When able bodied writers want to imagine despair, which is to say more than customary unhappiness, they frequently use disability as a metaphor. “I am sad without hands,” wrote the poet James Tate who, having perfectly useful appendages thought handlessness would be both devastating and, gulp—quietly “edgy.” Who in his right mind would say he was only a little morose at such a prospect? Meanwhile his able bodied readers shuddered. They said, “Well, I’d be more than a little sad without my hands, but Tate, well he’s a poet, he knows a lot about suffering, so I guess he’d only be sad, for so debilitating is poetry itself, eh?”
The crux is this: able bodied poets and readers, by and large, see disfigurement as a mirroring and compounding metaphor, at once suggesting decay, death—being forgotten; or, a reflection of poetry’s fealty to abjection. (The American poet Robert Bly titled his graduate poetry thesis at the University of Iowa “Steps Toward Poverty and Death.”)
Most of the disabled poets I know are remarkably undead.
They’re not sad without fingers.
They don’t need to stand, walk, see, hear, or speak.
I refer you to an essay by D.J. Savarese in The Iowa Review. David James Savarese is a non-speaking poet (among many other things.) He’s a brand spanking new graduate of Oberlin College and he’s now stepped onto the stage of American literature. He writes:
When I took the ACT, I had to point independently at a multiple-choice answer bank, which had been blown up on a piece of paper and which had enough space between the a, b, c, and d that there could be no ambiguity about what I was selecting. My arm had to rise all on its own, and, like a rock climber without a climbing wall or cliff face, ascend the invisible air. It had to do this under conditions even more anxious than those of the ordinary test-taker. No one believed that a nonspeaking autist could really get into, let alone go to, college.
My parents had negotiated extra time as an additional accommodation; I spent two-thirds of it running around the room screaming. I just couldn’t believe I had to act like a tree. My very future was at stake—everything I had worked for—and it seemed to sit like an owl on the highest limb. My mother was panicking outside, the thin pane of a classroom door between us. When I finally sat down, I had to race through the test. It felt like I was underwater—whereas the scribe had oxygen, I did not. The bubbles she filled in seemed to come from her mouth.
Is the eye passive that refuses to make categories? Do you think of it as lounging on a divan of mere sensation? Do you think of it as needing a job? Are you like President Reagan, too quick to call it a “freeloader” or “welfare queen”? Scandent scandal, my eye unmakes the world; it offers, in Skinner’s phrase, a “disintegrating framework,” one in which possibility dazzles. Dazzles because it does not yet cohere. High above the ground, my eye smells the light, listens to the flute-playing clouds.
Scandent scandal! The comic ironies of imagination make us rise, high, eyes smelling light, eyes listening to clouds.
D.J. Savarese no more speaks for all the disabled or all autists than Joyce Carol Oates speaks for all women, the imagination is singular even though it proposes aspects of universality. Yet I dare say, yes, that Savarese informs his readers of a poetics are (ex-cathedra, informed by disability) not sanctioned by custom.
A crippled poetics has about it the full authority of neurodiversity. It’s fresh as those stars in Norway you saw one Summer and which no one else saw, stars blazing with immemorial loves, which you’ll never forget.