André Le Mont Wilson


1. Ghosts1

Detritus fills my life like this desk where I tamp down junk to close the drawers. I discharge everything onto an office table and begin to sort. In an empty plastic tray for carrying soda bottles, I stack documents to be shredded later. Papers too thick or too small for shredding I Frisbee into the black cardboard recycling bin to nest among the magazines and manuals jettisoned earlier from my bookcase. I toss markers, folders, highlighters, desk organizers into a box to orphan in the front office for coworkers to scavenge. I weed an overgrown garden of business cards in a packed card holder then I give the unpacked card holder away. Dry, detached Post-it notes crumple and fall into the waste basket while, scattered on the bottom of my drawer, paperclips, staples, and thumb tacks leap into separate, small boxes. I open and close a nearly vacant desk drawer without tamping down junk tentacles.

My brown hands burrow into the hanging file drawer, digging up more papers for the shred pile. With a flick of my wrist, other documents launch from my hand and land on the overflowing recycling bin. I redirect business binders for participants (as we call our clients here) to their business file boxes and cabinets outside of my office.

From the bottom of my file drawer, I unbury a fallen white binder. From the cover, a black and white accessibility symbol of a person in a wheelchair smiles and waves at me. The binder belongs to Tyrone Cobb. An honorary member of the Soul Brothers Motorcycle Club, Cobb had wheeled into Oakland's Cerebral Palsy Center small business incubator years ago, hoping to sell poems and T-shirts. He sold a lot of T-shirts, but his poems and stories remained hidden in a binder. I push red-rimmed glasses up my oily nose and leaf through the pages slowly, scanning lines of poetry and prose. In the past several months, I had handled many such binders containing short stories (pages jumbled out of order) and poems (notes scrawled in the margins) when I gathered every poem I could find in my father's quiet Albuquerque ceramic studio then eleven weeks later gathered every poem I could find in my mother's silent Los Angeles apartment bedroom. Now I hold a writing binder belonging to a participant.

I ignore the recycling bin, the trash can, and the shred pile as I recall my father's will in the form of a letter to his firstborn son, pleading, "If anything ever happened to me, you are to come get the Poetry. These are very, very important." If I place the binder in Cobb's business cabinet drawer, it will be forgotten again until some future staff member gifts it to his grieving family who will flip through the brittle, yellowed pages and remark, "These stories and poems are actually pretty good. Maybe we will include one in his memorial program."

Gripping the binder, I rush out of my office into a cavernous warehouse which once sheltered a workshop and now incubates small businesses that disabled entrepreneurs operate. I approach Tyrone Cobb, eased back in his wheelchair, bowlegs barely resting on his footrest. His oversized black hoodie, loose fanny pack, and wide jeans cascade folds of thick fleece, pleather, and denim down the length of his body, like the wrinkles on a Shar Pei pup. He stares at a computer through egg-shaped glasses. His cupped, caramel hand rotates a joystick placed on a box to move a digital crayon across the screen. Outcroppings of curly, black hair shadow his upper lip and chin as he stops, turns to me, and asks, "What, André?"

"Tyrone," I announce, "we are going to try to publish these."


Tyrone Cobb's parents, Rommie and Paulette Cobb, early recognized that their cerebral palsy-born son possessed a talent for storytelling. "Once," his father Rommie proudly recalls, "he told a story about my mother and it was actually pretty good." Rommie also takes credit as the origin for Cobb's talent because "I was always telling him stories. I just made it up and there it is." Cobb himself states that his talent comes from his paternal grandmother. Illiterate, Cobb dictates stories and poems to family and friends to transcribe and read back to him to confirm that his words said what he intended to say. His parents printed his poems and stories on menus at Rommie's Diner, a restaurant the family operated in East Palo Alto, California. Cobb volunteered to tell stories to young people at the Boys and Girls Club in Menlo Park. He posted a couple of poems online at Poetry, where his poem about a homeless man, "Dollar Bill," won honorable mention in a poetry contest. After 2007, he ceased telling new poems and stories and started collecting them in one of several binders at his Union City home and at Oakland's Cerebral Palsy Center.

As the small business coordinator, I am accustomed to considering the market for a product. I Google the words "disabled" and "poetry" to discover Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry. After reading sample poems to Cobb, I cloister myself in my office behind dusty, slanted blinds and open his smiling-wheelchair-man binder upon my clean, organized desk. Most of Cobb's free verse poems evoke themes of lost family and found friends, sunny days and cool waters. On occasion, a simple, fable-like poem such as "One Day There Was a Boy" (posted online at Poetry) features the hopes and dreams of a paralyzed protagonist, but his short stories showcase the ambitions not only of disabled women, but of Cobb as a storyteller. Because he is unable to read, write, and rewrite, Cobb fell short of reaching the potential of these oral tales, which would require far more editing than a simple spell check. But could I adapt them into poems that would fit the market at Wordgathering by speaking eloquently and forcefully about living with a disability?

