Paul Hostovsky


"Wannabe DeafBlind." That's what a friend of mine calls me half-jokingly. I'm hearing and sighted, but through a series of unheard-of and unlooked-for and unquestionably blessed circumstances, I learned to read Braille tactilely and to sign fluently in my early twenties, and for the rest of my life I have spent most of my waking (and sleeping) hours with people who are either Deaf or blind or DeafBlind. Which is probably why I sometimes write about them.

There is a long unhappy tradition of able-bodied poets and writers writing about disabled people in ways that exploit, oppress, idealize, allegorize or otherwise misrepresent them. Needless to say, I do not wish to contribute to that tradition. And yet it's important to recognize that I am not immune from doing so. None of us is. But in this essay I would like to take a look at the work of a few hearing/sighted/able-bodied poets and writers who have arguably avoided that trap, eschewed the tendency to stereotype or misappropriate, and have written about disability in ways that I find interesting or fresh or beautiful or poignant, and to examine just how they did it.

But before I do that, I need to confess something to you: I am, I suppose you could say, somewhat enamoured of the, well, perhaps the word is trappings of disability. And what is one to make of a non-disabled person who exults in the trappings of disability? For example, I wear a braille watch. I keep braille magazines in the car and in my backpack and on the nightstand. I have a white cane in the closet that belonged to a DeafBlind friend of mine, now deceased–I don't use the cane, but I sometimes like to take it out and hold it in my hand, tap or sweep the floor with it, then put it back in the closet. And how weird is that? I have a Helen Keller memorial quarter, and a braille medallion hanging on my keychain that says "Read For Fun.". Also, I inherited the wheelchair that my late Aunt Hannah used after her amputation and I sometimes like to sit in it while watching TV, or roll around in it through the house. And what about ASL, come to think of it, and all the hearing people like me who have learned it "as an elective?" By some accounts, there are more hearing people who know sign language now than Deaf people. And isn't there something a little distasteful, even suspect, about us hearing folks learning (appropriating?) the language of Deaf people and, some of us, making very comfortable salaries as interpreters for the Deaf while the Deaf and DeafBlind folks we're interpreting for–many of them–most of them–are unemployed or underemployed and struggling to get by?

The point being: much as I like to think that my own writing–as well as my work and relationships with disabled people–comes from this pure place of love, alliance, curiosity, fellowship… still, I sometimes can't help second-guessing myself all these years later. I'm honestly not sure what my motives were back at the beginning, or even, sometimes, what they are today. Maybe that's the subject for another essay, another poem, which may or may not ever get written. But I needed to put it out there, here at the beginning. So really, the only claim I'm making is that the work which follows pleases me. I like it. Simple as that. And I hope you will like it, too, and go on to read more works by these authors. But a few readers may find some of the work presented here (and/or me) objectionable, or suspect, or exploitive in certain subtle or not-so-subtle ways that I'm not seeing. I don't know. I only know what I like, and much of the time I don't even rightly know why. But I'll take a stab at explaining why I've chosen these particular poems and excerpts from prose works to share with you, and what it is about them that strikes me as being successful.

* * *

This first poem, by Ellen Bryant Voigt, is actually part of a longer sequence called "Variations: Two Trees." The excerpted section below is perhaps the single most poignant evocation I have ever read of the long sad history of oral education that has been foisted on deaf children worldwide for centuries. It totally blew me away the first time I read it years ago, and it continues to do so, both for its remarkable compression, and also for the power of its imagery and metaphor:

When the deaf child came to school they tied his hands.
They meant to teach him speech, the common language.
They meant to cast him down into silence.
                     only a little while.
They showed him their teeth, their pink gymnastic tongues.
And raised him up with exaggerated praise
  if his face made the shapes their faces made,
  if he made his mouth a funnel for the sound.
          and opened his throat to let the angel out.

