In disability there are innumerable obstacles to having what we often call an empowered life–Helen Keller comes immediately to mind. When she sought admittance to Radcliffe College she was compelled to demonstrate her literacy and endured tests designed to prove her written words and her inner life were not her own. How could a blind-deaf woman who used an amanuensis to communicate have an authentic and self directed capacity for language? In Keller’s case her natural talent with language was so far beyond the skills of her “teacher” Annie Sullivan, the matter was settled, if not quickly, speedily enough.
My reception as a blind writer who can speak has been less onerous than Keller’s though it’s not without its cringe worthy moments. During an interview for a teaching position at a major American university a writer-professor in their creative writing department asked how I could write so clearly about the world if I can’t see? Aside from its borderline illegality the question revealed how little some contemporary writers understand what language does at its most fundamental level. That all nouns are images had never occurred to my questioner, a well regarded fiction writer who presumably should have recognized what I said next: “I say strawberry, you see a strawberry; I say battleship, you’ll see it. Whether I’ve seen the poxy thing has no bearing on your reception–this is why poets were believed magical in ancient times.”
Literary language is often as much about the unseen as the seen. Accordingly Milton was the right poet to describe the vaults of hell. But what’s more interesting is the evident and often mysterious joy that comes from sensing the unseeable or unnameable in our reading. Joy is not always or invariably concerned with custom. Pablo Neruda, who spent many years alone as a young man traveling with the Chilean foreign service wrote:
I grew accustomed to stubborn lands
where nobody ever asked me
whether I like lettuces
or if I prefer mint
like the elephants devour.
And from offering no answers,
I have a yellow heart.
In literary consciousness solitude is always instructive. Filtered through Neruda’s imagination it’s both figuratively improbable and unforgettable.
If disability means one thing in particular, at least in my case, it’s been a strict schoolmaster of loneliness. You won’t see it. But like Neruda I too have a yellow heart.