To adapt Cobb's oral stories into poems, I needed mentors because I published my first and last poem in 1989. Both Adrienne Rich and my mother, Jessie Lee Wilson, died in 2012 as poets at the opposite ends of the success spectrum. After my mother's death, I began reading the poetry of other poets because I wanted to put her frustrated career into perspective. A used copy of Adrienne Rich's Poetry, selected and edited by Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi, fed my curiosity because I recognized Rich's name as a very famous poet and I craved to know what success would have been like for my mother. I read the book from cover-to-cover, from footnotes to endnotes. I fixated on Rich planting a seed of an idea from literature, film, or history, and growing a poem. "Stolen, by permission," Rich, on occasion, "borrowed" lines from her poetry students then created poems like "Implosions."2 Precedent established, I concentrate on a core idea in Cobb's stories and elaborate to create my own poems, but with a twist — I collaborate with Cobb to further develop his idea.

"Limitations" is an example of a short story Cobb underdeveloped in the right places and overdeveloped in the wrong. He begins with a premise that intrigues me: "It was a sunny day. It was 2 'o clock in the afternoon. Paula said she wanted to go to the beach for a swim, but she was disabled." Cobb fills the remaining three paragraphs of his story with slogans right out of a Jerry Lewis telethon: "Do what you set your mind to do" and "Never give up on your dreams." By the time his story reaches its anticlimax, his character, Paula, still sits in her wheelchair on dry land.

A lot of talk but no action also characterized the story. I recall a letter my mother wrote, advising, "Here is a point, Wayne, the writer who is going over my screenplay, brought out. Check the action without the dialogue. It is the action that people remember and that moved the story. People will remember what he/she did sometimes more than what they say." I carefully fold my mother's letter, put it back in my walk-in condo closet stacked with boxes of her and my father's unpublished writings, and I held her magnifying glass advice over Cobb's story. It vaporized. Nothing happened but a lot of talk. Because he comes from an oral storytelling background instead of a story writing background, Cobb wants "to tell other people that if you have goals in life there will still be obstacles that will stand in your way." He is unable to show.

Also haunting me were all of those scrawled, blue pencil margin notes requesting "more details" on the multiple copies of my mother's poetry, short stories, memoirs, and screenplays that editors, writing professors, and fellow workshop students returned to her. Similarly, Cobb's short stories lacked details. While my mother earned a degree in creative non-fiction writing and Cobb is illiterate, their stories suffered the same lack of details because they both come from an oral storytelling tradition in which voice, gestures, expressions, and personality aided in conveying the story. Devoid of these aides, their written poems and stories often dissipated. They were storytellers, not story-show-ers.

Both are African Americans and I cannot help but to think of a time when masters punished their slaves if they caught them reading or writing. We developed a strong oral tradition to pass down family history. My ancestors did not bequeath descendents letters from the eighteenth century and diaries from the nineteenth century. My family waited till the last quarter of the twentieth century for my mother to collect from infirmed elders as many oral stories as she could commit to paper. "If you do not write it down, you did not happen," she used to say. Cobb's storytelling talent is a vestige of this African American tradition. When I think of him, I think of my grandfather, Sam Dawson, who, though illiterate, possessed a voice: "Went ta school for a day, came home, started nailin' shingles on da roof, and never went back 'cause I couldn't tell nothin' I learned." Both Cobb and Wilson placed great emphasis on dialogue – what people say. Missing are details of expressions, gestures, actions, settings that enliven a written story. Perhaps this is a reason why my mother had such a hard time getting published. If I hope for Cobb to avoid her fate, I had to add details when I adapt his oral stories into written poems.

Before I began my adaptations, I sat down with Cobb to discuss details. The discussions usually occurred in my greenish office beneath florescent lights or in the small business center where gray light filtered through skylights covered with what resembled clouds of plastic garbage bags overhead. Family and friends had transcribed Cobb's stories from dictation between 2005 and 2007 — a long time ago from 2012. Perhaps the scent of the details has grown cold. I glean as much information as possible from Cobb about his stories. We discuss alternate scenarios and change the setting of "Limitations" from a beach to a pool to make a better story. I stare at a photo taped to a blue locker in the beige and off-white hall outside the business center showing a group of disabled summer campers floating in a swimming pool next to their smiling, thumbs-up attendants. I commit to memory the feeling of the water, the sun, the near-naked bodies.

