Michael Northen


In 2014 I wrote an essay for Wordgathering called "Ten Poems to Kickstart Your Disability Lit Class." The purpose of the essay was to give teachers at a school level or above some fairly easily understood poems that would force students to grapple with some difficult issues that society poses for people with disabilities and perhaps even confront their own ableism. For classes that included a disabled student, it might provide a chance for that student's experiences to be given center stage.

The essay appears to have been successful in its purpose and now, three years later, it seems useful to present ten more poems that will up the ante a little. Not only are most of these new poems more challenging to read than those presented in the first essay, but, in addition to presenting some new issues, they also ask students to begin to consider the role of the disabled artist and what contributions their writing might be able to make. While the initial essay confined itself to shorter poems or poem stanzas out of recognition that many of the readers might be new to poetry and lose interest in a lengthier poem, the poems that follow (with one exception) are printed in their entirety. Also as in the first essay, the order of the poems is only suggestive, but a good place to jump back into the conversation about poetry and disability is with Liz Whiteacre's poem involving teacher and students in an English composition class.

1. Does the Teacher Want Your Pity?


All term, I gimp around, first with wires poking
from beneath my sweaters and crutches, then a staid brace
and brown cane, now a flexible brace, which is sweaty and itchy.

I try to make light of my plodding, but their smiles hold pity:
my injury has made them model students.
They even take turns passing Xeroxes and collecting homework unasked.

It's awkward…like the teddy bear a man from the community heater
gave me on Sweetest Day when I was sixteen. I do my best to ignore
these little gifts proffered by unsolicited emotions,

and the students act too, as if they'd pick up dropped chalk for any instructor.
The painful days, I take Valium, and they peer at me
during writing exercises as if they've placed bets on when I'll topple.

The Monday after spring break, I wait for the students, ready
to begin a well-rehearsed discussion of revision. But I'm distracted:
I'm in love and the overhead projector whirs.

Highlighting editing marks on the screen, I'm interrupted
by Brianna in the front row. "Is that a new ring on your finger?" she asks,
loud and enthusiastic as a nervous cheerleader.

My cheeks burn. Flustered. I was told not to talk
about my personal life, but I'm excited and say, "yes."
Immediately, students in the first and second rows nearest the projector

stand and lean, hover like bees admiring the diamonds from Kevin's
grandmother's wedding ring, ooo-ing and ahh-ing like my mother.
"So, what, are you getting married?" Matt asks from the back row.

"Settle down," I say, and they settle into their seats.
They beg for a magical happy-ever-after story
about a young crippled woman who patiently teaches composition.

They've paid attention in literature classes and want to believe in a theme
of marriage + recovery = happiness, so they can believe everything
will turn out well for themselves. And I indulge a little,

joy burning my face, because don't I want to believe that too,
that all my patience and hard work will pay off? Can't the pain go away?
I summarize my surprise proposal in a little Appalachian cabin

high in the mountains…they applaud, like it's the best thing
that's ever happened to me or to them. I hold up my hand to silence
their clapping, say, "let's get back to work."
[Liz Whiteacre]

Most students have come to recognize the value of diversity in class but how would they feel if their teacher has a disability? What if she were in a wheelchair, deaf, blind, or were bipolar? Would they be resentful ? Would they pity her? Pity is a power dynamic that lowers the person being pitied to a subordinate position? How might the teacher feel about that? Whiteacre also poses the question of happy endings as symbolized by the ring? What is a happy ending and who is entitled to what?

2. And this is Love?


she goes limp    falls into my arms
like an important looking letter
I help her to the bathroom

& sit the other side of the door
tearing nails between my teeth
clutching the phone like a safety rope

& this is love   how we live between
the side-effects of glittering pills
the wads of her dead hair snarled

in the plug-hole    the morning cigarette
that shakes in her hand before her kiss
once again says whateverhappens   I ring

the ambulance when I hear her head smack
the floor    & in the crazed flutter of her lids
I see a million lives for us    each one perfect
[Daniel Sluman]

How does Sluman's description of love, jive with the idea of happy endings? How would students answer the poet's title question? Though he does not say so in the poem, Sluman himself has a disability. Should people with disabilities “stick with their own kind” in dating and marriage? The poet's final line challenges the idea that there is one normal, right way to be. How do students interpret that?

3. Do I Have a Right to Have Children?


When you dream
the dream of babies,
does each limb slumber
in its place? Every breath
is holy?

Five fingers and five toes. Even the dream catcher
has five strings crossing each other in the light.
The sparrow's beak just so, the raindrop
perfect, and the open mouth of the flea.

The dark question, birth,
what right have I
to bear children
who surely could not be
in the image of God?

Christ opens his mouth all over me. Red
dirt, brown at the back, his mouth
has been filling up. I have no love for him.
The blessed child. The Lord's reflected light.

Dare I be
this blasphemous?
The mark of the devil
marring more
than my hands?

My father and his mother before him. We beget
small thumbs, a lack of arms, and missing fingers. Horror
in the faces of others. Yet, we persist like dandelions
blooming in the sun, our seeds blowing everywhere.

