Book Review: The Uppity Blind Girl Poems (Kathi Wolfe)
Reviewed by Ana Garza G'z
A few months ago, I was at work, interpreting a deposition for a job injury claim. Before the deposition began, the attorney and his client discussed the status of the case. "According to this report, you have a disability rating of twenty-five percent," the attorney said. "Most people who are awarded benefits have ratings of twenty-five to forty percent. People rarely get ratings higher than that: a hundred percent means you're blind and can't dress yourself or work or do anything else." For me, the blind person who had dressed herself that morning and was working for him that very second, the comment was both inaccurate and painful, setting off an immediate mental recap of recent failures and self-doubt, which by the attorney's logic were inevitable as would be the negative outcome of all the inherently insignificant actions of my sadly limited life. Kathi Wolfe's The Uppity Blind Girl Poems would have been the perfect book to come home to that night. Its central character speaks up, lives up, and measures up to the experience of living, offering a version of disability inconceivable to many ableist readers.
The chapbook is a series of poems about Uppity, a hip twenty-five-year-old New Yorker who is blind, Lesbian, and aware of the intersection between politics and ordinary life. Wolfe sums the book's narrative arc and thematic preoccupations neatly in a June 2014 Wordgathering interview. It's "the story of a character who is immersed with…encountering…humanity…and the human condition." She falls in love and gets rejected; feels jealousy, anger; prays; fights with and loves her sister; fights against and becomes like her mother; revels in her love of language; and is terrified as she guides her girlfriend to their apartment in the midst of a power outage after Hurricane Sandy. "Along the way, people stare at her, try to heal her, pray for her without her asking for their prayers, and act as if she's mentally incompetent because she's blind. If you have an apparent (visible) disability such as blindness — then ableism becomes part of the human condition for you. Cultural discomfort, ignorance, fetishizing, fear, prejudices and discrimination with and against disability and people with disabilities become part of the air you breathe." So Uppity goes about her life, both immersed in her own experience and conscious of others' experience of her, and she comments on this dual representation of herself—as I and as other—pausing occasionally for her mother, sister, and lover to have a say, but taking charge again.
And Uppity is outspoken. In the same interview, Wolfe explains that her character's "real name is Elizabeth, but, by her own choice, she's often called Uppity," a term with what Elspeth Reeve of The Wire calls a "secret past." According to Reeve, it's "a term racist southerners used for black people who didn't know their place," and according to Merriam-Webster Online, it's "acting as if you are more important than you really are, do not have to do what you are told to do, etc." Wolfe herself puts it like this: "When a waiter asks Sabrina if she (Uppity) wants a glass of wine, Uppity quickly tells the server what she wants. When an editor tells Uppity that because of her blindness she can't write a blog on fashion, she says that there's no reason why she can't blog about spirits (wine or beer tasting) or fragrance (perfumes)." In some ways, the book is a catalog of these moments: the able-bodied talking around their interpretation of Uppity, and Uppity talking back, both in the literal sense of asserting herself, her wants, her needs and in the figurative sense of telling those around her what to do with their misconceptions.
"Blindista" is a perfect example of Uppity on the subject of what blind girls should and shouldn't do. It starts with an exchange between the teenaged Uppity and her mother about what Uppity should do with her hair:
Watch me roll my sightless eyes!
As anyone who has ever had it knows, long hair is hard work. It needs to be kept tangle free, pulled away from the face, styled maybe with hot and dangerous implements, like curling irons, or with potentially hazardous chemicals, like hair spray. Elizabeth's mother thinks blind girls can't be trusted, but Uppity knows how to handle the tools and potions of the salon, and she knows the allure of long lustrous hair, the feminine power of hair draped over oneself as over a lover:
I don't want footmen, Prince Charming
So Uppity grows her hair long, despite her mother's pronouncement.
At 25, unfurling her cane, her own feather boa
And the confidence of that hair, that power, flows over Uppity, makes her feel daring in her feather boa, graceful as Fred Astaire, sexy like Carrie Bradshaw even though the cold stares of others see only a blind woman with a white cane. Uppity has asserted herself to her mother, and those choices have benefited her when dealing with those who see the outcome of her efforts without appreciating that choices were made.