For Cobb's story "Broken Mirrors," we Google and discuss the world myths and literature about mirrors from Narcissus's reflecting pool to Harry Potter's Mirror of Erised (desire spelled backwards). Cobb and I went so far as to shop on EBAY to identify an Amish, oak hand mirror with scalloped edges around the glass as the mirror his character found abandoned in a college women's restroom and stuffed in her junk-jammed backpack hanging on the back of her wheelchair. Several scribbled pages of concrete details and sketches emerged from our discussions to provide texture for the poems.


At home late in the evening in a sea foam green office, I distill the information from notes into lines of poetry. My laptop rests on a guest bed. I stack poetry books and papers around the lamb's wool blanket. I last published a poem in 1989 when my African sonnet "Changamire" appeared in the same issue of the Los Angeles Valley College Manuscript as my mother's poem "Universal Cry." A perennial student, my mother and I attended together the same community college where she served as fiction editor. Since that time and until recently, she gently inquired over the phone and through letters, "Have you been doing any writing?" I muttered a reply, "I only type up the notes to meetings." Now I am writing again. I raise my mother's weeping willow tree tea cup, steaming with white sage and wild mint, and toast her publicity photo gazing approvingly down upon me from the wall then I paint poetry pictures with descriptive words and actions. "Limitations" the poem begins:

Two hours past noon,
The sun shined on Paula,
Withered in a sweaty bikini,
Rubber wheelchair tires stuck to the hot pool deck,
As she simmered, "I cannot wait to get into the water."

The next day, Cobb's cupped hand pulls the black leather donuts off his ears. The Solo reading software had read aloud the first stanza of the poem to him. I stand, wait, and watch his mustached face widen into a grin. "I like it," he says. "It makes me feel hot. I want to go for a swim."

My face beamed.

We volley words back and forth. I write a stanza. Cobb listens. He misunderstands a word. I substitute. Less than a ghost writer and more than a co-writer, I strive to ensure his voice survives intact, to create a poem he imagines. I focus on the tension between Paula's desire for independence and her dependence upon her attendant, Eric. I employ repetition and enjambment to force the reader to wait for her attendant to arrive like she had to wait. I replace much of the dialogue with vivid, descriptive actions and details like "His flip flops navigated the sunbathers beached around the pool." The poem concludes where the story ends, except I show Paula swim in the water and contemplate her next goal. After Cobb listens to the poem, he pulls the headphones off his head and declares, "I like the story better now because I can see it."

The character of a woman in a wheelchair who "could not look in the mirror because she did not want to see herself as being disabled" drew me to adapt Cobb's seven-page story "Broken Mirror" as a poem. I ask him, "Where did you get this idea?"

Cobb furrows his brow and answers matter-of-factly, "I knew a truck driver who was paralyzed in an accident. I asked if I could write a story about him and he said I could if I change his name."

Cobb also changed the trucker's gender and age. Drawing inspiration from the magic mirror in the folk tale "Snow White," Cobb's character, Sheila, wheels around a college campus hiding a fortune-telling mirror tucked in her backpack. "It is unlikely that a person that young could be a trucker," I deduce, bearing a Cheshire cat grin.

Cobb shrugs and frowns. No one had ever pointed out this inconsistency.

Another disabled entrepreneur in the small business center, Monique Harris (or Miss Harris as she likes to be called), head wand strapped to her forehead like a unicorn horn, overhears our conversation, leans from her computer monitor, and in solidarity remarks, "I know exactly how she feels."

Miss Harris's comment goaded me to adapt Cobb's story about a disabled woman brandishing a magic looking glass because I sensed he had tapped into a universal disability consciousness.

My journey to adapt "Broken Mirror" as a poem endured a false start and changed lanes. At first, I tried adapting Cobb's story into a poem line-by-line, meticulously describing every piece of post-college junk Sheila emptied from her backpack, but the descriptions consumed two pages and drifted me further and further away from what attracted me to the story — a disabled woman with a magic mirror. Remembering my lesson from Adrienne Rich to focus on a core idea, I threw out two pages of poetry and zero in on Cobb's lines about the mirror: "She held it in her hand for a few minutes and she thought about it and said (to) herself, 'I do not need this mirror,' and then she tossed it across the room. That is what broken mirror means to me." Cobb describes through action what broken mirror means, but I crave to know what Sheila thought as she gazed at the mirror "for a few minutes."

