Book Review: Flare (Camisha L. Jones)
Reviewed by Michael Northen
The importance of Flare, Camisha L. Jones' slim first book of poetry is all out of proportion to its size. It is neither Jones' technical skill nor her re-imagination of any particular concept that makes her work important but the cultural experience she brings to the table. Like Constance Merritt's blues-influenced writing, Jones' work reveals the extent to which much of serious contemporary disability poetry has been the province of white, academic, urban writers. This is nothing that Flare sets out to prove, it is simply what the book accomplishes.In a recent talk at the University of Pennsylvania's landmark symposium "A New Disability Poetics," Jones explained, "I was raised in Black Baptist churches and before entering this journey as a poet, I spent years leading Christian arts ministry." She went on to tell how when she encountered slam and spoken word poetry, "it became a part of my weekly spiritual ritual to keep myself grounded and uplifted." It was not simply the fact of the oral and participatory nature of the poetry itself but the fact that those whom she found herself among in these competitions were people who were generally on the margins of society. It is this legacy, together with her experience as the managing director of Split this Rock that Jones brings with her to Flare.
Two poems in particular, "Scars" and "Praise Song for the Body," surface the importance of Jones' spiritual upbringing to her writing. In both, she has taken a traditional religious form and adopted (altered) it to express embodiment. In "Scars" , the form she commandeers is the litany. Each stanza begins with the word "Blessed," but the words do not move heavenward. From the first lines, "Blessed be the scar on my right knee/ the territory it claims as landmark" the traditional rhythms associated with litany map out the geography of the body. "Praise poem for the Body" not only adopts a traditional religious form – the praise poem. It co-opts both the language and the concepts of Christian belief and turns them to a faith in the body.
Call this body miracle. Call it sanctuary. Name its ghosts but refuse to believe it is haunted. Refuse to give up on hope and all of its helium, its elevating power to raise this weighted vessel into a thing of light.
One can almost hear the voice of Walt Whitman, had he been a practicing Christian, in these words.
Jones is by no means the first poet to try to reconcile religious faith and disability. It is a story as old as Job. She says:
One dominant notion embedded in my consciousness through my Christian upbringing tells me the disabled body is only valuable in its ability to be healed. That false narrative is one that my presence and poetry can push back against.
Pushing back and finding a means of reconciliation is what the poems in Flare attempt. Jones is working between two poles. There are, on the one hand, those that see disability as something to leave in God's hands – a modern reification of Milton's "They also serve who only stand and wait." Even more distressingly, there are those who see disability as a test sent from God, something to overcome. Just one problem of these attitudes for those in the disability community is that they put the onus for action on either the individual or God rather than on viewing disability as primarily a social construction that calls for society to act.
The other pole that Jones tries to skirt, however, can be seen in the work of writers like Raymond Luczak, who has worked tirelesslessly to promote the work of other writers in the Deaf and disabled community. In his autobiographical writing and poems such as "Ablutions of the Tongue" Luczak holds his Catholic upbringing, and the clergy associated with it, responsible for inculcating a sense of guilt about being disabled and different. The result has been a complete rejection of religion.
For Jones, belief runs too deeply for rejection to be an option. "Scars" ends with the lines, "Blessed be the body trying to turn on itself/ the relief knowing it failed." She neither holds God responsible for her disability nor does she credit him for what the body has accomplished. Other poems such as "Intercession" and "My Anxieties Learn to Pray" also work to combine religious language and disability.
Unlike many prominent poets with disability such as Luczak, Jennifer Bartlett and Jim Ferris, Camisha Jones has not been disabled from birth. Much of Flare deals with her adjustment as a person with an acquired disability. For her, as she says, in "On Loss" … "a new grief blooms." Many of those poems not dealing with the reconciliation of religious belief and disability, reflect this adjustment. One of my favorite lines, coming from the poem "Wrecking Ball," is "I push the boulder of this body uphill." Jones has taken the classical reference and tweaked it combining the sense of inescapable exhaustion with the inseparability of the pusher and what is pushed. It is a line that must hit home with many who find their bodies becoming increasingly less cooperative. Similarly, Jones has taken Newton's first law of motion and in "The Law of Motion" applied it to disability:
the day your body
While there are times in the remainder of the poem where Jones seems to stretch the metaphor too far, it is at that same point that recognition of her former life as a slam poet kicks in and catching the rhythms justifies the lines that she has included.
Much of the final third of the book is taken up with poems on Jones' incipient deafness and spring from a number of issue surrounding it. As a person who experiences Meniere's myself, I have to admit a personal delight at coming across the poem "Meniere's Flare." It may be the first poem that I have encountered on the subject and the descriptive first stanza is wonderful:
and just like that
Flare is published by Finishing Line Press, a publisher that under the direction of Leah Maines has been increasingly recognized for its willingness to take a risk by putting out the first books of disabled women writers. It is likely that many of the chances it takes do not pay off, but frequently enough, they do, as in the work of such talented writers as Ona Gritz, Liz Whiteacre and Kathi Wolfe whose work has become increasingly important in disability literature. Almost without question, Camisha Jones' Flare belongs in that company.