Hypermobilities (Ellen Samuels)

Reviewed by Diane R. Wiener

I don’t remember when I first learned the meaning of “synesthesia.” I think I know when I realized, though, that this word described much of my lifelong associative experiences and sensory approaches. Timing is not that important, I suppose, as I reflect on the matter, today. My understanding of “timing” has been strongly influenced by Ellen Samuels, however, that’s for sure. And, I do remember—vividly—when I first encountered Samuels’s now-foundational (and deservedly-famous) essay, “Six Ways of Looking at Crip Time,” a work that I “assign” regularly in the courses I teach.

Reading Samuels’s new book of haiku plays good havoc with my nervous system; her words filament and foment synesthetic experiences that engage me within Crip Time, writ large. Appearing inside of these poems are sensory impressions galore; at times, hyper-impressions, one might say, thinking about the collection’s apt title, since impressions mobilize in surely and unsurprisingly cripped ways, throughout the text, as well as in its adjacent intertextualities. There are manifestations of spoonie cultures, chronicity, and acuity, alongside refutations of ableism, and candid talk-back to the medical-industrial complex.

In these poems, lyricisms abound with critical reflection. Humor and distress sit down, here, in an accessible relation that is far more complicated than mere twinning; these sensory and socioemotional spaces have bold, never sentimental conversations in(to) which the reader is invited to participate. How much the richer readers are, too, thanks to “the hybrid, insurgent, horizontal, collaborative, interdisciplinary, ever-evolving operating system,” as the publishers self-describe (often, without the commas).

Samuels’s “Notes” at the book’s end summon and engage myriad connections for a poet who is well-known for their academic brilliance and tenacity. For, although I join many others in eschewing the false split that persists between “academic” and “creative” writing, it is differently delightful to read Samuels’s reflections about reflections than it is to read the poems, themselves. The carefully chosen words in the notes are far more elaborate than the brevity and precision necessary to craft a collection of exemplary haiku—which is what Samuels has given us, in abundance.

Advance praise (printed on the book’s back cover) from Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha describes the book as “a crip gift to the universe”; Michael Snediker rightly calls the haiku herein a “koan” grouping—among other descriptors. As the lead editor of a journal that supports Open Access and its attendant Creative Commons licenses, I remain especially pleased that this book was published by a press that shares these commitments and values. The multi-layered accessibility of the collection will make the book available to a wide audience of readers who will benefit from Samuels’s resplendent wisdom. The Open Access digital version of Hypermobilities will be available soon.

Hypermobilities’s six sections divide the poems with flexion and creativity, exploring the poems’ interweaving while distinct themes, as follows: “hypermobility,” “symptoms and signs,” “coloring the pain book,” “narcissus,” “prognosis,” and “the garden.” At first read, it might seem like there is a trajectory that travels from a kind of disabling origin story to a Crip present, but readers who care about and live through Crip Time will not be easily convinced that there is something only linear going on here. In the advance praise on the book’s back cover, Oliver Baez Bendorf calls the book “A wondrous, nonlinear, potent proof of life…” And, as Samuels tells us in “Notes on Writing Hypermobilities”:

“So while this book arcs from a beginning to an end, an arrival of sorts, it resists any kind of recovery or overcoming narrative. The story I want to tell is a different one. I want to show that people with chronic illness are not simply hollowed-out vessels whom sickness fills like water.”

In “Displacement of the First Rib,” Samuels writes,

I am the garden
Eve never took back. Fist with-
in the bone, rising.

The elegance of these lines and the nuanced complexity of their sequencing makes it possible for us to interpret the words in hundreds of ways, or more. The poet (and/or the poem’s protagonist) is Edenic, is an original, is something/someone unclaimed, when a different transformation might have happened, or at least have been plausible—and such a possibility remains (maybe a change is coming…). A fist begins to say something and then changes its framework, adjusting its thinking and then its communication approach in skeletal terms. It seems that the fist has changed its mind, or taken a breath, or shifted course, somehow. Or, perhaps the fist is “with-in the bone”? What has risen, if not the skeleton, with its interior fists (protesting? clenched? at the poem’s sides, resting?). For me, this poem is a Crip body, making its own adjustments, questioning, or even refusing, the often ableist claim that to be called “resilient” is a compliment.

