Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability
Reviewed by Marie Kane
Reader, open Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability1 and immerse yourself in muscular poems of tenderness and intensity, intimate poems of eloquence and bluntness, profound poems that present disability's difficulty, challenge, and pride – all the while exploring the triumph of the human condition. From first voices of the disability poetics movement (who often did not directly reference their disability), to searing confessional voices, to poets who gleefully 'out' their disability, this book is a revealing read.
While all of the poets in this volume experience disability, and their frank poems often explore what it means to be disabled, the poems themselves defy categorization. There is no one style of poetry, no universal theme, no unified voice, no similar shape on the page, no common metaphor. These engaging poems and essays explore lives that defy disability's definition.
The important opening essays in the book by editors Jennifer Bartlett (also a contributor of poetry to the book) and Michael Northen (the editor of Wordgathering, a journal of disability poetry) explore the variety of voices in the disability poetics movement. In her Preface (dedicated to Reginald Shepherd, a brilliant poet who died of cancer in 2008 at age forty-eight2 ), Bartlett beleives that the poets in this volume reflect a "range of poetic sensibilities."She also comments that the poets are "influenced by an alternate body" and that the book explores "how this intersection forms a third language."
One could say that all poetry speaks a third language in that it intersects idea, voice, and form; however, the poetry in Beauty is a Verb speaks this third language in different ways. Stylistically, many poems approximate the feel, the actual concreteness of disability, in others, lyricism proffers a cool detachment, even though the sting of the narrative or description is obvious. Some poems gladly confront disability with visual evidence of its bodily harm, others avoid the disabled body all together, or only casually refer to it, or honor and even celebrate it, – or something else altogether. Bartlett accurately observes that poets in the volume "go to the center of what it means to 'be human.' "
Michael Northen, in his essay, "A Short History of American Disability Poetry," also comments on the variety of poets who have written or who presently write about disability. He traces early poets such as Josephine Miles, Larry Eigner, and Vassar Miller, who, while disabled, at times "said little about their own bodies in their work." (All three poets are examined in this book.) Northen sees the disability poetics movement progressing in much the same way as the Civil Rights or Women's movements, and observes that disability poets encompass a "great variety" of style and focus while rejecting "sentimental poetry that made disability the object of pity or charity. " Instead, these new poets focused on the "body and the aesthetic of the body. " Northen says that the poems in Beauty is a Verb do not commit the "saccharine and paternalistic" sin of many poems that concern disability; instead, they transform the poetic landscape by opening up the canon to frank study of the physiological and emotional, cultural and environmental terrain of what it means to be disabled.
I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and 1991 and at first reacted with horror whenever someone suggested that I write about my disability. Why would I want to hang that shingle on my literary house? Display my failing, flailing body to the world? Admit that I was, in fact, crippled? Better to 'disembody' my writing, to mask the lagging leg and its brace, my inability to turn in bed, quad-cane clump, flagging left arm, bending spine, increased dependency on my husband, forever altering our relationship – to hide MS by never mentioning it. It was not important to the poet – or person – I was if I didn't write about it. My neurologist and his assistant gave me the impetus to do so, when, in a hushed sidebar conversation, and with my husband and myself in the room, they privately concluded that my MS could now be labeled secondary progressive. Anger is not a strong enough word to describe my response to their paternalistic, condescending attitude, prompting the turn in my poetry to be influenced by MS. This is a simplistic and pat explanation of why I now write of MS. It is partially the reason; the other is that I forgave myself. The world would not conform to me; I could choose to conform or rail against the same world; I chose both. I knew that while poetry could not remake the past, bring back my other, 'whole' self, this new self – with scooter, leg brace, rampant spasticity, insomnia, double vision, numbing fatigue, cloudy mind – could enable me to write about what all of that means. Maybe I could transcend the 'neat' and 'reasonable' responses to this illness that others expect, and instead, broadcast a robust note (angry, distressed, brutal, dismayed, or triumphant) in the literary theme of disability. At least that is what I hope. Even though writing poetry – breaking out of my corporeal limitations by using words – is only a temporary escape, I write.
