Wednesday, September 21, 2011

I am old enough to remember the world of poetry before Jerome Rothenberg began to issue his extraordinary anthologies. Which is to say that I still retain a visceral sense of just how dramatically Shaking the Pumpkin, Technicians of the Sacred & Revolution of the Word, in particular, transformed one’s sense (my sense) of what poetry had been, was & could be. Part of what made those three books so important was that they greatly expanded & deepened one’s understanding (my understanding) of those things. They left the world not only more complex, but more articulate as to what those complexities might be. This might be a literal definition of enrichment.

I recall getting this also when I first read William Carlos Williams’ Spring & All in 1970. It had been out of print at that point almost continuously for more than 40 years. Spring & All completely recast my sense of what modernism and the modernist project might be about – indeed it was impossible afterward not to take the work of Gertrude Stein utterly seriously, not because Williams wrote about her, although he does in a way, but because it was impossible afterward not to see how what the good doctor was doing was not, at least in part, a response of her writing. In everything he did from the early 1920s onward. Which made (& makes) him a much more modern writer than his peers (Pound, Eliot, even Joyce) who did not. Their work reaches the earliest portions of the 20th century but then freezes as to what it can do, say, or think about. Williams does not, it keeps going, developing for another half century, precisely because he is able to respond to the challenge of Stein. This is what makes him so valuable for the poets who come after. In ways that even the Pisan Cantos is not. Williams’ “American language” is built up precisely from Stein’s little words. Yet I don’t think you would get this, “grok it” as we might have said in 1970, if you have not read Spring & All or even if it had always been a part of the Williams you knew, always already there. Books change you in just this way. The moment when Gertrude Stein went from being a marginal character of comic relief, Life magazine’s favorite avant-gardiste, into being one of the foundations of 20th century writing was the moment that Harvey Brown reissued this book by Williams. It is the part of the modernist jigsaw that suddenly makes it all cohere.

Which is exactly my take on Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, co-edited by Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black & Michael Northen, & just released by Cincos Puntos Press, the terrific little press run by the Byrd family of El Paso, Texas. This is not just the most ambitious publication Cincos Puntos has attempted to date, it’s going to be one of the defining collections of the 21st century – and let’s hope it doesn’t take nearly half a century for us all to recognize it.

An identarian anthology of poetry & poetics, even if focused around an identity type that has not previously received the attention it warrants, is something that sounds ever so 1970s, and might have been just & only that in the hands of less able editors. But just as Spring & All is a volume that shows what modernism becomes when you factor in Gertrude Stein, not as comedic counterpoint, but as central to everyone’s writing, Beauty is the book that shows what identarian poetry & politics can be in an age that has already absorbed the lessons of Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” & the works that followed exploding/exploring the concept of identity itself.

For the real question for any project like this has to be: Who is disabled? What is a disability? Just as it’s ultimately impossible to answer who’s black, who’s Italian, who’s gay without gliding over some yawning border chasms, disability proves to be one of the squishiest identity categories. Not, however, for those who must live with one of these conditions. And there’s the rub.

To their credit – it’s really the key to why this is such a great book – the editors have not shied away from this question, nor set defensive boundaries around it. They aren’t entirely consistent & I don’t entirely agree with the parameters they ended up with, but Jennifer Bartlett announces the inevitability of that in her sharp, if too short, introduction (without exception, the prose pieces here, whether critical or biographical, are one of the book’s strengths & it works exceptionally well to have them mixed right in throughout).

While Beauty is a Verb includes many views of disability, we hope to consistently consider the social model of disability. It is for this reason that we primarily chose poets who have a visible disability.

If you think about the history of disability in the arts in broader terms than poetry, one of the first instances you come to is Beethoven’s deafness, one that is not immediately visible (although the condition is included in Beauty), and almost as quickly you will come to the problem of the madness of Van Gogh, clearly visible in his art, yet not to the outer world, at least not until he sliced off an ear. The visibility of deafness lies in the coping methods of negotiating the condition in a hearing world.

