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
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
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
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
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
Autobiography is also a spiritual work:
and a lyrical one:
often a pattern is flawed
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?
It is a narrative of noticing, making lists, jotting phone numbers, taking notes…
Here, we even are privy to the poet revising.
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
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
her bits of wisdom and moments of insight,
often longing has a system
her hints at life's sorrows,
people can sometimes reside in
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
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.