Sep 28, 2012

Reading Beauty

Beauty --

(If Beauty is a Verb ....)

On the evening that ended Yom Kippur, I took advantage of a night off from teaching my weekly graduate seminar in American women's contemporary poetics and attended my own ceremony of atonement -- I am not Jewish --  the Poetry Project reading at St. Marks on the poetics of disability.

It had been much too long since I had been to the PP; I had been much too long in isolation in recent grief;  and I hadn't read the book, Beauty is a Verb, from which this reading took its title and theme.

This anthology by that title was sent to me by a compassionate friend during the first year following my son's death.  While I appreciated the gift, I had scarcely opened it.  I was in the initial stage of grief; my head swirled and my thoughts roundly chased their own crippled if mesmerizing patterns of shock.  For much of that year, I did not -- could not -- read.  Or I read only the strangest, most off-the-track things.  Like the biography of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings and their slave family.   Why did I read that?  Or heavy tomes about Tarot written by an anonymous Hermetic philosopher translated from the French.  Or, I simply read about others' grief.  I read everyone who ever wrote about every shade and shape of profound loss.

Yet I did not read Beauty is a Verb.

I should have opened up this gorgeous collection of writings, subtitled "the New Poetry of Disability" and edited by Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black and Michael Northen.  For there, as I now find, is the carefully, mindfully parsing of the grieving state in the "beauty" of words -- layered within the facts and facets of physical pain and immobilizing disability that, in Cynthia Hogue's moving phrase, is a "phenomenology of ill health" splitting one in two -- in "alienation ... felt from my old life and from the world of the healthy," an experience akin to "culture shock" (from her essay in the volume entitled "The Creature Within," 307).

Or, as Rusty Morrison writes in one of her lovely sequence poems "Ill-timed," "Blank pages, / which I thought were meaningless, are now adding texture/ to my attention" (327).  If the awareness of one's physical pain affects one's cognitive processes--  to disturb what Morrison writes in her essay in this volume, "the old architectures of meanings" (326) -- such disturbance can ironically be a healthy act.  Health -- and art -- arise not necessarily in a state of placidity or the mere memory of turmoil, as Wordsworth once implied in his famous poetics Preface to the Lyrical Ballads.  But art can arise out of dis/ease -- even if that means illness or the disturbance of body, even the prospect of death.

It is this literally "health" quality in the "dis/ease" of deep grieving that I have found to be a gift.  It is the gift in my grief that is also the most difficult aspect of mourning  described to a friend, a colleague, the curious stranger.   How do I explain my own thoughts of wilderness loops since my son died in 2010?  Do I say -- It's so bad as to be good?  No, that's not quite right.   Would anyone believe me if I told them my beautiful 32-year-old child's death has not been "tragedy" -- I hate that word, when people refer to my "tragedy" -- that it has been a lesson in season, in this short blip of time we call "life on earth"?  A gift?!   How can I say that?  Yet I turn again to Morrison's eloquence on the experience of illness and physical pain for the ontology of a misery that is not just misery but new streams of thought grooving the brain like the recently discovered, once-watered alluvial fan that marks its planetary grooves on Mars:

I am tempted to use the word "gravity" to describe the pull that draws me to sense a deeper coherence, to label that coherence, since it seems to be a force of motion common to all my experiences when I'm deeply engaged with the illness.

 ("To Saturate the Matter of the Present," 324)

Let me go back to my last night of Yom Kippur.