Whether or not you think Beethoven’s hearing loss contributed to his music – this could be argued either way – it seems evident that Van Gogh’s psychiatric disabilities cognitively contributed to his aesthetic vision. One could make the same argument, for example, with Hannah Weiner, John Wieners, Bob Kaufman, Jimmy Schuyler, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Ezra Pound & even Allen Ginsberg, all writers whose psychiatric issues played important roles in their lives. As Bartlett notes,

There are absences in the collection: we did not include poets writing about HIV/AIDS or cancer. While these “disabilities” without a doubt fit into the social model, they could be arguably classified as “illness.” We also did not include alcoholism. As Michael Davidson notes, most poets could be looked at through a disability lens, even poets such as Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, and Robert Duncan – all of whom had vision problems of some variation.

One of the poets here has celiac disease, essentially an allergy to wheat. Yet Crohn’s disease is not represented. Would irritable bowel syndrome qualify? Lactose intolerance? Other allergies, some of which can prove fatal? The question of a limit case is fraught with difficulty. Just as Creeley & Duncan both had to deal with people’s reactions to their visible difference – and did so in very different ways (Creeley had a glass eye as a child, but had to give that up when the orb broke during World War II & the socket closed up, and soon gave up a subsequent eye patch in its place as ostentatious; Duncan was all about ostentation: his purple cape and broad-brimmed hat were, I always felt, a way of casting his wayward eyes into a frame of dramatic overkill: of course he’s looking in two directions at once!), the question of what constitutes a “visible disability” haunts this book. Many diabetes sufferers have to deal with the reactions of those around them: it may be more subtle than a wheelchair or prosthetic limb, but is it qualitatively different? In this sense, the problem of Beauty is that it’s only 370 pages long, not 730, or 1,730, which it easily could have been. Without any particular dilution in poetic value.

More troubling, from my perspective, is what I take to be the discounting of those disabilities that actually impact thinking. It is here that I value especially the presence of Raymond Luczak, who discusses what he calls “the gift of deafness,” as well as the work of Norma Cole, who frames the impact of her stroke through her work as a translator, & Bernadette Mayer, who is quite frank about the limitations brought on by her cerebral hemorrhage: “My right hand is just for show.” But I worry about all the kinds of writing where there is a direct cognitive impact, much of which is missing in Beauty. The logic of many of Anselm Hollo’s early lyrics very accurately trace the gaps & synapses that accompany hangovers. Hannah Weiner’s “dictated poetics” are quite different from Jack Spicer’s sense of dictation over the radio. As somebody who has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, the only disability that is the subject of a comedy show on national TV in CBS’ The Big Bang Theory¹, the absence of thinking differences feels like a Grand Canyon, particularly for an art form so closely entwined with thought. While it is true that, as Sheila Black writes,

Like many people with disability, I am always slightly amazed to realize that I have suffered more from other people’s perceptions of my condition than I have from my own “real” disabilities

there is nothing inherent in Alexander Pope’s physical deformities that configures his writing – one might argue that the taste for satire is rooted there, or even that his need for formal regularity has to do with his own divergent nature. Milton’s blindness has everything to do with the role of sound in Paradise Lost.

Part of this has to do with how each poet internalizes and goes public with his or her disability. Are you a poet with a difference or a disability poet? Michael Northen, who offers a history of the disability poetry movement as the book’s second introduction (like Bartlett’s, both superb & too short) writes of Larry Eigner that

his poetry is devoid of references to his own body², but the limitations under which he wrote affected the content of his work and the unique sense of space he developed in his writing.

Barrett Watten in particular has written of the philosophic implications of Eigner’s poetics, and yet I don’t think even he would suggest that Eigner could have come to these without learning how to understand – as well as cope with – the extreme physical limitations of his body. As Northen notes, Eigner’s failure to say I live in a wheel chair & can make only a few movements with my hands actually kept him from appearing in some of the disability poetry movement’s first anthologies.

