Michael Northen


I'm sitting here writing on my front porch. Gnats are swirling, shape-shifting about like a tiny host of disoriented angels above the daylilies whose petals are almost translucent to the light of the sun. Leaning back, just taking in the morning and relaxing, feeling perfectly content, I think "this is a Diana Serviss day."

Diana Serviss was a resident who lived at Inglis House, a wheelchair community for people with disabilities, for over thirty years. She was an original member of the Inglis House Poetry workshop–founded at the residents' request fourteen years ago when I first came to work there–and the only one who had actually had a published poem when the group started. Of all those who eventually joined the workshop, Diana was probably the most naturally gifted with language. Her poetry was all very Wordsworthian – about her love of nature, the beauty of the flowers, God's providence. It was the kind of writing that those uninitiated to poetry would call beautiful and those who read widely would label trite. Typical of Diana's poetry is "Shades of Autumn"*

As I stroll though my garden,
I still feel the warm breezes
That reflect the good times I spent
With my loved one
On a summer's noon,
As the sunbeam strikes my brow.

The rustle of faded leaves
Of multi-colors,
Pattern upon the ground beneath me.
They dance freely
Upon the golden dirt
Where daffodils and lilies played.

The rose, yet blooming, weeps
As the lark listens,
As if to say,
I know you,
I know you, rose garden!
Let me linger there
Until the barren boughs of winter
Bear a harvest of cherries
And all beautiful things
Return once again.

When the Inglis House began in the late 1990's, there was almost no poetry to be had that spoke directly about physical disability. Other than Stuart Sanderson, who went on to become one of the editors of Wordgathering, none of those who joined the group had ever considered their bodies or their lives fit subjects for poetry. Their only contacts with disability-related poetry were the relatively rare visits by writers of "inspirational" verses brought in to Inglis House to cheerlead positive attitudes. As we began to discover the graphic descriptions of the disabled body in Kenny Fries "Anesthesia", Stephen Kuusisto's portrayals of blindness in Only Bread, Only Light, and Patricia Wellingham-Jones candid poems opf of breast cancer and mastectomy in Don't Turn Away, many members of the workshop became encourage to write about their own lives and bodies in their poems. Diana, however, never did.

Diana was born with spina bifida. Her identical twin, ironically, was not. While photpgraphs of the two girls in their youth show them almost similar, Diana's gradual transition to a wheelchair and her increased problems with diabetes made their appearances diverge to such an extent that it would have taken an astute observer to realize their relationship. Diana would relate anecdote of what it was like to grow up with a disability in Georgia. She told of how each day at school she would have to be hauled up stairs by other students to her second floor classroom and the embarassments she was subject to at the hands of other children. One experience that gnawed at her most deeply was hearing other tell her mother that Diana should have never been allowed to be born.

As she became an adult and, gradually, a wheelchair user, Diana developed great upper body strength. She competed successfully in wheelchair competitions and, through Inglis House, just a year before her death was able compete her college degree. Despite her successes, however, she always had the image of her sister before her before her literally showing her what her body might have been. It was a Dorian Grayish experience for her. As a result, she avoided any attempt to use poetry as a mirror, feeling compelled instead to look outward for beauty – finding it in nature. Surrounding herself with flowers, the changing colors of fall leaves, the songs of birds and writing about them, she refused to admit a negative word into her poems. For Diana, poetry was about beauty - conventional beauty.

As her body declined her poems became increasingly full of images of rebirth and renewal. She sought not the linear metaphor of the highway, but the circular one of the seasons:

Nature's frosty bite
Dares not eat the tiny buds
In which lie
The promise of spring's beauty.

It's easy to be cynical about Diana's writing, about her refusal to face in her poetry what she faced in her life everyday. Its easy to label it escapist, especially because she sketched vignettes of a utopia that most of us will never know, but as I lean back on the porch this morning there is something about the feel of the contentment and just the joy of being in the day and being alive that made me think, this was what Diana was trying – and to a great extent did – capture in her writing, as perhaps she did in one of her final poems:

Smiling Future

My life's goals smile
At me in the distance
Independence and a way of life
People passing by
With a cheerful greeting
Or a mood of concern
For happiness.
I sit still and
Write of God's beauty.
I feel his touch
While I pray for more bright days.
Yesterday's sorrow
Becoming a breeze
Of my day.
God Smiles at me
And I persevere
To live one day
And smile too.


*Diana Serviss' poems "Shades of Autumn" and "Smiling Future" are from Quasimodo's Eyes (Inglis House Poetry Workshop, 2005).


Michael Northen is an editor of Wordgathering and of Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability (Cinco Puntos Press, 2011).