His hands lay on his desk as though they were sick.
Like the two sick chimps he saw at the zoo.
One ran to the wire–knuckles swept the ground–
  rolling her lips under, exposing the gums.
The other was turned away from his audience,
  fingers and opposable thumbs
          ripping the leaves from the wand of a tree.
Perhaps it would be a tool; perhaps a weapon.

I don't know if Voigt has any connection to Deaf people, but I knew I wanted to include this poem here because the memory of it has stayed with me ever since first reading it years ago. But I didn't have a copy of it on hand and I couldn't remember the title. What I did remember was those "pink gymnastic tongues," so I googled "Ellen Bryant Voigt pink gymnastic tongues" and the poem came up. I thought that was pretty cool. But anyway, I think these lines distill beautifully and in such a compressed way what so many Deaf adults, who are of a certain age or older, have expressed about their school experience and frustrations in the classroom where sign language was forbidden (a punishable offense) and the emphasis was on speech, often to the exclusion of all other subjects. And of course those last three words in the poem, "perhaps a weapon," are brilliant for the way they hint at the anger that so many Deaf people still carry around inside of them because of the (let's call it what it is!) crime that passed for Deaf Education for so many years.

* * *

Now here's a poem by Frank Gallimore that treats of a similar subject in a no less powerful, lyrical way, but from a different angle:

   by Frank Gallimore

What to make of the pathologist's fingers
tripping over the song-bewildered strings,
thrumming the five dollar clauses
off a patchwork ukulele, and with feeling,
in walrus moustache and Bermuda shirt, warbling
the cumbersome repetitions? I felt my voice
flower beyond the clench and release
of aspirates and plosives, liquids and solids.
Swallow and breathe, he taught me, and fix your R's
to the arch of the mouth. I heard my accent
releasing my deaf parents' voices to the metronome's
tut-tut, hence speech–and how to measure silence.
Or otherwise how not to scream
like the deaf kids when their school shut down
and they bussed, and in our classroom hooted
each other's names, stomped on the floor.
What of the pathologist's ukulele, and the tune
he sang that changed nothing, though
the deaf kids took their turns touching
the mystery of his quivering throat?

Frank is a CODA (Child Of Deaf Adults), an interpreter, a poet, an artist, and I think he told me once that he had studied with Ellen Bryant Voigt (see above), though he said he'd never seen those "pink gymnastic tongues" until I sent him her poem. Anyway, Frank's poem is interesting on many levels. It's not uncommon for CODAs to be subjected to speech therapy too, when they're young, if sign language is the language used at home and they're not getting much exposure to spoken language. But autobiography aside, there's so much to talk about here: I love how these twenty lines, beginning and ending with a question, are somehow able to bring it all together: deaf children, deaf parents, hearing children of deaf parents, and all of their combined voices, along with the voice of the speech therapist, the "pathologist," and the "cumbersome repetitions," the "metronome's tut-tut," (marvelous conceit for the general disapproval of all things Deaf), "the tune he sang that changed nothing," and the deaf kids stomping on the floor to get each other's attention (comme d'habitude in Deaf culture) and hooting each other's names. And then there are the names of the phonemes: aspirates, plosives, liquids, solids. And the word "ukulele" itself, the exotic sound of it, how it comprises all those different vowel sounds, the foreignness of it, but also the absurdity of it: the speech pathologist in walrus mustache and Bermuda shirt playing his ukulele, and disapproving.

* * *

And here is a poem by Barbara Crooker from her chapbook Ordinary Life, which contains several poems about her autistic son, David. Unlike some of the other poems in her collection, this poem does not mention him or his disability by name:

The Stone
    by Barbara Crooker

was heavy.
The family carried it
with them, all day.
Not one
could bear
its weight, alone.
Yet how they loved it.
No other stone had
its denseness,
its particular way
of bending the light.
They could not take
the stone
out in public,
had to keep it home,
let it sing songs.
in its own strange language,
syllables of schist and shale.
When the mother's back ached,
the father took the stone
for a while, then passed it
from sister to sister.
The stone
became a part of them,
a bit of granite
in the spine,
a shard of calcite
in the heart.
its weight
pressed them
thin, transparent
as wildflowers
left in the dictionary.
it was
than air.
The stone
did not talk.
But it shone.

