Disability Poetics: Essay Number Three

John Ruskin wrote: “all architecture proposes an effect on the human mind, not merely a service to the human frame.”

The service to the human frame is precisely the thing Ruskin understood least though I’m not willing to throw away the Seven Lamps of Architecture. In any event you can see the Victorian problem. The mind and body perforce occupy separate rooms. You can call them Jekyll and Hyde.

Speaking as a cripple and a blind one at that, the schism-problem still has to be endured where architectures are concerned. Have you ever tried to pass through a revolving door with a guide dog? Yes and stairs built to enforce grandeur are surely an endurance test.

In his excellent book “Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education” Jay Dolmage talks about the ideological nature of steep steps:

“If we were to object that such steps make the university inaccessible, many universities would make the argument that steep steps are stylistically desirable, that they fit with the template, the architectural fingerprint of the school: all the buildings are the same color, with the same size Ionic columns, maybe even the same number of stairs leading up to buildings. These counterarguments show the ways that in the construction and maintenance of the steep steps there is also a latent argument about aesthetics or appearances, one that trips over to the classroom, into ideology and into pedagogy, where teachers are also sometimes concerned about pattern, clarity, propriety—and these things are believed to be “beautiful””

Steps are my enemies and the faculty ableists who unknowingly sweep those steps are to me the poorest sect of all, praying and fasting to keep the deformed out of the gated yard.

Ode to the University’s Steps

I, a blind man,
Cannot see you
But I hear you
And I swear
You sing
Not of petroglyphs
Nor of Venus
You sing of fire
With mouths
Of earth
Your broken voices
Open a dirge
Of buried light
So I must tap my way
Up and down
Your grave song
Pretending
You’re innocent
And I know
You will never
Believe me
My friends
But the stones
Of the chapel
Sing of great violence.

Disability Poetics: Essay Number One

Critical disability studies and crip studies seek to destabilize traditional modes of body analysis and affirm (perhaps an ableist trope) a post-static and unreferenced sense of bodies. I sometimes think of classic, normative bodies as vanishing before our eyes like Brigadoon. In this way I relish what Lennard J. Davis calls the end of normalcy. I like to say (because I’m a poet) that I’m not a blind man at all but instead a rider of dragons. The smoke I leave behind is poetry. It suits me. This is disability as epistemological fancy. This also suits me.

John Ruskin wrote: “The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it.” I’m not so naive as to agree but where the spirit is concerned I’ll take it. Poetry and disability are snug together in the mysterious, rich, daily toil toward newer potentialities. If Ezra Pound was right and poetry is news that stays news one might say crippled poetry is the news which also invites you to turn the page. I’ll say the disabled are different over the course of the day. All disability is protean. We work with it and against it and we adopt multiple accommodations and no one knows more than the crips we’re not static bodies at all. By day’s end my dragon might be a gila monster. And I might be inapparent as twilight comes. Maybe all you’ll see of me are my pin prick glowing spider’s eyes—you know, those eyes that scare children on camping trips.

When I got my first guide dog back in 1994 the guide dog school made me sign a paper that said, among other things, that I wouldn’t use my guide dog for the purpose of begging. Imagine the back stories. I went home and wrote the following poem:

To a Blind Man Selling Pencils: New York City

And then, others arrived:
Eyes first, surveyors, important men,
Men who wore the flag—runners,
Who fill the streets in every town.
They carried sacks like thieves.
Every day such men feel their blood rise:
It uses them, returns them to the avenues
And I alone discovered them, one by one.
I was of the provinces. I was reflected
In their eyes like a fire.
Some men possess the color of origin—
The blind man is amaranth, aman-word of sorts,
A word that will be mistaken on earth.
Still I saluted the closed world
Without its consent,
Crossed the water of streets
And raised a sign
Unreadable as the moon.
My plea had the whiteness
Of things that have no use in life
And the words were Nothing more than a scar
That someone must have given me.
Why then did your name appear
Like the marks of a wheel
In this unyielding light?

What was I after? For one thing a reader response confusion between the able bodied starer and the thing stared at. Abjection is currency and it is exchanged to the detriment of both parties. Sighted people protect themselves from this by imagining they’ve not been changed by their acts of half conscious charity—but fear and beneficence are a losing hand for they suggest poverty and neglect are the yardsticks by which all people must be judged. Another way to say it is: if the disabled must represent society’s failures then you the apparently abled observer must be more than half in love with sufferance. The most often employed phrase for this is “there but for the grace of God go I.”

How many scars can the able bodied give the disabled? None if we say so.

