Book Review

Petra Kuppers and Neil Marcus' Cripple Poetics: A Love Story is not your mother's poetry. Well, yes it is, but with many permutations and shape-shifts that give it a modern text that still retains the feel of a good old-fashioned love story. Besides, it is fun.

The blurb on the book's back cover describes it as comparable in spirit to the literary correspondence of Heloise and Abelard or the Brownings and, in so far as it deals with literary writings between two poets, that is true. Even more than love, the real subject of the book is communication.

Electronic communications, principally email and instant message, together with individual poems, make up the text of the book. Marcus and Kuppers, the authors and subjects of Cripple Poetics, would seem to have very different communication styles. Marcus, whose film Storm Reading features his difficulty speaking as a result of dystonia, is represented in the book with darker type and terser entries. Kuppers, who teaches at the University of Michigan, has authored a number of books in drama and dance, is represented by lighter type and generally more expansive prose. In addition to the verbal text, black and white photographs by Lisa Steichmann add an important non-verbal component to Cripple Poetics.

Like the traditional chimera, Cripple Poetics: A Love Story is divided into three parts, but in this case the head, "In Pursuit of a Kiss," is also the lion's share of the book. The second part, "Cripple Poets," is substantially shorter, and the third section, "Echoes," is really just a two-poem coda.

As it's name suggests, the first part of the book is the love story itself . It begins with two side by side poems framed as personal ads:

Wanted: Someone to share
warm summer nites in their
coolness and cold winter
nites in their warmth. Yes.
I'm a handsome romantic
53 yr old spastic revolution-
ary with a vision. Lets have
dinnner. I live a poetic life. I
wish intimacy and to share
a life with beauty art love
Are you excited adventur-
ous about life. Lets meet.

Wanted: Creative, artistic,
personal partner and
love, for ample woman
with ample imagination,
performances under her
belt, songs in her mouth,
traveling wind in her
hair, limping through life.
Crip culture card carrying
members preferred.
Searching for cuddlebug,
floordancer, tri-lingual
romantic jester for a
poetic life. Gender: open.
Size: no issue. I like them
strong and large. Has to
be able to keep up, relax
down, size up, seize me.

The reader knows immediately that play with form, font and text in addition to language will be the brick and mortar of the book. This first subsection of the book is called "Seeds" - a dual reference to the kiss which begins the relationship and to the pomegranate seeds of Persephone. Marcus and Kuppers live on opposite ends of the country so when Kuppers says, "poems are my pomegranate seeds to look in to the dark with, " Marcus replies:

for every seed you savor
you will come with me to my world for a time
and you will lose all connection with reason

Marcus' words refer not just to geographically different worlds but to the difference between the world of art and emotions in which he dwells and the world of academic discourse that Kuppers inhabits.

In the next subsection, "Landscape," with distance between the two poets established, the emphasis is on communication and, once again, a number of different texts are used. It begins with an academic document called "The Art of Communication" to which Marcus has added his own editing, inserting capitalized text that recognizes dance as a universal form of communication. To this Kuppers responds in prose:

I agree that dance is a significant part of communication, and I think it is part of verbal communication, too. Poetry, for instance, is to me so much about the movement of tongue and throat and lungs, at least when I write and perform it. All writing is movement to me, all movement closely related to writing and speaking.

Tying together the concepts of poetry and dance she adds, addressing Marcus, "I find you tremendously articulate, indeed, gracile, performative, dancely. With line breaks, and silences, and graphic marks as well as words. White space/black space." Just as Persephone was the mythological reference in the first section, Tiresias becomes a symbol in the second section, standing in for the transformative voice of disability from ancient times. This section ends with Kuppers making the trip out to Berkeley.