Some readers may wince at the image of the stone, the vehicle here for the extended metaphor in this poem, thinking perhaps it's saying that having a disabled child is a burden. But I don't think it's saying that. It IS saying the stone is heavy, difficult, but it's saying so much more than that. Those pressed flowers in the dictionary, for example, are a remarkable image, how the weight of the stone has made those who love the stone beautiful, transparent, saving them, keeping them through time. And keeping them in the dictionary, of all books, which of course is where the family lives, but where the stone cannot live, because it does not talk, it can only "sing songs in its own strange language, syllables of schist…" Schist is an interesting word (I had to look it up in the dictionary myself), a one-syllable lump of many consonants surrounding a single vowel, as in the word "strengths." But in "schist" the vowel is "i", like the first person I of the stone in the center of the family cluster. I'm not saying the poet intended that connotation, but I'll bet you anything she delighted in the choice of that word "schist" (a minimal pair with "schism") and sensed the possibilities there, the many layers in that layered stone.

* * *

Next I'd like to share an excerpt from the novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. I loved this book, which is in the voice of a boy named Christopher, whom we come to realize, after a few pages, is an exceptionally intelligent and gifted boy with some sort of developmental disability that I don't think is ever actually named in the book. In the author's bio at the end of the book, though, it says that "as a young man, Mark Haddon worked with autistic individuals." The novel is in Christopher's voice because, as he tells us, he is the one who is writing this book. The following excerpt is from chapter 29, which is actually the 8th chapter, but because Christopher has chosen to number his chapters using only the prime numbers–because he likes the prime numbers and can recite them for you in order all the way up to 7,057–the eighth chapter is chapter 29:

29. I find people confusing.
     This is for two main reasons.
The first main reason is that people do a lot of talking without using any words. Siobhan says that if you raise one eyebrow it can mean lots of different things. It can mean "I want to do sex with you" and it can also mean "I think that what you just said was very stupid."
     Siobhan also says that if you close your mouth and breathe out loudly through your nose, it can mean that you are relaxed or that you are bored, or that you are angry, and it all depends on how much air comes out of your nose and how fast and what shape your mouth is when you do it and how you are sitting and what you said just before and hundreds of other things which are too complicated to work out in a few seconds.
     The second main reason is that people often talk using metaphors. These are examples of metaphors:

     I laughed my socks off.
     He was the apple of her eye.
     They had a skeleton in the cuboard.
     We had a real pig of a day.
     The dog was stone dead.

     The word metaphor means carrying something from one place to another, and it comes from the Greek word that means from one place to another and another Greek word that means to carry, and it's used to describe something by using a word for something that it isn't. This means that the word metaphor is a metaphor.
      I think it should be called a lie because a pig is not like a day and people do not have skeletons in their cupboards. And when I try and make a picture of the phrase in my head it just confuses me because imagining an apple in someone's eye doesn't have anything to do with liking someone a lot and it makes you forget what the person was talking about…

This gives you a sense of Christopher's way of thinking about people and things, and also a taste of his voluble cogitations and calculations throughout the book, which are often so different from how we see things and yet, marvelously, are made perfectly understandable to us through his honest, delightfully ingenuous telling. I had heard that autistic children often have no comprehension of body language or facial expression, and that they may also struggle to understand figurative language, but I'd never heard it explained the way Christopher explains it. Bleakly funny, heartbreaking, and very smart, this book will not only make you laugh out loud and break your heart, it will solve a murder mystery in the process, as well as some very difficult problems in advanced algebra.

