Jim Ferris' work is almost synonymous with disability poetry. His first book, The Hospital Poems, was one of the first books of poetry to be used in disability studies programs in colleges and his essay "The Enjambed Body" published in the Georgia Review in 2004 was perhaps the first essay ever to try to develop some sort of critical theory of disability poetry. He has been a speaker at almost every annual conference for the Society for Disability Studies, as well as an invitee to most panel on disability studies. It should be not surprise then, that there will be a wide interest in Ferris' third book of poetry, Slouching Towards Guatanamo, which will be published by Main Street Rag Press this summer.
Slouching Towards Guantanomo incorporates many poems – fully half – that appeared in his second, smaller book, The Facts of Life. The incorporation of these earlier poems such as "For Crippled Things" or "Poem with Disabilities" is not with Ferris, as it might be with some poets, a way of fattening an otherwise thin book, but a manifestation of his attitude towards the past, both in his redefinition of disability and in his poetics. As Ferris has shown from his early essay in the Georgia Review, he is not here to torch or erase the past but to look at it through a fresh viewpoint, reinterpret it, and use it. This braiding of poems from his immediately previous book into his newest one, also advances his belief that poetry is always context bound and never just an objet d'art – his answer to those who say that poetry should not be political. Accordingly, as the book progresses, the number of poems incorporated form The Facts of Life decreases.
The title poem, "Slouching Towards Guatanamo" embodies many of the most important characteristics of the book as a whole. It is hard to miss the mimetic reference to "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in the opening lines:
Let us arise and go now, and go
By recalling Eliot's poem here, he invokes the general air of hopelessness for which it is famous and renews his commitment to validating the newly developing field of disability poetry by connecting it to the literary canons of the past. He also makes the leap from the medical to the political:
As if the world was not scary enough –
People with disabilities are often made prisoners to the language of medical treatment which so frequently employs the vocabulary and metaphors of the military at war. We are, after all, "fighting disease." Whether it is seeing your body or other countries as the enemy, such language creates a defensive or negative attitude in those that hold that view. The lines just quoted also allude to another frequently heard theme of disability rights activists, that anyone who lives long enough will probably join the ranks of those with disabilities and as such has a vested interest in paying attention to these biases and taking some action. Ferris does not simply address the politicians and medical establishment, but in the last lines of the poem turns to people with disabilities themselves:
let us go, and go fast
The analogy of people with disabilities to prisoners in Guantanamo is an apt one. Throughout American history, and some would claim even now, they have been cordoned off, isolated in communities because of who they are. Not infrequently this disenfranchisement has been based on the belief that those with disabilities are being punished by God for something they have done, some assumed "sin." It is only by facing the past, putting it into some kind of perspective, and then taking action that things will change. Ferris use of internal rhyme in the poem (a technique that he frequently employs and for which he is admittedly indebted to Hopkins) together with the end rhyme, provide both visual and auditory testimony for the poem's thesis that for both the body and for a country, "enemies" can come from both within and without.
Slouching Towards Guantanamo continues to hammer away at the paternalism of doctors and the medical system generally, just as The Hospital Poems did. Perhaps the most unambiguous example of this comes in "What The Doctors Really Want to Tell You" in which he excoriates the attitudes of physicians, from the opening lines, "Quit whining. No one wants to hear / your whining. Everyone has pain,." Just to rub in the salt, the poet casts this attitude in the form of a sonnet. In an interesting footnote, Ferris states that the House of Delegates of the American Medical association failed by a slim margin to condemn the poem.
Another area where Ferris continues his work from his previous books is in his attempt to get across the central place of pain in the lives of many people with disabilities. How to communicate the experience of pain has been one of the central challenges of disability-related poetry beginning most famously perhaps with Karen Fiser's 1994 publication of Words Like Fate and Pain. As Liz Whiteacre has noted in her recent essay, "Extending Conversations of Pain" it is almost instinctive to use metaphor to describe pain. Whiteacre's explains that as a poet is " I wrestle with how to express pain in poems--what do I do to make you really understand what I experience, so that it becomes something shared? How do I do this while preserving my pain's individuality?" In Whiteacre's case it may be the search for the freshest metaphor that will still be accessible to the reader. Ferris, however, shows that another traditional tool of poetry -repetition - may also be effective. In "long Division/Multiple Choice" he says:
We think the night divides the days
Here the means of communicating the experience of pain is not a visual image, but the constant repetition of the word, like the repetition of pain in the body itself. This is a more visceral approach. Like the ostinato in a Stravinsky work, it is always part of the experience and always there. The "multiple choice" alluded to in the title of the poem is yet another technique Ferris tries to marshal in putting pain into perspective:
Q. When is more pain better? A. a. When the warriors lay down their weapons. b. Right before the warriors lay down their weapons. c. When it leads to better jokes. d. Tomorrow. I mean yesterday. Last year. Back in the old days. e. In the Bible. In church. f. When the pain of holding too many possibilities in mind leads to a simplistic view of the world – that benefits me. g. Right after kickoff. h. For others? I don't care. i. When it reminds me I am alive. j. When it gathers my fragmented attention. k. When it reminds me I am alone. l. Never.
In some ways, Ferris approach to the poems in Slouching is reminiscent of A Map of This World (1999), Dara McLaughlin's feisty, almost desperate search through the grab bag of poetic possibilities in an effort to find just which forms and devices would work to convey the state she found herself in. Ferris (like McLaughlin) is certainly capable of in-your-face poetry – witness these line from "Jump":
This is the point, asshole –
Part of this project, as mentioned above, has been to try to give disability poetry validity by tying it to poets of the past . Sometimes this scaffolding is overt as in "Gerard Manley Hopkins" which opens with the great lines "Glory be to God for crippled things /For minds as sharp as cracked concrete." The tie to Hopkinsposted poem praising variety in the world is obvious to any high school student who has ever had to read "Pied Beauty." More frequently though, Ferris simply throws out a phrase that will resonate with the reasonably literate reader, as in the title of his book (referring to Yeats' famous poem) or in the reference to "Prufrock" mentioned above. This is not literary dilettantism on Ferris part, quite the opposite. He is depending upon the reader's recognition of the theme of the poem he references to provide an emotional context for the one he is writing. One of the nicest instances is his allusion to John Hollander's "My Son My Executioner," a poem that would require the willful jettisoning of human emotion to be unaffected by. By beginning his poem "Traitor" with the line "My knee, my betrayer," Ferris already has home field advantage.
Slouching Towards Guatanamo is a book of which the author may well say with Whitman, "Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself." He knows that when he is shooting arrows in many directions, not all of them are going to hit bulls-eyes. Like Leaves of Grass, Ferris' work is a body that keeps growing and transforming itself even as it grows. Any one interested in the still-emerging field of disability poetry will want a copy. First, for the pleasure of some of the individual poems, especially pieces like "Surrounded by Wealthy Physicians," and "Covalent Bound." Second, because any writer reading through this volume will come upon something that will make them want to jump up and write their own poem. Third – well, it's Jim Ferris, and it is always interesting to see what he is doing next.