Monday, February 24, 2014

Beauty is a Verb, The New Poetry of Disability - edited by Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black & Michael Northen

Today's book of poetry:  Beauty is a Verb, The New Poetry of Disability.  Edited by Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black & Michael Northen.  Cinco Puntos Press.  El Paso, Texas, USA.  2011.

Beauty is a Verb, The New Poetry of Disability is an anthology and in general I choose not to write about anthologies.

This beautiful Cinco Puntos Press volume is a revelation and a haunting one at that.

The Common Core

Each man's sorrow is an absolute
Each man's pain is a norm
No one can prove and no one refute.
Which is the blacker, coal or soot?
Which blows fiercer, gale or storm?
Each man's sorrow is an absolute.

No man's sickness has a synonym,
No man's disease has a double.
You weep for your love, I for my limbs—
Who mourns with reason? who over whims?
For, self-defined as a pebble,
No mans sickness has a synonym.

Gangrene is fire and cancer is burning.
Which one's deadlier? Toss
A coin to decide; past your discerning
Touch the heart's center, still and unturning,
That common core of the Cross;
You die of fire and I of burning.

— Vassar Miller


These poems do nothing to alter disability, naturally, but they are remarkably adept at altering the reader's perspective on disability.  This is important stuff.  But for the purposes of this blog and my interest the issue is not disability but poetry, that's the rub and that's the pay-off in this well edited volume.  The poets deliver again and again.


Less is more — Mies
Only when more is less — Wright
Which it always is — Diogenes

     Now that I'm deaf I'm listening to music. Until now I was too busy or too depressed to let the radio mumble on with cheery Vivaldi or soulful Tchaikovsky.  Occasionally I would put on a CD, and sometimes a subtle little sound from Debussy would wake me up. Not any more. The high notes of Kiri Te Kanawa I mainly sense on her face on TV, as Strauss's Marschallin smiles at me.
     It's all Cagean now. The truck that takes off on the street makes a great crescendo above Lulu's final shriek. And Sun Ra sounds as melodious as Glenn Miller. Above all I listen, transfixed, to rasping violin, viola, cello, knowing I'm hearing more than Beethoven did, and infinitely less.  Still, since the less makes me strain for more, I'm beginning, maybe, to hear more.

     Now that I'm crippled I take long walks in the country. Until now I needed to move fast for exercise, and what I saw, heard, and smelled in the country could have been Central Park or even Broadway at rush hour. Life was a rush. One didn't stop to look at this tree, which is dying. I only noticed it because I fell over its dead branches and landed against its soft mossy trunk. It's like me, branches spread out on the ground, as my legs, arms and crutches are.
     Falling is helpful for seeing the world. One has paused, as that hawk above me is pausing in the sky. One hears rustling sounds: branches and leaves moving, small animals scurrying. One smells the perfumes of blossoms or decaying things. The wind caresses. Once you've paused you'll never be the same again. You're not so...perpendicular, so apart. Then you can push yourself up along the trunk and continue you walk, moving at your own pace over the enormous earth.

     Now that my memory's gone I remember more. My mind wanders among so many scenes, so many more than actually happened. And they're set loose to recombine with scenes from other times, other places. And I know more people than I ever knew. Some of them I read or dreamed or wrote down. Others may have been real once, but they are certainly more interesting now, as only their oddities or epiphanies remain.  While those who could never be interesting are long forgotten. It takes a lot of forgetting to remember.
     This is fortunate since all my trivial activities and half-hearted endeavors and absent-minded betrayals would make a vast nineteenth-century novel that would put any reader to sleep, including myself. Instead I don't doubt that everybody has been very nice and things turned out as they should have. So I have even forgotten what I have forgotten, and this is the greatest pleasure of all.

     Not that I'm impotent I make love a lot. It used to be that there were too many girls, women, wives, not exactly chasing after me, but beckoning or bending their little fingers around wind glasses or even around a button on my fly. Not that they weren't comforting and made me think at times that I was human. Still, I can barely remember a few faces.
     This is all to the good since I'm concentrating nowadays on one face. Not my own, which is a bit of a memento mori, but this other face. And more than the face. In whatever state we're in of hurry or unearthly awareness, there are simultaneous smiles at sudden absurdities, or quick nods of understanding, or just fingers absently touching, or murmuring words lost in sleep, or even a lethargic cock gently flowing—so that one is constantly, never-endingly making love.

— Robert Fagan


Beauty is a Verb is a lot of book at almost 400 pages and a lot to take in.  The editing by Bartlett, Black and Northen creates a stunning over-view, not of bodies in trouble, but a deeply moving and powerful poetic force given voice.


This is a hard life you are having
While you are young,
My father said,
As I scratched my casted knees with a paper knife.
By laws of compensation
Your old age should be grand.

Not grand, but of a terrible
Compensation, to perceive
Past the energy of survival
In its sadness
The hard life of the young.

— Josephine Miles


In general I have some distaste for poetry that comes already labelled and my initial reaction to "disability" poetry was that of some wariness.  Reading this anthology dispelled any concerns I had, the cumulative affect is undeniable, the reader is pulled into a new awareness by the brave voices of the poets, not the curiosity of their disabilities.

Poems with Disabilities

I'm sorry—this space is reserved
for poems with disabilities. I know
it's one of the best spaces in the book,
but the Poems with Disabilities Act
requires us to make all reasonable
accommodations for poems that aren't
normal. There is a nice space just
a few pages over—in fact (don't
tell anyone) I think it's better
than this one, I myself prefer it.
Actually I don't see any of those
poems right now myself, but you never know
when one might show up, so we have to keep
this space open. You can't always tell
just from looking at them either. Sometimes
they'll look just like a regular poem
when they roll're reading along
and suddenly everything
changes, the world tilts
a little, angle of vision
jumps, your entrails aren't
where you left them. You
remember your aunt died
of cancer at just your age
and maybe yesterday's twinge means
something after all. Your sloppy,
fragile heart beats
a little faster
and then you know.
You just know;
the poem
is right
where it

— Jim Ferris


Here is a quote from Molly Peacock, author of The Paper Garden, that appears on the back cover of Beauty is a Verb:
     "Revelatory, provocative, harrowing, and bold...these voices range from the specific and personal
     to the abstract and philosophical, sweeping any reader—including the temporarily able-bodied—into      the profoundest questions of how to live."

Crane of Angles

The earth crept, lurched upward, and took sudden hold of her shoulders, Plagued
them stratospherically forward. The ground became her neck.  Down the avenue the
ringmaster. Though there were many tiny acrobats twisting the length of her legs
making them whinny. Her proprioceptive tap dance drew spontaneous crowds, cagey
looks. Flush with a string of light beginning in the lowest quadrant of her brain,
where it becomes the body. A toy helix in off beam hands careening the sidewalk. Ev-
erything that isn't Daphne. Cycles n her rapidly blinking eyes. The torque of feet and
to think this is what. Closer to the movement of planets.

—Denise Leto


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