single window (Daniel Sluman)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

In a 2014 interview in Wordgathering, Daniel Sluman stated, “The work of Larry Eigner in representing his life and the world through white space on the page is a massive inspiration to me.” With his latest book of poetry, single window, Sluman does more than praise Eigner’s influence; he becomes Eigner’s heir in attempting to portray Sluman’s world through poetry from a constricted space.

The book’s title comes from the only portal through which Sluman and his wife Emily were able to directly view the outside world for the year during which they lived totally within their small apartment. In fact, single window takes its four part structure from the seasons whose changes they could barely participate in during that time: autumn, winter, spring and summer. The opening, untitled poem unloads the reader into this cycle in medias res:

we watch documentaries on mute

from the sofa we’ve lived in
for the last eight months

the frames crash over us

the colours
the names
the stories rip & merge

& we don’t sleep or we sleep
all day

when we finally pull back the curtain

a slant of rain is leaning
against the road (p.13)

Later in the poem, Sluman adds: “we count down our seconds / before our pills sing their gospel inside us.” (p. 14).

The book’s second poem begins:

already bored of the way
the rain slicks the window
& whirls of brassy leaves
rustle through the grass
fatigue stirs in our bones
anchors us into the stained sheets
& today the world is just one more thing
floating past the glass (p.15)

I’ve quoted these initial poems at length because they contain within them—more or less—the entire book. The poems that follow unfold what has already been implied by these two poems. This is a book in which there is no forward narrative. Each day moves from one medication or drug to the other and then circles around into the next day in which this pattern repeats. Outside, the seasons cycle past. No one goes anywhere nor are they even waiting for Godot. While there are new elements introduced into poems to complete the picture of why things are as they are, it is rather like studying a table full of objects, each for a period of time, under one of four different (seasonal) lights. The work is an attempt by Sluman to pull the reader as closely as possible into the milieu of the life he inhabits.

Sluman has said in the past that one of the goals of his poetry is destroy the public perception that the life of a disabled person takes one of two forms: either they are bed-bound, having no independent life, or they are able to overcome their disability and participate in the world as an able-bodied person does. Sluman contends that his is a false binary and that in-between is a whole range of experience to which most readers are not in tune.  This experience is an often messy, unfamiliar state and one that he wants to bring into focus.

As poet Sheila Black pointed out in reviewing Sluman’s first book, absence has a weight of its own, Sluman is essentially a Romantic poet. He appeals primarily to the emotions and takes a front door approach. While he may revere Eigner’s use of form (the white space, the lack of titles or punctuation), there is more than a little bit of Poe here, too. At its best, this approach can be an asset in creating the experience of life with disability as Sluman would like his readers to understand it. One of the primary foci of disability poetry has often been to bring attunement to embodiment, and Sluman is able to hone in on the smallest, most ordinary details to convey both physical and emotional states at the moment and the atmosphere that generates them.

Central to Sluman’s poems is the role of pain and the necessity of constant reliance on pharmaceuticals for relief.  While his deepest wish is “to have a body not in need of saving / that doesn’t click on & off through the night / like this broken fan” (p. 21), the closest he can get to the feeling of health that most (nondisabled) people experience is through medication. This necessity leaves him in a constant state of disconnectedness between mind and body:

how all medicine
pulls you away from yourself

just enough to create distance

topless before the fan
in a pool of sweat

dreaming of dusty fields (p.22)

It is within the framework of this drug dependence that Sluman stakes his claim: love is not only possible, but of a depth impossible for others to understand. While Sluman’s name is on the cover, single window is actually the result of a co-production between the poet and his wife, Emily Brenchi. Brenchi took many of the photographs that accompany the poems and she is present in almost every poem. One could argue that the book—like Sluman and Brenchi’s shared lives, as portrayed in the book—is one of co-dependence and co-support.

Almost every poem works to illuminate the way that love manifests itself in the couple’s relationship–a trinity of assistance, medication, and sex. Sluman seems particularly keen to show the world that a disabled couple can have a vigorous sex life. If one major criticism can be leveled against single window, it is that the poet presses this point home to the point where one wants to holler “Uncle!” (In fairness, though, the pandemic has taught some of us about the limited options one has when stuck in the house with one other person for a year.) While these love poems may not be Sonnets from the Portuguese, they do blur lines between physical and mental states that at times transform physical experience into something verging on the mystical. Simultaneously, Sluman makes the case that his disability opens doors of experience to him that would otherwise be closed:

they will never love like this

our whole bodies into the earth
of each other

we bury ourselves like readers in books
take each other apart

put each other back again & again

cripples love best
because love is an assembly

we have always been broken

gluing our lives with glitter and card
in darkened rooms  (p.53)

One of Sluman’s strengths as a poet is his eye for detail and, for me, the most effective of his poems are not those in which he pushes emotion or tries to imbue his work with the macabre, but those in which he simply lets the details speak. My favorite among the love poems begins:

the trousers I will marry you in
spread between your hands
over the living room carpets
needle seized in the corner of your lips
cross-legged & barefoot
you mark with chalk the borders
where my body ends
sow [sic] the flap of fabric (p.81)

The power of Sluman’s book, however, is not in the individual poems but in the poet’s ability to immerse the reader in the world as he and Emily experience it. This approach requires that a reader not simply pick and choose poems but that they read the book in sizeable chunks. The division of the book into seasons provides the reader a chance to do that. While there may be no forward motion, the slight variations that each season brings add nuance, not simply through the periodic changes in the external world that seep in through the window, but also through incremental background material and fluctuations in the means of accommodating pain. Sluman’s poems call readers to de-center their attitudes about what constitutes love and a loving relationship.

As mentioned, Sluman’s poems are complemented by photographs. Most of the images are taken through a cyan blue filter, and, like the photograph of Emily on page 97, seem deliberately paired with the poems opposite them. At the back of the book is a list of “Image Descriptions” that fills the reader in about the images. It is a bit curious that these descriptions are placed at the back of the book. What might have been provided in situ as descriptions for visually impaired readers who wish to access the book electronically or by auditory means become simply add-ons for visual readers. Moreover, according to the publisher’s website, single window does not appear to be available electronically—a missed opportunity from Nine Arches Press which has been such an advocate for the work of disabled writers.

Even if he had never written a poem, Daniel Sluman would have made an important contribution to disability poetry as one of the editors of Stairs and Whispers, the seminal anthology of poetry by disabled UK writers (also published by Nine Arches Press). But as a poet, Sluman’s work has steadily grown from absence has a weight of its own (2012) to the terrible (2016), and now to single window.  With this latest book, he has been able to stake a claim as a genuine and recognizable voice in disability poetry. We are fortunate to be living at a time when there is no lack of talented and insightful disabled poets, writers who are articulate and whose visions of the world demand attention. Nevertheless, few books of poetry immerse the nondisabled reader in the quotidian experience as thoroughly as single window.

Title: single window
Author: Daniel Sluman
Publisher: Nine Arches Press
Date: 2021

Editor’s Note, Added Post-Publication: It has come to our attention that single window is available in several digital, accessible formats. Contact Nine Arches Press for more information.

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About the Reviewer

Michael Northen was the editor of Wordgathering from 2007-2019. With Jennifer Bartlett and Sheila Black, he edited the anthology Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability; with Sheila Black and Annabelle Hayes, he edited the anthology of disability short fiction, The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked (both books are from Cinco Puntos Press).