* * *

Here is a poem by Mark Halliday, a whacky, funny, ultra-talkie poet whose work I love both for its accessibility and its refreshing and alarming honesty. Though the poem's opening lines mention illness specifically, it could just as easily be talking about disability in general:

Not Us
   by Mark Halliday

He had congestive heart failure with fluid in the lungs
and she had a tumorous kidney removed.
All this last month! But the thing is,
they are not us. That's the whole thing.
are not us. Once this concept is grasped, the whole picture becomes
clear and makes good sense. Those four words say it all,
They are not us. It sounds simple yet it means so much.
To begin with, they
are at least twenty-three years older than us–
but that's not the main point, that's actually kind of a distraction
because the central essence of the matter is
okay and it should just
stay that way stay that way it should
obviously I mean let's keep I mean the lines have to be clear:

they just are not us
which seems a big mistake on their part but really it's not their fault
it's just–

in the hospital that's them
and we are simply the ones who send them a soberly attractive card
saying "How awful"
so then we have sent them a card.
We sent a card (because "How awful") so that's done

and there's no reason
to think that card flies up into the night sky
and roars looping beyond sound among invisible clouds
looping in silent fury of speed till some year some day it flies down
soberly attractive and slips quietly how awful under your door my love
and my door.

What I love about this poem is the mix of humor, desperation, and fear, really this kinetic fear running throughout, reporting, denying, reassuring, stumbling over itself in the telling of it and trying to talk itself out of itself. Of course we're all familiar with the "us versus them" mentality, that fear-infused way of thinking about disability, or any sort of difference really, and also the oft-repeated assertion that the able-bodied are only temporarily so. But in this poem I can hear my own unconscious bias and rationalizing, and I can't help laughing at it. But I also can't help recognizing it, copping to it, facing and entering it.

* * *

This next poem, which is by Claudia Emerson, is not about disability per se, but I'm including it here because it's a white writer writing about race in a way that I think is so subtle and powerful, so compressed and effective that it makes me want to emulate it in my own writing:

Elevator Operator, Danville, Virginia, 1964
   by Claudia Emerson

All day she ferried them–almost all
women, all white–as they rose to fall

in strict passage, the gondola close to airlessness,
curfew-dark. She filled the forward corner, perched

on a small, fold-down stool from which she could
reach with ease both the lever and the collapsing

metal lattice of the door. All day she closed
them in like perfumed birds rustling nylons,

shopping bags, purses–and released them again
to the few destinations she had to repeat, announcing:

third floor–men's wear, mezzanine–unseen steel
cables controlling all of them in endless,

storied looping. Only children saw her until
most learned not to, looking up instead to the dial

above the door, its face an eclipsed compass,
the ornate brass needle of her voice

sweeping east to west to east by the northern
route–as though the south were never there.

There must be a name for this device–I don't know what it is–of naming a thing by not naming it; by naming its opposite. We know she's black only because we are told that the passengers are "all white." It's the only reference to race in the poem, and it's brilliant for its understatedness. We often struggle, I think, with how and when to identify a certain disability in our writing, whether it's the disability of the writer herself or some other person or character in the poem or story. That "all white" image, obviously from the point of view of the black elevator operator–because white people do not think of themselves as being white except in relation to those who are not white (just as hearing people and sighted people do not think of themselves as "hearing" and "sighted" and often don't even know the words) is startlingly effective in its simplicity. And there are other things here that remind me of disability. For example, the lines "only children saw her until/ most learned not to…" is a poignant commentary on the innocence and openness of children to any sort of difference in the world, until they are taught to look away from what they were once genuinely curious about. And those "unseen steel/ cables controlling all of them in endless,/ storied looping" is a metaphor for the invisible power and control that society has over us, boxing us in, pigeonholing us with its obstinate status quo and intransigent myths. Finally, at the end of the poem, we have that dial above the elevator door, that "eclipsed compass" and its needle

sweeping east to west to east by the northern
route–as though the south were never there.

I have to say, when I read that final couplet for the first time, it comprised for me all six hundred pages of Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, which I had just finished reading a few days before encountering this poem.

