Politics or Disease, please… (Sean J. Mahoney)

Reviewed by Jim Ferris

Too often when scholars talk and write about the body, they are writing about a theoretical abstract thing, a concept rather than the flesh and blood, bone and gristle and guts that we each move through the world in. Poets do this too, sometimes, perhaps in an effort to make a poetry that is elevated and universal.

There are as many ways of bodying as there are drops in the lake—but we need to exercise care not to forget the drops, not to mistake the lake for the drops. 

That is not a mistake that Sean Mahoney makes in Politics or Disease, please… The poems in this volume are clearly anchored in the specifics of lived bodily experience. Mahoney has lots of questions about how bodies are conceptualized and how disability experience can be politicized—as illustrated in the title. But the poems are each experiences themselves, sizzling with sparks flying off moment by moment. 

Politics or Disease is concerned with changes in the personal body and in the body politic. The poems bristle with ideas: about politics, about the processes of the body and of medical procedures, about disability and discomfort with disability identity. In “Cnditions: Part I,” the speaker asks and less-than-happily answers a crucial question: “Am I bound, too, / to the disability movement with this practiced, awkward / approach in how I re-wear worn fabrics, replay lost dialogues // …with the subtracting dead? Yes…messy. Yes.”

From “Figurement”: Is it permitted to speak tall for / Crips everywhere by saying boldly being possessed by disa- / bility flat-out sucks”? Clearly the speaker’s answer is Yes. 

That issue of whether and how to speak for a larger community appears multiple times. In “Paint That Wagon II,” the speaker wrestles with language around disability: 

(postscript confession: this last paragraph has the words simpletons and cretins within it. An editor friend pointed out that use of such words around the disability community could be problematic. It gave me pause. Had I committed an ableism? Was I guilty of taking my people for granted, taking us as disposable and flexible around all manner of objectification tossed upon our crip-playground? Or there’s…I am part of this damn community…this damn community. I consulted the OED. To read the variations, the interpretations. So I rewrote it: 

Those rash and myopic white blood cells narrated their escape; creeps having trouble accepting the idea of psyche denizens racing along the body freeways as though entitled to all-access permeability. Service to the body politic. 

And then reached out to the East Coast for counsel. Another editor friend. She suggested, and I’ll paraphrase here, fuck it. And so I changed it back again. So…what is correct play?

The messiness of the atypical body is another recurrent issue. “1.14.18” explicitly evokes disabled writer Nancy Mairs, who wrote extensively about her experience of multiple sclerosis. In the poem, the speaker describes taking the dogs to the dog park then being suddenly struck with unexpected incontinence: “Is this MS? / There really is no way to know for sure. / How can I make claims of a disease with an / Entire predilection resting upon unpredictable / And erratic timing…. How can we ever / Appreciate that what happens, happens.”

The book is concerned with changes in the body politic as well as the personal body. In a poem explicitly evoking Larry Levis’s “In a Country,” the speaker laments “My country cannot see straight / for it is triggers and magazines. / … My country lives / in detours and is no longer / ours.” A little later in the poem: “At the table we weep for our country / that it may one day grow to love / itself, its characters and wilds.” Neither the poem nor the collection are particularly hopeful, but there is still a certain resilience suggested: “I should be / working more with resistance, my country being how it is now” (“Cnditions: Part I”). 

In Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth wrote, “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” Little tranquility is to be found in Politics or Disease, please…, but the collection’s jumpy sensibility and bouncy language make sure that it fulfills the poet Charles Harper Webb’s directive that art shouldn’t be boring. This is a lively conversation indeed. 

Title: Politics or Disease, please…
Author: Sean. J. Mahoney
Publisher: Finishing Line Press
Date: 2022

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About the Reviewer

Jim Ferris is author of Slouching Towards Guantanamo, Facts of Life, and The Hospital Poems. Past president of Society for Disability Studies and Disabled & D/deaf Writers Caucus, he has won awards for creative nonfiction and mathematics as well as performance and poetry and was Poet Laureate of Lucas County, Ohio 2015-2019. He holds the Ability Center Endowed Chair in Disability Studies at the University of Toledo.