However, it is a mistake to think that poets with disabilities overcome them by writing about them, also to think that poets with disabilities are avoiding them when the disability is not mentioned in his or her work. It is a mistake to think that if others read and appreciate the work of a poet with a disability, that the reader is absolved of excluding that poet from mainstream poetry. It is definitely a mistake to think that disability poetry needs to be categorized only as such, and it is a mistake to think that the poems in this book are not worthy of exploring in detail – their richness reflects a poetry that belongs in any syllabus, any curriculum, any anthology.
I reacted emotionally, even viscerally, to the poems in Beauty is a Verb; however, one does not have to be disabled to respond strongly to this book. The recent World Report on Disability3 - (WHO, 9 June 2011) - states "one billion people experience some form of disability worldwide.", I don't believe that even if we all might be in some way 'disabled', the term does not have specific meaning and import for the poets included in this volume – it absolutely does. By saying everyone has a disability, the heft of the term itself and the voices that write from a disability perspective are minimalized. The paradox is that even though readers may not be disabled, all can relate, all can connect, and all can realize meaning from poems in this anthology. These poems not only describe the world of those with disabilities, they also render views on society's judgment, or ignorance, or acceptance of those who display them, in language that often stuns in its blunt force. The writers in this anthology enable any reader to relish poetry of depth, presence, and breadth concerning the concrete failures and successes of the body.
The opening section of the book, "First Voices," traces five poets, now deceased, who elevate the language of disability poetry, at times without directly referencing it. The book is dedicated to these poets: Larry Eigner, Tom Andrews, Vassar Miller, Robert Fagan, and Josephine Miles, "without whose work this book would not be possible," as the dedication states. An essay concerning the poet's impact precedes the poems. Michael Davidson speaks eloquently of Larry Eigner, an influential poet of the "language-writing" movement, but ignored by post-war poetic criticism; more importantly, he is also missing from treatment in disability poetry discussion, except in Kenny Fries' anthology, Staring Back. Although Eigner's poetry does not directly mention his cerebral palsy, I found its stillness reflective of his physical limitations. The poem, "August 16 65" reads:
quiet thing quiet thing
Language and pace, form and tone echo the stillness in Eigner's poetry that speaks to his disability. Phrases such as "more miles / in little pieces" ("July 21 69"), "when I feel down in darkness" ("Selected"), and "the trees sharpening windows / taper to steady" ("July 3 64"), reflect, as Michael Davidson says, the "page on which he worked, the room in which he lived, and the weather or landscape he saw from that room."
Another poet in this opening section is the esteemed poet, Vassar Miller; Jill Alexander Essbaum's essay "SWimming on Concrete: The Poetry of Vasssar Miller", celebrates Miller as having a "munificent heart" and "sympathy for the whole of humanity's broken condition." In some of her poetry, Miller does not refrain from dealing directly with cerebral palsy in an "almost urgent, possibly angry" way, but her Christian belief gives the poems a kind of joy and reverence. Miller, who "spent her life in a wheelchair," writes with honesty concerning a life of limitations (to the outside world) that never limited her poetry, as in "Dramatic Monologue in the Speaker's Own Voice":
Yet sometimes I'd love to be eased from the envelope of sleep,
Miller's precision and authority of language, her determined truth, and her insistence on opening the window to disability, even if only a few times, enable her powerful poetry to uncover the impact of an uncooperative body – whether transcendent or restrictive.
Susan Schweik's essay, "The Voice of 'Reason'," concerning the brilliant poet Josephine Miles reveals the complicated, often difficult, world of an academic with severe rheumatoid arthritis who resisted "being identified . . . with the category of 'disabled' at all." Schweik affirms that Miles' poetry needs to be placed "within the history of American poetry, but also within the history of American constructions of disability." Miles was no "cheery prevailer" of her disability; she also "countered sentimental, charitable, medical, and heroic narratives of disability." Because of this, I found Miles' compelling poetry able to explain and expand on society's ignorance of, dislike for, need for control or oppression of, and refusal to accept, the disabled. Miles' poem "Payment" makes much of disability's dependence on a society that, when it encounters disability, responds with an arm's length of refusal to acknowledge it, and even to accentuate its devastation:
Wild weak angry coming home,
In Miles' straightforward, fluent language, this section of the poem reckons with the 'intersection' of disability and society that many of the disabled, myself included, have come to expect.
