Book Review

In the mid-1980’s two anthologies appeared that attempted to give voice to writers with disabilities, With Wings, edited by two social workers, Marsha Saxton and Florence Howe, and Despite This Flesh, edited by poet Vassar Miller. Both anthologies tried to glean works from the nearly fallow field of disability writing. Saxton and Howe focused on the work of women and favored writers who were fairly well known but whose disabilities were not. Miller, who rarely mentioned her cerebral palsy in her own poetry, took a more grass roots approach, trying to provide a work slim volume that teachers could use to show that people with disabilities did indeed write.

One would think that over twenty years later, with the passage of ADA and the establishment of Disability Studies programs in universities across the country the situation had changed. Regrettably, this is not the case. There have been a few anthologies of creative work, notably Kenny Fries’much used Staring Back and Victoria Ann Lewis’ landmark collection of disability drama Beyond Victims and Villains – but these are exceptions. It is a mark of the resistance of culture to the notion of disability literature that no anthology of disability literature has appeared populated by writers that even the literate reader recognizes. If this were not the case, collections like Behind Our Eyes would not be necessary, but as things stand now, they are.

Behind Our Eyes, edited by Marilyn Brandt Smith, had its genesis when Sanford Rosenthal urged the National Writers Union to support a workshop for disabled writers. A group was formed that met weekly by teleconference and, as Rosenthal puts it in the books preface, “we’re offering this anthology as an outgrowth of our first year’s experience.” As a result, Behind Our Eyes is more like Miller’s anthology than Fries. While some of its contributors, such as poet Nancy Scott and photographer Heather Kirk have made appearances in national publications like Kaleidoscope, few readers are likely to recognize the writers whose names appear in the table of contents. The anthology is one which truly tries to provide a forum for new voices. At almost two hundred pages, it definitely gets good marks for the sheer quantity of material offered.

As might be anticipated from the way the book came about, Behind Our Eyes is essentially a potpourri of poetry and personal experience narrative with an occasional short story thrown in. Smith gives some structure to the book by organizing it into eight parts, each of which is preceded by a two or three sentence preview. These include such diverse topics as “Celebrating Survival,” Going Places,” and “Honoring Nature’s Pride.” Smith explains that within sections she has tried to keep some pieces by the same writer together in order to give the reader a chance to get a better feel for that particular writer’s work.

The editors of Behind Our Eyes have made a philosophical decision not to write as advocates or members of a disabilities community. Rosenthal writes, “Our stories and articles don’t represent any group with a cause. We write as individuals, sharing life experiences or stretching our imaginations beyond them.” While this may well have been a pragmatic choice given the nature of the material with which the editors were working, it is a choice that runs contrary to the work of disability rights activists, implementers of disability studies programs and those who like Fries and Lewis promote the concept of disability literature as a genre. For the potential reader this has both its virtues and its pitfalls.

One of the obvious advantages for contributors to the anthology is that it encourages readers to disregard the topics and look at the work of individual writers. Smith, in fact, suggests that one approach to the anthology is to identify a favorite author and try to follow up by finding out more about his or her work. For editors of magazines or journals like Wordgathering, it also provides the opportunity to trawl for and promote the work of new or unrecognized writers to a wider audience.

One writer with an interesting selection of work is DeAnna Quietwater Noriega. Several of Noriega’s pieces center on her experience with guide dogs. Others reflect a commitment to native American culture. Such a combination in itself makes for a writer with a potentially unique view. Perhaps Noriega’s most successful piece is her poem “Dancers,” which ends:

Through fog and mist, through falling snow we whirl,
Our movements in perfect unison.
Where your paws lead,
My feet follow.
What does it matter,
If only we two hear the music?
We move together as one being.
We are cloud dancers, you and I.

Without attempting as many beginning writers with disabilities do (usually unsuccessfully) to be inspirational,“Dancers” captures an experience that might not be totally available to an able-bodied person. The smooth cadences of the language contrast to the ragged visual edges of the line, lending support to poet Dan Simpson’s thesis that for a blind poet, it is the sound of the language and not the physical appearance on the page that is the main concern. It is the embryonic form of a disability poetics.

A prose piece that functions somewhat the same way is Tara Arlene Inman’s “Squashed Baby Pigs.” Though the title alone invites further reading, Inman begins with language that resonates almost universally with writers:

In the depths of our hearts, we often feel tugs from the old and the young that make us appreciate the past and the present. The experiences of my life shape me into who I am now. I want to go back into my childhood and bring back that little girl and write her stories in her voice. I also want to include the adult I am now who things she has learned some lessons.

I sit down to write this essay, but little Arlene, the child I was, tugs at my arm. Little Arlene intrudes into the writing whenever I, the adult write about her.

While this isn’t Proust, it is inviting enough to at least make the reader with even a modicum of curiosity want to continue to see what she has to offer. Like Noriega, Inman delays any mention of her disability until about halfway through her essay, at which point she tells the reader, “I was losing vision from glaucoma and couldn’t see my handwriting, so I used a tape recorder to write.” Functionally, this technique is extremely successful. By the time the reader reaches these words, he or she has already connected with the writer on the level of shared experience. The hook is in, the commitment has been made and they realize that they do have something in common with a disabled person. This works much more effectively than if Inman had brandished such platitudes as “people with disabilities are just like everyone else” at the beginning and given the reader an immediate reason to erect barriers. The disclosure of her disability later into the essay also allows the reader to realize that a certain irony is being worked here: the child at her elbow is sighted while the adult is blind. Connecting this with the Oedipus tradition in literature is not much of a stretch.

