A Forum on Disability Poetics (Tupelo Quarterly) (Christopher Salerno, Curator)

Reviewed by Kathleen Champlin

Content Warning: Racism, Queerphobia, Suicide

The Tupelo Quarterly has compiled a group of insightful poems on a variety of intersecting subjects. The folio includes a wide range of poems related to disabled lives or ableist discrimination.

In “I Write for Cyborgs and Shower Chair Users,” Rita Maria Martinez directs attention to the millions of disabled people who depend on implants, external supports like wheelchairs, or daily medication.

I pay tribute to legions of responsible opioid users—
chronic pain patients deemed suspicious, often treated
like drug-seeking addicts in emergency rooms.
I write for the modified: cyborgs who loathe
metal detectors, borgs boasting internal or external hardware,
implanted with neurostimulators combating back pain,
incontinence, the never-ending migraine.
I write because I’m a cyborg.

With these powerful words, Martinez both celebrates this diverse group of disabled people and situates herself among them. The poem is simultaneously a protest (against insensitive ER doctors and those who make jokes about shower chairs), a personal writing manifesto, and a celebration of group identity. Disabled cyborgs will find this poem especially empowering.

Naomi Ortiz’s “Ode to Plastic Cup” also speaks to cyborg status and to culturally ingrained insensitivity. On one of its many levels, this poem is a protest against the Zero Waste movement (a movement aimed at eliminating all garbage) erasing one of Ortiz’s needed life hacks:

Oh, plastic cup

with your bright shiny colors
your fun designs
your resilient sides
As scooter squeezes you between wheel and wall
you may bend, but do not crack where you lie

Weight light, large brim
I can sip straight from the rim

The poem also describes Ortiz’s interactions with impossibly heavy and awkward glass cups. These detailed scenes ensure that readers empathize with the author’s needs and experiences – an informed empathy that the Zero Waste movement apparently lacks. In her Year of the Tiger, Alice Wong makes a similar protest against the outlawing of plastic straws in California. As Wong points out, even plastic cups are too difficult for many disabled people to lift or sip from, and biodegradable straws fall apart in hot liquids. Many people need disposable plastic for many different reasons.

In this sense, Ortiz’s poem is also a general reminder: many disabled people depend on interactions with their environment to survive or thrive. (Ortiz calls small accessibility choices like plastic cups “Crip-hacks.” Mine include speech-to-text software and shoes that do not test my balance.) When large movements – such as Zero Waste – forget these small interdependencies, they risk losing potential followers and taking agency away from those they claim to protect. In other words, as Ortiz reminds us, even presumably benevolent causes like Zero Waste (which is aimed at protecting the Earth) can become guilty of erasure and ableism.

The folio also includes a third poem about cyborg embodiment. Kara Dorris’s “Wilderness as Hermit Crab” is a poem which compares the narrator’s implanted body to that of a cyborg detective. This poem begins:

When I was a girl, I thought you just added water to make things real. Just add water to rice, bouquets, & mashed potatoes. Just add water to chia pets. Just add water to your wonder bra.

The poem goes on to discuss the metal plates in the narrator’s arm and her attempts to normalize (or appear closer to social norms in response to social pressure) – attempts that make the author uncomfortable. She notes that she spent her childhood banging her most realistic doll (a Water-Baby) against the wall in an attempt to reveal its artificial nature. (In this scene, the poem may remind some readers of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. The black narrator of Morrison’s novel dismembered her white dolls to see what made them desirable or socially valued in a relentlessly racist context.) The narrator discards her transparent dresses in favor of long sleeves and jeans in an attempt to appear more like the “natural girls” around her. She comes to her current lovers and acquaintances “resembling a woman.” Nevertheless, this semblance of normal embodiment is only a resemblance, and the narrator prefers a cyborg identity. As she concludes:

you can fill the body 
                with only so much water or jump
                               into another                                                            body of water

Several of the folio’s other poems are not directly about disabled experience but address normalization or the experience of holding a stigmatized identity. In “Yellow Watermelon,” Arden Hill recounts the racial and cultural markers that his family surrendered in order to avoid cultural stigma. These include the French spoken by his great-grandparents. Arden instead learned Parisian French through the school system. The poem also includes foods like shrimp and beer and yellow watermelon. The poem is particularly notable because a repeated line — We don’t eat yellow watermelon – echoes through each of its scenes. This repeated line comes to sound both like an oft-restated social taboo and the family’s self-definition. The poem is also notable for a closing irony. Hill finally tastes yellow watermelon – not in Louisiana where the fruit grows, but in a Whole Foods store in Boston where it is considered “rare” and “exotic.” Apparently, when a food is removed from its original cultural context, offered to consumers from the majority culture, and (presumably) made far more expensive, eating it is no longer stigmatized or stigmatizing.
Hill’s “Blue Boys” discusses queer identity, bullying, and reactions to bullying through imagery that is both beautiful and horrifying.

In the river, the mermaids do not understand
the scale-less flesh that accumulates and softens
in the silt. Boys become mermaids, dive, and rise
become birds, beautiful broad-winged birds.

I watch the shadows lifting hollow bones
and heavy hearts. An invisible phoenix,
like a fire, plumes from each body.

After men pull dead boys from the water,
the river looks still and innocent
like a bully when he sleeps.

Hill ties these haunting images to an attempt to drown himself at age 12. The poem is another powerful reminder – this time of how dangerous childhood bullying can be – and a group identity declaration. Even in the midst of this disaster, the boys can still find each other beautiful. Hill’s is, perhaps, the most haunting poem in a group of haunting poems.

All of the poems in the folio include vivid images and insight into cultural conflicts. Editor Christopher Salerno has given us a group of gems and readers will savor reading these poems again and again.

Title: A Forum on Disability Poetics — curated by Christopher Salerno
Editor: Christopher Salerno
Publisher: Tupelo Quarterly
Date: August, 2022

Back to Top of Page | Back to Book Reviews | Back to Volume 16, Issue 4 – Winter 2022

About the Reviewer

Kate Champlin (she/her) is a late-deafened adult and a graduate of Ball State University (Indiana). She currently works as a writing tutor and as a contract worker for BK International Education Consultancy, a company whose aim is to normalize the success of underserved students.