Book Review: Crumb-sized (Marlena Chertock)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

With the publication of On that one-way trip to Mars in 2016, Marlena Chertock began carving out a unique space for herself in disability poetry. Poetry that engages with medical science like that of writers like Laurie Clements Lambeth and Jim Ferris has made a major contribution to critiquing the medical model of disability, but writing that turns an eye towards the larger universe has been left primarily to prose writers. With On that one-Way trip to Mars, however, Chertock, a confessed "space nerd," imagines how a spacecraft like the Voyager touring the universe would have fared if it had skeletal dysplasia, as she does. For followers of Chertock, there is good news. Her recently-released second poetry book, Crumb-sized, continues many of the same themes the poet explored in her first outing.

Trying to manage the three strands of science, disability and poetic forms in a way that does not result in a kind of triptych is a challenge and in the best of her poems, such as "Unfold Me Gently," Chertock succeeds:

Unfold me gently, I'm brittle
calcified stardust. Me, mineral dense,

collegen quirky…

Unhinge each of my vertebrae, jellify me –
I was never straight to begin with.

With a very Whitman-like song-of- myself feel, Chertock invokes both the particularity of the physical body and the cosmic scope in which it is an integral part. Addressing the reader, she invites them into the world of her particular body, acknowledging – perhaps with a wink to the great gray bard – "I was never straight to begin with." Despite the success of these lines, it is useful to look at how Chertock brings each of these strands into the conversation by considering them separately.

Science writers are notorious both for the use of a shared technical vocabulary that excludes the ordinary reader and for their unadorned prose style. Thankfully, Chertock has withheld much of the former from her poems, but those poems that address scientific topics do tend to draw heavily from its style. For example in "Life on exoplanets," the poet writes:

Kepler-186f was the first
exoplanet found orbiting
its star within the habitable zone.
Sending a message from there
back home would take 500 years
to reach earth.

Line breaks notwithstanding this couple have been pulled from a middle-school science textbook. However, Chertock finds ways to turn what could be merely parsed prose to her advantage. In "A blackbody," she says,

Gustaff Kirchoff, a German
physicist, first used the term
in 1860. He was a whitebody.

What starts of sounding like an article in Wikipedia becomes a statement loaded with implications in today's political climate through the deft line break after the word German and its alignment with the word "whitebody."

In a totally different move the poet places a well-known American space pioneer into a disturbing context. One of the nicest is the opening to "Moon or No Moon":

Buzz Aldren was burdened
His grandfather shot a bullet
Into his brain.

To most readers, this is new information – true – but not of the type that is likely to pop up on a high school proficiency exam. Interestingly, few of these space and astronomy-oriented poems incorporate aspects of disability.

If the space-related poems try to pull scientific knowledge into poems, those related to disability draw knowledge from another direction, personal experience as a woman with skeletal dysplasia . In "Smaller than a crumb" Chertock announces, "I'm 4'6, a bit bigger than a crumb, actually." In the tradition of poets like Ferris and Lambeth, she does not shrink from describing her "spine curved like a heavy tomato plant" or being "25 years old with 80-year old bones." She offers a number of poems on embodiment sometimes taking on such difficult topics as the ability for her body to endure a pregnancy in the poem "This is not a poem about motherhood"…which it clearly is.

One of the dangers in being a woman in a field heavily dominated by men and male attitudes is the tendency to begin to assume those values. In science, because of its popularization in the public sphere and its links with the military, these values are arguably stronger in space travel than any other field of science: independence, rugged individualism, the will to overcome, "to boldly go where no man has gone." The problem that this sets up for disability is evident in the now ubiquitous bifurcation of the field into two opposing camps, the medical model of disability and the social construction model – the former which embodies the classic male virtues and the latter which sees disability as something to be addressed by society. It is telling that most of Chertock's poems seem to opt for the first set of values, seeing her facing the world alone, "soldiering on." With the notable exception of "It should be called womenstuate" none of her poems seem to appeal to a sense of collegiality. None look toward a disabilities community or ask society to make any changes. This puts Chertock's work at a bit of a crossroads in relation to disability poetry. As the poetry of Kenny Fries has shown, one can recognize that they have benefited from the advances of medical treatment with out subscribing to ableism. In putting herself in the position of someone who is trying to break new ground, it will be interesting to see how Chertock's future poetry works this out.