Uppity, like most twenty-somethings, is exuberant and hungry for experience. In "Labor Pains and the Muse," an essay on the birth of Uppity Blind Girl, Wolfe highlights differences between the somber Helen Keller, atlas for life and behavior imposed on many people with disabilities, and Uppity, Keller's rambunctious counterpoint: "Uppity was born and has grown up in a post Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and American with Disabilities Act (ADA) world. She's gone to school in inclusive classrooms, socialized with disabled and non-disabled peers, and lives on her own. Unlike Keller who had to repress her sexuality because of disability based prejudice, Uppity is a sensual creature looking for love and romance." She's queer, dates, has former lovers, and goes clubbing." She works as a professional blogger, covering trendy topics, adores high-heeled shoes, and volunteers at a hospice. "Unlike past generations of people with disabilities who often tried to assimilate – to hide their blindness – or to behave in ways pleasing to able-bodied people in power, Uppity owns her blindness." In other words, she feels confident enough in who she is and secure enough in her right to love, work, and participate in society that she does all three on her own terms regardless of how she is perceived. In "Blind Porn," Uppity clicks with another person and expresses it openly. The poem begins at home, with Uppity and her girlfriend in bed, the TV on, the newscaster all but giggling:
Imagine reading Playboy to the Blind
In typical Uppity brass, the next lines are:
I hope it's filthy, so sordid it gives blind
No repressed Helen Keller here, Uppity is obviously interested in sex, the damp of a building orgasm somewhere between the flat and fitted sheets. The two women clicked that night. Earlier they kissed in Washington Square Park, openly, passionately, lost in the moment "until this guy, panting, leered, I take a pic / with my phone – two blind chicks making out." Far from being cowed or ashamed, Uppity and co, like "Furies in spiked heels, / … aimed – a direct hit ," kicking the voyer in the groin. Then they go back to the apartment, where they
Uppity's evening has run the gammet from a hot same-sex kiss in public, to an evening at someone's apartment for a probable sexual encounter, to the possibility of love making—all experiences she engages in despite the disbelief of others, as represented by the Washington Square voyer. She defends her right to be sexual (the kick in the groin) and protects the sanctity of such intimacy by not allowing the moment to be cheapened in a snapshot likely to carry the Face Book caption, "Two Blind Chicks Making Out." Most of all, she prays for tenderness, the softness that transforms mere sex to an expression of a deeper emotion and suggests hope for the sort of committed relationship unavailable to Keller.
Uppity is a character of facets. In her interview, Wolfe says, "Uppity is, I hope, a flesh and blood, three-dimensional character. At times, she speaks out against people who stare at her or try to heal her. But most of the time, Uppity's living her life. She's being human…not "political." Yet, because this culture is so soaked with ableism, a character such as Uppity becomes political. Because in the context of a culture which still, generally, perceives people with disabilities as being exotic, asexual, incompetent, "inspirational," helpless, isolated, etc…writing poems in the voice of a fully human character with a disability—becomes, what Carolyn Forche calls creating 'poetry of witness.'" This type of poetry occupies a space that is broader than the personal, but narrower than the political, a social space that understands personal experience as having and giving meaning within a more general context, in effect imbuing the individual act or experience with a layer of symbol or representation. In this case, Uppity's variety of experience, her moods, and her reclaiming of ableist metaphors transform her into a manifesto of sorts.
While most of the selections of the book are loud and in-your-face, a few poems—like "The Planet of the Blind," "Seeing Red," and "Maybe Chicken Little Wasn't Paranoid After all"—give the collection a layer of softness that makes uppity easier to relate to. As a character, Uppity is high-intensity "I'm blind. Get over it." She's often got a drink in her hand, spiky gold or silver heels on her feet, sex on her mind, and a retort hanging from her lips like a half smoked cigarette. She's twenty-five, an age when brass and drama are the order of the day, so the persona makes sense, but Uppity's very intensity makes her sometimes feel less human. In "Love at First Sight," for instance, Uppity meets her girlfriend. They get trapped in an elevator together, and a week later, they're in bed and in a bar. The energy of the poem revolves around allusions to The Wizzard of Oz and to Uppity's forthrightness, relegating the thrill of a new relationship to a secondary plane. Also, the chapbook's extensive use of blindness metaphors is sometimes provocative and other times confusing. "Uppity Writes on Tinseltown's Facebook Wall" is about movie theaters, bad romances, and the illusion of 1950's cinema. The opening and closing images of blinking into the dark and blinking into the light as moviegoers enter and exit the theater are interesting both on a literal and metaphorical level, but the many references to ultra visual artifacts—"Gods of pop-eyed paparazzi and strobe-lit carpet—makes less sense to me. As a forty-something who feels comfortable in her blindness, I found myself gravitating to the poems where Uppity lets characters and situations speak for themselves. My favorite is probably "Grand Central Rorschach Blot," which is a triptych of encounters with sighted strangers, each describing Uppity's white cane as a different object, weapon, paint brush, golf club. That said, The Uppity Blind Girl Poems are for the days when our confidence in our skins as people with disabilities is shaken. Certainly, on the day I learned from the worker's comp attorney that, as a blind person, I can't dress myself, work, or do anything, the image of Uppity springing onto the conference table in silver staletos and giving the attorney a direct hit is a better alternative than the week long sulk I engaged in.
The task Wolfe sets for herself in The Uppity Blind Girl Poems is a challenging one. As she explains in the June 2014 interview, "when we write good poetry, the personal and political come together so seamlessly — that both poets and readers stop noticing whether the poetry is political. It becomes a distinction without a difference. This is especially true for poets with disabilities. Our bodies, at the nexus of so much cultural fear, fascination and discomfort, become part of the body politic. Creating our poetic narrative out of this intersection is by turns, difficult, maddening and exhilarating." The Uppity Blind Girl Poems is one such narrative. Its novel use of hackneyed metaphors is sometimes difficult to make sense of, and its hardness and loudness are sometimes maddening, but its energy and the unabashed sense of I-belong-here of its central character—who speaks her mind, lives her life, and occupies the standard number of dimensions of a typical twenty-something—are exhilarating, making the collection a good friend for people who haven't yet found a genuine belief in themselves regardless of ableism and for the rest of us, who sometimes get a little tired of wondering, "Why am I so damned interesting To the rest of the world?" The Uppity Blind Girl Poems is the winner of the 2014 Stonewall Chapbook Contest and is available from BrickHouse Books.