Our perfection varies.
[ Cali Linfor]

Whether or not people with disabilities should have children is a contentious topic. How do students answer Linfor's “Dare I…?” Was Oliver Wendell Holmes infamous statement "three generations of imbeciles is enough" closer to their beliefs. Linfor complicates this issue of with the religious contention that human beings are created in the image of God. Just who decides what the image is?

4. Am I To Blame?


call to the stand
the mother of autism

dis-order is in the court

the holes in her appearance,
her son's flight from every scene,
his statements repeated
for the record

he did
exhibit a
range of delayed developments,
unusual behaviours
on the days and nights
in question

recall the forceps, the vaccines, her obvious admission of guilt

she will plead for a series of trials but
settle for a body of
         Strattera resolves hyperactivity causes depression,
         Prozac addresses depression releases aggressiveness,
         Risperdal arrests aggression adds weight
to our argument

her burden is proof

you will judge for yourself how well she's doing
[Angeline Schellenberg]

The poem is set up as a trial. What is the trial about? In the past mothers of children with autism were frequently called “refrigerator moms” whose lack of emotion for their children was the cause of their child's condition. How do students feel about this. Take it a step further. The poet is the mother of two children with autism and whose family carries the Fragile X chromosome. Given this added information – and in light of the discussion of the Linfor poem – does this change students' opinions of her and her situation?

5. What Women Want


for a transfer from my legs.
"Irreconcilable differences," she says.
"They're crooked. Criminal. Either they go, or I go."

Rigidity keeps them splayed, a cold couple in separate beds.
At six years old, the tension
between them reached such a pitch
my vagina started to fuse shut, went mute.
My mother slathered her daily in estrogen gel
and she exploded.

Now she sings opera—
speaks Hungarian with only just the slightest
Long Island accent, designs her own wardrobe
of eighteenth century gowns
insists all Georgia O'Keefe's flowers
are portraits of her.

She says she's overqualified to work with my legs.
Their bad attitude is affecting the higher ups.
My right hand hooked on relaxants;
my back collapsing into its low self esteem—
she can't work under these conditions.

At weddings, while I dance all night,
my vagina tells me I look like Shakira.
My legs turn me into something like
a baby pony on three shots of Jose Quervo

When my vagina makes my toes curl;
my legs won't let them straighten again.
I have to sit up and pull them like artichoke leaves

When the lady conductor on Long Island Rail Road
asks for proof of my special needs
my legs spasm their shame while my vagina
quips, "my special needs include:
cannoli cream, poems by the Earl of Rochester, and
an orgy with the entire Huston family."

In Times Square last week, a shirtless, drunk fratboy
with a sign around his neck advertising
flinched away from my legs,
his douchebaggery silenced.
My vagina bitch slapped him.
She demands to be objectified like any able pussy in America!

She wants to go clubbing; throws
spiked platforms from Trash and Vaudeville
at the wall next to my head while my legs lay stiff
and snoring by the bedroom door.
I try to explain that I can't
apply winged Nefertiti eyeliner or punk faerie
lilac highlights with one hand.
Can't clasp necklaces or keep loose in stockings
I am not the woman
she'd be proud to wear.

The blame for all this falls
on my legs. She calls it a
crippled cunt conspiracy.
But she thinks I am worth more than books,
blogging, and being called cutie pie
by a homeless guy or some gamer with a fetish.

My vagina thinks I'm sexy.

She says it's not her fault

if my legs can't support that.
[Liv Mammone]

It is now commonplace to hear women resent male attitudes that represent them as sex objects. While concurring with that view, Mammone's tough poem asks whether women with disabilities have the right to be viewed sexually. In the minds of students, does seeing a person with a visible physical disability automatically cause them to write that person as a sexual partner? How do they respond to the accusation that this is an ableist mindset?

6. What is the place of disability art?


The Humpty Dumpties sit in a row
in a gallery at the Modern
contemplating pieces
made of bent wheels, rusted cans, rags,
wood scraps, torn cardboard—the world's detritus.

We get the artists' m.o.
using the discarded to make
something worth looking at—we,
who have had to leave something behind—
parts of our bodies or brains—
and haven't been put back together
quite as pleasingly.

the exhibition offers comfort—
beyond the broken can be beautiful.
It's as if I've come upon my own missing pieces,
refashioned into mobile, assemblage and collage,
and— for a jagged moment—
they are not lost after all!
but have found a fitting place—
even gained a certain splendor—
and all the kings horses and all the kings men
have gathered to pay them homage.
[Avra Wing]

After reading the first five poems, students have probably begun to feel that disability does have something important to contribute to the discussion of poetry and other art forms. Wing's poem pushes past the pedestrian realization that “the broken can be beautiful” to ask what more disability art can achieve. How does her upending of the Humpty Dumpty rhyme contribute to that discussion?

