Michael Northen


The title of Raymond Luczak's most recent book The Kiss of Walt Whitman is Still on My Lips immediately links his work as a Deaf gay poet to the mainstream American literary tradition. There is nothing new about claiming the legitimacy of one's work through affinity to an acknowledged master. Whitman is a particularly good choice in this regard because in his own day, Whitman's work itself was consider suspect by many mainstream critics. It is no one wonder that poets who write about disability want to reference writers that other readers recognize.

Disability poets, however, have an additional responsibility in this regard. It is not just enough to claim mainstream writers. They must also recognize and reference each other. Incorporating references to the work of other writers with disabilities into one's own work, not only makes the connection to others but it adds an air of respect and authority to that other writer in much the same way that citations in scholarly work give credit to the scholar cited. Tasha Chemel's poem "Planet of the Intermittently Blind" in the last issue of Wordgathering, for example, calls attention to the work of Stephen Kuusisto, both through its title and a direct quotation from Kuusisto introducing her poem. It lets the writer know that whether Chemel agrees with him or not, Kuusisto is someone who ought to be read.

In order to explore some of the possibilities for giving recognition to the work of other poets, Wordgathering invited poets who have published work in this journal in the past to submit poems that somehow related to another writer with a disability, either as a person or their work as a poet. The results provide a broad range of possibilities. They are presented here shorn of thesis or conclusions; only minimal commentary stitches the poems together. The hope is that reading these poems will have a twofold result. The first is to make readers aware of the work of these poets– both the authors of the poems themselves themselves and the poets they feel connected enough to in some way to write about. The second is to provide a group of poems that might not only encourage readers to seek out more work from these writers and but also jumpstart their own ideas for writing.

As Luczak's choice of Walt Whitman illustrates, connecting one's work to writers of the past is one way of helping to pull disability poetry onto the literary main stage. Perhaps no one does this better than Lisa Gill whose work is a model for studying and incorporating the work of other poets. Gill offers two examples about how this might be done. The first is for Muriel Ruyseker.

FOIA & Nerve Cells Shaped like Trees: File Number 77-27812

O Muriel, at bedtime, curled up in a corner of my own cranium,
I read your FBI file. Then dreamt
I was filing medical reports for injuries sustained in Shakespeare plays.
This morning, over coffee, I wonder at all of us,
if what we do, or what the FBI did, is good use of a synapse.

I mean, on page two they misspelled your last name, "Rekeyser."
Then crossed it out, corrected it.

What if the mind's infrastructure is a form? A bunch of blanks (blank
pages) to fill out. Boxy voluptuousness. (Structure of a poem?) Cheeky-boned.
118 electric pages.

The universe is made of neurons, stories written in acetylcholine
and other neurotransmitters, that funny threshold
that leads to action potential with none or all firing. Being receptive
to stimulus is not bad, and yet we are left so excitable, so vulnerable
to fits of love
or obsession. Even climax can be a neurological term. (I will have to black out
these lines with a fat marker.)

When your neighbors are interviewed, I learned you had thirty guests
at your housewarming.
And later, less "fashionable" people coming by, five a week,
more homespun.
I'm a bit of a loner, have let five people in my house in five years,
so I want to know,
"Did you love them? The FBI, the neighbor, the world?"
This is the kind of query one makes between close neurons,
almost touching.

What saddened me was the job application where you proved you could write:
     "captions for an almanac, "
     "captions for photos, etc. "
Is that what poetry is? What poets are good for?
What thought is?
A clipped legend for the universe?
What axons and dendrites do?

Is it that a poet can either sell
a catchphrase or send nerve signals from the brain to the hand
to ink a stamp then smack —BUY WAR BONDS—on typewritten pages?

In the second poem, Gill shifts her focus to depression. While not an uncommon topic among poets, to be sure, Gill braids its effects into the relationship between poets Sara Teasdale and Vachel Lindsey, letting it rest against the background of Teasdale's eventual suicide.

The Art of the Moving Discourse for Sara Teasdale and Vachel Lindsay
(the difference between the table manners of two preachers in the same restaurant-VL)

Here I offer the two halves
of my torso. "Intimate picture
of motion,"Vachel might have
said to Sara in her sickness
or written up "illness" as more
painterly than action. Flick
aside less than despair. Separation
even by a spine in one body
wounds. Take a rich banker.
Take a young wife. Take any
divorce of one side from
the other. A right brain lesion
causes an Oak Ridge to run
through Bellefontaine Cemetery
and a contemporary woman's
left trunk. Disease isn't always
literal or oblique. Sometimes
it's the latissimus dorsi rocked
into abeyance, or photoplay,
letters sent, stilled. The motion
between lovers never ceases,
never begins to be anything
but what time inevitably carves
into soft and hard curves,
architecture of distance. Here
lover, first late lost fated,
is a body sculpted half into
immobility, the printed page,
spastic signals from the brain,
reeling. And letting go.

