Book Review: Border Songs (Ona Gritz and Daniel Simpson)
Reviewed by Emily K. Michael
Border Songs: A Conversation in Poems, by Ona Gritz and Dan Simpson, was published by Finishing Line Press in September, 2017. The poems alternate by author, but Simpson opens and closes the collection. Showcasing the work of two disabled poets, this collection invokes the expected themes of identity, stereotypes, peer approval, and self-acceptance. These poems ask the question posed by most disabled writers: What is the norm and why do we insist on its value? The book also employs some unconventional themes in mapping the body and mind of its authors. As Gritz and Simpson trade poems, new themes are embellished, and repositioned: faith, the elements, affection. These poems arrive at the conclusion that truth is in the retelling of our oldest stories.
Border Songs begins with Dan Simpsonís origin poem, "When We Were Four," which describes a series of knotted domestic moments layered with mythic significance. In this poem, the first line picks up where the title leaves off: "When We Were Four / and my twin brother and I got to jumping / on our twin mattresses." These first lines thrum with plurality: "we," and the repeated "twin." Here, the two entities are the speaker (later self-identified as Danny Boy) and his twin brother. But as the collection moves forward, the two entities sharing narration are Gritz and Simpson.
"When We Were Four" begins with a scene of domestic fancy; two brothers bounce on their beds, pretending they are washing machines. The poetís mind moves through the house, the yard, the neighborhood — collecting fragments of Welsh, German, and other languages. The speakerís grandfather wonders whether these raucous boys "were the work of the devil?" — and the speaker considers this point, a point he will revisit in "A Blind Boyís First Glimpse of Heaven."
The questioning of storycraft continues with the next poem in the collection, Gritzís "Retelling." In this poem, Gritz explores how stories are compiled from sensory fragments and deliberate choices. The poem opens with these lines: "The sun was nothing more than an orange / the day Lisa ran for the ice cream truck." Gritz embellishes the fruit image by speculating on the sunís sweetness and levels of Vitamin C. The poem suggests that even a perfect sun could not help the driverís foot "choose the brake." The poem gathers circumstances to make a tenuous coherence. Gritz stresses how the event had only nonhuman witnesses:
The trees that saw it happen were no more
The enjambment in this poem forces the reader down the lines, but the rhyme in "song" and "long" slows the moment, underscoring the inactivity of the human residents. In the end, the story is recorded by the trees and pieced together by the speaker, who was "five at the time."
Like "When We Were Four," "Retelling" offers a childís attempt to make sense of adult stories; only a child sees the ragged gaps in these community narratives. These first two poems serve as an oblique prologue to the chapbook as a whole — establishing the conflict between personal and communal stories.
From story, Gritz and Simpson move to the body and its mechanics with "Hemiplegia I," "A Blind Boyís First Glimpse of Heaven," "Border Song," "Hemiplegia II," and "Vigilance and Dissembling." Gritzís "Hemiplegia I" returns to the theme of duality: "I was maybe five when I first tried / to make sense of it, my split self." This poem continues the childlike diction of "When We Were Four" and "Retelling" as the speaker sits in the backseat of a car, "feet on the hump" feeling for her heartbeat: the "ordinary drumbeat" that connects her to other un-split selves The poem is a quiet exploration without ceremony, a child trying to understand how her body differs from others.
In "A Blind Boyís First Glimpse of Heaven," Simpson asserts stronger emotions about his storied body — a site of conflict between cultural assumptions and his own experiences. In this poem, the speaker "climbed the stepladder to Heaven when I was eight / my father spotting me from behind." The speaker uses his fatherís presence to mark the boundaries of his world. He wonders where God is as he climbs higher: "God was in a meeting, I guess." As the blind boy explores the hay loft of "Heaven," he compares his own precarious position with Luciferís, worrying whether he, too, will be "cast out." But in Simpsonís case, it is cultural belief that will bar a blind boy from Heaven:
Fifty years later, Aunt Polly said,
Aunt Pollyís lecture-promise marks the poemís pivot: a blind boy must be modified in order to enter a sighted Heaven. But Simpson refuses to let such an attitude go unchallenged. He responds not to Aunt Polly but to the reader:
I don't know. I'm just getting to love
The poem closes on a revolutionary idea — that blindness itself offers a different Heaven, that the blind boy may have his own way in. This idea is far from exotic for disabled writers, who frequently assert their intrinsic value, but this poem offers a beautiful and important counter to the harmful hierarchies of religious feeling. In the hay loft with the blind boy, the reader must gaze outward, sense the height, and recognize the boyís joy for what it is: a glimpse of Heaven. Though Gritz and Simpson will return to religious themes in later poems, this "glimpse" offers the most lasting and powerful critique of ableist dogma.
