Petra Kuppers


Let’s read a fun poem together: “Latin Does Not Have a Word for Symmetry,” by Jim Ferris.
Here goes:

Latin Does Not Have a Word for Symmetry

           Non habet Latinum nomen symmetria.

I am the symmetry of the gods
I am the lake in the mountains
I am the mountain in the lakes
I am the image of all that breaks

I am the chip in your best china
I am the lost line of your best joke
I am the joke you fear to become
I am the secret we all come from

my arms are strong my reach is long
my cells are undivided
you know you’re wrong to slide along
when you are undecided

I am the choice you refuse to make
I am the voice that always quakes
I am what’s left when you’re gone
I am the night that refuses the dawn

I am the joy that you take in rhymes
I am the crack that began all time
I am time running out
I am the gods beginning to pout

my face is long my smell is strong
my noise is unabated
you noise along another’s song
deny what you’ve created

I am the space around your aches
I am the substance of all that breaks
I am the crack in the stone
I am the total of all you can own

I am asymmetry of the gods
I am the dizzying of the odds
I am the fates that you fear
I am this instant – focus here

That is one delicious poem, I knew that the first time I read it. It is written by Jim Ferris, a writer who embraces disability culture, and sees close connections between his particular form of embodiment, his crip status and his poetry (as he explicated in his essay, ‘The Enjambed Body: Towards a Crippled Poetics’, The Georgia Review, 2004). But though I know that it makes me smile, I have really no idea why it is so delicious, which is particularly lovely: I am all undecided. I often do not know why I find a poem interesting or delightful, but I usually have something nice and stable to get me going – a sound or image, a clash between two lines that open something up, a coloring of breath into pattern, a limping meter, or, I know! a hint in a contemporarily lyrical yet fragmented subject position that seems epistemologically intriguing. Nope.

So this essay is not one, just a celebration of fun. Maybe I am seduced by the joys in the rhyme, by repetition, the song of jokes and pouts and noisy slides? Maybe it is all the ‘I am’s. I can take my pick, parse them out, create a narrative, find a story like a lady detective, a story about crip aesthetics, disability and poetry.

Maybe it is just play, balancing on a word. Antiquity tells me that is where monsters, misshapen things, come from: God at play. She’s having a laugh.

Maybe Non habet Latinum nomen symmetria. Don’t believe a word. Pliny’s Latin can draw on Greek quite easily, and beware of those gifts already: language can carry all sorts of stuff along, infiltrating for all times, Trojan horses that haunt with their strange load. Symmetry and its refusal have been around a long time – but only ever as a Greek quote. And if symmetry gets all uptight, static, fixed and firm, its dimensions stiff and brittle, something else can slide along, move and shimmy. Greeks, Romans, classicists, romantics and modernists all wrote from that dictum: there’s order against chaos, and somewhere in there is art. Seduced by the binary, the Greek dichotomy, they circled around that stranger, foreigner, naturalized into European languages, the strange and sibilant symmetry. But some things, undivided, never had a place in these careful aesthetics: why is ‘blue’ beautiful, a mountain sans reflection, an odd-shaped leaf, pied, speckled, dappled things?

Maybe it is that frame, the way that Latin can turn English on its head, bend it out of shape: ‘Latin Does Not Have a Word for Symmetry’ - ‘Non habet Latinum nomen symmetria.’ Translation can be a pain that way, words all over the place, clashings and leanings, and word and names transfigure other shapes.

Maybe it is my delight at finding old Pliny here, the magpie of antiquity. Pliny the elder was a world traveler in books, a man who described and cataloged in The Natural History the strange things in the world, condensing knowledge, with bizarre beings at the map’s edges. He gave us those people who stand with their feet backwards, the creatures with one eye, unicorns, that teratology of ancient monsters - got Marco Polo to see weird things, and skewered eyes forever as a much quoted received authority. Here be dragons: what lies beneath those calm mountain lakes, when Nessie breaks the mirror.

Maybe it is all the I’s now flat into my, my, you, and when. Suddenly, you are sliding, not with the anchored ‘I’. I might be wrong to slide along when I am undecided – but I enjoy running through the poem at speed. My, my: enough already with being called to attention. My, my, you, deny: why?

Maybe it is all those spaces that get traveled to on this page. Multiple ‘I’s, in mountains, lakes, in household objects, in a joke, in fear, in secret: that’s some gremlin here, descendant of the little people, green leprechaun, older Europeans and their languages, other strangers to English or Greek, trickster, coyote, king-maker, the one the Gods keep getting mad at, and who doesn’t make it easy for humans, either, but at least lets us dance in the fairy hills, asymmetry, crutches and limps and all.

And after all the ‘I’, the shortness of line, isn’t it luxury to say ‘my arms are strong my reach is long/ my cells are undivided’. There is something ancient, reaching, cradling in this iambic rhythm, and in the strength of these ‘o’s, reinforced, repeated, braced into solidity through the sounds of the next lines, the strong rhyme: ‘you know you’re wrong to slide along/when you are undecided’. And there is smell: molecules, transgressing from one body to another, across all kinds of non-bounded spaces. It’s no use to demarcate an ‘I’, or to find clear dividing lines: the world infiltrates. There are noises here, unabated, like an original bang, making matter out of waves, expanding, not made over into order.

There is Time, and space, and substance, and always that little extra, just a reminder. That space around the ache, the joy in rhymes, time pressing against one’s own time: extra, above, beyond, that linkage and shattering. I know: it’s the lyric poem’s ability to draw attention to the performance of language, no wait, the undecidable extra, the citational solidarity of language, the productivity that exceeds the instance, or ‘where the problematically abstract meets the problematically acute’ (as Elaine Scarry says). Or else just fairy laughs, Puck teasing Oberon.

And then there is the ending, setting a nice satisfying end point, visually, with the dash, and in its meaning: ‘I am this moment - focus here’. Come back from eternity, gods, tricksters, and long things, and get thee right back to your senses reading this, right now, and be released.


Petra Kuppers is a disability culture activist, a community artist and an Associate Professor of English, Theater and Women's Studies at the University of Michigan. Her books include The Scar of Visibility: Medical Performances and Contemporary Art (Minnesota, 2007), Community Performance: An Introduction (Routledge, 2007) and Disability and Contemporary Performance: Bodies on Edge (Routledge, 2003). Currently, she's lovingly polishing her collection of disability culture poetry essays and has a great time fiddling with her first poetry collection.

Jim Ferris is author of The Hospital Poems, winner of the 2004 MSR Book Award, selected by Edward Hirsch. His essay "The Enjambed Body: A Step Toward a Crippled Poetics" was lead essay in The Georgia Review’s special summer 2004 issue on poetry. His chapbook, The Facts of Life, was published in 2005 by Parallel Press. He teaches Disability Studies and Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.