If not everyone is aware of the way that disability played a role in the lives of Ruykeser and Teasdale, most are aware that Jorge Luis Borges, one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century was blind towards the end of his life. Stephen Kuusisto's amazing collection of poems Letters to Borges is perhaps the most successful effort by another poet to claim Borges for disability literature, but Borges is a favorite topic for other writers as well. Here Ana Garza G's, herself a blind writer, uses a quotation from Borges as a jumping off point.


In the spelling of "rose" is the rose
And all of the Nile in the word "Nile."
      from "The Golem" by Jorge Luis Borges,


Not much grows in the darkness beneath
the fig trees, only the sleeping
form with the name of God
on his forehead, the shape of human
around his soul, the shadow
of nothing since the limbs and trunk
of a greater self hunches over
him, crumbling away

the excesses that hide
head and arms and ribs and legs, leaving
only the sacred word and an angular mound of clay.

This is first man and first woman before
the whisper of the everlasting, whose body is the wind.


Not much grows in the heat beyond
the ovary, only the resting
egg with its mission trapped
at the ampullar-isthmic junction. Then the union, when the flash
of zinc sparks up, the eggshell sets, the sperm dissolves,
and both fracture into zygote, the bloat and split
of replication, the rapid descent
to the uterus, the grip and cling

of implantation. Now greater organisms
film with microscope cameras, rate
the flare and burn in test tubes
for the brightest and the best, to cull
what will hatch

based on the quality of the egg. This is
science, calculating perfection.

A final example of invoking writers of the recent past comes from Irish poet Des Kenny. Christy Brown is familiar as the subject of the movie My Left Foot, but few are aware of his work as the writer. In the process of recounting Brown's life, Kenny also lays out the ways in which his position as a writer was hijacked to serve the purposes of the literary establishment (something also targeted in Jim Ferris poem further below. ) Kenny nicely tucks the title of Brown's book, Down All the Days, into the poem.

Christie Brown (1932-1981)

He was hawked and humped around
In carts or on backs, when he was young,
Like a rolled-up linoleum
of a turned-in, patterned floor of dreams:

At tilted angles he saw a world
Obsessed with its narcissus-watching,
Searching, standing back from life's cracked mirror.
In the stooped-faced stares of averted eyes

He saw their slanting world of prejudice
Down whose slope cripples slide
To the bottom of every bottom moment
of the flawed, rejected cast-asides.

When he undid the knots that tied
The hows and whys — unrolled the floor of dreams
And grew a sort of feet, —
His paralysis put down words

And walked to the town's surprise:
He climbed to being respectable
And was lifted high
On the jostling praise of raised disbeliefs:

He was admired for those boot-lace tugs,
In that odd-ball form of genius
Of those writers of half-landings between
Being no one and not yet having arrived.

Was it the impossibility of slopes,
Sent him climbing private Everests,
And the slurred confusion in his tongue
That drove his dallied sigh of poetry?

Was it a retort to tame-caged consciousness
That raised his foot to kick literally
The faces of the barred and watching world?
Who knows who, what wound the spring of pride:

In its run-down art spun a time of shame
Where cripples live their hell of handicaps
With honest laughter in their pain
Or shouting at anger's pretended hold on rage?

And yet, somewhere in the midst of it all,
he lived – an outsider –
Looking back and down all the days
From that arrival in a new minority–

Back to drab, long days of longing then
For the love,
For the clap on the back and sworn words
From rough and tough Dublin friends

Fucking up their Jasus-witnessed praise of him
In the pub-talk of bawdy erudites:
Those down, porter-sour days of spat-out prayers
Chewed to the silence of their broken off amens!

When his pain went deeper than deep,
Beyond myriad midnights of blackness
To the edged sadness of slow conclusions,
"So be it" could so easily have been

The wiser soul's tranquility
In patient, dumb, unwritten giving-in:
But he remained restless, defiant,
Head-heavy, clinging on.

Above a world of unimportant things,
his pain found its landscape of Calvary,
And an obscure iconoclast in him
shared something of the good thief's death of Christ.

