Michael Northen

Tom Andrews and The Hemophiliac's Motorcycle

Pioneers in a field rarely fit into molds, even those established retroactively by their descendents. This is as true in disability literature as in any other field. Thanks to the work of scholars like Susan Schweik and Michael Davidson, Josephine Miles and Larry Eigner are now being reclaimed by disability poetry as forerunners, yet neither of them were included in the first anthologies of disability literature that appear in the 1980's and only Eigner appear in their most recent and famous counterpart, Kenny Fries' Staring Back. The poetry of Tom Andrews finds itself in a similar situation.

Andrews most important book the The Hemophiliac's Motorcycle appeared in 1994, but its two major poems were published earlier: "Hymning the Katawha" in 1990 before the passage of the ADA, and "The Hemophiliac's Motorcycle" in 1992. Though Andrews produced other engaging books of poetry, most notably Random Symmetries, published posthumously in 2002, it is with The Hemophiliac's Motorcycle that he really contributes to the growth of disability poetry as a genre.

In The Hemophiliac's Motorcycle, Andrews explores both his own life with hemophilia and that of his older brother who lived and died on dialysis. There are a few indications of distrust for the medical establishment's hegemony, a theme that will become very important for subsequent poets with disabilities. In "The Codeine Diaries" he says:

When I told my hematologist that as a teenager I had raced motorcross, that in fact in one race in Gallipolis, Ohio, I had gotten
the holeshot and was bumped in the first turn and run over by twenty-some motorcycles, she said, "No. Not with your factor
level. I'm sorry, but you wouldn't withstand the head injuries. You like the sound of yourself being dramatic." (p. 58)

For the most part, though, doctors are absent in Andrews' work. The physical facts under which he and his brother live, however, are not. He says in "Hymning the Katawha":

The machine drones like an old complaint
My brother's shunt – a tubed sleeve, blood-vines
Scaling the entire room, a red trellis
of veins. (p. 47)*

Such facts turn Andrews, not towards a concentration on how he is perceived by others or even by society in general, but towards a search for the meaning of his own life. His concern with disability is less with the form than with function. Thus while his hemophilia keeps him in constant awareness of the physical functioning of his own body and the very tentative nature of his own life, he seeks to connect this functioning to something larger than himself. Poet Charles Wright characterized Andrews as "the most natural poet he had ever taught" (1994, p. i), and, indeed, Wright's own range of vision is felt in Andrew's poems. Through his own poetry, he explores the writings of others – George Herbert, the psalms, the Tao Teh Ching, Mandelstam – connecting those existences to his own.

This approach surfaces one of the most immediate problems that Andrews faces in a field that has been built on theories of minority rights and social construction: his poetry is thoroughly religious. In an inexcusable author intrusion, I'll slide into the first person here and admit right up front, that I am not a fan of religious poetry, especially that which claims for itself the label of "inspirational." Most of it is bad poetry and worse religion, but Andrews' work fits in quite comfortably with the poetry of writers like Donne, Hopkins and, especially, Christopher Smart.

The two major poems in the book "The Hemophiliac's Motorcycle" and "Hymning the Katawha" are both very much hymns. The title poem begins:

May the Lord Jesus Christ bless The Hemophiliac's Motorcycle, the
  smell of knobby tires,

Bel-Ray oil mixed with gasoline, new brake and clutch cables and
  handlebar grips,

the whole bike smothered in WD40 (to prevent rust, and to make
  the bike shine),

may He divined that the complex smell that simplified my life was performing the work of the spirit, (p. 3)

Later, he even invokes Smart, "Listen, as my mother kneels down on the floor like Christopher Smart." Having chosen the hymn form, his poetry is not complaint, apology, or political invective, but an understanding of and joy in his life. As a result, several analogies related to living with hemophilia pervade The Hemophiliac's Motorcycle. The central one is that of riding a motorcycle: "Work with the bike. Don't fight it." And "Adapt to the track as it changes. Be on the lookout for alternative lines" (p. 61). A second major analogy is the flow of his brother's fluids through the dialysis machine and the flow of the Kabawha River that passes outside the window. A final analogy is that of his life to the mathematical concept of a self-avoiding random walk. In all of these he focuses on the movement and chance nature of an individual life.

Such individuality may not square well with postmodern literary sensibilities, but it is because he is not under its spell that he is able to seriously explore several approaches that may provide food for today's writers with disabilities who find themselves in a rut. The first is the consideration of man as an existential being, In his short poem "Ars Poetica" he says:

The dead drag a grappling hook for the living.
The hook is enormous. Suddenly it is tiny.
Suddenly one's voice is a small body falling
though silt and weeds, reaching wildly…(p. 14)

A second approach, is to consider disability through the viewpoints of eastern thought. Other than Brian Teare, no poet that I am aware of has explored this possibility. Andrews himself, takes only a few small steps in that direction, the most decisive being, "Reading the Tao Te Ching in the hospital." Amdrews' impulse towards eastern thought together with his affinity for quantum physics and mathematics makes for a voice that is unique among poets with disabilities.

Tom Andrews is a poet who deserves to be read. Fortunately for those interested in his poetry a sample of Andrews work will be resurrected in an anthology appearing this fall Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, edited by Jennifer Bartlett and Sheila Black and published by Cinco Puntos Press. The anthology gives readers a chance to read "The Hemophiliac's Motorcycle" in its entirety and a large selection from "The Codeine Diaries." Equally important, it helps to place Andrews in the context of other poets who write about their disability, including Teare. While we can hardly expect the anthology to prompt the reprinting of Andrews' other books, it may encourage readers to seek out Andrews' books in their local second hand bookshop or rescuing them from the dusty back shelves of online book sellers.

*All citations in this essay are from the 1994 version of The Hemophiliac's Motorcycle published by University of Iowa Press.


Michael Northen is an editor of Wordgathering and a member of the Inglis House Poetry Workshop.