Along with a refocus on a key moment in "Broken Mirror" came a change in direction. I notice Cobb sometimes told stories and poems featuring paralyzed characters. I thought this smacked of a sentimentality-sucking, pity-mongering, inspiration-begging copout. I raise an open hand in the air, waiting to catch an answer as I grill Cobb, "Why all of these stories about people who were paralyzed? Why not write about someone who was born with cerebral palsy like you?"

"But I do know people who were paralyzed," Cobb defends himself, raising his voice in our first creative disagreement.

"I do not doubt it," I concede, but press no further. The poem I had in mind would be more powerful and make a better story if the character lived with a born disability as opposed to giving an "inspiring" commencement address about a paralyzing accident. Nevertheless, I defer to Cobb and include a line in the poem referring to the Sundance Channel reality show "Push Girls," which features a group of beautiful women who mostly acquired their paralysis through accidents. With a pinched face, Cobb listens to my line, snatches the headphones from his ears, and scowls, "Take that line about 'Push Girls' out of there! I do not like it." He flicks his fingers as if flicking a booger. Witnessing the commotion, Miss Harris, who despises the "reality" show for unrepresenting the reality of people (especially those of color) with disabilities, harrumphs in agreement.

I continue my original plan for an Adrienne Rich-like targeting of a key moment in the story – those "few minutes" the character gazes in a mirror. The poem begins:

She breathed into the mirror
And polished the fogged glass
With her neckerchief
To bring her shadow into light

The opening lines include the words "breathed" and "shadow" in reference to Breath & Shadow: A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature, because I had considered submitting the poem to the journal, but decided against it since I, a non-disabled person, and not Cobb, a disabled person, wrote the poem. I left the references in there because they evoked the dark, the mysterious. I also study individuals around the Cerebral Palsy Center who wear neckerchiefs to catch drool or to serve as an all-purpose cleaning rag for glasses and watches.

Rich's poem "I Dream I'm the Death of Orpheus" ("I am a woman in the prime of life . . . / A woman feeling the fullness of her powers") inspired my alliterated line "Wonder Woman in a wheelchair." I study this poem's texture. Orpheus learns "to walk backward against the wind / on the wrong side of the mirror." I tap into myths, folklore, fairytales, at which I felt Cobb's story hinted. I drop Sheila's name to transcend the individual and embrace the universal.

"Born disabled," the now unnamed character gazes at the mirror to "imagine the origin myths" of her disability in a rapid succession of tragedies that materialize in her looking glass. Each accident travels to more exotic locations from crashing "into a Mack truck hauling chickens" "east of Bakersfield" to snapping cell phone photos in the middle of London's Abbey Road to cliff diving in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Cobb's eyes widen in recognition when he hears the first scene reinterpreting his trucker friend's paralyzing accident. I based the second scene on my near-collision with a London cab when I stood in the middle of Westminster's Bridge to snap pictures of Big Ben without realizing the traffic runs in the opposite direction. The third scene alludes to Alejandro Amenabar's film, "The Sea Inside", about a man paralyzed in a cliff diving accident. Like Rich, I pull images from memory and popular culture. If the poem's character holds the mirror longer, more scenes of paralyzing accidents will form in the glass before her eyes.

Over the course of two decades at a non-profit agency for disabled adults, I recall many individuals ask "what if" questions: What if I had enough oxygen when I was born? What if the doctor had not used forceps during my delivery? In my own family, we asked "what if" questions when doctors diagnosed our sister with a mild form of cerebral palsy four decades after her birth in the front seat of a Dodge Rambler racing to the hospital when she ejected out of our mother's womb and hit her head against the dashboard: What if Dad had not gotten lost on his way to the hospital? What if Mom had sat in the back seat when she was delivering? Asking "what if" questions about our origins is natural and human. But the mirror is a trap. Excessive fixation on what could have been can lead to a form of psychic paralysis in which a person is unable to move forward in life. The character in "Broken Mirror" realizes that "Fantasies of her own origin" will drive her crazy with self-doubt and self-hate if the mirror hypnotizes her longer. Impulsively, she seizes control of the gaze and tosses the mirror "which failed to capture / The reflections of her heart."


We finish writing and submit the poems to Wordgathering, but my mind wanders back to Cobb's original stories with a question: "How do you capture a story's details from an oral storyteller who may neglect them?" After participants and staff left work for the day, I lean my ear closer to a portable stereo playing a cassette tape of my paternal grandmother, Mama Jennie Moore, telling "The Story of the Black Cat" – a story passed down to her from her own grandmother involving a slave, a master, a cat, and an oven. Frequently, my brother, Mickie Dion Thompson, a Baltimore Sun reporter before becoming an Episcopal priest, interrupts her oral storytelling to ask for details. The tape goes silent. I remove the cassette from the stereo. If my brother, the audience, had not asked our grandmother, the storyteller, questions, three quarters of her story would have been lost to our family forever. Faithful transcriptions of Cobb's oral stories leave me with the vague feeling that the stories hinted at larger, untold details. Daily, weekly, monthly, I open his mind and pour in essays, stories, poems from Poetry Foundation and Wordgathering to generate a new story to test my theory.