Despite the importance of linking to the past, one of the more pressing obligations for disability literature is to recognize writers with disabilities who are living and continue to write. In the following poem, Stephen Kuusisto, does exactly this in his poem for Kenny Fries, one of the first poets to come out and write in unvarnished terms about his disability. Like Des Kenny above, Kuusisto references the title of one of his subjects book's, Desert Walking.

One for Kenny Fries

I'll be up front–I've never walked the desert.
I feel guilty about this because today darkness

blows against my cheek and I'm falling
and the incomprehensible month of May

sleeps inside me. I should walk a barren stretch.
I'd have a small, sensible face (as I see it)

and a thin, long line of clouds
would become entirely mine.

Those who know the work of Des Kenny and Stephen Kuusisto, both of whom write about the experiences of being blind, may have realized that both of the writers they chose to write about had disabilities of a different physical nature. While the experience of living with a disability oneself can give one writer greater insight into what life is like for another writer, it still has it's limitations, as Hal Sirowitz, who has Parkinson's candidly admits.

To Dan Simpson

I had a blind girlfriend, Diane. I met her while I was attending Hofstra Graduate School in Special Education. She was studying to be a social worker. Her biggest problem was she didn't look blind. When she told her father she was diagnosed as being legally blind, he refused to believe it. Her father was not being rational. She used a walking stick, partly to let others know she was blind. She took a class in creative painting. Most of the other students handed in their art books filled with sketches. Diane could only do one painting. It was an abstract painting of a bird on a rock, looking out to sea. It was three piles of paint on the canvass – the rock, the bird and the sea. Mainly, she used her sense of touch to make the painting. She got a C for a grade. When she went to the teacher to complain, he was sexually inappropriate – asking her out on a date. When she told me how he treated her at their meeting, I felt like punching him. She didn't want that. What she wanted was for me to feel what it was like to be blind. She decided on a plan, putting me in the dark staircase at our apartment, the fake fire escape. I walked up and down the stairs in complete darkness, getting nowhere. After an hour, she let me out. It was an awful experience. What did I learn about being blind from that episode? Nothing. What does this have to do with Dan Simpson? Everything. You can only empathize with a blind person. You can't be him. You can never totally understand someone else's life – what motivates him or the amount of pain he is feeling. But Dan is a wonderful poet. If you read him closely, you get to see his world. And you won't end up in a dark staircase. But you'll be radiated with light – amazed at Dan's gift of words. I never understood the use of line breaks – the visual component of a poem – until I read Dan's great essay in Beauty Is a Verb.*

One contemporary poet who makes it a point to connect her work to that of other writers is Kathi Wolfe. As a visually impaired writer, Wolfe made her debut with a collection that countered stereotypes of Helen Keller. In a recent poem, Wolfe shares the poem title "Talking to Helen" with poet Lisel Mueller, who also had visual impairment.

Talking to Helen
Helen Keller: 1880-1968
after Lisel Mueller

Helen, when I danced one night in a New Haven dive with the girl with
pierced ears, she said I was just like you – so smart with so much
beauty on the inside.
But everyone knew, she whispered, blind girls
wouldn't wanna be kissed – their world is so sad and dark!

Did you have to hook-up with a miracle worker? Couldn't you have
been Sugar in a deaf-blind remake of "Some Like It Hot"?

Even in the silence, we talk, Helen.

You forgive the able-bodied their disembodied stares. I stare back
with full-bodied glares. You love Walt Whitman. I get lost in a sea of grass.

When I eat sausage, I think of you sneaking hot dogs under your
handlers' noses. I can't inhale mustard without hearing your voice. Or
sip wine without brushing up against your fingers Brailling the glass.
When injustice ties us up, I feel you untying the knots.

Wolfe’s most recent poetic creation in countering stereotypes of blindness comes in her book, The Uppity Blind Girl Poems. Her character Elizabeth, a.ka. Uppity, is blind, queer, irreverent and loves a night on the town. In the following two poems, Wolfe has continued to speak in the voice of Uppity, but signaled connections to other writers with disabilities by referencing their work.

The Big Questions
after Stephen Kuusisto's The Planet of the Blind

Why do my darkened eyes make you hide from the dark?
Are there blinkered mice running in the night with knives

toward every farmer's wife in earshot in your kingdom?
Does your fear smell like crow's feet? Why am I your

curiosity shop – open 24/7 for your wide-eyed perusal?
Can you not see that I'm no blistering bright solar

eclipse? Things are down to earth on the planet
of the blind. My sorcery is a fake door.

