Reviewed by Michael Northen
I first met Dan Simpson in 2006 at a disability poetry conference sponsored by the Inglis House Poetry Workshop in Philadelphia. Dan was there with his future wife, the poet Ona Gritz. Shortly after the event, Dan sent the workshop a poem he had just written called “My Mother Cleans.” A year later, when the first issue of Wordgathering appeared, Dan’s essay, “Line Breaks the Way I See Them,” inaugurated the journal’s “Essay” section. From that point onward, I’ve been an eager follower of Dan’s work. The qualities that characterized his work in the early years of this millennium — down-to-earth language, a sly humor, and a deep sense of humanity — have continued to the present day.
Simpson’s openness to all readers tends to obscure the contributions that he has made to the field of disability poetry. In “Line Breaks…” he asked what meaning evenly formed lines or visually oriented poetry have for a blind poet or reader, and began the process of exploring alternatives. A year later Dan, with his twin brother Dave, also a poet, worked to produce their first book of poems, Audio Chapbook. The remarkable thing about Audio Chapbook was that it was only available on CD, forcing readers with an interest in the Simpsons’ poetry to experience the poems as the poets themselves would have.
The poems in Audio Chapbook and Dan’s first print book, School for the Blind (2014) guided readers through the experience of growing up in a world where sight was not an option. This work is done with large doses of humor as a means of creating a bridge to understanding. Simpson rarely shakes his fist at the sky, but poems like “Vigilance and Dissembling” do pull the curtain away from the certitude of those who operate primarily by sight. He and Ona Gritz also break new ground in the publication of Border Songs (2017), possibly the first book of poetry in which two writers with different disabilities exchange poems reflecting their experiences.
Through the years Simpson has gradually built up his skills, reputation, and audience. He has taken what he has learned through the encouragement and mentoring by well-respected poets – Molly Peacock, Stephen Dunn, Gregory Djanikian and Stephen Kuusisto — and developed his own distinctive voice. All of this experience reaches its culmination in Simpson’s newly published book, Inside the Invisible, the first in a planned series of poetry books from Nine Mile Press. It is the book that followers of Dan’s work have been waiting for.
Unlike Audio Chapbook and School for the Blind, also a chapbook, Inside the Invisible is a full-fledged poetry collection, divided into four untitled parts. The sections are roughly chronological, with section one tending to reflect upon his earlier life and containing more of his older poems, while part three centers around his first marriage and the fourth part, his relationship with Ona. There’s no doubt that understanding this structure helps deepen the reading experience of the poems for those already familiar with his work. Nevertheless, for readers approaching Simpson’s poetry for the first time, the book’s overall structure is largely irrelevant. Each of the poems stands on its own, and it is the joy of the individual poems that will pull readers in and make then continue wanting to read. Given this, I’m choosing not to examine the book as an organic whole, searching for leitmotifs or even consider the book in the context of disability poetry. Instead, I’m choosing to point out some of those poems that give me the most pleasure and that I hope will encourage others to read them too.
In addition to being poets, Dan and his brother Dave were musicians, often performing together prior to Dave’s death in 2015. That musical background manifests itself in poems throughout Dan’s new book and is particularly evident in “Schoenberg,” a poem about choice and limitations. These subjects are ones that as a blind poet Simpson knows a thing or two about. He takes encouragement from the fact that Arnold Schoenberg, who could have written in the conventional musical scales of his time, developed and confined himself to a twelve-tone scale that paradoxically both limited and gave expression to his creativity. The poem opens by posing the following:
“Why would a young dog
give itself to guide the blind?” (p.48)
And while Schoenberg with this twelve-tone scale (or Shakespeare with his sonnets) provide the basis for an answer, Simpson turns to his audience and asks:
“And what about you – what
choices do you have left.”
This phrasing is calculated to make us uncomfortable, but it is typical of Simpson’s poetry that in the midst of what could lead to feelings of disillusionment, he uses words such as “flourish” and “pleasure.” The poem is written in three five-line stanzas underscoring his point about working within limitations.
Another of my favorite poems, “Haiku Love,” continues Simpson’s reflection on limitations. It begins:
I want to live
haiku relationships –
that rich, that defined –
believing confinement will
save me from myself,
or from the other. (p. 23)
but then Simpson problematizes his choice, noting that Schoenberg’s music feels mathematical and devoid of melody. The poem breaks out of its confinement, spilling across the page.
