Book Review: A Doorknob for an Eye (DJ Savarese)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

Earlier this year DJ Savarese became the first person on the autism spectrum to graduate from Oberlin College. Subsequently, the film Deej was released. Directed by Robert Rooy and written by Saverese himself, the film chronicles his educational experiences in and out of school from ninth grade through his first experiences with college. If those accomplishments were not enough, Savarese’s first book of poetry has just been released &ndah; A Doorknob for the Eye, published by Unrestricted Editions.

A Doorknob for an Eye is a thin volume consisting of seven ekphrastic poems. The work , however, is anything but slight. Each poem is a reflection on a work of an autistic artist. Savarese has created a miniature gallery. Beneath each poem title, the poet labels the specifics of the piece. For example, below the title of the poem "Hawking Radiation" he writes: "After Dan Miller, Untitled, (water blue ink with ‘Metal’),/ 2014, 45 x 30." At the end of the book is an "Appendix" listing each poem with additional commentary on the artist, such as one might expect to find a comparable gallery wall plaque.

The lead-off poem of the volume is "Blank-Ink-Jet Maneuver" after a work by Stephen Wiltshire, undoubtedly the most well-known of the artists Savarese presents. Immediately, the poet takes aim at labels. Because he draws from memory, Wiltshire has been labeled "The human camera":

"Savant," says the neurologist;
  "automaton," claims the art historian.

As those around him gawk, however, Wiltshire himself has disappeared.

The image of autism as a sort of cover into which the artist vanishes reappears in the final lines of the book’s third poem "Hen" ; where Savarese writes: "think of autism as a shroud of ice and dust: beauty’s cosmic hen." The poem is based upon a painting of the Brooklyn Bridge at night by Jessy Park and works with several strands of imagery. The first is that of Walt Whitman, whose words "throb, baffled and curious brain" heads the poem. A second is an image of the retina as a deliverer of mail, an image that is heightened by the Savarese’s inclusion of notes letting the reader know that Park works in a mailroom. It also leads to the book’s title:


        Jessy, is a natural circus, as friendly
    as a doorknob to the eye. You flap your lids
as if they were wings; you land on the horizon.

The poem also invokes Melville’s "Bartleby" and a line by Anne Sexton.

While it is difficult to avoid the temptation to dig into each of the poems in this book, some must be left for the reader to explore on their own, so I will limit myself to one more generalization. Each of the poems in A Doorknob for an Eye seems to be comprised of four elements: direct reference to the work of art, elements from the life of the artist themselves, autism, and the shape of the poem. In the majority of the poems, there is also a fifth element, the importance of light. The relative weight of these elements varies according the particular poem. The formal structures of the poems tend to take their shape from something in the subject matter, and no two poems are built exactly the same. "The Librarian in the Trees" uses a numerical sequence, "The Horns of a Dilemma" is in couplets, "Squeeze Box" reflects the shape of an accordian’s movement, and "The Unmerited Favor of Light" based upon Grace Halmshaw’s painting "Explosions of Color" spreads across the pages like a splatter of light particles and ends with the tradition black print of the page turning to colored type. A closer look reveals that these light particles are actually to be read as waves.

   My                            dragged                             literacy
                           parents                              into                            I
             adoptive                           me                            and
lost                                  eye.                               longer
                           native                           no                                     exactly
            my                                I'm                                     visual
nor                               verbal:                             type,
                            I                             I                            fingers
             am                        when                             my
speak                           accent.

These lines are among my favorite in the entire book because they give us insight into the poet himself. As a poet who knows what it is like to experience the world without speaking, Savarese is a mediator between the visual work that expresses the artists thoughts and emotions through paint and color, and the world of printed language – specifically, the printed English language. Just as light and particle are two ways that light expresses itself, so the views of autistic artists who work in color (or texture or sound) and those that use the conventions of written language are both ways of representing experience. In the same way an ASL poet recognizes that his translation of a poem into English is a misrepresentation of the original, Savarese knows that at best, in trying to verbally reconstruct the viewpoints of the artists, he is speaking with an accent. When the poet says that he was "dragged in literacy," one recalls something of Wordsworth’s sense of loss when he was dragged away from childhood into the world of society and culture.

Publisher Chris Martin and Unrestricted Editions have done us all a great favor in bringing DJ Savarese’s work to a wider public. Perhaps it is a bit grandiose to hop on the old trope, "If you read one book year..," but it is fair to say that readers interested poetry and disability who have limited time on their hands to read, will be hard pressed to find a book that yields them greater delight or insights for the time they have to put into it than this small volume.


Title: A Doorknob for an Eye
Author: DJ Savarese
Publisher: Unrestricted Editions
Publication Date: 2017


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).