Gritz bridges the secular and spiritual stories of disability by invoking fruit. Recalling the sun-orange in "Retelling," she opens "Eighteen" by describing an outing to pick apricots. She writes,
We never spoke of what my body
In this poem, Gritz wears "a wraparound skirt," her excuse for not going aloft and enjoying the privilege of picking fruit. Rather than being excluded, she chooses her position "at the base" and collects apricots in her skirt. The speaker does not climb aloft like the boy in "A Blind Boyís First Glimpse of Heaven," but this poem reinforces the speakerís right to choose her place. And like the blind boy in the hay loft, she finds herself overcome by the joy of the moment.
"Acts of Faith" heralds the invocation of Judeo-Christian themes explored in "Ignoring the Apples," "Adamís Deposition," "Abrahamís Hand," "The Price," and "Exodus." In "Acts of Faith," Simpson describes the various measures he uses to understand the sighted world: "I buy books to read with equipment for the blind. / It is an act of faith. In the bookstore / all the pages are blank." In this poem, he believes in the colors that friends describe and the paper money that others identify. He ends on his own knowledge: "I smell the city--oil and brown. / The yellow sun shines lemonade, / which means the sky must be blue." The poem offers a precarious reality fortified by cultural assumptions and Simpsonís choice to believe. The sighted friends and cashiers are unmistakable authorities, but the alternative choice — to question their assertions — cannot be considered. Simpsonís acts of faith keep him grounded and oriented to the world.
Gritz picks up her fruit motif in "Ignoring the Apples," where she sketches Eveís edenic provision for her husband. Simpson counters with "Adamís Deposition," and they perform a similar maneuver with the sacrificial story of Isaac, trading parts in "Abrahamís Hand" and "The Price." "Exodus" closes this five-part retelling of foundational Bible stories, and "Providence" eases out of myth and back into the secular world.
"Providence," a contemporary story of divine intervention, explores how the two speakers met and launches the reader into the last few poems. "First Anniversary," "There Among the Haves," and "Questions" end the collection by exploring the unfolding connection between Gritz and Simpson — the quotidian sweetness of new love, the mutual acceptance of two lovers judged incomplete by the larger world, and the epic seed in all small loves.
Though Simpsonís "Questions" ends the collection, Gritzís "First Anniversary" and "There Among the Haves" stand out as the most compelling in this last grouping. In "First Anniversary," Gritz describes how she learned to guide Simpson as they walked together. She complicates our knowledge of bodily boundaries by describing his white cane as "something inner and exposed." She recalls the universal "drumbeat" of "Hemiplegia I" with her head on his chest: "as I listened / to the beat beneath skin and rib."
"There Among the Haves" reinforces the composite story Simpson and Gritz have created as Gritz inventories their bodies:
…And there, among the haves,
Just as the white cane is "something inner and exposed," the speakerís "breasts" alliterate with "braille," forging links between the poetsí physical bodies and the technologies they rely upon. But these poems do not mechanize the speakers: rather, they create a new earth to be inherited — where canes and braille cohere with the "drumbeat" everyone shares.
Border Songs is beautifully arranged. Those who have read Simpsonís School for the Blind or Gritzís Geode will find some of the poems familiar, but in this new volume the poems take on an enlarged meaning. Each poem echoes the themes of its neighbors while the chapbook develops a long line of coherence. The "borders" in these poems are not the straight edge of a white page but the shifting surface crafted by two voices, seamless and distinct.
Title: Border Songs