Perhaps the most surprising thing about David and Daniel Simpson's Audio Chapbook is that it has not appeared earlier. Both Dave and Dan are musicians with successful performances in concerts and in theater, not to mention poetry readings. And both are blind. The best way to experience Audio Chapbook may be simply to pop it into the car's CD player on the way to work or, if stuck in bed for the day, to ask the CNA to turn it on for you, then just lean back and enjoy it.
Poetry, of course, was an auditory medium long before it was a visual one, but even so, it is interesting to experience how the Simpsons, using the CD as the media, have set this up primarily for the poetry listener rather than the reader. The CD starts off with an introduction by David Simpson who then delineates the structure of the chapbook. We are told that Dave will read the first eighteen poems and Dan the next seventeen. The title of the poem on each track is listed. Such an enumeration is especially helpful for returning to a particular poem of interest after the initial listening. The final track contains biographical material about the two poets.
For those listening on their car CDs, Dave's kickoff poem, "Driving Blind" is particularly effective. Both the immediate subject and Simpson's descriptions pull the reader into the poem:
With the windows closed and the Carly Simon tape turned
Not only does it establish that the poet is blind, but it immediately leads into one of the binding themes of the collection: the importance and difficulty of human relationships. Of equal importance in binding the poems together is Dave's voice which is mellifluous without the sense of artificiality one so often hears when essentially visual poets read their works aloud. In the case of "Driving Blind", this combination of voice and theme end with the euphoric "this is the stuff that dreams are made of."
In the second poem, "Spring Fever" Dave accomplishes a double feat. He concretizes the facts of life as a blind person by describing what it is like to be led through a drug store by a young sales clerk, while at the same debunking the notion that those who are blind (and for that matter those with any disability) are somehow asexual. Spring fever reawakens sexuality in the poet and as his brain screams "condom, condoms, condoms" as the young woman leads him around. By the end of the second poem, Simpson has establish that there is a perspective that blindness lends to poetry that contributes to it as a literary genre and that there is, at the same time, a universality to his experiences that make them accessible to all readers. This is a deft move on the part of the Simpsons in putting the chapbook together because from hereon in, Dave can include poems that have nothing at all to do with his blindness and yet contribute to what he has to say as a poet.
David Simpson's poetry, though not pedantic in the least, will appeal to the literate reader. "Post card to Emily Dickinson," which begins with the lines:
Because the slight still slants now the way it did then
and ends with:
Folks still go out for rides with death in fancy carriages
are much richer for the reader familiar with Dickinson's work. Similarly, his deft reworking of the familiar myth of Orpheus/Eurydice in terms of psychological loss will ring truer not only to those who have watched a personal relationship resolve but also to those who know the myth. In the course of his poems, Dave invokes not only Dickinson and Greek mythology but Shakespeare, Heidegger, Euripides, Euclidean geometry, and, of course, the Bible.
One of Dave's most poignant poems is "Salvation." In a poem that probes our essentially sensual nature against the background of the religious yearnings that are our cultural - or perhaps existential - inheritance, the poet brings to the fore one of the topics in poetics to which disability poetry has made a major contribution: the undeniable weight that has to be given to our corporeal nature. As many of both Dave and Dan Simpson's poems testify, there is no ghost in the machine. The particular bodies that we are literally shape our own visions of the world.
When Daniel Simpson takes over the microphone, more than the voice changes. True, many of the topics explored are similar to those of his brother. The first and third poems, "Acts of Faith" and "School for the Blind, respectively, both establish Dan as a poet who writes from a disabilities' perspective. Moreover, issues of love, personal relationships, religion and ethics, are as important to Dan as to Dave. As already mentioned, Dave's poems tend to rely on a natural music, allowing the poets voice the reader from one image to the next. Dan's poetry on the other hand, speaks of a more conscious structure.
This is hardly surprising since, as he describes elsewhere, he apprenticed under both Gregory Djanikian and Molly Peacock, poets who talk him to think about the he structure his poems, especially with respect to what he had to offer as a blind poet.
This playing with formal structure is evident in his second poem, "A Few Things" (track 19 on the CD), which essentially a list poem which repeats the first few words of each line:
I don't know how they keep you on a cross when they start
Various permutations of this technique are used through out Dan's poems. They are used particularly effectively in the final poem, "Why We Need New Years Day and a Passage of the Seasons" in which, given its religious allusions, the piece becomes much more clearly a litany, but one with the effect of a hymn.
Praise to the math teacher who collects butterflies
Not only are Dan's poems conscious of their structure but a number of them also concern themselves with the nature and need for poetry. This is perhaps most evident in the poem on track 23 whose first line is its title:
We all have some thing of the poet in us
Like his brother's, Dan's poems range across many of those themes whose universal appeal make them the stuff of true literature, while at the same time rendering them real by particularizing them in actual life experiences. If Dave's poems have a more philosophic edge and Dan's a more religious, Dan, too, can don the mantel of the philosopher as he does in his restatement of the riddle of Chuang Tzu and the butterfly in "Why Shouldn't I?":
And for that matter, isn't anything possible
"Why Shouldn't I" is ultimately, however, a meditation on faith and, once again, the Simpsons have to be admired for their psychological savvy. By placing this poem last, the poet brings full circle in a larger context, the very questions that he began with during the course of an ordinary day in his first poem, "Acts of Faith," questions that, when viewed more globally, are really the warp and woof of the entire collection.
Audio Chapbook has so much to offer that there is very little to say against it. Each relistening offers the reader a deeper understanding and appreciation both of the questions the Simpsons force the readers to confront and the skill the poets use in presenting them. Moreover, it brings to the reader in concrete terms, an awareness of how a physical disability contributes to one's experience of the world. Audio Chapbook" is a major contribution to the field of disability poetry and those who teach literature courses would do well to become acquainted with it.
If there is one weakness in the collection, it is in the final track, which gives biographical information about the poets. The weakness is not in the information itself, which actually enhances an understanding of the poetry upon a second listening, but in the reading itself. It is read by Mike Duke - whose relationship with the poets is not made clear - and, following the Simpson's own reading seems anti-climactic. For sighted listeners, the inside cover of the chapbook itself contains the biographical information, as well, while pictures of the poets and a list of the contents can be seen on the front and back covers respectively.