Elegy for a Writer

I walked in slow circles

Around the cathedral

(Insert city)

Now you know

How it is

Calling the moon

Getting lost

Thinking

Of algebra

(Berlin)

Of jazz

(London)

Gypsy lace

(Turku)

 

What does it matter

Whether

Dying is hard

Or easy?

Remember—

Cobblers

Opened shops

Close

To their churches

& people set out

According

To the day

Kierkegaard

Two catbirds call in rain

Cup of coffee in hand

Dog pleased with himself

& books on a table

With accumulated

Natterings—Kierkegaard

Especially, all that desire

For a God

Of the mind

I think

There was no God

In his Danish shoes

No God

In the silver birches

& when he lit a fire

It was simply a fire

So much pressure

On the written word

Like a child’s game—

You know

The one where

Walking

Your footfalls must be perfect

Or someone dies

D.J. Savarese in the Iowa Review

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.

 

 

 

When Keats and Rexroth Saved My Life

Beauty is twice beauty when we’re talking about John Keats. “The only means of strengthening one’s intellect is to make up one’s mind about nothing — to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts.” I remember reading that for the first time and lifting, lifting inside, like a sea creature who becomes itself by rising.

I was in the hospital at the time. I was barely seventeen and I’d largely given up on life. My parents were alcoholics and by turns abusive and distant. I was legally blind and unable to keep up in school. Classmates were cruel. At a loss to imagine a robust method to end it all I starved myself. Anorexia was easy. Not eating was a discipline. By the time I hit 100 pounds I looked like John Lennon or Mick Jagger—thin by means of corruption, cool, pale, faintly menacing.

There was that damned Keats. “Make up one’s mind about nothing…” How does one explain the moral imperative of adolescent thought? It’s easy to describe its delinquency but not its aspirational qualities. I was sick. Incredibly ill. Strengthening one’s intellect seemed both superfluous and everything. Let the mind be a thoroughfare. Could I imagine another me?

I had some help from other poets. I read Rexroth and was surprised by this:

Yin and Yang

It is spring once more in the Coast Range

Warm, perfumed, under the Easter moon.

The flowers are back in their places.

The birds are back in their usual trees.

The winter stars set in the ocean.

The summer stars rise from the mountains.

The air is filled with atoms of quicksilver.

Resurrection envelops the earth.

Goemetrical, blazing, deathless,

Animals and men march through heaven,

Pacing their secret ceremony.

The Lion gives the moon to the Virgin.

She stands at the crossroads of heaven,

Holding the full moon in her right hand,

A glittering wheat ear in her left.

The climax of the rite of rebirth

Has ascended from the underworld

Is proclaimed in light from the zenith.

In the underworld the sun swims

Between the fish called Yes and No.

That a person could conceive of fish in the underworld and that the sun could swim fish like between yes and no—this, I saw, was what Keats meant. This was the everything principle that Keats and Rexroth brought to me while I lay in my sickbed and boy scouts raised and lowered the American flag beneath my window and the body, mine, so thin it was actually throbbing, a body which was about to fall away, reached out for the ancient dropped lifeline of ascendant blazing solar fish and atoms of quicksilver.

Make up one’s mind about nothing. It’s the most complex sentiment one can read.

 

Top Ten Reasons “Normal” People Wish They Were Disabled

Top Ten Reasons “Normal People” Wish They Were Disabled…

  1. We have that “cute little logo”.
  2. We don’t have to stand up for the national
    anthem.
  3. We have psychic powers: All disabled people know all other disabled
    people.
  4. They’re jealous of our specialty clothing.
  5. Disabled people are “more musical”.
  6. We have sign language and Braille and other
    “sneaky stuff”.
  7. We can park anywhere, just like the Pope.
  8. We have really cool pets and we can take them
    anywhere.
  9. We have our own stalls in public restrooms,
    some with “high-tech” devices.

 And the number
one reason normal people wish they could be disabled:

  1. Airline employees are actually forced to help us.

Now

 

Each morning I carry to my garden

—I do not have a garden

 

I carry my father’s old rake

—Father 

 

And rake

Long gone

 

I dig in loam

—Earth, it is true

 

Hearing

In skull

 

—Head is clear 

A Schubert

 

Quartet

Quarter notes

 

Derived

From dance

 

Knowing

How

 

Dance

Returns to us

 

Father and rake.

Everything Behind Me, I See…

There will be a day soon when old translations, flawed though they may be, will defy the odds and return to meaning—pages falling at the feet of reckless students, word-scraps carried on the wind like newsprint. Cicero will get tangled in your hair: a room without books is like a body without a soul… Montaigne catches on your wrist: My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened… I wish I could tell you more but there’s little enough to say, the dead stick around for better or worse, words poorly understood always plot their homecoming. I say they come back before sunrise. The Finnish poet Saarikoski, a great translator wrote: “everything behind me, I see, is just death, but when I sleep, I sleep…”