Defining disability poetics: a review of Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back
Disability is hardly an uncommon theme in mainstream poetry. The disabled body is a spectre; a cipher; a metaphor; a warning; a bad omen; a kind of doom. John Lee Clark wrote in Poetry magazine some time ago that ‘English poets are especially fond of romanticizing and demonizing both deafness and blindness, equating these with silence and darkness — and death.’ Rarely is disability invoked by disabled poets for a disabled audience; rather it is a favorite abled shorthand of monstrosity and marginality. Recently Frank Bidart won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his chapbook Half-light, in which he assumes the voices of historical figures including Ellen West, a schizophrenic anorexic Jew who suicided at the age of 33 in 1921, and Vaslav Nijinsky, a queer schizophrenic ballet dancer who was institutionalized in 1919. Bidart is a gay abled Gentile.
In seeking out a poetics of disability, then, we must first recognise the obfuscation around the disabled body in art, and the suppression of disabled voices – particularly those that are multiply marginalized. Leroy Moore describes Black disabled voices as ‘buried voices… singing in the cemetery / voicing their short and painful history.’ Do we dig up those buried voices, or do we plant them and let them grow and bloom into something new? Do we need to exhume the disabled body in art?
The first poem in Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back is an exploration of the poem-as-body by Daniel Sluman, one of the editors: ‘i am a walking signifier,’ he says. The poem is deliberately disjointed, playing with absences, embodiment, disembodiment, articulation, disarticulation. Later Sluman notes that ‘the disabled writer / turns the page / into a mirror.’ The poem doubles as his introduction to the anthology, alongside introductions from Jane Commane, Khairani Barokka, and Sandra Alland.
The poets of Stairs and Whispers are keenly aware that their bodies and narratives have not been considered wholly their own, but rather objects of public consumption, often describing the disabled body as a text to be read. ‘I am on file / you have the right to read me,’ writes Claire Cunningham. ‘Those are my papers: / I’m taken as read,’ writes Holly Magill. Nuala Watt’s ‘Receiving My Poems in Braille’ concludes with a tired rejoinder: ‘I guess I’m somewhere, embossed.’ Through these conversational asides the disabled poet once again occupies the text, rather than the text occupying the disabled body.
Many of the poems reveal a deep rage and resignation at the oblivious violence of the medicolegal system, often responding with a mixture of sharp humour and grief. Debjani Chatterjee declares cheerfully that ‘Today I blew up the Northern General – again; / bulldozed the waiting room in Hell.’ One of Cathy Bryant’s poems is a witty polemic strung together from statements said or written about her and her partner, titled ‘Ms Bryant is Dangerously Delusional.’ Sarah Golightley suggests a ‘Deserving Disabled Chronic Illness Resume’ that is deeply funny, but a little too close to home to read without wincing. Tragicomedy blooms in disability writing, but for once the paradoxical affective combination of humour and anguish is an insider joke that the reader is invited to share, rather than making disability itself the punchline.
For every line of rage, however, there is an equal amount of love: love for community, love for those outside the community, and self-love obtained after hard struggle. Some poems are bold and vibrant; some are deeply subtle, delivering careful, fragile insights. Alec Finlay notes that ‘limits are reached / at different speeds.’ Every now and then there is a piece so startlingly beautiful that I had to stop and close my eyes after reading it, and simply hold the poem in my head for a while. Rose Cook’s ‘The Chalice and the Heart’ is one of these:
He explained as clearly as he could
about the heart inside each vertebra.
He drew, and it was beautiful,
the spinal cord rising through a series of hearts.
One of mine is no longer a heart,
but a chalice, like a cocktail glass.
Eventually, it may shrink to the rune
Algiz, the earth, which is also Z the end.
Quite a few pieces are slipstream or speculative, narrating stories of metamorphosis or animalistic physicality, invoking radical crip futurity or alterity. Georgi Gill describes a lapidifying transformation, like Galatea in reverse: ‘you started sleeping with a pebble / of quartz stowed under your tongue’; ‘you start to crumble; soft, silicate, out of shape.’ Jacqueline Pemberton’s ‘Body Polish’ begins naked on a slab and ends as a mermaid adorned with ‘a cloak of pearl.’ Although speculative poetry is often kept separated from other genres, in an anthology of disability poetics it makes sense to read science fiction and fantasy pieces integrated with more neutral ‘contemporary’ work. We cannot help but identify with the Galateas, the Frankenstein’s monsters, the liminal creatures, though here these experiences are reclaimed and subverted. We begin to see the ways in which imagined worlds might offer opportunities that the real world does not.
Some poems are a little too arcane, or conversely a little facile, but they more or less balance each other out. There is a great deal of emerging talent in the pages of this anthology, and it is deeply refreshing to be introduced to so many bright new poets, each with unique and distinct voices, yet somehow still flowing together into a cohesive collection. Any sense of dislocation or fragmentation across the entire collection feels intentional, as if we are exploring the distant, lonely edges of uncharted waters. Aaron Williamson’s contributions include three lovely, scrambled collages of street signs, computer keys, scansion, ideograms, and scattered punctuation, explained by image descriptions in the back of the book. Each of the poems has an audio description, provided in the hyperlink form, and there are several BSL (British Sign Language) poems and film-poems represented by still images and links to captioned YouTube videos, including versions with and without audio.
The essays and author’s statements explore the potential of poetry as a language of disability. For the most part the poems do linger on the social model of disability, but some contain glimpses of a more complex reading of disability as it relates to identity. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these glimpses are particularly present in the works by Deaf poets. Raymond Antrobus writes that ‘My poems are Deaf poems because they are defiant in how they take up space on the page, not searching for loss, but for something gained.’ Abi Palmer suggests a theory of disability poetics as works celebrating ‘intrusion.’ We see this in the frequent metatextual asides, where poets explore the nature and function of disability poetics by breaking the fourth wall. Sandra Alland writes that ‘The poem will speed up or slow down, give you a transcript, let you / leave and come back later… It takes you by the hand / or elbow or chair handles’; ‘The poem leans on / its crutches to study you, smiling.’
Often the poets consciously place themselves within a lineage of disability culture, expressing gratitude and respect to Deaf, Mad, crip, and disabled forebears, and to other communities that they belong to. Contributions from poets of color are particularly cognisant of the weight of cultural history. In Khairani Barokka’s ‘Prep Work With Overture’, ‘ancestors / blow the quick brisk of their years / down your neck.’ Saradha Soobrayen writes that ‘The past is tidal / in their minds.’ In the introductions, essays, and author’s notes D/deaf and disabled cultural history is cited explicitly as well as implicitly, acknowledging specific poets such as Jim Ferris; creative projects such as Sins Invalid; anthologies such as Toward Solomon’s Mountain: The Experience of Disability in Poetry (1986), Articulations: The Body and Illness in Poetry (1994), Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability (2011); and Through Corridors of Light: Poems of Consolation in Time of Illness (2011); and writers, scholars, and activists including Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Tom Shakespeare, Dan Goodley, Margrit Shildrick, Roddy Slorach, Lydia X. Z. Brown, and others.
Stairs and Whispers is a beautiful and nuanced addition to a developing canon of disability poetics; one that embraces interruption and disjunction, explores the limits of embodiment, knows its literary and activist ancestors, strives for a best praxis of accessibility, and is infused with radical fury and love. As a fellow disabled poet, perhaps the greatest compliment I can give to the collection is that it made me want to write. It is a genuine joy to read. The anthology opens up a bright sphere of possibilities for D/deaf and disabled poets in the UK, and I look forward to reading what comes next.