The second section of this anthology is titled "The Disability Poetics Movement" and concerns eight poets whose essays and poems offer a clear view of each poet's disability and his or her approach to it. Jim Ferris, Kenny Fries, Petra Kuppers, Daniel Simpson, Laura Hershey, Jillian Weise, Kathi Wolfe, and John Lee Clark expand the meaning of disability's effect on a life with irony, humor, outright sarcasm, tenderness, and realism. It is interesting to note that while the poems address multiple audiences – the self, the apparently non-disabled, the obviously disabled, those in charge and those on the side lines, and others who are comfortably, or uncomfortably, near or distant, each poet remains truthful to his or her own ambiguities and insecurities, as well as successes and vitality. The poets' deftness of observation and experience belie the disability itself.
Jim Ferris describes himself as a "crip poet" who, as he says in "Disability Poetry Now," (his essay that precedes his poetry) "valorizes the wide range of ways of being in and responding to the world, that claims space for alternative, non-normative experience, language, thought, and feeling." Ferris, who experienced many hospitalizations and operations as a child due to congenital leg impairment, is widely recognized as the author of the first popular book of disability poetry, The Hospital Poems, and the first to define "crip poetry": "poetry that grew out of disability culture that didn't have to be 'about disability' all the time but didn't shy away from it either." He is a 'first voice' of importance and range who defines disability culture and writes poetry that allows his disability to define him. As he states: "disability changes things . . . . [It] affects how one experiences and responds to the world we find ourselves in."
One way that Ferris's poetry defines disability, and, as a corollary, goes deeper into what his disability suggests for his own lack of mobility, is that his poems are full of movement. Ferris writes poems that move quickly and elegantly across the page. Dignified, lucid, and always responding to the world of disability, Ferris's poems demonstrate nimble development. His poem, "Normal" is a deft example of his handling of motion. The poem concerns the young speaker and friends who "drive wheelchairs and banana carts" as they listen to a distant softball game and correctly identify makes and models of cars. The city park is "busy," the player's voices "drift," and the boys – who have not yet, "rounded second" – "call out" kinds of cars that "pass." The models of the cars also are indicative of movement: the "Dodge Dart," "Mustang," and "Rambler." At the end of the poem, the world is "going on, going by, going home." I realize the poem is meant to demonstrate the stark difference between the moving world and the stationary one of the speaker and possibly of his friends, but the word choice suggests the movement that escapes the speaker. This twenty-one-line poem (in seven tercets) moves swiftly on the page; its punctuation at the end of the lines is limited to two commas, two periods, and very useful six dashes; the intelligent use of white space propels the poem forward. Jim Ferris believes that "poetry can change the world"; I believe he is right, if this book is any indication.
The ten poets represented in the next section, "Lyricism of the Body," use imaginative or real narrative, the confessional poem, and / or a lyrical mode to explore disability's damage and influence, acceptance or rejection, confrontation or sympathy, and the structure of 'normal'. All of these poets (Alex Lemmon, Laurie Clements Lambeth, Brian Teare, Ona Gritz, Stephen Kuusisto, Sheila Black, Raymond Lucak, Anne Kaier, Hal Sirowitz, and Lisa Gill) reflect on the issues of what it means to be disabled in an able-bodied world that often limits, infringes upon, and restricts those with disabilities that are visible to the outside world.
One of these poets, Sheila Black, also an editor of this book, maps out her world with both force and gentleness. In her essay, "Waiting to Be Dangerous: Disability and Confessionalism," Black defends the confessional poem by stating, "I love the confessional [poem] because it allows feeling and extremes of feeling within an ideological context but one which is inherently unstable, one in which the message is never entirely anchored" and that "confessional poetry. . . becomes a place where the personal and political intersect in surprising, exciting, and potentially subversive ways."
Black was born with XLH, or Vitamin D Resistant Rickets, which causes "sharply bowed legs and an unusually short stature"; this disability is clearly rendered in her composed, precise, and intense poetry. Black writes poetry of realistic and startling responses to disability; repetitive images give it a true lyrical bent. In her four poems included in Beauty is a Verb, Black employs color, light and dark, the use of trees, and images of birth to add subtlety and depth to her work. Images of desolation are interspersed with images of recovery and life; this juxtaposition gives the poems a kind of metaphorical lifeline, and often inverts what we think we know by poem's end. For example, "Playing Dead," concerns the speaker's "failure of will" and "the absence of conscious motion" and also an image of birth. Black opens the poem with:
Begin by imagining
She then goes on to describe how this "failure of will" would appear: "You might picture the usual things," and refers to what is often the color of renewal – green – "waveless sea / the greeny depths" – and the wonderfully oxymoronic "the ripening of decay." It is at the end of the poem that we see this "failure of will" become a birth image with the following:
burst liquid, gelid light.
