DISABILITY POETICS: FIVE POETS
This year I had to withdraw from my PhD in Disability Poetics due to chronic pain, alongside the physical and cognitive effects of my medications. I was studying disability poetics partly because I find the different ways people write through and about their conditions and experiences so exciting, and because it also deepens my own knowledge and enriches my practice as a writer. Within disability literature we're all aware of the relative lack of discourse in comparison to other genres, a fact that makes it so important for us to have journals like Wordgathering to share ideas, essays, and let each other access the most recent creative works. The essay I offer below is indicative of the research I was doing in my PhD, but it's only a brief overview, looking at Eigner first, then comparing his poetry to four contemporary writers who utilise disability poetics in their own work. Because this essay can be accessed by anyone, I'm hoping it stimulates other disabled writers out there to explore some of the wonderful work detailed below, and to think about the possibilities of disability poetics within their own writing.
Larry Eigner is probably the most well-researched and recognisable name when people think about disability poetry, although he is (unforgivingly) much less known this side of the Atlantic. There are many wonderful papers and critical explorations of Eigner's work already available and given his place in the canon of American poetry a lot of his poetry is accessible to enjoy and analyse in print and online. What follows is an untitled poem by Eigner from the recent Selected Poems from the University of Alabama Press:
jewellery cored earth stars
This work is staggered over the page, with a large amount of vertical and horizontal movement across the space, which is highly indicative of Eigner's practice. The opening four words aren't placed together in a cohesively lyrical unit, rather, they are used in an almost Joycean string of association, letting the words stand by themselves and with each other. The content of the poem talks of distance and scale, horizons and measurements between the macrocosmic and microcosmic, and although some of his poems are more specific in their content, this is typical of the looseness and flow of narrative found in much of his work. One of the most interesting qualities of Eigner's work is the degree to which he wrote through his disability, but almost never explicitly wrote about it. Eigner's method of delivery is what I find most important in defining his style compared to others at the original time of writing, but especially now as well. The grammar and punctuation Eigner used is an esoteric and personal mix that not only represents his own sense-view of the world around him, but also his experience of the world from his chair at his window, where he spent a large amount of time writing. Details of the life he views outside his window always find a way to enter his poems, along with the imagined thoughts and routines he ascribes to the people who cross his eye-line.
Formally such an important part of Eigner's poetics, I see his use of the space where the poem exists as representative of the world the writer also lives within; the physical page giving disabled readers the opportunity to explore the abled parameters they have to exist within in their own lives. Eigner's poems have been held up as exceptional examples of form reflecting poet, with Jennifer Bartlett stating that 'Eigner's careful spacing of letters and words, his indentations and double columns, could be seen as typographic idiosyncrasy, a variation on Charles Olson's "field poetics", but they are also cognitive maps of his internally distanced relation to space.'2
It's not only the writing, punctuation, and physical markings which are representative of Eigner's disability. In Sarah Juliet Lauro's extensive paper 'Into the White'3 she states that the spaces on the page of Eigner's poems'…make blankness visible as an active significatory presence at work in the text. They also emphasize the labour that, for Eigner, was involved in creating the poem by drawing attention to the irregular spacing. As such, these poems cannot help but be read in light of Eigner's cerebral palsy, which severely limited his motion, though we emphasize here, they must be read beyond his disability as well.'4 The idea of white space being a site for not just emptiness but signification itself is one I keep firmly in mind when writing my own poetry, and Eigner could not have predicted the importance white space would have for writers who are now exploring form with much more freedom than would be found in the 50's and 60's when Eigner was developing his own voice.
Larry Eigner's provides us with many of the foundations for modern disability poetry, but he was at foremost, a poet very wary of being pigeonholed and reduced to a set of symptoms or medicalised description. Looking at Eigner provides me with an awareness of the difficulties any theorist is faced with when looking at the work of someone disabled; how important is their disability in the function of their art, and how self-aware are they of it as a principal organising or politicising function? And is that important by and of itself? Talking again about Eigner, Bartlett stated that '[B]ecause of his severe cerebral palsy, there has been a lot of unchecked speculation on his physicality, intelligence, and how his body affected his poetics.'5 It's these assumptions that still get made when one of us is introduced at a reading as a 'disabled poet', or when our medical symptoms are assumed to be one of the central tenets of our work.
In comparison to Eigner, Laurie Clements Lambeth, a Californian writer with multiple sclerosis, drives straight through the heart of her disability experience in poems such as 'Coming Down'.6 As in many of her poems, the medicalised symptoms of her MS are foregrounded, along with the writer's relationship to an (implicitly) able-bodied husband. In this work, her husband gently undresses her, and Lambeth uses the material of her dress as an analogy for her worsening symptoms and the vulnerability of her body, the opening lines '[S]tarting from the top, my husband undoes/nineteen nub buttons lining my spine.'7 The analogy presents a point of access to Lambeth's experience of disability, and the crux where that disability intersects with the writer's sex, as traditionally gendered terms for dressmaking and textiles are utilised by the author and the poem unravels with description of 'faint streaks of yellow flowing from the bodice,/seeping dark into the skirt's organza folds'.8 In comparison to the repetition of these smooth l and w phonemes, as well as the alliteration of the soft s sounds in the second half of the quote, Lambeth then notes the physicalisation of her condition when she says 'I see my body: bulges smoothed by corset, spine/stippled with lesions, glowing red injection/lumps studding my thighs.'9 The contrast of the flowing material of the dress with the characteristic language of monstrous disablement is harsh and striking. As the narrative continues we encounter interjections of thoughts from the author such as '[W]here exactly is the flaw that bought down/the price?'10 and '[F]or now I can/manage.'11 These interruptions bring the attention of the reader back from more discrete physical locations to the disabled body as political and social symbol. In broad disability studies terms, the poem brings the focus back from medicalised definitions of disability to the social model of disability, where power of 'disablement' is placed on stigma, prejudice, and lack of access, rather than 'objective' medical terms and symptoms. It is no coincidence that this sea change in cultural thinking of disability from error of the individual to social prejudice is also reflected in many other disability poets post-Eigner.