Give me sprawling love – the kind that refuses to live in
twelve tones and seventeen syllables, or even a short story –
As a sighted reader, I love the appearance of the poem on the page, the way that it holds to four stanzas of haiku, then breaks out, only to return again to haiku and end with:
It is none of these forms, though, but the epistolary poem, that Dan turns to in “Letter Across the Border.” Everything one needs to know about the relationship of Dan to his brother Dave to understand the poem is included in the poem itself, but those of us who watched the changes after Dave’s diagnoses of ALS and the rallying of the Philadelphia literary community to see Dave’s one-man show Crossing the Threshold into the House of Bach produced before his death, remember the differences in their viewpoints about the afterlife. Giving deference to his brother’s beliefs, “Letters Across the Border” begins:
I hope you aren’t affronted by this letter,
opposed as you were to fictions about the soul and afterlife. (p. 43)
The poem is a way of working through the possibility that, as hard as it is to admit, Dave may be right.
We could do worse than spend every moment of life
being fascinated with the nuts and bolts of living.
What impresses me about these lines is that they seem to summarize exactly the feel that the poems in Inside the Invisible radiate – a human being who is fascinated with the nuts and bolts of life. It may be that in the final lines of the poem the author is still trying to convince himself, but in these years when all misfortune seems to be a platform for divisiveness and blame, they sound the compromising note that we all need to hear:
There’s starting and then stopping.
Things work and then they don’t.
It’s nothing personal. It’s not unfair.
To my mind, one of the most satisfying poems in the collection is “Providence,” a poem that allows for further consideration of the fate versus free will debate and exemplifies Simpson’s self-effacing humor. After considering examples of luck, the final stanza returns to the way that Dan met his girlfriend, described in the opening stanza. The two are opening fortune cookies when his girlfriend (presumably Ona) says, “’Wait till you hear this, Mr. Dumb-Luck.” The poem ends:
Back in her room she unfolded it:
“Stop searching forever; happiness is right next to you.”
I thought she meant it for me.
She thought it was meant for her. (p. 85)
Anyone who has been fortunate enough to experience the feelings summoned by these lines will immediately understand the appeal of Dan Simpson’s poetry. It reaches past obvious physical, cultural, and political differences to connect to experiences and emotions that are intrinsically human.
In his “Introduction” to Inside the Invisible, Stephen Kuusisto devotes considerable space to discussing the poem “Some Holy Saturday,” pointing out the ways in which Simpson’s background in music finds its ways into the rhythm and mood of the poem. I have nothing to add to Steve’s observations, but because “Some Holy Saturday” is my favorite poem in the collection, I want to briefly look at it from a slightly different angle. For me and other readers who are among the many Americans who were raised Catholic but have distanced themselves from their childhood beliefs, Simpson’s use of the second person is particularly powerful. We are addressed in the first three words, “you will rise” (p. 14). What we rise to is a surrealistic scene of Peter’s betrayal and our own complicity in it. Simpson launches a series of questions at us without giving pause for us to answer. However, it is not only disenfranchised Catholics whose beliefs are in question, but that of contemporary American culture as a whole. Some of my favorite lines are:
And what if from the moon come strains
of Hollywood’s fourth cousin to Gregorian chant
with celluloid clicks and pops to let you know
this is old and serious.
Perhaps both as individuals and as a culture, we will rise.
The poem pulls its strength from the knowledge that readers will be able to associate the images hurled at them with beliefs that they once held. In the end though, as is typical of his work, Simpson’s compassion shows through and there is still hope, perhaps
“the sun upon your back
is really the large hand of the fisherman reconciled”.
When I began working with disabled writers a quarter of a century ago, there was a hesitancy among poets to write about their own lives. The concern was that if they identified as disabled poets, they would be labeled niche writers and not be understood as “real poets.” Since that time, the position of disabled writers has changed so radically that if their poetry does not foreground disability or advocate for disability justice the work is sometimes ignored and they are not admitted to the fold. One of the great accomplishments of Inside the Invisible is that it is able to transcend these pressures and reveal a writer who, while developing as a poet, has been able to withstand the many cultural crosswinds. That the introduction to the book is written by Stephen Kuusisto, an accomplished writer whose work has always been closely identified with integrity, is telling. Thanks are due to Steve, Bob Herz, and Nine Mile Press for publishing what is rumored to be the first in a series of poetry books by disabled writers.
Title: Inside the Invisible
Author: Daniel Simpson
Publisher: Nine Mile Press
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About the Reviewer
Michael Northen is a past editor of Wordgathering. He also participated in the anthology Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability and the anthology of disability short fiction, The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked (both from Cinco Puntos Press). He is currently working on editing a new anthology of disability poetry.