A piece of comparable interest, is the initial offering in the anthology. Despite the trite title, the placement of “Beyond the Call of Duty” by Bobbi LaChance was a good move by the editors. The piece could be read as either an autobiographical tale or realistic fiction, but the subject matter – a house being visited by a midnight burglar – is likely to pull in the casual reader who may not have an inherent interest about people with disabilities nor an interest in an essay like Innmons about the psychology of writing autobiography. LaChance writes:

On the edge of drifting into a deeper sleep I heard footsteps tiptoe into my bedroom, then tiptoe out—squeaky floorboards. From the kitchen, I heard a strange noise, then all was quiet. With the sudden awareness, I bolted upright in bed listening. I heard another movement in the kitchen. “Oh My God,” I thought, “there’s someone in the house. Are my children all right?” Ever so slowly, as my feet touched the floor, reaching down, I unhooked my guide dog, Wicket.

This is a scene in which almost anyone could imagine themselves, and only the phrase “guide dog” lets the reader know that the protagonist has a disability. As the story progresses, the reader is able to emotionally identify with the narrator since one need not be blind at all to experience the same feelings in such a situation. Nevertheless, when the reader sits back to think about how it might be not to be able to see in such a situation, the impact of the story deepens. Aside from the title, the one unfortunate thing about the story is that it did not stop one sentence short. The inability to leave well enough alone without trying to tack on a “feel good” ending is one of the few general weakness of the pieces selected for the anthology.

While many of the writings in Behind Our Eyes still have the feel of the workshop about them, this is not true across the volume. Nancy Scott’s sophistication comes across immediately in the first stanza of her tongue in-cheek-poem, “Paper Trained”:

I’ve had my nose rubbed
in clichés I’ve left
on the carpet
been punished for puddles
of prepositions even
when I sneaked them in corners
where lines meet.

In addition to the ability, to use deadpan metaphor, Scott shows you she is not unacquainted with alliteration either. Scott handles the meditative poem equally well as the opening lines of “April Lilacs” shows:

This is more than sipping spring,
more than the fluke
of two days over eighty.

The editors of Behind Our Eyes acknowledge that, by design or chance, the disabilities represented in the anthology are overwhelmingly blindness and low vision. One byproduct of this selection is that those who read a number of selections begin to build up a certain sense of what perspective these writers have to offer. Like Noriega and Inman, Nancy Scott has a visual disability, and like them as well, her poems make a contribution to the development of disability literature as well. Scott’s poem “Fill in the Blanks” is reminiscent of the work of Stephen Kuusisto, perhaps the best known contemporary poet with impaired vision, in its description of how she works.

Which Word did I hear?
“Tongue, time, tone?”
Which word is really there?
I listen again through the lines.
Rewind. Find that line again.

Along with her poems, Scott’s prose piece “Keeping an Artist’s Journal” merits reading both as a context for her poetry and as a guide for beginning writers. The journal has a rather choppy feeling to it, though, and leaves the impression that it was rather randomly edited to fit into the anthology. Luckily for readers of Behind Our Eyes, Scott does have a book of her out, Leveling the Spin. If the few poems offered in this anthology are any indication, it is probably a book well worth getting.

In the 1970’s Behind Our Eyes would have been revolutionary, just as in the early 1800’s simply getting together a collection of writing by women or African Americans was a major accomplishment. Once a minority group establishes that it can get itself into print; however, a somewhat higher expectation is thrust upon anthologists. For this reason, collections of literary writings by women in the twentieth century affirmatively sought to include selections that broke the stereotypes of women as portrayed by male writers. As disability scholars like David Mitchell and Simi Linton have pointed out most American still have stereotypic conceptions of people with disabilities, stereotypes which have been reinforced by a literary tradition of able-bodied writers. While Behind Our Eyes does a commendable job of including day to day portraits of people with disabilities, especially those with visual impairments, it does little to affirmatively counter the stereotypes. Instead, it relies on the intelligent reader to draw that conclusion for him or herself through the steady accretion of details as they make their way through the selections. In the selected writings themselves there is little to suggest a sense of community or the degree to which disability is a social construct, and in that respect the collection does reify the generally held belief that a disability is an individual problem to be solved by individuals. In that respect, it does not advance disability literare beyond what Miiler or Saxton accomplished two decades ago. To its credit, however, Behind Our Eyes does not find it necessary to include stories of supercrips, nor despite such titles as “Battered Soul,” “Bound By Blindness,” and “Trapped,” does it present persons with disabilities as unfortunate victims waiting for charity or a cure.

Behind Our Eyes is not likely to see too many of its contributors nominated for Pushcart Prizes this year. That being said, it is an anthology that deserves a look by those searching for disability literature. There are no deconstructed stories and it is mercifully free of academese. One could much more easily see a middle school teacher pulling a selection from this volume for a class assignment than Staring Back or Beyond Victims and Villains. With such a lack of representation of writers with disabilities in school literature problems, that alone is enough to recommend it. Behind Our Eyes is available at iUniverse or Amazon Books.