One of such writers is, Matthew Siegel. The title poem of his most recent book Blood Work12 is a meditation on human and especially physical absences, framed through the author's experience of getting his blood taken at hospital. Like the work of Lambeth, Siegel's poetry falls broadly within the parameters of the contemporary lyrical mode, with a single, relatively confessional I guiding the reader from meditation to epiphany. We encounter descriptions and symptoms of Siegel's Crohn's symptoms, stating that the nurse remembers him '…no matter how skinny I get./No matter how dark the circles under my eyes',13 before the poem starts exploring the possibilities of what the body can hold and what can hold the body. The nurse holds the vials of the authors blood and asks '[C]an you feel/how warm they are? That's how warm you are inside'14 and the poem ends with the Siegel thinking '…about condoms, tissues/all the things that contain us but cannot'.15 The narrative in this poem is concerned around embodiment; a theme prevalent in a large amount of disability poetry where the body is defamiliarized to then provide a new amalgamation of bodilyness that better represents the world that contains those of us who do not share the abled experience.
Codeine Diary16 by Tom Andrews, shows us a different medium for disability to be expressed through. Andrews writes about his haemophilia and the treatment he receives, exploring his thoughts away from the confines of the typical lyrical poem's stanzas, employing prose poetry in diary-type entries instead. Andrews alternates his matter-of-fact experiences in the hospital with newspaper reports from his world record attempt at continuous clapping as a child, with letters and notes from that time included. The extract below shows Andrews describe a fall:
I have had an accident.
I have had an accident on the sidewalk. I watched my feet come out from under me on the iced concrete with a kind of anecdotal perspective. The bleeding inside the joints, the infusions of factor VIII, the weeks of immobility, the waiting for codeine, the inventions with which my mind would veer in the direction of solid ground – as my weight drilled into the twisting leg I saw the whole pantomime emerge with the clarity of blown glass
Sunrise. The sky gray and pink.
Glaring light. Shocking cold of the bedpan.
The president through the TV's drift and snow: "Things are even more like they are now than they've ever been."17
This spare use of form, with asterisks breaking up the writing, reflects a naturalistic mode of thought from moment to moment, with fractured and discursive ideas giving the reader more space than they would enjoy in a lyrical poem's taught unit of sense and aphoristic epiphanies. Andrews' manages to combine the more poetic imagery of the light, the bedpan, and the television, with a description of his falling that utilises short sentences and a shift in perspective that's closer to short story than the poetry so far examined. I first saw Andrews' work in Beauty is a Verb; a landmark anthology that first ushered myself and many others into the world of disability literature.
The confessional mode is always a viable and affecting form to explore disability, but writers like David Wolach have shown through their work that there are a great other variety of ways to experiment with disability in literature. In Occultations,18 Wolach uses set parameters in his writing to push an understanding of disability into new areas. In writing '(muted domestic pornography)'19 Wolach utilised a 'distraction zone' of alternating slides of stills from his recent surgery and muted homemade pornography, using the conflict between these two contrasting stimuli to create content that reads:
Never so held in held
Rather than utilising experiences that develop and change over weeks or months as Andrews does, Wolach brings about a feeling of free writing in his work, as he explores ideas of embodiment, consent, and how notions of the state and the public relate to our bodies. I'm going to use Bartlett's astute words again here, as when talking about Larry Eigner, she stated that '[In] order to retrieve disability from this lacuna we need to "crip" cultural forms, not simply to find disability references but to see the ways Eigner's work unseats normalizing discourses of embodiment.'21 This idea of cripping as a research method can be readily applied to Wolach in his experimental modes, but also to the other writers presented here in different ways. Whether it's the embodiment and physical absences that Siegel pursues, the diary-form notation of Andrews, or the intersecting of disability and gender in Lambeth's work, each one has their own form of poetics that opens up to the reader to what it means to be disabled, or 'sick' in the modern world.
Within my PhD, I planned to do a deep analysis of these writers and the different ways they crip language to their own ends, along with an exploration of against existing feminist and queer poetics for techniques and patterns that cross over. In terms of new disabled and D/deaf writers, I was also looking forward to close readings of work by Raymond Antrobus, Ilya Kaminsky, and Porochista Khakpour, and urge anyone out there to give their work a read. Whether you are interested in exploring the symptoms of illness, the impact of inadequacies in access, or how culture normalises body types through advertising, there are myriad techniques and forms to explore disability through, and the writers here have already begun moving their work into exciting areas.
I have gained so much through the study of the writers discussed here. It has not only brought me to a better awareness of different aspects of disability, but it has emboldened me to represent my disability experience front and centre in my own work. That doesn't necessarily mean talking about my disability but also articulating my identity through every opportunity available on the page, from line-breaks and rhythm, to alliteration and metaphor. It's my hope that you toowill find work that expresses disability in ways that surprise and delight, inspiring you to express your own personal experiences and identity on the page.
If anybody is interested in talking further about any aspect discussed in this essay, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org