The opposites in the poem – "ripening of decay," "gelid light," and "born of frozen dust" – serve to build Black's subtle notion of imaginative rebirth. The last two lines affirm this vision of almost triumph amid the disaster of "absence of conscious motion" when "radiance" births the stars "from this house of bone."
Black's other poetry in this volume also displays this duality of image. One poem, "What You Mourn," speaks of "Feel[ing] like the exile I believed / I was, imprisoned in a foreign body," and yet concludes with images of renewal: " . . . the unkempt trees / the smell of mowed grass, down to the nameless / flowers at your feet." Black is aware that even as the disabled can be hampered by the world because there may be things that, as Josephine Miles said regarding an inaccessible library, "They didn't build it personally for me, that's all,"5 the confessional poem regarding disability can also offer an "imaginative transcendence."
"A New Language of Embodiment," the final section of the book, examines the poetry of thirteen voices; essays written by each poet precede his or her poetry. In poetry that often does not adhere to prescribed form, and that employs rich and often dissident metaphor, these poets explore the world that encompasses disability. This last group of poets - which includes such diverse writers as Jennifer Bartlett, Norma Cole, Amber DiPietra, Kara Dorris, C. S. Giscombe, Gretchen Henderson, Cynthia Hogue, Denise Leto, Bernadette Mayer, Rusty Morrison, Daniel Pafunda, Ellen McGrath Smith, and David Wolach - argues persuasively that any kind of automatized or prescribed reaction to disability is not authentic – on the part of the individual or society.
One poet who does so is Kara Dorris. In her opening essay, "Benign Bone Tumor City," Dorris reveals that she writes "to merge the gap between who I think I should be (want to be) and who I am. I strap on poems, masquerade, murderess-dress because I am not dangerous or wild or carefree and sometimes I want to be." Dorris' congenital disability – osteocondromas (bone tumor growths) – that she shares with her mother and brother, results in the growth of benign bone spurs and tumors where bones join. Her "most damaging tumors are deep within tissue and ligament, and you can only see the beauty and mass destruction, the clusters shaped like Marilyn Monroe in X-rays." She also writes of "the breakdown of the world as I have always known it, the end of safety. . .the end of hiding"; one cannot accuse Dorris of hiding in her poetry. "Wanting to be a Girl," explores the "ache for what my body is" and does not suppress her emotion regarding that ache. In a straightforward and understated tone, she does not stray from the truth of seeing herself as an "octopus," with "4 arms, 4 legs" where she only "wants 2 of each." The "parasitic twin" inside is a "bleed of what a girl should be," when her body is:
. . . fused spines,
Dorris continues to work on understanding herself (where good poetry always begins) when she appeals to the sea to "help me lose this extra being." She does all that she can – "breathed wide open, pulled oxygen through 4 eyes, exposed my vertebrae" – but she is unemotionally "cast back" by the sea that "wants to worship something" – obviously not her. This appeal to the sea as savior, as one who can rescue and explain, turns the ordinary view of the ocean on its head – and demonstrates even more Dorris' desire to understand who she is. Her poetry wakes up the reader and demands attention to absorb its capacities and subtleties.
When a seeing, mobile, auditory, sensory, mentally aware public turns its eye away from disability – the halting gait, the missing or deformed limb, the shaking, the messy speech, the crooked body, even the blind visage that cannot see the aversion, the poets in Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability wrest society's attention, wrangle its cheerful, clueless, and often offensive care back to the matter at hand. These poets express a depth of perspective that is extraordinary as well as long overdue. They not only write about what happened and its effects, but they also question what it happened for. These significant poems unlock previous misunderstood or unintelligible perceptions of disability and therefore enable the reader to more fully explore what it means to be 'disabled' in an able-bodied society.
1 Bartlett, Jennifer, Sheila Black, Michael Northen, eds. Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos Press, 2011.
2 More can be found on Reginald Shepherd at:
3For more information on this seminal report, see: http://www.who.int/disabilities/world_report/2011/en/index.html