7. Who is Entitled to Write?


I am so sick of reading poems by people
who must be bored in their homes
about soldiers with their legs blown off

and how sorry the people feel for them
and how awful America is and rotten.
I am so sick of reading poems by people

who have their civil rights and say, Yes,
I feel your pain
before they pull
a short night for a long poem about legs

blown into ditches and across streets
and under trees as the soldiers
come to Walter Reed to find a poem

in a magazine that reads You're
nothing now, Good as dead, What a pity
is your country
by a poet whose legs

are attached at the hip and knee
who is drinking chamomile tea.
I am so sick of reading these poems
by the patricians of poetry.
[Jillian Weise]

There is a saying in disability literature, “Nothing About Us Without Us.” Weise raises the question of whether those who have not lived a life without disability can legitimately create a poem about the experience of disability. Do the concepts of creativity and freedom of expression give a “partition of poetry” the right to treat disability like any other subject in the name of art? In light of Schellenberg's thoughts about breakage and art, what does Weise's choice to appropriate the villanelle form contribute to the discussion.

8. The Body is a Poem


to walk means to fall
to thrust forward

               to fall and catch

the seemingly random
is its own system of gestures

based on a series of neat errors
               falling and catching

to thrust forward

sometimes the body misses
then collapses

it shatters

with this particular knowledge

a movement spastic
                       and unwieldy

is its own lyric and
the able-bodied are

tone-deaf to this singing
[Jennifer Bartlett]

A key concept of disability poetry is that of the embodied poem, i.e. is that like music, the poem originates and can't be divorced from the body. In listening to themselves walk, most students would hear and feel a kind of bilateral symmetry that translated into meter would have a regular beat. But what about the body that does not conform to ordinary symmetry? Beginning with her own body, how does Bartlett, whose gait is affected by her cerebral palsy translate the knowledge of her body into poetry? What other ways might a physical difference affect a poem?

9. Viewpoint Reversal


Trembling against my hands
like the top of the radio, mine
quivers along the bones of my face.

Cat has the same voice.
And bells. Touch one tenderly,
a song shivers over the cool surface.

Mother says it's ear waves. Vibrations.
She moves her mouth and shows her open hand
waving like "hello" or "good-bye"

or "finish" in sign language.
I touch her face, the bones hum
like leaves in the row of maples.

When I open my mouth
and move my lips, my jaw wide, like hers
freeing the vibrations to make my ears wave,

my mother holds me quick
as if stopping a bell with both hands.
In sign language she waves "Finish."
[Karen Lie-Nielsen]

Karyn Lie-Nielsen is an ASL interpreter and a child of two deaf parents (frequently known as a CODA). Like Bartlett's poem, Lie-Nielsen's hinges on what her body tells her about the world. In this poet's case, though, the world of the hearing is not her default environment. Standard assumptions about how one learns to communicate do not apply. How would students respond if the marginalized viewpoint were now the center and those who consider themselves the normal had to accommodate to it. What disability-related scenarios can they imagine? Note that Lie-Nielsen does not attempt to speak for disability but only of her own experiences.
[Karyn Lie-Nielsen]

10. What Can Disability Poetry Contribute?


Goldilocks was in deep denial and refused to use a white cane

That's how she got lost in the woods stumbling over tree roots and things

Then she hit a wall

A house


She entered and wrinkled her nose and remembered the Annie movie from when she was little

It was the part where Daddy Warbucks said I smell a wet dog

It was dark inside so she did her ginger duck walk and zombie arms until she came against a table with some food on it

After emptying a bag of Doritos she wandered deeper into the house

Kitchen bathroom living room small chair too small medium sized chair too hard big recliner ahh that's much better

When the three bears got home they were happy to find that they had company

Papa Bear shook Goldilocks awake and asked who you

When she didn't answer Papa Bear put his paw under her hand

She snatched her hand back and said I can see

Papa Bear said okay and asked again who you

She said I'm from Long Island here vacation

Papa Bear asked when arrive here you

She said my name yellowcurls

Papa Bear asked need help you

She said will soon graduate May

Papa Bear gave up and turned to Mama Bear and said denial obvious misunderstand misunderstand

Mama Bear said sad yes nothing can do leave alone

Baby Bear asked if he could play with yellowcurls

Mama Bear thought about it and said no better not yellowcurls denial means hard talk can't play good

So the whole bear clan went about their business as if Goldilocks wasn't sitting there

She jumped up and stamped her feet and said not nice you ignore avoid me

She whirled around to make a dramatic exit but ended up in the bedroom where she stumbled and fell into a bed

She stayed on the bed for a long time pretending that she had planned to sleep there all along
[John Lee Clark}


The author of this piece John Lee Clark, is a Deaf/blind writer. In what ways does Clark incorporate the knowledge from his own experience of disability into the poem? Among the many important things to consider about this poem are the meaning of title and the way in which he brings something new to standard poetry by incorporating literal translations from American Sign Language.


Michael Northen is the editor of Wordgathering and an editor with Jennifer Bartlett and Sheila Black of the anthology Beauty is a Verb: the New Poetry of Disability. He is also an editor of the recent anthology of disabiity short fiction, The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked (Cinco Puntos Press).