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….

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.

Believe in Your Own Flight and the Flights of Others

Alert, gravid, a bit edgy thinking of the republic where I reside, wondering if it’s possible for 21st century Americans to acquire the self awareness required for true citizenship. I’m not a pessimist. I don’t believe Facebook and iPhones have destroyed our body politic. I don’t think the polarization of the so called left and right are inevitable and permanent. American history proves otherwise. And yet, at its best, citizenship is about informed discernment, knowing what you think and why you think it. These days it seems few Americans routinely ask “how did I acquire this position and what might be wrong with it?”

On the right people think anything that smacks of socialism is bad. On the left they think the profit motive is bad. Meanwhile the nation runs on both.

How to not hold one’s head? Take a walk in the winter garden. The earth smells of damp pears.
There are tracks of animals in the snow. I feel a tremendous, terrible freedom under my shirt.

I’m going to ask questions. And here I am, walking on ice polished by the wind.

What’s required to be optimistic?

I’m a believer in life much like proteins “are” life.

There’s a smell of smoke from my neighbor’s house.

Today he is believing in life.

Be in your own flight but believe also in the flights of others.

On Being the Only Cripple at the Arts Colony

Over a number of years I’ve had the fortune to be housed and fed at places that are devoted to promoting the arts and one should acknowledge fortune is a neutral word for anything that occurs is a matter of luck for good or ill. I’m not the bite the hand that feeds me type. My work has been assisted greatly by residencies at arts colonies both well known and up and coming places. This past summer I spent four and a half weeks at The MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, a beautiful and legendary place for artists of all kinds. It was my fourth visit to the colony and I will never say a bad thing about the work of MacDowell or its extraordinary-staff.


But something happened to me while I was housed at MacDowell that’s left me pondering what it means to be a disabled artist. Frankly I felt more and more alone. I was the blind guy with the lovely dog. The important conversations were about diversity and while these dinner dialogues were good, I found whenever I suggested the disabled are intersectional figures where issues of identity and human rights are concerned I was treated as a quaint and colorful tinker who makes quirky shoes.

Now being lonesome at an arts colony is an interesting thing. After all you’re not there to be a gadfly and getting your work done in a quiet and nurturing space is what the whole thing is about. I got work done. I wrote in my woodland cabin. I took thoughtful walks with my dog.

I felt like a curiosity rather than a figure of acceptance. I was the only disabled artist there. I’m often the only disabled person in a whole variety of settings. Why was this summer at MacDowell different?

The casual ableism of the other artists was part of the problem. Blindness and deafness and intellectual disability turned up frequently as pejorative terms in casual conversations. I lost my temper one evening explaining to a young writer that the “r” word isn’t acceptable when talking about people with intellectual disabilities.

What was different is my age. I’m too old for ableist nonsense and too tired to care that I’m the outlier.

But wouldn’t it be nice of the best arts colonies actually had disability months? Frankly I could use dome creative and progressive conversation about embodiment and imagination.

And yes, a few ripping good laughs.

Good, Old Walter Pater

Oh Walter Pater for a Renaissance scholar you had charm. You’ve haunted me for years with your childhood portraits. Unlike Montaigne your utopia was less a matter of craft and more of memory. Once, to shock an academic questioner I said creative nonfiction was Pater’s invention. I’m still not certain I’m wrong. If its honesty you’re after Pater’s your man.

Who was it I was reading last week–who said he was a possibility-ist rather than an optimist. I read a lot and can’t remember. He was one of those data-utopians. The planet will sustain us; we won’t actually slaughter each other. That’s when Pater jumped up. “The way to perfection is through a series of disgusts.” Data is a clean sport and that’s all there is to it. If you want to know about the heart I’ll go with the Renaissance.