Shane Neilson


I first heard about Jim Ferris's essay "Crip Poetry, or How I Learned to Love the Limp" a few years ago. I was starting my PhD dissertation on the representations of pain in Canadian literature and, as there were far fewer Canadian resources on disability poetics than in the American case, I took out Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability from Mills Library at McMaster with excitement. In this book that I revere, both Michael Northen and Jillian Wiese mentioned Ferris's essay in their respective pieces. Needless to say, I looked up Ferris's influential essay on the web. But before I did so, I found many other treasures within the pages of Beauty is a Verb, probably foremost among these the work of Vassar Miller.

My. As I write these words, I'm getting emotional recalling her "The Common Core," a modified villanelle that reminds humankind of our shared vulnerability as it begins, "Each man's sorrow is an absolute. / Each man's pain is a norm / No one can prove and no one refute." Not only did I passionately agree with her message, I was devastated by how beautiful she constructed this verbal device, how seamlessly she negotiated what can be a very difficult form.

I switched quickly from Ferris at the outset of this essay to Miller not only because I prefer to discuss poetry; not only because Miller shattered the week of my first reading her; but mainly because Miller included me , and people like me, in her address:

No man's sickness has a synonym.
No man's disease has a double.
You weep for your love, I for my limbs –
Who mourns with reason? who over whims?

Personally, I'll never be able to split that hair, for the point is that we are, all of us, in pain; though the nature of that metaphorical (and non-metaphorical) pain might vary. But Ferris seems to split it, at least to my sighted eyes, by focusing on "atypical embodiment," by unpacking poems by Cheryl Marie Wade and Stephen Kuusisto that focus on physical disability, and by mentioning "sensitivity to the body," factors that don't resonate with my form of affective disability.

To be fair, Ferris's essay doesn't just have a historical importance (that I trust Wordgathering will unpack in this issue's special section), it remains important. His compellingly written essay is framed by a quote by Emily Dickinson, a poet at the core of the canon of alternative body-minds, and near the end of his essay Ferris does mention "alternative embodiment, cognition, and rationality," though I do think the order of this sequence reflects a preference. As it happens, it is this same preference that came to guide the development of Beauty is a Verb. My people – the mentally ill, or the mad – were not featured, and I confess, I began to wonder why.

When I proposed a vague version of this essay to Michael Northen, the editor of this publication and one member of the editorial group that saw Beauty is a Verb to publication, Mike told me over email why a book I both loved but also mourned came to be the way it is. Mr. Ferris's original essay "originally came out of the Inglis House Poetry Workshop, which [Mike] began at the requests of residents of Inglis House, a residential wheelchair community in Philadelphia back in 1997. At the time, though there were poets who wrote about mental/psychological disability, there was virtually nothing by writers living with visible physical disabilities (particularly those since birth). A number of the poets had CP, for example, and there was no poetry that really reflected their lived experience." Mike adds that "for similar reasons," Beauty is a Verb made the same kind of selections and that "Jim is well aware of the issue that you are raising."

I do find it somewhat perverse that I am criticizing a book that I love for its elevation and amplification of marginalized voices, but such is the kind of life I have often lived, saying the perceived wrong thing at the perceived wrong time as a matter of my own survival, having been silenced so brutally in the past for speaking my mind until, of course, I wouldn't speak at all, unless I knew that I was speaking what was wanted. This worked for as long as you might expect it could work. One of the ways I made it out of institutions was to speak my mind. I've been doing it ever since, and not without difficulty.

Here is the main point I would like to make (I suspect that Mr. Ferris is already aware of it, too): a problem comes in the separation of physical, "visible" disability and so-called "invisible" disability from one another. By separating them, we reinforce a Descartian mind-body duality that is nonsense, that lacks fidelity with the world. Miller's poem rejects such a proposition and I think it is more learned than a shelf of medical textbooks. Speaking as a physician, I know that it is the project of biomedicine to render the body into data and that taxonomizing pathology is a means of control. By enforcing the split ourselves, even if that separation was not part of an exclusionary argument, we do damage to our collectivity. We do biomedicine's work for us, splitting us off and up, segregating the nature of what should never be split or cut – the inevitable fate of the species, the host of ways we will be (and are) dis/abled. We reinforce the impulse to make a distinction, to valorize physical illness over that of stigmatized mental illness.

Why do I care about the exclusion so much? Why do I frame this as an "exclusion" and not a "focus" or a "concentration"? Admittedly, depression and anxiety amongst poets is common, but amputation isn't; yet the kind of affective disability I speak of should yet be represented in terms of author provenance and theme. I feel this way because, perhaps, of Ferris's essay itself, which begins thus: "What is crip poetry? How do I know it when I see it, when I hear it? Here is how I know it: I know it when I feel it." Feel has two senses, physical and emotional. And Ferris is using the word, I think, primarily in the emotional sense. So then where are the poets who have the lived experience of major mental illness, poets who can bring that same sensibility to bear, only in a way that would reflect not an alternative body (necessarily) but an alternative mind? I also feel as I do because Beauty is a Verb has proven to be a seminal text for promoting the work of poets living with disability, and of the cause of disability studies in general. If it decided in its wisdom to not cover "us," then perhaps we are not worth covering?

Such thoughts are natural to me, who lived for so long trying to pass as normal in a discipline (medicine) designed to identify, stigmatize, and marginalize its ill practitioners. So much of my life was wasted desperately trying to pass on the wards and in clinics, a habit so ingrained and internalized that I had to have an actual conversion to the way of thinking and feeling that is disability studies. I had to identify, to myself, that what I was living and experiencing daily was, in truth, a disability – and it took 38 years for me to do this because of artificial distinctions between the body and the mind. This essay is not intended for me to perform my disability in terms of a recitation of bona fides, but a short version is this: I find it terribly difficult to be in the world and suffer a paranoia so pernicious I can never really be sure if I am loved. I doubt everything and everyone, and this includes my own illness. I am often waiting to be encouraged to dis-identify, to renounce the difficulty that informs each step; I think of myself as a malingerer when people tell me my (stable, constant) fears are in the realm of normative, everyday experience. More days than not, I'm called back to the passing fold.

It'd be death over there, though, with the usual death-march to impossible expectations, expenditures, and neoliberal resiliencies. Yet Vassar Miller's poem, as well as any number of other poems I've encountered in this life, keep me from seeking the hall pass. Who would I be kidding, anyway, for over there is a paradox: I'd be expected to adhere to the code of passing but never accepted as truly passing, depending on the whims of the situations I found myself in.

In conclusion, I have no better words than Miller, and repeat them like a charm, inviting everyone into the disability fold: "You weep for your love, I for my limbs – / Who mourns with reason? who over whims?"I'll be saying these words with unreasonable expectations and hopes.


Shane Neilson is a poet, physician, and literary critic who researches the representations of pain in Canadian literature. In 2019 he will, along with his friends, publish an issue of Hamilton Arts & Letters on disability poetics in Canada. Shane completed his "affect trilogy" in 2017 with Dysphoria (Porcupine's Quill Press), and is grateful that Wordgathering reviewed it.