Disability is to poetry as feathers are to birds. The imagination is incomplete, restless, vulnerable, hungry, often defenseless—the life of the mind is a capacious struggle—moreover the creative mind has a focused super ego. It knows it’s lost something and like a person who experiences a phantom limb the imagination feels its lost arm. Are all poets disabled? In this way the answer is yes. The question that concerns poets with disabilities—real ones as opposed to the metaphorical—is how do we evolve the feathers?
Gertrude Stein: “A feather is trimmed, it is trimmed by the light and the bug and the post, it is trimmed by little leaning and by all sorts of mounted reserves and loud volumes. It is surely cohesive.” This is the feather as a thing acted upon; the feather as reception. And Stein is not wrong. The imagination is trimmed by the quotidian, the fence post, the shelf of importunate books. I like “mounted reserves” quite a lot. One pictures the mounties of disapprobation riding their steeds, chasing W.C. Williams’ white chickens. (I wish someone would chase those chickens, I do.)
Hope is the thing with feathers—Dickinson means the poetry thing though being Emily she tells it slant. If you say “hope is the poem with feathers” you sound itinerant like a lace maker. Why are hope and the poem not the same word? That is of course the question. Why are they the thing? That one we know.
It’s the disability feather poem thing we’re interested in. It’s the feather of disambiguation, the creative mind is not only incomplete it must complete itself. Grow new feathers, the colorful ones, yes the hope. Again, disability is to poetry as feathers are to birds.
And yet disability as a matter of imagination is not an overcoming. Nor is the imagination accommodational. Nature is not so. As it’s part of nature, part of us, the striving for hope is never what we think it is. The poet Larry Eigner whose cerebral palsy engaged his poetics wrote of the sustaining air which is the best term I know for what I’m after:
There is the clarity of a shore
And shadow, mostly, brilliance
the billows of August
When, wandering, I look from my page
I say nothing
I am, finally, an incompetent, after all
Eigner’s wandering is wheelchair travel “outside” the poem but within the poem it’s the life of the mind just as Emerson would have it but clarity (another word for “hope”?) will be indescribable, will require silence, a separation from others, and a recognition of not having quite succeeded in making a feather. The incompetent is telling us the truth. We may contain multitudes but we’ll never describe nature as it truly is.
Disability imagination is folded, curly, perceptive and inapparent on the street. That is how it is. That deaf woman, that wheelchair man, the blind walker—all are cunning and imaginative. Those of us in disability studies talk about disabilities as ways of knowing precisely because as rhetorician Jay Dolmage notes, we understand “imperfect, extraordinary, non-normative bodies as the origin and epistemological homes of all meaning-making.” Imperfect and extraordinary are not “of” or “pertaining” to custom in Western thought, though as Dolmage demonstrates in his wonderful book Disability Rhetoric one may peel back the layers of storying and find examples of disability as a generative principle. Or, as Kurt Vonnegut once said, (and here I’m paraphrasing) “a story is interesting if a nun has broken dental floss trapped between her teeth…) Vague or overt discomfort generates all stories. But disability is less of plot and more of mentation when we admit difficulty. Precisely because it isn’t easy, disablement is metaphorically evocative. Precisely because it isn’t easy, disablement is contentious to the body politic which always hopes to ignore or sidestep disability perspectives in favor of limiting narratives—whether we’re talking about a bad novel with a forlorn disabled character or an IEP for a student. Making disability “easy” is to not admit it into either a theoretical or practical arena. Who among us disabled hasn’t been pressured in many a circumstance to say disability is easy? “Oh, it’s nothing,” we say, because the literal, daily experience of disability both inconveniences normal thinking, and because we feel always the implicit demand to project overcoming, which in terms of narrative, is always easy—you kiss the prince, pull the brass ring, you go home richer.
It (disability imagination) ain’t easy street as normalizing practices in speech tend toward the elimination of complexity and what is disability after all but convolution? Larry Eigner knew it and decided to meditate on the matter—normalizing practices frame silence as incompetence. Poetry is incompetence. Disabled poetry ruffles even more feathers.
Confronted with hardened rhetorical choices…that’s the effect of “easy” for the compulsion to say disability is nothing is immense especially in employment where difficulty of any kind is considered inadmissible. The disabled assume a spoiled identity (Goffman) when highlighting failures of access. If they do it frequently they’ll likely be cemented into the overshoes of the “bad cripple” (to borrow the wonderful name of the late William Peace’s blog.)
Hope is the poem resistant to normalizing architectures, drab feathers, and the use of incompetent when describing a decision “not to” speak I prefer the poem after long silence, prefer the non speaking writer’s poem, prefer the poem that validates the complicated evolution of hope’s fathers.