A Perfectly Level Headed Note Now that I’m 64

I was born on this date 64 years ago. My twin brother died in the next room.
I was born prematurely by three months. I lost my vision in an incubator.
I’m aware that even today there are “bioethicists” who’d argue against my existence.
I know who they are. There are one or two at the university where I teach.
Sometimes I tell myself I know more than I used to. I know that not all Greek infants with disabilities were put out to die on mountains. I know that Oedipus means swollen foot and his story is a perfect disability dumpster fire. I know his story still haunts the blind. I know there are one or two at my university who believe the blind shouldn’t be on campus. Or the lame. Or the mute. They ruin a perfectly good agora. I know these things but care less about them since I know the arc of history bends toward disability justice. I really do believe that. I also know that universities hate hiring the disabled. I believe that will change. I have to believe these things. Tap your shoes together three times Dorothy. Sam Cooke: “A change is gonna come.” And maybe not today. On the other hand….

Disabled and Alone on Campus

I’m a blind professor and the other faculty don’t know me. Oh they recognize me alright but that’s a different matter. One may acknowledge any sign—a traffic cone or ceremonial ribbon—they’re designed for limited provenance. “Stop!” “Go!” “Ignore!” My blindness (and that of each visually impaired student I know) is a sign to be ignored.

An icon is a sign that calls for reflection: the Statue of Liberty or the holy cross. Unfortunately the disability access signs one sees in parking lots and alongside electric doors are not icons. They designate “access” which means “here’s how you get in” but nothing more. For the non-disabled faculty these signs mean: “You’re here. Now don’t ask me to think about you.”

When a sign is just a sign it allows for habitual overlooking. Scofflaws know this. I’ll never forget a rough edged student at the University of Iowa who told me speed bumps had no meaning to him. (He wasn’t speaking metaphorically.)

In higher education disability access signs are advertisements to the faculty to ignore the disabled.

Consider my story (such as it is): I teach now at Syracuse University where I hold a prestigious professorship. I’ve been tenured at the University of Iowa and The Ohio State University. I am, by all measures, “having” a distinguished career in academe.

What’s ironic as hell is that these institutions have not been hospitable, though I’ll give a shout out to Ohio State because they’ve a progressive and talented ADA Coordinator named Scott Lissner who was always there to help me and all other disabled solve accessibility dilemmas.

But this has not been the case elsewhere and over the past few weeks I’ve struggled to get accessible job related documents just as I’ve struggled almost every month over the course of my nearly eight years at Syracuse University.

One of the ironies at Syracuse is that the university was in the forefront establishing the field of Disability Studies some thirty years ago.

When I tell faculty (who are largely without disabilities, or at least none they’ve publicly declared) about my problems I’m mostly greeted with shrugs. Sometimes I get a note saying “that’s too bad.”

And these are the progressive faculty who should care.

Silence means that accommodation signs are just there to be ignored.

Moreover, as every disabled person involved in higher education knows, if you keep speaking up about inaccessibility you’ll be labeled a malcontent.

Pejorative labeling attaches to accessibility signs like lamprey eels to fish. “She can’t get accessible materials because she’s difficult somehow. We all know that.”

Inaccessible software; inaccessible PDF documents; inaccessible handouts in meetings; inaccessible video conferencing and presentations; building after building without accessible directories; a bureaucracy without a system for resolving these issues….these are the daily realities for the blind in higher education almost everywhere.

The silence of faculty around the nation about disability is a direct reflection of the privilege most have—not needing accommodations themselves they’re free to overlook the signs on buildings. They’re just signs, not icons.

What the Imagination is For: Reflections on Boyhood Cruelty

I make jokes like most people. When I was young I made some cruel jokes as I was bullied for my disability and I looked for children more vulnerable than I was in order to humiliate them and gain a modicum of status. Status is a fragile thing when you’re twelve years old. Having it or not depends on the temporary love of brutish schoolmates and in my case gaining this required art. I remain ashamed of the story I’m about to tell. I make no excuses. If being a blind kid in public school was rough, if I was pushed down stairs, if my glasses were stolen, if I was targeted with nicknames, well so what? I was clever and desperate.

I picked out a kid who sat next to me in math class. His name was Norman and that was bad enough. But he was also gangly, awkward, ill at ease in his skin–just like me. Talk about Carl Jung’s “shadow”–I saw in him everything I hated about myself. He wore maladjusted spectacles and had uncombable hair. There was really nothing wrong with him. It didn’t matter. I could see he was defenseless. He stammered slightly. He was shy. He became my target.

