Handbook for the Newly Disabled, a Lyric Memoir (Allison Blevins)

Reviewed by P. F. Anderson

When I first heard Allison read from this book, it hit me like a lightning bolt. I wanted it in my hands instantly. I am also “newly disabled” so I very much wanted to review this book, but I am also a long-time member of the disability community, from ally to ever-increasing invisible disabilities to the recent blossoming of visible disability. I immediately started reaching out to my favorite editors, begging to be allowed to review this book. Unfortunately, it hadn’t yet been published, so pre-order was the best I could do. I kept checking the website, like a little kid on a long car ride asking, “Are we there yet?” When I finally got my hands on the actual book, it lived up to every jot of anticipation, and beyond. There were many more lightning bolts. I kept telling people about my excitement, fountaining words and incoherent descriptions of why I was excited. As you might imagine, this has made the actual writing of a semi-coherent book review rather challenging.

This small book holds an infinity of disability experience and queer experience, wrapped up in nutshell worlds of parenting, pain, love, sex, color. The title, Handbook for the Newly Disabled, a Lyric Memoir, is more than a title of a book of poems. The volume can also serve as a handbook introducing the mechanisms and formal aspects of working disability experiences, themes, and norms into poems; a model for exploring disability through poetics; an example of strategies and approaches reworking the concept of what a poem is through the affordances of disability culture and lived experience. Hearing Allison read the words sparked the interest of my heart, and seeing the words on the page lit a fuse in my mind.

Blevins intermingles visual and verbal through her incorporation of “Accessibility Note” interludes within poems. The poems in which she does this include the phrase “[With Photo Illustrations]” at the close of the poem’s title. As a sighted person reading the poem, the first time, I flipped through looking for the images only to find that the images appear solely as descriptions. In a way, the structure of the poem flips the experience of accommodation for the reader. For these poems, I imagine the blind reader experiences the poems and their images in ways most true to the poems’ intended forms. Blevins isn’t the first sighted poet to understand the potential for poetry in image descriptions, lifting the idea of alt-text from web accessibility and expanding its purpose and scope; she is the first one I’ve seen to incorporate the concept within poems as an integral part of poetic structures. For example:

“IV: Accessibility Note:
Photo 1: A group of middle-aged women: the women wear fashionable smiles,
hang brightly colored handbags from their elbow crooks, have terrible smoking habits
in their dreams. Photo 2: A young woman running in a field: brambles stick to her ankles.
Her face is blue blushed by motion. Birds lift, always lift, never land—
always mid-wing stroke up to glide.” How to Read My/Our/Their/Your Future in Scattered Bird Bones [with Photo Illustrations], p. 38.

The poem “Five by Five” applies visual constraints which similarly model another not uncommon experience in communicating while disabled. Using the presentation of a blackout or erasure poem, but with no clue to the original text, if there was one, there are only the long, drawn-out broken spaces between words, a few words on each page, demanding to be voiced slowly. Turning the pages, all the sections together sound as if read by a voice that struggles with determination to say what must be said. There is no clue on the page as to what specifically shapes that struggle — verbal “disfluency,” fine motor control, stutters, fatigue, something else — but the struggle itself has been made explicit and visceral.

The book’s design supports slow reading. Bound in landscape mode, the pages are short and wide, as if someone cut the book in half across its waist, like a magician sawing a lady in half. The lines stretch and shrink on the page, but never fill up the page. They sometimes cramp from stretching edge to edge, but with wide open spaces below or above, less than a dozen lines per page, even when counting titles and epigrams. Ten poems in five-line stanzas, as if the poems were written while gasping for air, spit out after one good breath, written in the good moments between surges of pain.

Ten poems in 73 pages. Someone (you?) could easily write 73 full pages unpacking the power and innovation in these poems, leveraging these as a springboard for leaping into disabled experience and imagination. Imagine writing a dissertation about these small pages, or teaching an entire semester course, or asking a room of medical students to consider the title, “My Neurologist (Who Doesn’t Have MS) Explains Pain is Not a Symptom of MS.” Then, asking the same students to consider a line from the first stanza of the poem: “Maybe this handbook is a love letter to the Lady Doctor / who diagnosed me after the men sent a paralyzed woman home from the hospital. Twice.” I want anyone who’s ever said, “You’re looking good today” to a disabled person to read “How to Fuck a Disabled Body.” Chemo patients and ME/CFS patients and Long COVID patients could be gifted a frameable letterpress-printed broadsheet of the poem “Brain Fog,” to let them know they are not alone. This poem begins, “Put the towel in the watermelon,” and ends, “I used to hate queer at 19 when I was a dyke. I can’t be disabled. I need a better word. I need a body that floats—translucent and liquid—to my daughter’s bed, to cover her like cotton-red quilted stars.” I could spend weeks in that last sentence of that one poem.

Title: Handbook for the Newly Disabled, a Lyric Memoir
Author: Allison Blevins
Publisher: BlazeVOX[books]
Year: 2022

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About the Reviewer

P. F. Anderson self-identifies as a queer, non-binary, neurodivergent Jew with multiple disabilities, both visible and invisible, who has spent the pandemic time focused internally, quietly blurred out of the intensity of the pandemic by having Long COVID, from which they are still recovering 31 months later. P. F. Anderson writes both poetry and technical works, has an insatiable hunger for books (especially poetry), and struggles to declutter in mind and space and time.