Book Review: Alongside We Travel Contemporary Poets on Autism (edited by Sean Thomas Dougherty)

Reviewed by Tom C.Hunley

As the father of an amazing autistic teenager as well as a poet who is trying to learn how to best write about life with my son, this book is a godsend. Eager to read others who share my experience, I first read the eight contributors who identified themselves, in the contributor notes, as fathers of children on the autistic spectrum. My fellow dads did not disappoint me; they let me know that I'm not alone. I nodded my head as I read Matthew Borczon's "For Jonah," in which he confesses that he was too overwhelmed by other battles to focus on the needs of his newly-diagnosed son, who

was just
another casualty
I bandaged
and moved
on from

and I wanted to shout "Yes, that's how it feels!" when I read the lines "This is when / I run into a phone booth / and find I've come out / just a different kind of Clark Kent" in Adam Grabowski's "Individualized Education Program."

While I relate best to the dads in the anthology, "relatability" is a pretty weak standard for evaluating poetry, which I tell my students every time they tell me that they like a poem because it's "relatable." We read literature because we want to enlarge our frame of reference, because we want to imagine what it's like to live in someone else's skin. I know that if I'm ever going to understand autism, or my son, or myself, I need to listen to people whose experience differs from my own. That's why I'm grateful that this essay contains poems by mothers of people on the autistic spectrum; poems by people who work with autistic people as teachers or in group homes; poems by people with siblings, nephews, or nieces on the spectrum; and some poems by people who fall on the spectrum themselves (though not enough — more on that later).

Moms comprise the largest group represented here, fifteen by my count. From Barbara Crooker's "Simile," I learned how my son might teach me something about how to teach my students:

When I called from Virginia to ask him
what he did last weekend,
he said, "We bought Italian salad dressing."
I tell my writing students to focus
on the one inch square.

Then, just a few pages later, Rebecca Foust's "Perfect Target"
nearly brought me to tears in public with these closing lines:
the hours and hours spent pacing
the playground alone,

the play dates and parties
he was never invited to, the chairs
pulled away
just before he sat down.

I came to better understand my non-autistic children by reading "Heretic" by Allison Stone, in which the speaker remembers being terrified by one of her brother's meltdowns, which had him "yelling threats, trying to pick the lock / with a screwdriver, then turning / his rage on my dolls…"

Despite all of the blessings that come with having a loved one on the spectrum (the fresh perspectives, the continual sense of wonder, the feeling of being needed by someone), most of us don't seek this life out. I'm so grateful to the teachers, speech therapists, group home workers, camp counselors, and others who do. I'm grateful that some of those, such as Lauren Camp, Cheryl Dumesnil, Tony Gloeggler, and Max Heinegg are poets, and that editor Sean Thomas Dougherty included their work in Alongside We Travel.

In his introductory essay, entitled "The Grace of the Aggrieved: Poetry and Autism," Dougherty tells of "a well-known disability critic" who cautioned him not to "publish too many poems by whining aggrieved parents" in the anthology. Oddly, Dougherty dismisses the critic's concern as "rather useless" but goes on to tell readers that the conversation gets to the core reason that he decided to compile this anthology. "I wanted to hear the poems of those aggrieved parents alongside the ones who profess to have no regrets. I wanted to hear the voices of caregivers and cousins, witnesses and the guilty. I wanted to hear, if accomplished, the voices of autistic adults."I'm glad for Dougherty's attempt to be inclusive here, his recognition that autism presents itself in different ways and that people have different reactions to it. I wouldn't describe myself as one who professes to have no regrets, but mostly what I regret are the times when I let myself by bothered by insensitive comments of people who didn't understand or want to, the times when my son stimmed in public or had meltdowns and I felt pangs of shame. On balance, my son's fresh perspective and idiosyncratic behaviors have brought me more joy than challenges, so from my perspective, the use of the word "aggrieved" in the book's introduction feels wrong.

I'm curious about the "if accomplished" caveat above and why Dougherty applies it solely to voices of poets on the spectrum. While it's true that many people on the spectrum are nonverbal and others test very low on expressive and receptive language skills, a subset is enormously gifted with language, imagery, and memory. I have had several in my college classes, including one last semester who commented that Frank O'Hara was correct to note, in "The Day Lady Died," that Bastille Day fell on a Tuesday in 1959, and when questioned, shrugged "I have all of these calendars in my head." Hans Asperger himself traced his interest in autistic children to a prior interest in poetry, and it's not hard to see parallels between poets, who live in worlds of their own imagination, and people on the spectrum. Yet, by my count, only two of the thirty-four contributors to Alongside We Travel (Joanne Limburg and Joel Dias Porter) are on the spectrum. Conspicuously absent are poems by DJ Savarese, a nonverbal poet on the spectrum who has a published collection.Two others that Dougherty might have included are Nathan Spoon and Daniel Bowman. Both are part of my AWP 2020 panel "Neurodiverse Verse:Poems by and about people on the autism spectrum." I wouldn't have dreamed of proposing the panel without including the perspective of poets who live intimately with their own autism, and I wish there were more of those voices represented in this anthology.

Limburg and Porter both write very well about living life on the spectrum. Limburg, a British poet, invokes Lewis Carroll's most famous character as a means for exploring her own diagnosis (which came in adulthood) in her sequence "The Autistic Alice". In one of those poems, she imagines Alice's brother (a stand-in for her own brother, one assumes) finding himself bored when she goes away to college because "The cat's stopped talking, the flowers've shut up, too. I know the cards will stay in their pack, chess pieces will wait until I've moved them." Porter (also known as DJ Renegade), takes a more unmediated approach, asking readers to imagine "being so literal that when told / to let sleeping dogs lie, you asked / how a Doberman could be dishonest / … or so deaf / to subtext that every smiling hint a girl ever sent / was in a prescription bottle with a You-proof cap." I'm not sure I can imagine my son's world, or anyone else's, really, but this anthology is helping me get closer to doing so. I'm grateful to the contributors and the editor for that.

Title: Alongside We Travel Contemporary Poets on Autism
Author: Sean Thomas Dougherty
Publisher: NYQ Books
Publication Date: 2019


Tom C. Hunley is a professor in the MFA/BA creative writing programs at Western Kentucky University. And expanded second edition of his textbook, The Poetry Gymnasium, will be published by McFarland in 2019. In 2021, C&R Press will release What Feels Like Love: New and Selected Poems. Hunley's AWP panel, "Neurodiverse Verse: Poems by and about People on the Autism Spectrum" has been accepted for the 2020 conference.