Sara Teasdale and Vachel Lindsey, letting it rest against the background of Teasdale's eventual suicide.
The Art of the Moving Discourse for Sara Teasdale and Vachel Lindsay
Here I offer the two halves
If not everyone is aware of the way that disability played a role in the lives of Ruykeser and Teasdale, most are aware that Jorge Luis Borges, one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century was blind towards the end of his life. Stephen Kuusisto's amazing collection of poems Letters to Borges is perhaps the most successful effort by another poet to claim Borges for disability literature, but Borges is a favorite topic for other writers as well. Here Ana Garza G's, herself a blind writer, uses a quotation from Borges as a jumping off point.
In the spelling of "rose" is the rose
Not much grows in the darkness beneath
the excesses that hide
This is first man and first woman before
Not much grows in the heat beyond
of implantation. Now greater organisms
based on the quality of the egg. This is
A final example of invoking writers of the recent past comes from Irish poet Des Kenny. Christy Brown is familiar as the subject of the movie My Left Foot, but few are aware of his work as the writer. In the process of recounting Brown's life, Kenny also lays out the ways in which his position as a writer was hijacked to serve the purposes of the literary establishment (something also targeted in Jim Ferris poem further below. ) Kenny nicely tucks the title of Brown's book, Down All the Days, into the poem.
Christie Brown (1932-1981)
He was hawked and humped around
At tilted angles he saw a world
He saw their slanting world of prejudice
When he undid the knots that tied
And walked to the town's surprise:
He was admired for those boot-lace tugs,
Was it the impossibility of slopes,
Was it a retort to tame-caged consciousness
In its run-down art spun a time of shame
And yet, somewhere in the midst of it all,
Back to drab, long days of longing then
Fucking up their Jasus-witnessed praise of him
When his pain went deeper than deep,
The wiser soul's tranquility
Above a world of unimportant things,
Despite the importance of linking to the past, one of the more pressing obligations for disability literature is to recognize writers with disabilities who are living and continue to write. In the following poem, Stephen Kuusisto, does exactly this in his poem for Kenny Fries, one of the first poets to come out and write in unvarnished terms about his disability. Like Des Kenny above, Kuusisto references the title of one of his subjects book's, Desert Walking.
One for Kenny Fries
I'll be up front–I've never walked the desert.
blows against my cheek and I'm falling
sleeps inside me. I should walk a barren stretch.
and a thin, long line of clouds
Those who know the work of Des Kenny and Stephen Kuusisto, both of whom write about the experiences of being blind, may have realized that both of the writers they chose to write about had disabilities of a different physical nature. While the experience of living with a disability oneself can give one writer greater insight into what life is like for another writer, it still has it's limitations, as Hal Sirowitz, who has Parkinson's candidly admits.
I had a blind girlfriend, Diane. I met her while I was attending Hofstra Graduate School in Special Education. She was studying to be a social worker. Her biggest problem was she didn't look blind. When she told her father she was diagnosed as being legally blind, he refused to believe it. Her father was not being rational. She used a walking stick, partly to let others know she was blind. She took a class in creative painting. Most of the other students handed in their art books filled with sketches. Diane could only do one painting. It was an abstract painting of a bird on a rock, looking out to sea. It was three piles of paint on the canvass – the rock, the bird and the sea. Mainly, she used her sense of touch to make the painting. She got a C for a grade. When she went to the teacher to complain, he was sexually inappropriate – asking her out on a date. When she told me how he treated her at their meeting, I felt like punching him. She didn't want that. What she wanted was for me to feel what it was like to be blind. She decided on a plan, putting me in the dark staircase at our apartment, the fake fire escape. I walked up and down the stairs in complete darkness, getting nowhere. After an hour, she let me out. It was an awful experience. What did I learn about being blind from that episode? Nothing. What does this have to do with Dan Simpson? Everything. You can only empathize with a blind person. You can't be him. You can never totally understand someone else's life – what motivates him or the amount of pain he is feeling. But Dan is a wonderful poet. If you read him closely, you get to see his world. And you won't end up in a dark staircase. But you'll be radiated with light – amazed at Dan's gift of words. I never understood the use of line breaks – the visual component of a poem – until I read Dan's great essay in Beauty Is a Verb.*
One contemporary poet who makes it a point to connect her work to that of other writers is Kathi Wolfe. As a visually impaired writer, Wolfe made her debut with a collection that countered stereotypes of Helen Keller. In a recent poem, Wolfe shares the poem title "Talking to Helen" with poet Lisel Mueller, who also had visual impairment.
Talking to Helen
Helen, when I danced one night in a New Haven dive with the girl with
Did you have to hook-up with a miracle worker? Couldn't you have
Even in the silence, we talk, Helen.
You forgive the able-bodied their disembodied stares. I stare back
When I eat sausage, I think of you sneaking hot dogs under your
Wolfe’s most recent poetic creation in countering stereotypes of blindness comes in her book, The Uppity Blind Girl Poems. Her character Elizabeth, a.ka. Uppity, is blind, queer, irreverent and loves a night on the town. In the following two poems, Wolfe has continued to speak in the voice of Uppity, but signaled connections to other writers with disabilities by referencing their work.
The Big Questions
Why do my darkened eyes make you hide from the dark?
toward every farmer's wife in earshot in your kingdom?
curiosity shop – open 24/7 for your wide-eyed perusal?
eclipse? Things are down to earth on the planet
What does it mean to roll your eyes? Is it a secret
Or of imminent death? Why does seeing me
* * *
A Stranger Is in Awe of Uppity
Can't I pick my nose/without it being a miracle?
You walked in here
Don't tell me,
Even if you
The Hell He Chooses
I only have a small piece
The final poem in this Reading Loop essay comes from Andrea Nicki. It has been saved for last as reminder that engaging with and drawing attention to the work of other writers does not mean restricting oneself to household names like Borges or even those will known among writers in the disability community like Paul Guest or many of those whose work is being offered up for reading in this essay. The first line of Nicki's poem comes from Meghan O'Hern, a first time poet, still in college, whose poem "An Open Letter to My Parents" was published in the last issue of Wordgathering.
My nickname was not a home
As a journal whose main purpose is to see disability literature develop and thrive, Wordgathering encourages response to the work of other writers. The editors are always excited to receive poetry that signals a literary connection to the work of other writers with disabilities. We'll be on the lookout for work by poets who feel the same way. We'd be especially excited to receive prose essays that takes a detailed look at the work of any of other writers. The poems and work of the poets above are a good place to start.
*The essay that Hal Sirowitz refers to is Dan Simpson's, "Line Breaks the Way I See Them.", an earlier version of which originally appeared in Wordgathering.