It’s Easter Sunday and I’m thinking about human equality, disability, and the poetry uniting both. Strange really, the resurrection of Christ, equal rights, a poetics. Here’s what I mean: Christ rises from his grave, the very action the most extraordinary figure of rehabilitation in human history. All resurrection myths proclaim equality is not out of reach—that soon enough you’ll be unrecognizable to yourself, clean, bright, and favored like others.
Poetry may not always be concerned with religion or equality. The early modernist poets in their desire to rival the immediacy of photographs were at times dispassionate—see Imagism or Vorticism as practiced by Pound—yet poetry often is where we find empathy. I wept alone in my faculty office one afternoon when, after a day of pain, my legally blind eyes unable to keep up with the tasks before me, in the days before reliable speech technology, I read the following poem by Adrienne Rich with my left eye only a half inch from the page:
I know you are reading this poem
late, before leaving your office
of the one intense yellow lamp-spot and the darkening window
in the lassitude of a building faded to quiet
long after rush-hour. I know you are reading this poem
standing up in a bookstore far from the ocean
on a grey day of early spring, faint flakes driven
across the plains’ enormous spaces around you.
I know you are reading this poem
in a room where too much has happened for you to bear
where the bedclothes lie in stagnant coils on the bed
and the open valise speaks of flight
but you cannot leave yet. I know you are reading this poem
as the underground train loses momentum and before running
up the stairs
toward a new kind of love
your life has never allowed.
I know you are reading this poem by the light
of the television screen where soundless images jerk and slide
while you wait for the newscast from the intifada.
I know you are reading this poem in a waiting-room
of eyes met and unmeeting, of identity with strangers.
I know you are reading this poem by fluorescent light
in the boredom and fatigue of the young who are counted out,
count themselves out, at too early an age. I know
you are reading this poem through your failing sight, the thick
lens enlarging these letters beyond all meaning yet you read on
because even the alphabet is precious.
I know you are reading this poem as you pace beside the stove
warming milk, a crying child on your shoulder, a book in your
because life is short and you too are thirsty.
I know you are reading this poem which is not in your language
guessing at some words while others keep you reading
and I want to know which words they are.
I know you are reading this poem listening for something, torn
between bitterness and hope
turning back once again to the task you cannot refuse.
I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing else
left to read
there where you have landed, stripped as you are.
–Adrienne Rich, from An Atlas of the Difficult World
Consider a “stripped” reader—consider her bent low. Stripped is vulnerability, a nakedness, and yet it’s also the first turn toward new language, one that allows us to tenderly imagine ourselves renewed.
It’s renewal that interests me. If equality is a moral concept, as I believe it is, than the broken body is also a moral agent; if “where you have landed” is neither a sacred or profane space, it is solely Jeffersonian—embodiment, whatever the circumstance is human, therefore fully, entirely human. In Disability Studies we often speak of resisting “overcoming narratives” by which we mean a resistance to medical persuasion—the idea that humans are only valuable insofar as they can be cured of their maladies. We call this the “medical model” of disability and many a disabled person has written a book touting his or her “miracle cure” often attributing it to a marriage of god and science. Sometimes of course it’s god alone or simply science. In either case the subtext of these books is routine: only a physically able and firm body has value. I think such stories are immoral for unlike Adrienne Rich’s poem which holds out the possibility of new directions in despair, overcoming narratives are steadfast in their insistence only the healthy body matters.
In his new book “One Another’s Equals” Jeremy Waldron observes:
“When we talk about equality, one of the most important distinctions we have to make is between prescriptive and descriptive equality. Descriptive statements tell us how things are, and prescriptive statements tell us how things ought to be and / or what things ought to be done. Crudely, we can say descriptively (or deny descriptively) that people are equal in some respect; we can say their opportunities are equal or that there used to be less inequality of income than there is now. Or we can say, prescriptively, that people ought to be equal. We can say that in general—for example, that they ought to be treated with equal respect—or we can say it in some particular regard, such as their income or opportunities.”
Excerpt From: Jeremy Waldron. “One Another’s Equals.” iBooks. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/one-anothers-equals/id1242543605?mt=11
“Prescriptive statements call for something to be done that might not otherwise be done.”
This is essentially what poetry is or concerns itself with. And one thinks of Robert Kennedy’s famous declaration: “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”
Resurrection is prescriptive and whether its a fantasy or not matters less to me than its moral inference: we are equal in renewal which differs profoundly from being cured or healed. Jesus, risen, still had his wounds. He remains, even glorified, our physical equal, in flesh our aspirational moral equal.
The best disability poetry tends to work in these areas though it may not be overtly spiritual in nature. Embracing the equal status of the disabled body is invariably renewing.
In her poem “Future Biometrics” JILLIAN WEISE writes:
the body that used to
contain your daughter
we found it
behind the fence
It was in a red coat
It was collected
Is she saved
Is she in the system
we have other bodies
to put your daughter in
Come on down
to the station
Weise combines the medical model, the curative, with a post-human vision of cyber-resurrection. The “it” daughter, not entirely human, dead behind a fence will be transmogrified through technological means, industrial means, one imagines a whole new shipment of alternative bodies arriving by train. A motto for the poem could read: “beware what resurrection you’re calling for” or the like.
Jim Ferris describes resurrection as survival—after eugenics, after Aristotle, the disabled actually dare to thrive:
As to the exposure and rearing of children, let there be a law that
no deformed child shall live.
Tell Aristotle I lived.
Tell him Dave did too.
Tell him the state has not
yet fallen, though you know
kids these days. Tell him perhaps
all our words are but
of that crier’s claim.
Tell Aristotle, tell the Spartans,
tell the legions of those
who think they can’t afford the difference
that difference makes,
tell Montaigne, tell Hobbes,
tell Dr. Tiergarten
and that off-key singer
of sad and silly songs,
tell them the useless eaters
tell them there are more of us now
than ever, disorderly,
imperfect, splashing out the gene pool,
what a messy species,
tell them my brother Dave and I
inhabit this moment,
tell Aristotle we are alive,
tell them all we thrive.
Resurrection is imperfect, splashing out of the gene pool, more of us now, and implicitly, firmly, prescriptively, morally equal.
The poet Laurie Clements Lambeth writes:
and then there are days when I can stride across the house
five times even, springing forward with an armful of laundry
as though I never forgot how, no longer offering the body
instruction in hip tuck or the proper undulation of each foot
(hold wall, heel first, steady now, lift the next). My gratitude
at such moments is not for the walking, that easy
grace. It’s for the shadow, that other gait hovering around
my frame, a faint, wavering outline, staggering dragged
water-edge purling behind. How can one measure time or space?
The miles I saw stretch across this little house unfurled a span
to heave through, now condensed to mere feet. I will see those
miles again, I know, and somehow now: I keep a foot in each world.
Embodied, prescriptive, we’re equally unknowable—the truest definition of equivalence and equality one may ever know. Disability as poetics, an epistemology is a resurrectionist school but not a school of overcoming or cure.
ABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.
(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger