Book Review: Autobiography/Anti-Autobiography (Jennifer Bartlett)

Reviewed by Ona Gritz

"This monster, the body, this miracle, its pain…"

How fitting that Jennifer Bartlett has chosen a quote by Virginia Woolf as an epigraph for Autobiography/ Anti-Biography, her daring and beautiful new collection of poems. Bartlett is a poet like no other, her voice uniquely her own, but if any foremother's influence can be felt it's Woolf's. It's there in the internal quality of the narrative, its music and intimacy, and in a grammar and logic that is intuitive rather than linear; deeply personal yet—to me, and certainly to others with physical disabilities—bone-deep familiar.

As is suggested by the title, the book is divided into two distinct sections. It is in the first, Autobiography, that Bartlett openly explores disability, grappling not so much with her body's limits and imperfections as with the limited, imperfect (able-centric) world she/we must move through.

She writes:

a movement spastic
               and unwieldy

is its own lyric and
the able-bodied are

tone-deaf to this singing

Tone-deaf to this singing! The disabled reader knows the heartbreaking accuracy of these words. The able-bodied world is so rarely attuned to our beauty or to the richness of our lives, and one of the many ways Bartlett's poems serve us is by naming this lack and placing it, rightly, outside the self and onto the callous and unthinking observer.

…the critic of the world watches

o stupid, stupid world

so that, the mother might
          say your child must be angry

because you are disabled

so I told her, your child
must be angry

because you are a bitch… …and the children grow up
knowing this is ordinary

What these powerful poems bring into question is our acceptance of such cutting and blatant ableism as ordinary. Another influence I sense in Bartlett's dynamic address to the world is Whitman, but while he sings of an expansive and inclusive America, Bartlett rails at an America that shuts out the physically imperfect, or to use the word she boldly reclaims and redefines, the crippled.

to be crippled means to
see the world slowly and manically

          to translate
to record
          to adapt

to be crippled means to have
access to people's fear

of their own erosion

We live among those, Bartlett reminds us, whose worst fear is to become us. Here she flips the idea of accessibility on its head. It is we who adapt, who change ourselves to fit into their world.

I was taught to walk
because walking is always preferable
to not walking

I was taught to walk
so they wouldn't have to reform
their beautiful architecture

These messages come from outside, yes, but of course we internalize them. We are both vulnerable to and complicit in our own oppression, Bartlett goes on to say. What gives her work its texture and enormous heart is that she allows us to see not just her rage but her weariness and grief.

I asked myself to fit
the way they thought I should

so I could have their jobs
and their happy lives

and now I am exhausted
from their stupid asking

from my own stupid asking

Autobiography is also a spiritual work:

composed primarily
      of water and light

      this is my body
      I am its light

and a lyrical one:

often a pattern is flawed
you could almost miss it

the silence among the reeds
a curtain shut against cadences

the train draws its pattern through the country

It is the complete package, and yet we're but halfway there…

The title Anti-Autobiography appears, at first, to be a misnomer. For in its second half, Bartlett's book continues to be a deeply personal work. One marked difference is that disability is not a part of the story here. In fact, Anti-Autobiographyis about the mind rather than the body. A curious mind, a mind at work. The section opens with questions interrupted by observations:

Is it true that the west means space?

that fragmented space
         that scattering

the moths are unruly this year
throughout the trees
a cocoon of leaves

[ sometimes you have to walk into the forest]

         can this happen?
and this
         and this?

Is it true that one can live in new york and be a west coast poet?

It is a narrative of noticing, making lists, jotting phone numbers, taking notes…

email nathaniel
send postcard to kate and max
books and notebook for james

Here, we even are privy to the poet revising.

I at this point am not available to anyone.

There is a seeming randomness to Anti-Autobiography in both its content and its order so that, in reading it, we can be made to feel like voyeurs. We poke around in the narrator's desk, flip through her journal, glance at her to-do list, read the (charming) note she's left for her husband.

Dear Jim, Mom called. I thought she was going to offer to pay for your airline ticket, but she told me to talk you out of going to Guatemala because she read on the internet that it is very dangerous. We agree that there are Mayan temples in Mexico. Call her.

In the hands of a lesser poet, this gathering of fragments might have failed to come together meaningfully. But Bartlett's collage is intriguing and intimate. It is a self-portrait of someone we wish to know. Here again Virginia Woolf comes to mind—Mrs. Dalloway particularly—in that we find ourselves following the inner life of our protagonist, in all its wonder and minutia, and through her particulars we recognize our own. As Clarissa Dalloway wanders the streets of her city, so does Bartlett, taking us with her as she remembers and free-associates—much as we all do when turning familiar corners and encountering personal landmarks.

and here is where Jane King broke my heart
and here is the bookstore that closed
and here is the studio of the Japanese painter
who Rachel worshipped
and here is where I kissed John
and here is where I bought the Alessi coffee pot
for Jim's 34th birthday
and here is twelve chairs [which I think Manon's father
owns, but I'm not sure]
and here is the place I've never eaten
and here is the corner where I met Jim
and here is where Charles had his sixtieth birthday party
and here is where they do not have baby food
and here is where I bought the dress
and here is where we paid too much for the bagel
and here and here and here

In a sense, Anti-Autobiography could be said to tease. We're in but not quite. We understand, but only in bits. Here is where I bought the dress, Bartlett tells us. Not a dress, but one we are somehow supposed to already know about. And we do, for we each have that dress or some other article of clothing that contains a story. Where Bartlett doesn't fill us in, we fill in with our own anecdotes and memories. In this way, Anti-Autobiography becomes a collaborative work. We read Bartlett's advice,

In order to go to sleep, you must build a canoe. In order to go to sleep, you
must put yourself in a canoe. You must launch from the shore, and from
this shore, you must leave all objects and people behind…

her bits of wisdom and moments of insight,

often longing has a system
but not a map,

her hints at life's sorrows,

people can sometimes reside in
the intensive care unit for years

and with these ingredients, we create an amalgam that is part hers and part our own. This, of course, is something we always do to an extent when we read. We inject ourselves. We interpret. But rarely are we this explicitly invited to do so. Herein lies the brilliance of Anti-Autobiography and where it earns its title.

Bartlett tells us, finally:

the persona is erased
so that, this could be, not my Autobiographyper se,
but the Autobiographyof any girl

Thus it ends, sans punctuation, tempting us to continue the story, which is, after all, just as much ours as anyone else's. This, ultimately, adds another layer of meaning in regard to disability and the first half of the book. We, the disabled, are not—internally or experientially—all that different from our able-bodied counterparts. In fact, we are very nearly one and the same. And here, in this inventive and lovely new volume by Jennifer Bartlett our biographies are braided and fused.


Ona Gritz is a poet, columnist, and author of two children's books. She has two books of poetry: Left Standing, (Finishing Line Press, 2005) and Geode (Main Street Rag, 2013). Gritz's essays have been published in The Utne Reader, More magazine and The Bellingham Review, placing second for the 2008 Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction. Gritz's monthly column on mothering and disability can be found online at Literary Mama . She has received nine Pushcart nominations.