Book Review: How to Wait (Erin M. Kelly)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

In the introduction to her debut book of poetry How to Wait Erin M. Kelly writes, "As a woman with cerebral palsy, I see the world through different eyes than those around me. My life is often like a video game as I navigate through my surroundings. By the same token, those surroundings are sometimes all that I have the foundation to build a poem off of." These words mean something a bit different today than they might twenty years ago when trying to find poetry by a writer with cerebral palsy was a near impossibility. For an emerging writer like Kelly, this is both a boon and a bane. On the one hand, there are journals that eagerly welcome the work of disabled writers, and presses, such as Finishing Line, that are known for publishing these same first books. On the other hand, even a writer with cerebral palsy now has metaphorical shoulders to stand on in the work of writers like Larry Eigner (whose poetry is now seeing a resurgence) and Jennifer Bartlett. And those are some pretty big shoulders. The question becomes for a new writer ‐ what do I have to bring to the table? What Can I contribute?

Kelly's assertion that she sees the world through different eyes attests to her understanding of the task ahead of her. It is the same one that faced Eigner, except that Eigner was restricted to what he could see from the window of his porch and had only a manual typewriter on which he could type one letter at a time. And those who follow disability poetry know what he did with that. A good place to start with Kelly's poems then is to look at some of those observations.

Right from the very first poem – the book's title poem – Kelly invites us into that world, slowing us down to her pace.

Watch the illuminated stripes
on your wall
brighten and fade through
thin rows of window blinds.

They'll crawl to the floor soon,
like dancers with ladybugs
in their pants.
Listen for the door of your entrance and exit
to leave a trail of windburn.
In a minute,
tempered voices will
slam it shut again.

This sense of pace that disability theorist Ellen Samuels calls "crip time" is explored even more thoroughly in "Turning Point," where Kelly admirably details the languid nature of time as she experiences it.

I take my time when
I've got a thousand beats
in my system.
They dance slowly…

My hands follow along,
words flowing from the
fingertips the way time trickles
out of a calendar day.

Such description may be the most significant contribution that How to Wait makes to disability poetry. The same sense of patience is expressed in the lingering first lines of "Matchbox, " but with a difference:

I've wanted to light a match so many times,
but grace come like a thief in the night.

I lie in bed, take the matchbox out from
under the pillow, and let its warmth singe my hand.

Here, there are duskier undertones. One initially thinks, "the woods are lovely, dark and deep," but then something else surfaces too:

They've been lit on a word, a promise of
good company that never seems to make it
over the threshold.

It is the feeling of loneliness that seems to permeate the writing not only those with physical disabilities, but others who are isolated by society as well. Unfortunately, "Matchbook" shows itself to be the work of a young poet when Kelly goes on to dissect the causes rather than letting the mood that she has accomplished setting do the work for her.

The cover photograph of How to Wait makes it obvious that Kelly does not work solely from her room. Unlike Eigner she is able to take to the streets. The photo, black and white on a noir city street gives the impression of the isolation hinted at in "Matchbox," but this is the stance of the poet as object of stare. As Kelly wryly notes "all bodies look like mine/when they sit in a wheelchair." The counterpoint to that image — her engagement in her surroundings – is perhaps best illustrated in the observations she makes in poems such as "Parade":

I look down

Children try to laugh while
building sandcastles on concrete.
They throw down their tools
when they see a waste of age
behind a clown's painted face…

…but wait, here come pretty little lies
dressed in a woman's pink lipstick.

A major theme of How to Wait – one frequently expressed by writers with cerebral palsy – is the freedom that the written word, and poetry in particular, gives her to express herself in ways not available to her through speech. In "Autograph" and "Foresight" Kelly pays special tribute the teachers and mentors who first saw possibilities in writing and encouraged her to develop herself through poetry. One wishes that she had also given a nod somewhere in the book to Finishing Line Press for providing a new poet with a slim track record the opportunity to have the book see daylight.

As might be expected in a new poet's first book, Kelly tries out a number of approaches. "Dream Catcher" is an extended metaphor about hunger. "When the World Breaks" feels apocalyptical. Some poems like "Flight From Outside" feel fragmentary, asking readers to fill in referential blanks. Several try out the use of second person narration. While the trope of the poet searching for a voice is hackneyed, it is also true. The common thread in all of these poems, as Kelly herself made clear, is that they reflect her embodied experience, whether it originates out of her own physicality or in reaction to the reactions of others around her. It is probably fair to say that those poems in which she is able to convey that sense of time and those rhythms of thought that she lives with daily are the most successful and those that come closest to the voice that she probably wants to establish.

At this point in time when disability poetry is becoming increasingly sophisticated, it is no longer sufficient for a disabled poet who wants to make an impact to simply let others know that they exist or that their experiences may be different from those of able-bodied readers. Eigner scholar Michael Davidson has suggested that there are three avenues for disability poetics: metaphoric (i.e tropes about blindness, etc.), structural (dealing with formal considerations), and sociological (resistance and community formation). Eigner focused on structural, Bartlett on both structure and resistance. As Kelly continues to develop as a writer, she will have to make her choices. It will be interesting to see which direction poetry takes her.

Title: How to Wait
Author: Erin M. Kelly
Publisher: Finishing Line Press
Publication Date: 2018


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).