Cronin Review

Even among poets who willingly claim the title of disability poet, very few actually produce a collection of poems whose major purpose is to portray disability. Jim Ferris’ Hospital Poems is one; Karen Fiser’s Words Like Fate and Pain is another. Stephen Kuusisto, Kenny Fries and Tom Andrews all begin their books with poems about their disabilities, but after strong first sections, move on to other concerns. For that reason, if for no other, Linda Cronin’s collection, Dream Bones is an important one.

Take for example, “Room 512, Fifth Floor North” whose Ferrisian opening may outdo Jim Ferris himself.

Anthony, the nurses’s aide, stands
woth a clipboard in the doorway
of the four bedded hospital room
and bellows each patient’s name then
Bowel movement today?
He’s careful to place a check for each yes

next to the name before moving on

It is the piling on of images such as this by which Dream Bones works. Cronin is not giving us polished jewels to be dazzled by, but scenarios , the accretion of which makes the unique circumstances of a woman with a disability – and by extension the lives of people with disabilities in general – impossible to ignore.

Like many contemporary single author poetry books, Dream Bones has a tripartite structure. The first, and most direct, section introduces the reader to the world of a person with a disability, specifically to Cronin’s particular world. The first poem begins:

I don’t live a very practical life.
Working a nine to five job with a weekly paycheck,
married in a house in the suburbs,
with a mini-van sleeping in the driveway
waiting for the buzz of the morning carpool.
Instead I have spent my days
in and out of hospitals and chairs,
waiting, waiting, waiting,
for some doctor who will come along and fix me.

She continues in this section to take the reader through many of the daily routines to which she is subject. These range from simple attitudes:

I learn to apologize
for the inconvenience
of being sick,
of not being able to function
like everyone else, normal people,

to the labyrinthine process involved with merely trying to have take a shower:

Veronica undoes the straps
on the brace like a shell encasing my healing spine
before she rolls me from side to side, slipping
the brace from my body, reversing the morning’s routine,
then slides the mat under me. With the Hoyer lift in place,
she attaches the belts and turns the crank
until my body rises, levitates over the bed
so she can swing me onto the stretcher.
In the shower room down the hall, I wait my turn
with the other women, on stretchers and chairs.
The room is freezing…

Among the more unique features of this first section are pieces that Cronin calls Flash Essays. Structured like prose poems, these pieces allow Cronin the latitude to engage in a bit of more straightforward commentary without completely giving up the concept of a poem. Importantly, too, in these flash essays, Cronin is able to make those linkages with the work of other writers that Disabilities Studies scholar David Mitchell has said is so necessary to the development of the field of disabilities literature. In her “Flash Essay on: Normal” she says, “Normal no longer exists as a concrete fact, but slides between descriptions and definitions, blending and stirring until no one knows or cares what normal is.” This is a point that disability theorists like Lennard Davis and Rosemarie Garland- Thomson have made frequently.

In the more lyrical and emotionally restrained “Flash Essay on: Beauty and the Beholder” Cronin muses ironically “The Spanish Romeo tries to flirt, although he cannot look at me as he tells me my name means pretty. His yes roam above my head, search for somewhere safe to land, away from my twisted body. He does not want to see the curled and knotted joints rebelling against my name…I know the thought to touching my deformed joints repels him, but that’s all right because I have come to love who I am, with my curves and bends in unaccepted places.” Such words resonate strongly with the work of poets Sheila Black and Kenny Fries.

In section 2, Cronin steps back to take a look at her life as a child growing up with a disability. The first two poems, however, do not mention disability at all – nor do they need to. Cronin has already established this in the prior section. This strategy works particularly well in the case of “Saturday Starlings.” In a Saturday morning dance class

tilting our heads, shaping our arms
into delicate but sturdy branches
we dreamed of our chances, the day
we’d dance on stage, all eyes amazed.

In its own right, “Saturday Starlings” works well enough, but in the context of the knowedge the reader already has from the first section, the poem achieves a poignancy it would never have in a stand alone poem.

Cronin leads the reader through many experiences that help shaped her own self-image from having to ride a special bus to school (“The Tart Cart”) and trying to conceal her disability during recess on the playground to the heavier problems of shame and guilt. In “Shame” one of the strongest poems in the strongest section, Cronin tackles the social stigma of shame head on:

The shadow I could not name
was the shame I felt each time my body
failed to do what I wanted.
The shame I faced years ago
when Brian called me a cripple
in the lunchroom.

In a companion poem, “Sunday School Lessons”, the poet raises the even more insidious question of guilt, an attitude rooted in Medieval theology whose vestiges still haunt the realm of disability today:

I hear the whispers, I must be doing
something wrong because God wouldn’t
punish me if I was good like they are.
They must wonder if I pray.

It would take a willfully indifferent reader to encounter the poems of the childhood Cronin portrays and not emerge with a glimmer of insight into the ways in which the meaning of a disability is so much more profound than the definitions contained in its medical diagnosis.

The opening of the third section of Dream Bones is intriguing. The narrator of the first poem – presumably Cronin – finds herself in Ireland, listening to stories of old timers and traveling along the western shore. She says at the end of the poem that she has come to understand legends whose facts have been erased by time. Though in the opening of the poem she addresses someone from her past,

We wanted to know the land and people that
you left. The family that remained.

It is not until the second poem, “Grandma’s Song” that the reader knows who this “you” is. By the fourth poem, “Beyond Our Blood” the reader begins to realize that Cronin is taking us on a backward journey in which the structure of the book recapitulates the process by which she came to be who she is: the first section being the present, the second her childhood past, and the third the collective memory of ancestors. This realization, however, is a sucker punch. With the arrival of the fifth poem such a conception begin to unravel.

While some of the poems in this section do indeed deal with extended family including uncles, parents and children, others like “Youth is All” seem to have no reason for being include here at all. The skill with which Cronin begins this section makes even more disappointing the fact that one comes away feeling that it became a catchall in which the poet placed all of those poems that she could just not bear to leave out. There are certainly some very strong poems in this section such “That the Science of Medicine is Limited” and “Clown Faces,” but a judicious thinning of this section, which contains more poems than either of the first two, would have made this a stronger book.

Dream Bones is an important book and deserves publication, despite the conceptual shortcomings of the third section. Though her poems may be less lyrical than those of Kuusisto or Fries who cover similar territory, in terms of sheer detail and accessibility to the uninitiated reader, Cronin’s work is an essential contribution to the development of disability poetry. It would be difficult to imagine a reader who could walk or even wheel away from these poems without having gained a greater understanding of the meaning of disability for a person who lives with it.