Samuels takes us to the doctor, inside an MRI, for a salt bath, within experimental procedures, for an infusion, through surgery, into genetic testing. There are vegetables, fruit, birds, breasts (and the legacies of breast and ovarian cancer), and beasts—in (w)hole and in part(s). Psalms meet semiotics, throughout. There are so many breath-taking lines in this book, I could happily write a review for each exquisite poem. The lines can also be anti-sequenced into each other, visiting from page to page, opening their shared and separate “heart-door”s, and inviting us to enter, as in:

  • “Heart-door, stop swinging” (from “Palpitations”)
  • “Cornea naked as skin” (from “Vertical Up-ticking Nystagmus”)
  • “What hurt is what stayed” (from Superficial Phlebitis”)
  • “This is not your earth” (from “Thinning Carrots”)
  • “One letter typed wrong” (from “Genetic Testing for the COL5A1 Mutation”)

Following the “Notes,” the book concludes with a host of related content, including: profiles of Samuels, and of the cover’s artist, Laura Jacobson, who “began using neuroscience in her printed and sculptural artwork in 2011 when she was given MRIs of her brain after volunteering as a research subject in a scientific experiment”; an interview with Samuels, the “poet” / “writer” / “artist”; The Operating System’s publication philosophy and praxis, including details concerning how the press “uses the language ‘print/document’ to differentiate from the book-object as part of our mission to distinguish the act of documentation-in-book-FORM from the act of publishing as a backwards-facing replication of the book’s agentive ‘role’ as it may have appeared the last several centuries of its history”; a list of The Operating System’s 2019-2021 titles and projects; and “DOCUMENT,” a manifesto/commentary on publication and “the manufacture of value,”  offered via a collaboration between “the trouble with bartleby” and The Operating System.

Samuels shares in the “Notes,” “Now that the book is being published, I feel both grateful and a little afraid, like I’ve been turned inside out for everyone to see.”

Thank you for letting us “see” you, Ellen—and, not just in a visual sense, of course. Thank you for opening so many “heart-door”s.

Title: Hypermobilities
Author: Ellen Samuels
Publisher: The Operating System
Date: 2021

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About the Reviewer

Diane R. Wiener became Editor-in-Chief of Wordgathering in January 2020. Diane is the author of the full-length poetry collection, The Golem Verses (Nine Mile Press, 2018), the poetry chapbook, Flashes & Specks (Finishing Line Press, 2021), and the forthcoming poetry chapbook, The Golem Returns (swallow::tale press, 2022). Her poems also appear in Nine Mile Magazine, Wordgathering, Tammy, Queerly, The South Carolina ReviewWelcome to the Resistance: Poetry as ProtestDiagrams Sketched on the Wind, Jason’s Connection, the Kalonopia Collective’s 2021 Disability Pride Anthology, and elsewhere. Diane’s creative nonfiction appears in Stone CanoeMollyhouse, The Abstract Elephant Magazine, and Pop the Culture Pill. Her flash fiction appears in Ordinary Madness; short fiction is published in A Coup of Owls. After serving as Guest Editor for Nine Mile Literary Magazine’s Fall 2019 Special Double Issue on Neurodivergent, Disability, Deaf, Mad, and Crip poetics, Diane was appointed as the magazine’s Assistant Editor. The Founding Director of the Syracuse University Disability Cultural Center (2011-2018), Diane now serves as a Research Professor and as the Associate Director of Interdisciplinary Programs and Outreach at the Burton Blatt Institute (Syracuse University College of Law); she also teaches in the Renée Crown University Honors program. Diane has published widely on disability, pedagogy, and empowerment, among other subjects. She is a proud Neuroqueer, Mad, Crip, Gender Nonconforming, Ashkenazic Jewish Hylozoist Nerd (etc.). Diane blogged for the Huffington Post between May 2016 and January 2018. You can visit Diane online at: https://dianerwiener.com.