To look at where this dilemma leads Chertock there is no better place than the book's final poem, "How to Feel Beautiful," a strong poem whose final lines are a fitting end to the volume.

when you're a 25 year old
with 80-year old bones,
Wear dresses everyday
because they're easier to slip on.

Put on your darkest shade of lipstick
to match what feels like blood
seeping from you.

Cut your hair short so it styles itself,
less work in the morning
when you wake up with an orchestra
of drumstick knuckle cracks.

Tell yourself you're beautiful
so you start feeling it.
Ignore the coupling up all around you —
be strong on your own.

You'll never have the bodies
you see in magazines, never walk
without a limp at the end of the day.

So tell yourself your size and shape
is all you have – your blood is still
made up of iron from ancient stars.

Like any poem worth re-visiting, "How to Feel Beautiful" can be read in a variety of lights. I read it as a poem of equivocation. The concluding two stanza's double back on the Whitman-style theme mentioned earlier, that emanates from a theme of self-acceptance or, perhaps more accurately, has been grafted on to one. But much of the preceding poem belies that conviction. It is actually reminiscent of poems like Laura Hershey's "You Get Proud By Practicing," that emerged out the earlier disability rights movement with the specific purpose (announced by its title) of instilling pride by a sort of behavioral conditioning. While some of the "how to" tips in Chertock's poem seem almost casual in their practicality, the repetition of "Tell yourself you're beautiful" confirm the underlying technique, a pavlovian approach that has never been convincing to me. What young woman, regardless of gender preference, wants to be told, "Ignore the coupling up all around you?" None of this a critique on the quality of "How to Feel Beautiful" as a poem. Quite the opposite – poetry that provokes us to think is always successful. What "How to Feel Beautiful" brings to the surface is the difficulty of merging two very different attitudes towards disability and, in a larger sense, one of the reasons that the marginalization of non-normative bodies continues.

It is not surprising that as the poetry editor for District Lit, Chertock is interested in some experimentation with form. This comes primarily in the latter portion of the book once the poet has already established a recognizable voice in her earlier poems. She tries a dictionary entry poem ("Tinnitus"), an itemization narrative ("Smaller than a crumb") and a poem "after Andrea Gibson." She also shifts to a third person narrative style in "Harriet Tubman was disabled" and "Las estrellas de la Atacama." By in large, though, none of these cause her to break stride enough to diminish the familiarity with her style that readers have begun to enjoy.

Few literary genres are as subject to individual taste as poetry and any poet who believes her work will come away unscathed needs to reread Aesop's fable of the old man, his son and the donkey. Attempting to wed the scientific mentality to the cultural issues surrounding disability – and as poetry no less – is no easy task. Nevertheless, Crumb-sized is a book that should appeal to a large number of readers. One of the main things that it has going for it is its accessibility. In many ways it is reminiscent of some of the earliest disabilities poets like Vassar Miller, Laura Hershey or even Kenny Fries who could not assume that their audience knew anything about disability. Because of its straight forward style and subject matter it is likely to hold readers who might generally be suspicious of poetry. Credit also goes to the publisher, Unnamed Press, for designing a "crumb-sized" book that is visually appealing and uses both print and space in ways that will be comfortable to readers who do not have significant visual impairment. The book will also please those who enjoyed On that one-way trip to Mars. As Marlena Chertock points out, poets and astronomers both look towards the heavens. If I knew a sci-fi junkie that I wanted to wean on to poetry, I would definitely hand him a copy of Crumb-sized.

Title: Crumb-sized
Author: Marlena Chertock
Publisher: The Unnamed Press
Publication Date: 2017


For more about her work as a writer an editor see the interview with Marlena Chertock in the June 2017 issue of this journal.


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).