* * *

This next piece is excerpted from T.C. Boyle's novel Talk Talk, which is a smart, fast-paced, exuberant, suspenseful and often humorous tale about identity theft, among other things. The protagonist, Dana Halter, as it happens, is Deaf. Iverson is the interpreter who shows up after Dana has been arrested for crimes that were committed in her name by the hacker who has stolen her identity:

   Iverson took his time. His signing was rigid and inelegant but comprehensible for all that, and she focused her whole being on him as he explained the charges against her. There are multiple outstanding warrants, he began, in Marin County, Tulare and L.A. Counties–and out of state too, in Nevada. Reno and Stateline.
  Warrants? What warrants?

He was wearing a sport coat over a T-shirt with the name of a basketball team emblazoned across the breast. His hair had been sprayed or gelled, but not very successfully–it curled up like the fluff of the chicks they'd kept under a heat lamp in elementary school, so blond it was nearly translucent. She watched him lift the lapel of his jacket and extract a folded sheet of paper from the inside pocket. He seemed to consider it a moment, weighing it like a knife, before dropping it to his lap and signing, Failure to appear on a number of charges, different courts different dates, over the past two years. Passing bad checks, auto theft, possession of a controlled substance, assault with a deadly weapon–the list goes on.
He held her eyes. His mouth was drawn tight, no sympathy there. It came to her that he believed the charges, believed that she'd led a double life, that she'd violated every decent standard and let the deaf community down, one more hearing prejudice confirmed. Yes, his eyes said, the deaf live by their own rules, inferior rules, com compromised rules, they live off of us and on us. It was a look she'd seen all her life.
  He handed her the sheet and there it all was, dates, places, the police department codes and the charges brought. Incredibly, her name was there too, undeniably, in caps, under Felony Complaint, Superior Court of this county or the other, and the warrant numbers marching down the margin of the page.
  She looked up and it was as if he'd slapped her across the face. I've never even been to Tulare County–I don't even know where it is. Or to Nevada either. It's crazy. It's wrong, a mistake, that's all. Tell them it's a mistake.
  The coldest look, the smallest Sign: You get one phone call.

Okay, so I really liked this book; it was the first novel I'd read by T.C. Boyle, and I liked it so much that I went on to read most of his other twenty-some-odd novels and collected short stories. I feel I ought to say at this point that my friend John Lee Clark (who has published in these pages) hated this book. I think the way he put it was something like, "it's just another story by a hearing guy about a hearing guy falling in love with a deaf girl." True, Dana's boyfriend Bridger is hearing. I seem to remember John objecting to the name Bridger, too, as if there were some sort of hokey symbolism intended there. I don't think there was. But I'm biased, I admit it, and maybe blind to the many choices here which John found so annoying. He did confess, however, to not having actually finished the book; he gave up on it after a few chapters, I think. That's fine, I usually give a book 50 pages and if it hasn't won me over by then, I tend to give up, too. But I think there's much to like here and I make no apologies for liking it. Take the interpreter, Iverson, with his "rigid and inelegant signing." Elsewhere in the chapter, Boyle describes the same interpreter as "juggling his hands." It's only we nterpreters who "juggle our hands," our faces full of constipated concentration as if keeping it all in the air requires a colossal act of single-mindedness, holding our breath for fear it will all come crashing down. Deaf people don't juggle their hands; they make signing look effortless, and they make it effortless to watch their signing. And they sometimes comment that watching an interpreter requires a lot of effort on their part to "translate" in their own heads what the interpreter is signing, i.e., the interpretation requires interpreting. Boyle gets at this, I think, in his depiction of Iverson, and he also gets at the undisguised judgmentalism and downright contempt that many hearing "professionals" who work in the field of "deafness" exhibit in their interactions with Deaf people.