What does it mean to roll your eyes? Is it a secret
signal to the gods – of a gaudy spandex dress?

Or of imminent death? Why does seeing me
make you sad before you've even heard my story.

* * *

A Stranger Is in Awe of Uppity

Can't I pick my nose/without it being a miracle?
   -"Deaf Blind: Three Squared Cinquain" by John Lee Clark

You walked in here
from out of the rain,
ordered a beer
folded up your cane,
munched peanuts,
all by yourself!

Don't tell me,
I'm a nobody, too –
I found
the bar stool –
the glass –
shelled the nuts –
like the other
buzzing near the wall –
from a different slant

Even if you
picked your nose
that would be a miracle.

If Wolfe's poems connect the work of other writers to hers, Jim Ferris illustrates how a poem can be a part of a larger conversation. His poem "The Hell He Chooses" confronts Stanley Plumly's poem "Paul Guest Addresses His Apple with a Stylus" which itself is a reaction to observing a poet with a disability at work. To an even greater extent than Kenny's poem above, Ferris forces readers to think about the problematic nature of writing poetry in a society which, when not trying to marginalize disability, tries to co-opt it.

The Hell He Chooses

I only have a small piece
   of paper on which to write
       what I hope will become
a small poem. The great journal
   of poetry publishes
       a noted poet's poem
making fun of no having fun with
   no just using a quad poet
       calls him twice the para of old –
that's poetic. Noted poet is good,
   a winner, he can write whatever
       the hell he chooses, they can publish
what they like, and if they've not liked
   anything of mine yet still that lets
       me write this small thing from a
disinterested disaffected
   disjointed disarticulated
       or is it just plain disabled
perspective – I've already
   filled my small piece of paper
       and scrounged another
cadged it the way that disabled
   guy cadged people's attention
        in that poem – and I wish
I had a scooter that could take
   some of the damnable stress
       off my hips and back
(or should I say the hips and back –
       through specificity,
right? Where does the close paren
   go, that poem in
       the famous journal
has discombobulated
   if not disarmed me,
       I don't know why
I let things affect me like this,
   I try to stay open to where
       art takes me, poem, I'm yours,
usually I think it's my fault,
   my failure, when I can't go,
       this time I don't think so.

The final poem in this Reading Loop essay comes from Andrea Nicki. It has been saved for last as reminder that engaging with and drawing attention to the work of other writers does not mean restricting oneself to household names like Borges or even those will known among writers in the disability community like Paul Guest or many of those whose work is being offered up for reading in this essay. The first line of Nicki's poem comes from Meghan O'Hern, a first time poet, still in college, whose poem "An Open Letter to My Parents" was published in the last issue of Wordgathering.


My nickname was not a home
My sister at age 3 had trouble saying "Andrea"
and called me "Deedee"
My father added "dodo"
He said the dodo was a dumb bird
that couldn't fly and escape predators
and didn't exist anymore
When we lived in Bristol, England
my father took me to a museum on natural history
He stopped at a dodo bird replica in a glass case
and said: "This is you, Deedee-dodo"
I looked at the bird and felt confused
At age 6 my nose was much smaller
than the bird's large beak
I wore clothes and shoes
and my imagination could already fly
No, this wasn't a lesson on the importance of biodiversity
on a species that should have been protected, preserved
He didn't tell me there was a beautiful painting of my namesake
at the Natural History Museum in London
We didn't read any picture books together
on animals and extinction
More a lesson on survival of the fittest
he was fit, I was not
I never tell people about this name
go only by "Andrea"
the name of my great aunt, a professor of education
I accept different language rules, pronunciations, speech styles
love that this name is used in different languages
for girls, boys, or both
promoting cultural and gender fluency
Charles Lutwidge Dogson (aka Lewis Carrol), the much cherished author
sometimes stuttered, pronouncing his last name "Do-do-Dogson"
Some think he adopted "dodo" as a nickname
and the dodo bird in Alice in Wonderland represents himself
my namesake vindicated

As a journal whose main purpose is to see disability literature develop and thrive, Wordgathering encourages response to the work of other writers. The editors are always excited to receive poetry that signals a literary connection to the work of other writers with disabilities. We'll be on the lookout for work by poets who feel the same way. We'd be especially excited to receive prose essays that takes a detailed look at the work of any of other writers. The poems and work of the poets above are a good place to start.


*The essay that Hal Sirowitz refers to is Dan Simpson's, "Line Breaks the Way I See Them.", an earlier version of which originally appeared in Wordgathering.

Michael Northen is the editor of Wordgathering.