The stage is now set for the next subsection, "Disability Culture," which is represented textually by a joint letter to friends from the two lovers who find themselves involved in disability culture activities on the West Coast. The question "What is disability culture?" enters the discussion in the form of the first line of an instant message conversation transcript. And it is this question which occupies this section. Interestingly, Marcus, whose persona is that of the romantic individualist much more so than Kuppers, admits "I'm not easy with the word crip", despite its adoption as a transgressive term by many disability activists. Other writers with disabilities reading Cripple Poetics may share Marcus' unease. Reflecting on such labels in the first lines of his poem "my tiresisan journey" he writes:

maybe they wou'd have called me a spastic mute in ancient times
I am spastic
I dance
My muscles dance...
Mute, I kind of like mute
its like
A muse.
What does he who rarely speaks and yet who seems to
have so many "voices"
Who chooses his word so carefully and economically
What does HE think ? ?
What is HIS view of the world

This is indeed the very question that provides the rationale not only for the singular phenomenological experiences of the disabled individual, but for disability literature. A few pages later, Marcus tersely builds on this observation:

necessity of creating our own language
since ther is no other than our own to be accurate.
it is self described
built on self knowledge

This wrestling with the question of the basis for a disability culture aesthetic continues in another instant message transcript.

neilmarcus (5:25:27 PM): counter culture were all 'different'...

pk (5:27:49 PM): the fact that there is not one thing that unites us is also our strength: and it can show in our aesthetics.

Kuppers' response to Marcus' Tiresian musings also transitions the reader into the texts of the development of their physical relationship that braid with the discourse on disability culture.

what happens when the muse speaks, when poet and muse are one, and the one enters into dialogue, and kisses become poems, and dancing happens across one body and another, and moves.

Fanciful language permeates the remainder of this subsection. In a sequence of poems centered around the image of the "poet lovers" on a four-poster bed afloat on the ocean, one can almost see Robert Louis Stevenson smiling from his garden of verses.

The final subsection of the lion's portion of the book, "Biology" includes a few loosely connected poems which all in some way relate to the body. The most substantial of these is, "At the Gynecologists" which appeared in the June 2008 issue of Wordgathering. It is the only poem of the book that really surfaces the issues that disability culture advocates have with the medical establishment.

The short second section of the book, is called "Cripple Poetics," mirroring the book's title - and for good reason. It is really a distillation of the book's basic arguments for and against a disability poetics. It is a stand alone piece well worth reading and, in fact was previously published independently in the Inglis House Poetry Workshop's Slow Dancing to Invisible Music. The book ends with Marcus' often cited poem "Disability Country" and Kuppers matching poem "Crip Music." One notes that Marcus has retained the original title of the poem and did not change it to "Crip Country." While this retention is no doubt principally for lyric and syntactical reasons, pairing it with Kuppers' title, underscores the ambivalence that still resides in which term to use.

Cripple Poetics is one of the most unorthodox books of poetry most readers are likely to encounter. (And that's a good thing.) Petra Kuppers and Neil Marcus are both well established writers in the field of disability literature. One is as likely to find sentimentality about disability in their writings as they are to find Wayne Newton at a Government Mule concert. (And that's a good thing, too.) Therefore, when they decide to write about love, things become interesting. Cripple Poetics is not a page -turner with a single narrative thread. It is more like a Bosch painting: there are no grand conclusions, but almost anyone can get lost in some aspect of the work. The authors' creative use of texts may not always hit the mark in a specific instance, but it would be a rare poet that would come away from the book without feeling that some use of text had launched them into an idea for a poem of their own. Perhaps more importantly, the book fulfills two needed functions. First, it raises critical questions about the need for and shape of a crip/disability poetry. Second, it connects the images of disability and sensual romantic love. Too often, sex in disability writing comes in one of two flavors: absent or erotica. Cripple Poetics finds a refreshing third alternative. Even when the words begin to was a bit Byronic, Steichmann's photographs serves to ground them visually in read bodies. It is almost impossible to convey the full sense of the book in a traditional prose review, so perhaps it is best to leave the last word to Neil Marcus in what is perhaps the book's most compelling poem "The Question of Cripple":

How can I speak of cripple and not mention the wind.
How can I speak of crippled and not mention the heart.
Heart, wind, song, flower, space, time, love. To leave
these absent is to leave cripple in stark terms.
As if we were made of medical parts and not flesh and bone.

There is always wind in my cripple
Off shore breezes.
Scented nightflowering vines.
Wild salsa dances that run past midnight

Cripple is not extraordinary or ordinary.
Cripple is a full plate
A blown about newspaper
An ox ina rice field, ploughing earth