* * *

In this next excerpt from Joanne Greenberg's In This Sign, we have a similar scene–a Deaf person caught up in the criminal justice system and a judgmental interpreter hired by that system to translate:

  A man in a heavy coat came around the corner and toward them. Abel began to raise his hand just a little for Janice, to tell her that this was his boss, Mr. Webendorf. There was another man with him–a thin man, very clean and dressed tightly, a stranger–but before Abel could get up and give his greetings, Mr. Webendorf nodded and went away into the courtroom and the stranger was left standing in front of them.
  "Comstock," he spelled out with his fingers, and to their astonishment. "I'm here to interpret for you."
  "You deaf?" Abel asked, stuttering because his hands followed his mind. "Parents," Comstock said. "I work for the Court sometimes. Come on, they're ready for us now." His Sign was quick, educated, a little ugly with impatience. Abel and Janice turned to each other, surprised.
  "Let's go, let's go," Comstock said. He swung through the door, and they winced and followed.
   A man took them all the way to the front of the courtroom near the Judge, and between the Judge and themselves, Mr. Comstock stood. Everyone swore to tell the truth and then the thing began.
  It was, the Judge said, a Hearing. Weren't all of them Hearing?–latitude–what was latitude? –would be given the respondent in his replies in consideration of his infirmity. The beautiful, unmeaning words that the Judge was saying broke hard through Comstock's fingers. Into the dark wood-and-stone room, an old, shaking sunlight was slowly venturing. Chair by chair it crept the way down the aisle and by the time Mr. Dengel, the automobile dealer, was finished with what he said, the light had slid down and gone to sleep between the front row of chairs and the tables where people talked to the Judge. Abel was happy to watch the light. It was the only thing in the room which was not strange to him.

Is there a touch of sentimentality or wistful imagining here? Perhaps. The book was written fifty years ago; I first read it in the early ‘80s, shortly after taking my first sign language class. But its depiction of the interpreter's demeanor and signing, again, rings true: "…quick, educated, a little ugly with impatience." And that bit about the light in the last paragraph is more than just a superfluous poignancy or poetic flourish. Light is important in this book, as it obviously is for Deaf people, and Abel, in a later chapter, wonders aloud if light makes a sound:

Once he had asked her about the light… he had asked her if the sunlight made a sound. Wind did; that you couldn't see. Did sun? Did it hit the nailheads of the floor with a sound and warm over the bricks of the building next door with some other, gentler sound?… I hear things in my head, things I think must be sounds. I always thought I heard that sound, the sun on things, on different things. And there's nothing, none at all?

This, too, rings true for me, as I have had conversations with Deaf people about the things that make sound and the things that don't, as well as the things that I can hear versus the things that I can't. Sometimes my Deaf friends were surprised to learn which was which. And sometimes I was surprised to learn what their assumptions had been. This is not to say that Deaf people spend a lot of time discussing sound or the vagaries of hearing–they don't–but this phenomenon is something I recognize and have wondered about myself, and have laughed about with Deaf people, and I think Greenberg captures it nicely here. Twenty years later, she wrote another book, Of Such Small Differences, which is told from the point of view of a DeafBlind man. I remember meeting Greenberg at a convention of the American Association of the DeafBlind, which she was attending while doing research for the book. I read it when it came out, and while I don't really remember it all that well, I do recall objecting to certain things that struck me at the time as being inaccurate or far-fetched, based on my experiences with DeafBlind people. Nevertheless, parts of it were interesting, as I recall, and I think it was, if nothing else, an ambitious feat of imagination on her part.

* * *

We are nearing the end of this little essay, which is turning out to be much longer than I had intended. I have two more poems to share with you. I must say, I thought long and hard (no pun intended) about whether or not to include this next poem, "Erections" by Erin Belieu. I also thought long and hard about how to introduce it, what to say about it before sharing it with you, and what to say about it, if anything, after you've read it. The poem, which I love (and which Belieu says was inspired by an equally sexual and quite beautiful poem by Stephen Dunn, "The Routine Things Around the House"), actually has nothing to do with disability. It does, however, contain a single very memorable metaphor, about three-quarters of the way down the poem, that has stayed with me for twenty years, ever since I first read the poem in 1996. I'm sure you'll notice it when you get there. Let's leave it at that for now, and pick up our discussion on the other side of the poem:

   by Erin Belieu

When first described imperfectly
by my shy mother, I tried to leap

from the moving
car. A response,

I suspect, of not
just terror (although

a kind of terror continues to play
its part), but also a mimetic gesture,

the expression equal
to a body's system of absurd

jokes and dirty stories.
With cockeyed breasts

peculiar as distant cousins,
and already the butt of the body's

frat-boy humor,
I'd begun to pack

a bag, would set off
soon for my separate

country. Now, sometimes,
I admire the surprised engineering:

how a man's body can rise,
squaring off with the weight

of gravity, single-minded,
exposed as the blind

in traffic. It's the body leaping
that I praise, vulnerable

in empty space.
It's mapping the empty

space; a man's life driving
down a foreign road.

Come on, admit it, a good erection, the way it "squares off with the weight/ of gravity, single-minded,/ exposed as the blind/ in traffic" is a very memorable image. Now some people may be offended by it. In fact, I'm quite sure that some people ARE offended by it. Whether those people are blind or sighted, I'm not so sure. Belieu herself states:

It is interesting to me that of all the poems in my book, "Erections" is by far the one that elicits the most comment. I don't think I understood exactly how flamboyant the subject matter would prove to be. Recently, I was asked to not read the poem at a local, big chain bookstore reading (no names, please. But I think you might guess anyway…). I was told that the subject matter might upset the many ‘children and blue-collar workers' who frequent the shop. The moral I take from this is also apparent--support your local independent bookstores.

Whether or not you find it offensive, and whether or not it has anything to do with the lives of blind people, you have to admit that, visually, that particular simile is really stunning. In fact, I would go so far as to say (apropos of the poem's title, I would like to drop an f-bomb here) it's fucking brilliant.

* * *

And finally, rereading these pages, I can't help thinking of my college professor Mr. Rodewald, from whom I never earned higher than a C+ on any of the papers I wrote for him in my English lit classes. He wrote, in one of his comments on my papers, that my writing was belletristic. A word I did not know and thus had to look up. So don't feel bad if you have to look it up, too. Here, I'll save you the trouble: it basically means flowery, lots of fluff, lightweight, short on substance and scope. Yes, Mr. Rodewald, I'm afraid it's true. And I'm sure you would also say it's bad form to include one of my own poems here at the end of my little belletristic essay, slipping it in now without any sort of explanation or qualification or caveat or preamble. But that's exactly what I'm going to do:

The Long Poem
   by Paul Hostovsky

Tall men in wheelchairs grow
famous, for having been tall. They're still
tall, of course, but now they're more like
people who were famous once
and no one remembers their fame. So they grow
smaller somehow. Sometimes you can tell
from their big hands or feet or orotund
voices that they were tall—that they are tall—
but it's hard to remember because they're always
sitting down now. No more standing ovations
for people who were famous once, I was thinking
on the fourth floor of Aspinwall, waiting
for Mr. Rodewald to come. He was late for class.
The class was called The Long Poem. It was the end
of the semester. We'd already read The Iliad,
Byron's Don Juan, Wordsworth's Prelude,
and Tennyson's In Memoriam. We were reading
The Loom by Robert Kelly now. Kelly
was Rodewald's friend and colleague. Kelly
was prolific and prodigious, 6'4", and over
400 pounds, with a beard that reached his testicles,
and twenty poetry collections under his belt
already by the time I was 18, a freshman
at Bard, and a little in love with Mr. Rodewald.
Great writers grow famous, but great readers
just keep reading quietly to themselves,
and sometimes aloud to others. Rodewald
was a great reader. He liked to read to us
aloud at the beginning of class. First we'd hear
the elevator ding out in the hallway, then
he'd kick the door open with the battering ram
of his leg-rests, and park the wheelchair up front
at the long table, and put on the brakes, and remove
first one leather glove and then the other. Then
he'd sort of ruffle his long legs by lifting them
by the pant-leg, giving them a shake, and setting them down
the way birds will half-open their wings, then settle them
back in, tucking them in to get comfortable.
Then he'd take out his briefcase and open it
in his lap. And take out the book and open it
to the page—all this without saying a word
to us—not hi; hello; good morning; Laura, you're
looking beautiful as ever—nothing. Then, finally,
he would begin to read. To us. And he'd go
a solid thirty or forty minutes, not saying
a word of his own, saying only the poem,
the poem that he'd been reading for longer
than we'd been living, relishing it like a meal
in front of us, like a man eating a great meal
all alone at a long table. I remember once
in the middle of Homer, someone drifted off
and started snoring softly, tricklingly…
Mr. Rodewald stopped reading, closed the book,
lifted it high above his head like a spear, took
aim, and sailed it across the room with bellying
pages, nailing the poor sleeper on the temple
and cheek, which blanched, and reddened, and trickled
a little blood. The stricken student sank
deep in his chair, terror in his eyes, then disappeared
out the door forever. Routed! Sing, Goddess,
the anger of Peleus's son…
Mr. Rodewald
was heroic. It was partly his short temper, partly
his short black beard, and partly his biceps
which were thigh-thick from pushing
and pulling his own weight up and down our hillocky
campus. Always in my dreams he was standing,
walking. But in class he was Achilles, seated
in his chariot after great battle, or resting
in his tent after much fornicating. I suspected
he was fucking Laura O'Halloran, that beautiful
diffident sophomore whom I'd seen
getting into his car, a Buick Skylark fitted
with hand controls for the brake and accelerator.
I imagined a tall man in a wheelchair
making love to a beautiful young woman
slowly, tenderly, intelligently. I imagined
the two of them using the wheelchair as a prop
in their lovemaking, the way two hungry lovers
in a kitchen might enlist a chair or table
or countertop, before ending up in the bedroom or
on the kitchen floor… But where was Rodewald now?
We'd been waiting on the fourth floor of Aspinwall
for twenty minutes. No elevator ding. No leg-rests
crashing through the door like the Achaians
in their strong greaves. I stepped out into the hallway,
took the elevator down to the ground floor,
and started down the path that led to the handicapped
parking area, though first it meandered between
the bookstore and theatre, past Buildings & Grounds
and Robert Kelly's office with its big
bay window. And there was Rodewald, stuck
behind a red B&G truck parked
across his path. Someone had backed it up
to the loading dock of the theatre, where it stuck
way out. And he couldn't pass. He was sitting there
reading. There was no one around—
no driver, no B&G guys, no students.
Just me and Rodewald and the truck
and the book. He looked up vaguely, asked me
if I knew how to drive a truck. I said sure
thing. Then I climbed up into the cab, and lo,
the key was in the ignition. There was a long
black stick-shift with a ball handle, and three
pedals on the floor. I remember wondering
what the third one was for. I looked out the window
at Rodewald smiling conspiratorially. I released
the emergency brake and the truck started to roll.
I put my foot on the clutch, which I assumed
was the brake. I was an English major on a roll. Kelly
was breathless from climbing his long poem. Rodewald
was hiking the book between his legs and going out
for the long one, the bomb. The crowd went wild
as the truck crashed into the wall and my head
hit the windshield. Touchdown! Miraculously
I was unhurt, the truck was out of the way, and Rodewald
was laughing. He was laughing so hard that I thought
he might tip over. I wanted to laugh with him but
I couldn't stop shaking, from the shock. And then
we were walking together, as in a dream,
back to The Long Poem, leaving the scene
of the accident for others who came after to interpret.


Paul Hostovsky's latest book of poems, The Bad Guys, won the FutureCycle Poetry Book Prize for 2015. He has won a Pushcart Prize, two Best of the Net awards, and has been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and The Writer's Almanac. He works in Boston as a sign language interpreter and a Braille instructor. Visit him at