Book Review: Blind Girl Grunt (Constance Merritt)
Reviewed by Michael Northen
Tell me woman’s less than a man
Constance Merritt is an anomaly among writers with disabilities. With the exception of the lines above, little in her latest book Blind Girl Grunt overtly mentions her blindness, nor does any biographical note or preface talk about it, yet her experience as a blind poet informs every poem of the book through the music of the language that she brings to her work.
Blind Girl Grunt is Merritt’s fourth book of poetry and a continuation of the skills that she honed in Two Rooms, but it is also a deepening and further experimentation with those skills. This manifests itself most obviously in the third section of the book, "Blind Girl Grunt: The Selected Blues Lyrics" from which the poem cited above is taken. In referring to Merritt as an anomaly, I am referencing the way in which most poets choose to make a contribution to disability poetry. The usual way is for poets to use disability, specifically, their own experiences with disability, as the subject of poems. It is an understandable choice because it pushes back against the once prevalent notion that disability is not a fit subject for poetry and should be hidden from the reader. Less common is the choice to use one's experiences as a disabled writer to actually create or investigate new forms in which those experiences can be communicated – as poets like Jennifer Bartlett, Laurie Clements Lambeth and John Lee Clark have done. These poets, however, use their experiences both as the subject and a formative principle of their work. Constance Merritt’s work is unusual in seeking out the blues form with only a single instance of blindness as the subject.
The blues section of the book consists of seven poems that work their way from the straightforward blues form of "Gone Courtin Blues" to the small variations and manipulations of language culminating in the powerful "Lesser Than Blues." The appropriation of colloquial speech consonant with the blues rhythms is particularly heightened by their contrast to the precision of the language in the two previous sections which deal with personal relationships and social issues respectively. Moreover, the placement of the blues section after a section with the title "On Civil Disobedience," reinforces the notion of blues and a subversive form of social commentary. "Jay Walkin Blues," for example, begins with the apparently common place observation:
You got to stop on the red
which later evolves into:
You gots to walk it straight & narrow
With "Lesser Than Blues" she lays out the downward social trajectory from white man to black man to woman to blind woman. The book's first section "Lonely in the House of Love" focuses on personal loss while the second shifts to social/political concerns. The blues section of book combines these two aspects into a single form, one that is both socially conscious but intensely personal.
In addition to blues, Merritt makes use of a variety of other forms including pantoum, sonnet, litany, and lullaby. While in less skillful hands such diversity might come across as amateurish attempts to find a voice, Merritt’s poems are bound together by the feeling of sheer confidence in the musicality of her work. At the same time, each poem feels as though it has found the particular rhythm that suits it best. A particular favorite of mine, both for its subject and what she accomplishes with the poem is "Gun Rant", which begins:
this is not about hunting,
As these lines suggests, Merritt makes skillful use of repetition, particularly repetition with slight variation that moves a theme along, and she does this not only on the level of the line but on the level of the stanza as well. As a result, even this poem which she calls a rant against events that took place at Virginia Tech never loses its sense of connection to the way the human body and human emotions move. This result is not peculiar to "Gun rant"; it is characteristic of all the poems in this volume. Very little in Merritt’s work relies on sight. Nothing essential to the poem depends upon white space, typography or even visual format. As a result, unlike too many attempts by poets to achieve avant-garde or transgressive status, Merritt’s work not only does not lose but may actually gain in a purely auditory medium. For readers who access poems through screen readers and other adaptive equipment, this is an important accomplishment.
Another of the pleasures of reading Merritt’s work is the use she makes of the poems of other writers. There is no conspicuous display in this regard. Occasionally, she will subtitle a poem as "on a line by" or "after" Pablo Neruda or James Agee. At other times, she will leave it to the reader to recognize a first line as she does in "So Much Depends/ Upon" or in "Prayer/Parody." The latter is a particularly enjoyable read because while she begins with "Let us lie here you and I," she relies upon the experience of the reader to make the connection to Eliot’s poem. A reader, not familiar with the reference will still enjoy the poem but one who catches the parallel play with "Prufrock" raises that enjoyment up a notch.
As I suggested in the first paragraph of this review, Merritt does not position herself as a disability writer and her work is not widely known in disability literature circles – but it needs to be. In itself, Merritt’s appropriation of the blues lyric as suitable form for disability poetry is in itself an achievement. Beyond that, however, many of the themes of social equality, loss and human relationships in Blind Girl Grunt will resonate strongly with those who have lived with disability. In a field that can be in danger of veering into sloganism or shouting, Merritt provides the model for an alternative – a poetry that is both aesthetically and emotionally satisfying but still able to engage in important issues. Above all, though, reading Blind Girl Grunt leaves us with the feeling that something has reached in and touched us as human beings. That perhaps we do all share something in common after all.
Title: Blind Girl Grunt