What did I do, you ask? I made him legendary. I drew cartoons depicting him as an ostrich boy with a bird’s body, a periscope neck and a wide grinning face and I named this creature “Normanure.” I even made fun of his stammer with a cartoon bubble that said “Duh!” Though I could scarcely see I could draw serviceably and quickly. I plastered Normanure all over the school. This ugly episode lasted about a week before a school official caught me sticking a cartoon on a bulletin board. But here’s what I recall most vividly. Before being apprehended for assholery Norman himself accosted me and rather than punching me out he asked the most basic and fair question anyone can ask his tormentor: “Why are you doing this?”

I couldn’t answer him. I slunk away. I had no language to describe the starved mice eating my nervous system or my shame at being blind or my terror when thinking about how I might live. I was dehumanizing a perfectly good person.

That was fifty years ago. I remain sorry to this day. And the terrible ugliness of online trolling; the name calling spurred on by the current putative president; the sorrows of people with disabilities who are still largely unemployed and unappreciated–these are never far from my thoughts. And no, I can’t expiate my miniature “Lord of the Flies” moment with a blog post. Nor can I tell you that nowadays I’m an exemplary man. But I do believe in emotional candor and ethics of care. I’m alarmed by all the big bodied twelve year olds I see in the public square. But I’m alarmed also by the knowledge that my insecurities can produce cruelty. It is altogether proper to know what the imagination is really for.

The Planet That Would Have Me

It was Auden broke my heart then put it back together. Caruso followed with a love song from Naples. By the age of 8 I could read poems and listen alone to gramophone records. Blind I’d little street life though I pretended I belonged well enough in open air. Like most people who come from provinces I was happiest in my privacies, my attic with scratchy records and grey books. Though I could scarcely read that’s the world that would have me.

The ugliness of school was both a matter of being bullied for my disability and a curricular austerity. School never let me share what I was learning while alone. As a university professor these past thirty years I think of this. What do the students before me bring to the room? What can provinces teach us?

Provincial culture means the one we must create. Yeats couldn’t be Tennyson and though there were Irish poets before him, he had to be both cognizant of his inner life and the outward world. If he was going to be Irish-provincial he’d have to do it in a dual way. Its a matter of accomplishment that Yeats doesn’t quite fit anywhere. His planet doesn’t exist. Yet its apparent.

Is it a bit silly to invoke Yeats next to a kid with a large print book and a Victrola? I don’t think so. The inner life is Romanticism and strength of mind and each must find it in her or his way. You don’t have to be a poet to need your planet. More and more contemporary fiction and memoirs seek to find planets that will have us. Everyone hails from some version of my childhood attic.

I’m guilty of reductionism here. What I’m after is emergence not life alone with some arias. The planet that will have us is a made place and not granted. What is it made of? Yeats wrote:

By the help of an image
I call to my own opposite, summon all
That I have handled least, least looked upon.

The planet that will have you won’t look like you. Yeats knew and if we’re lucky we also learn it.

Yes when I go walking the world does not resemble my stride, my frame, nor, despite my yearnings for mysticism does the world answer my longings. The world simply is and not what I say of it.

Typing Mister Roberts

As a ten year old who though he’d become a writer I attempted a novel. My model was “Mister Roberts” which meant that I was writing about the Navy and imagining the doings of grown men at sea. How I wish I had those pages now and could see what a blind kid thought the maritime world of wholly fictive adults would be like. I suspect I imagined an adult world that was honorable as a distinction to my grade school life of constant bullying. As a disabled child in public school I was a target for physical and emotional abuse. The novel “Mister Roberts” and the film based upon it suggested shipboard life was decent.

I think of this now because I know better. As Wallace Stevens famously wrote: “the world is ugly and the people are sad”—and while that may not be a life’s goal, that is, to live in wantoness and depression—these are factors in the reality principle. The Navy may have honorable men and women but their stories and presences aren’t always probable. We’ve a land of permanent wars and poverty and bigotries of every kind. And the grade school bullying I once endured still goes on for children everywhere and I even experience adult forms of it in the workplace.

It’s the utopian hope of writing that’s so compelling to me. When I write I clean streaked windows with vinegar. Animals come. Some eat from my hands. Strangers come to understand each other. And these things are not entirely of imagination Wallace Stevens notwithstanding.

Yesterday I took an Uber ride. My driver spoke very little English. He was from Central America. He loved my guide dog Caitlyn, a yellow Labrador. Suddenly he said in his halting English: “I wish her long life!”

The world is ugly but people still have love. In turn I’m not certain I’m all that different from my ten year old self. That kid was insisting on decency.

His grown up variant still does.