We close out the week with a guest appearance from Amy R., writer/editor for the Carnegie Library’s Story Pockets blog.
People with power can afford
To tell their story
People without power
risk everything to tell their story
from “Telling,” Laura Hershey
A book of poetry saved my life last summer. It took over a year to write about, because I read it the way I always read poetry: at random, skipping back and forth. More than that, I had to read it gingerly. I know “mirror books” and “window books”–one reflects your life, and the other looks out on a different one. But I can only describe Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability as some kind of malleable verbal sculpture. The poems both gave shapes to disabilities I’d never seen before and felt as familiar as my own skin. The latter was no small thing–when a librarian told me, “By the way, we have this book…,” my body might as well not have been mine.
In “Beauty and Variations,” Kenny Fries wrestles with both his nondisabled lover and a question: “Can only one of us be beautiful? Is this your / Plan?,” he asks as his lover traces his deformities. Beauty here is synonymous with power. There is power between disabled and nondisabled people, with the latter often bestowing it on the former. People with disabilities are often expected to be passive and grateful recipients, objects that are “done to.” Their bodies become nouns immobilized by other people’s adjectives. Their own words do not figure.
“I am all motion and / this motion is neither weak nor hideous / this motion is simply my own,” states Jennifer Bartlett. But in Sheila Black’s “What You Mourn,” we see that the calm, self-evident truth of living in your body can be shaken. “[T]hat body they tried so hard to fix, straighten was simply mine, / and I loved it as you love your own country.” “Simple” is anything but, charged with fear and frustration as well as affirmation: I live in this body; it’s just me. Why is that so hard for you to understand? From here comes Black’s “native anger” at having her legs straightened so she can “walk straight on [her] wedding day,” her wondering who she’d have been if she were crooked; the nostalgic summer imagery of running in her crooked body proves that disabled people don’t always mourn their bodies or need saving the way nondisabled people sometimes assume they do.
One of the hardest things for many nondisabled people to accept is that disabled people intimately inhabit their own bodies. They–I want very badly to say “we”–learn, sometimes instinctively, how to make the laws of physics work for their bodies as best they can. They interact and react constantly to environments and people that may pose physical or spiritual difficulty. They are immersed.
There’s a reason Beauty is “of” and not “about” disability: disability is also the verb. It’s active rather than passive, influencing how the poets do and think and be. This book is immersion, from the cover photo onward: artist Sue Austin in a bright red wheelchair, hair streaming behind her, breathing underwater.
Poetry is a satisfying form for disability to take sometimes. Narrators in poems are called speakers; here are disabled people speaking for and as themselves, which is still a rare thing among portrayals of disability sanitized to the point of meaninglessness and disabled people who never object or say ouch. It feels like a magical and faintly dangerous act to say the words that transform their experiences into what they actually feel like. I never had either the chance or the sleight-of-tongue, and was full of admiration. I caught myself half afraid, wondering what would happen if the poets were interrupted and spoken over–what they would turn into if the words that went down weren’t theirs.
But that does not happen. When Petra Kuppers describes her wheelchair as an elemental plant with historical and figurative roots and “evergreen forces,” I could smell rain and taste metal; I saw her fingers as vines twining the wheels.
Poetry is also a form of protection, Emily Dickinson‘s “slanted truth” that “must dazzle gradually / or every man be blind.” It protects not only the reader, but the speaker. Nondisabled people are not often equipped to deal with the possibility that, according to the social model, they might contribute to the difficulties disabled people face. If they were to take the role of a blind or otherwise disabled person too suddenly, they would realize their own mistakes and become defensive, attempting to discredit the disabled viewpoint. In the time it takes to process a figure of speech, the impact is, if not softened, slowed.
Metaphors and linguistic devices are not, however, euphemisms or misdirection. They are, sometimes, the most honest way to convey the spirit of disability when the literal experience is disbelieved or dismissed. When Laurie Clements Lambeth recounts the MS-related tremors that woke her and her partner, there’s a rhyme for “shaking” every other line. It resonates; it demands and insists that you acknowledge it.
I don’t seek out disability studies books because I want to. I do it because, after the 10th or 20th time someone tells me what to feel or that attitudinal barriers don’t exist except maybe “out in the wider world” (never quite meeting eyes), my bones ache to throbbing–I swear grief goes straight to my knees–and I have a terrible sense that people like me aren’t worth listening to or empathizing with. Disability studies gives me back some reality, as hard as it might be. Beauty is a Verb is considered disability studies as well as poetry, but it is more than either.
I don’t exaggerate when I say that it gave me back the spirit of my body. My hands jerked when I realized I had said the same thing as Bartlett and Black, only sobbing and feeling as if I’d been punched in the stomach. “But it was mine!” My knowledge of my body, my adulthood and my personal space had been disregarded utterly, so that I couldn’t even move. What fear or hurt I had was inconsequential; I was “asking for it” by having asked for help with something different; I “didn’t understand what I look like.” I became terrified to accept help from almost anyone, wondering what license it granted them over my body. My stick, which I’d come to regard as an instrument and extension of my body, felt ugly and unwieldy. If my feelings meant nothing, then why feel anything? So I didn’t–for some time, I couldn’t. Beauty was a gift of perfect timing, its recommendation a form of advocacy.
This book is nerved; reading it is a sensitive, sensual and sensory act. I’d never seen so many disabled people feeling things at once: even pain, even, deliciously, anger. I felt the words take shape in my own skin like a ghostly set of senses. Only then did I settle back into my body and remember “the melody of crutch” (Petra Kuppers, “Crip Music“).
No one will ever be required to understand disabled people in quite the same way disabled people need to understand or defer to nondisabled viewpoints just to navigate the world. But if you want an education that sings and rages and puzzles and soothes, Beauty is well worth the shock of the plunge. And you might remember something you forgot.
I wish you’d learn better
before we all totter
into our coffins where
there’s no straight way
to lie crooked.
from “Dramatic Monologue in the Speaker’s Own Voice, Vassar Miller
The Disability Studies Reader, Lennard J. Davis, ed.
Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller, Georgiana Kleege
A day of advocacy, a day of giving. Click here to learn how you can support the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh on October 3rd.