In a similar manner, I have never written about Asperger’s, which I didn’t even know much about until one of my sons was diagnosed & it became clear just how many of his symptoms were my own. I certainly have never thought of myself as disabled, let alone uttered the phrase: I have autism. And I don’t want my readers to look at my tendency to count sentences, or to build a work around something like the Fibonacci number series, as a symptom. It’s true that I grew up with something I might have identified as Weird Kid Syndrome, hardly a unique condition, but from my perspective being a kid in the lone family of divorce in my grade, coming as a result from the poorest home in my school district & being raised in part by a psychotic matriarch had more to do with the choices I’ve made as an adult & as an artist. If you were to ask me about a disability, I’d be more inclined to respond in terms of the pieces of plastic inserted into the middle of each eye, the result of cataract surgery in my 40s. I see nothing that is not mediated by this technology & am painfully conscious not just that I no longer have anything like the 20-20 vision I had up until my 40th birthday, but that 70 years ago I would have become irretrievably blind. As it is, I constantly have to compensate for & respond to glare because my lenses don’t adjust to different levels of light. A bright light at the head of an otherwise dark room (some movies, many PowerPoint presentations) and my body responds the way an infant does to the excessive noise of a party: it shuts down & I go to sleep. My compensation is that I see a lot of films wearing my dark glasses (which are themselves trifocals). Am I disabled, and if so, what’s my disability? That is a question that every person with a physical or cognitive difference has to answer. I love it that a couple of the poets in this anthology don’t precisely tell you, either.

Beauty is organized around this response to a condition, whatever it might be. The first section is one of precursors, writers like Eigner, Josephine Miles, Vassar Miller, Robert Fagan & Tom Andrews, all of whom wrote before the identity of a “disabled person” really came into play in the 1970s. It’s interesting here, indeed almost bizarre, to see Andrews’ “Hemophiliac’s Motorcycle” following Larry Eigner’s work which is introduced by Michael Davidson, presented here as though he were strictly a critic, although Michael is a hemophiliac, and somebody with hearing issues serious enough for his entire family to have learned ASL. The second section focuses on the Disability Poetics Movement as such, and it may be worth noting that in literary terms this is one of the strongest sections of the book. There are several first rate writers here and poets like Jillian Weise who deserve to be read well beyond the borders of, in the book’s own words, “crip poetry.” The final two sections are fascinating because they present mostly established poets who have disabilities (some names will surprise you), but who don’t necessarily frame their work in those terms. In essence, the first of these sections is of Quietists, the second of Post-Avants (tho I might have tossed Brian Teare into the latter group myself). These sections could have been much larger & this is exactly where the editors ran into some poets who did not wish to be included. I wish only that the editors had explored more fully the different approaches to poetry in terms of this sense of identity, why some poets actively seek to conform (a blind poet who initially set his poems up to be “pleasing to the eye”), while others find it as a platform for the investigation of difference itself.

In its own way, Beauty is a Verb is more like Revolution of the Word than any of Rothenberg’s other early anthologies, a relatively slender book that points to what could have been the gargantuan volume beyond it. Whether that other, larger volume is really ultimately needed³ may be arguable, but what is not is that the discourse between ability, identity & poetry will never be the same.


¹ Theory’s way around this is to never mention Asperger’s, though Jim Parson’s portrait of Sheldon is spot on, not just in all the compulsive quirks, but in the coping strategies one builds up over a lifetime (Sheldon tells a joke and waits to see if others are laughing before he acknowledges his intent). Nor is Sheldon the only character who has the condition. In one sense, Big Bang Theory is about mainstreaming in a world in which differences are noted rather than diagnoses.

² Not entirely accurate, I believe.

³ Poems for the Millennium could be read as three demonstrations that a completest approach to such a volume is impossible, regardless of how thoughtfully edited or how well intentioned.