Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature
Reading Our History in Verse
Book Review by Erika Jahneke
People with disabilities have probably always, to the extent that they were able, attempted to share their stories. Since I have read Beauty Is A Verb: the New Poetry of Disability,I’ve started to think that there is a cave painting in Lascaux of some caveman fighting it out with a saber-toothed tiger, then hobbling away. Maybe I’ve started to hope that there is.
Before I read this book, I had the general misconception that disability history was just a long series of progressively darker ages, followed by a sudden explosion in the late sixties that finished with the IDEA and the other reforms of the early seventies, followed by the Reagan social service cutbacks which left the disability movement in an uneasy coma lasting until the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990.
In 2012, the Push Girls might have shown we’ve entered into a new golden age: Or could it be just the calm before the budget cuts?
I was wrong; In some ways I was thinking like a child who believes life in her grandparents’ day actually took place in black and white, because that’s what Shirley Temple movies look like. I think a lot of disabled people in my age group think that, because unlike many oppressed groups, we have not been encouraged to explore our history, either artistic or otherwise. In many ways, in addition to riding on wheels, we are encouraged to believe we are inventing them too.
Although the current theory of disabled people as a minority group possessing a special stigma and requiring civil rights protections is comparatively modern, there have always been disabled poets and artists that have taken the opportunity to express their unique vision. In the thirties, there were enough to protest the exclusion of people with disabilities from WPA contracts. One of those poets, Josephine Miles, was the first woman to earn tenure at an American university when she received it from UC-Berkeley in 1947. I first learned of Miles’ work in Beauty is a Verb,: The introduction was long overdue.
The book tracks the evolution of disability poetry starting with departed greats like Larry Eigner and Josephine Miles, continuing in to the present with such poets as Kenny Fries, Anne Finger and Laura Hershey, whom I am familiar with through their continued presence in disability anthologies. They all write about their individual struggles.
Hershey’s essay, “Getting Comfortable,” which focuses on the role of personal attendant services in her artistic process, could not have been written in an earlier, more individually focused era. It was such a shock to read a detailed essay about something reflecting a personal experience that has caused me more than a twinge of shame.
The essay stands as a monument to the principle of interdependence, the idea that people live in a web of relationships and connections, rather than as isolated beings trying to make it on their own. People with disabilities come to embrace this principle from necessity, but it has profound implications for both their spiritual and artistic worlds.
This book is breathtaking in its thoroughness and thoughtfulness on such topics as whether poetry appeals to disabled writers because its distinctive shape and variegated pauses are reflective of our physical being and life experience, and whether poets who are disabled but either conceal, or fail to mention their impairments in their art, still ought to be embraced as disabled poets. I think there are as many answers to these questions now as there are readers to ponder them and for a group that gets so often dictated and prescribed to, that is a beautiful thing. It does limit Beauty As a Verb’s appeal as a book for a short wait, or to dip in before bedtime, but in this 140-characters-or-less instant response world, it helps to stretch our brains, consider, and take our time.
Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability Edited by Sheila Black, Jennifer Bartlett and Michael Northern. Paperback, 327 pages, published by Cinco Puntos Press Sept. 2011
Erika Jahneke fights authority(and sometimes wins), believes in the First Amendment and the possibility of a real life meet-cute at an age when she should probably be jaded and cynical, and probably would have written articles like the ones in Beauty Is A Verb if journalism and crime fiction hadn't claimed her first. She is working on a novel in Phoenix.