"Andre, I have a story," he whispers one day when he powers his brake-clicking, motor-buzzing wheelchair into my office. "Please close the door."

I slam the door, plop in my chair, swivel to an old typewriter table where a warm laptop waits.

"This is someone that was related to me that was the bird," I hear a hushed voice behind me. Cobb pumps the air with an open fist. "This really happens to me. When people die, they come back to me at night. It does not scare me. My grandmother always told me I had the 'gift.'"

The hum of my computer and the clicks on my keyboard disappear as Cobb's disembodied voice fills my dim office on a cloudy day.

"It was kind of hard for me to grasp and understand what was going on at first. I know that the people would not hurt me, but I wanted to know why people come back to see me in that way. Some people, my relatives, said, 'The reason why I was coming back to you in this way is because I have a message for people in your family.'

"Say you go home," he aims a finger at my cringed back. "Imagine sitting on the couch and you cannot see your mother."

My body, my shoulders tighten. Dry fingers hover over the keys for a moment then resume typing.

He explains, "I am the only one who sees your mother standing there talking to you. She wants to know if you are all right. She only gives me little pieces of the message. It has to go through my mind first before I give you the whole message."

I cease typing. I swivel my chair and pose a question maneuvered sideways, "Does Paula visit you?"

A couple of weeks ago, Cobb had phoned me at the farmer's market to announce he had sold several of his greeting cards. I had pressed my phone to my ear to block out the chatter between produce vendors and customers while I asked him a question for this essay, "Tyrone, where did you get the idea for 'Limitations'?"

"From a friend who drowned," I had heard over the phone. "She wanted to go for a swim and did not want to wait. She got out of her wheelchair and into the pool, but she did not know how to swim or get out of the water so she drowned. The swimming instructor was fired for leaving her unattended."

I had picked up one more bag of raisins than I needed from the winter fruit vendor and had asked Cobb, "Was her name Paula?"

"Yes, she was my best friend. She has been dead for twenty years now. I'm sorry I did not tell you earlier, but I just could not tell you in your office."

In my office, I dread an answer to my question, "Does Paula visit you?" Cobb presses his sneakers down on his black footboards and his elbows down on his armrests to raise his body up in his wheelchair. "Yes."

I recoil in my chair and glimpse Cobb's piercing, black eyes then avert mine as if they could burn from staring at an eclipse too long. I pivot to continue typing his story until he exits my office in his clicking wheelchair to catch a bus home.


The pitter-patter of rain drops against my dirty window drum out the distant voices of carolers at a Christmas party for participants and staff. Cobb and I reconvene in my office to resume work on his story about his encounter with an angel bird – the spirit of the dead. I volunteer to serve as his data miner. I ask questions to extract as many hidden details as possible from his story. What was the weather like? What were you doing under the tree? What was the color of the leaves? These questions enable me to capture a fuller story still fresh in his mind. I also bottle and preserve his details rather than add mine later. Imbued with all six senses, a tale begins:

I sit in my wheelchair beneath a misty, cloudy sky, beneath an autumn tree, brown leaves flutter to the ground all around, eyes closed in contemplation of a new poem. A bird's chirrup broke my mid-afternoon meditation. I open my eyes and look up to see a twittering bluebird perched on a barren branch. The bird cease singing, focuses black eyes on me, and speaks, "You might not know who I am, but I am related to you."



1. Part 2 of "Ghosts and Poets" will appear in the June issue of Wordgathering.

2. Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi, Adrienne Rich's Poetry: Texts of the Poems, the Poet on Her Work, Reviews and Criticism (New York: Norton & Company, 1975) 41. Rich also incorporated prose from one of her New York City College Open Admissions Program students into her poem "The Burning of Paper Instead of Children," Gelpi and Gelpi 48.


André Le Mont Wilson is a small business coordinator at Oakland's Cerebral Palsy Center for the Bay Area, Inc. In 2012, the deaths of his poet-parents, Fred and Jessie Wilson, impelled him to edit and submit the poetry of Monique Harris and Tyrone Cobb and to write his own. He recites or reads his poems, those of his parents, and those of Miss Harris at poetry open mics and workshops throughout the San Francisco East Bay Area.