The first reader was the volume's co-editor Jennifer Bartlett.  While she assumed the podium and read stunning -- mind-blowing -- pieces from her "Autobiography," her language directly and courageously cracked and opened up the experience of living with cerebral palsy ... and also staged a critique of "society's critique of the non-normative body," as she writes in her editor's Preface to the volume that I will now call, simply, Beauty.  Bartlett's voice as it made its way like beach waves over verbs and vowels from the podium -- "to thrust forward / sometimes the body misses / then collapses," I quote from her poetry -- also conveys "this particular knowledge" that

a movement spastic
            and unwieldy

is its own lyric and
the able bodied are

tone-deaf to this singing

(Bartlett's "5 poems from Autobiography," 301)

Yes ... "tone-deaf to this singing" -- truly a phrase, an insight, describes the "beauty" and the alienation -- which, too,  is the grieving state upon a close death, a "singing" that everyone around one seems "deaf" to.  For me it has been like angels (or poets) "singing."   And while I do not want to conflate various states of suffering and grief into one round whole, I also want to recognize the deeper (Morrison's word) paradigm of and within the grieving-pain-absorbed consciousness -- which can be an awakening of mental-spiritual levels one may not have ever felt -- or, better yet, previously disturbed.  For that material is always within.  It is the "unwieldy" knocking around of legs that must be more dragged than lifted, of the poet's voice that must stumble, to be -- such "beauty."  It is the awareness of a loss so heavy as to take one upward into Emily Dickinson's own charged "heaven":  "...a small town,/Lit with a ruby..."    This "small town," it is, so luminous and large, indeed.

I did not know Jennifer's powerful work before my Yom Kippur evening at St. Marks.  Nor did I know Ellen McGrath Smith's gorgeous poetry, the second reader of the night -- although I've been moving by her presence, apparently, at nearly every conference I've attended over many years, from the NPF four plus summers ago to "Lifting Belly High," the feminist conference she helped organize (with Linda Kinnahan and others) in Pittsburgh years back.   My favorite poem of hers, which she read that evening, is "The Magic Word Is Partager":

French.  Infinitive.  Means to share.

A cousin to the English, partake,

as in particles given to everyone, everyone

being a particle, taking part in.

Buried in this poem is the experience of one who is partially hearing impaired, who must make do with "an infinite/giving" or end "with an open vowel"; and the "infants so like unshelled mollusks" in a Piaget study  (Piaget, a homonymic play off of partager) that

they sprawl in their soft, tender nudity over

the palms of whatever hands hold them.


Ending with volume co-editor Sheila Black's poem, "What You Mourn" (Black was not at the reading), McGrath Smith read about the home that the body is to every/body, no matter how stereotyped or critiqued by social images of ideality and human fear:

... the crooked body they spoke of,
the body, which made walking difficult
and running practically impossible,
except as a kind of dance ...
                                    that body
they tried so hard to fix, straighten was simply mine,
and I loved it as you love your own country....

("What you Mourn," 212)


Bartlett introduces her Preface to Beauty with a story about hearing / seeing Norma Cole read at the Bowery Poetry Club in 2005 -- a few years after Cole's devastating stroke, from which this great poet of the San Francisco avant-garde lost most of her speech and mobility.   Bartlett writes in the Preface that after Cole

... lost and regained her ability to speak ... she used her temporary aphasia and slurred speech to compose a poem that noted a list of words she could no longer enunciate.  The result of her reading this work was alternately hilarious and devastating.  Cole laughed at the ridiculous, yet utterly wrenching, situation of a poet losing words....

(Preface, 15)

It was the mix of audience laugher and its clear discomfort with Cole's speech that gave Bartlett her book idea and title.   As I listened to Norma Cole read last Wednesday -- the third poet on my Yom Kippur night -- I replayed in my mind the scene, and also reflected on the genius of Norma Cole -- who could write the following words in her essay in Beauty on the topic of translation, entitled, "Why I am not a Translator -- Take 2" (of course, Norma Cole is a renown translator!):

... when I had my stroke four years ago, two areas of language were affected.  One was a motor problem.  Speech production was knocked out in the brain.  Therefore I couldn't talk at all.  And I've had to refigure, little by little, how to make speech occur with mouth, teeth, tongue.  Think of Christopher Reeves in the swimming pool, trying to make his legs function ... for many people who've had strokes, the brain swells ... so we have aphasia and can't think of words:  the words for up or down; the simply conventional words; and the words that stand for ideas.  I am here to tell you that one has ideas even before one has the words to say them.  Ideas, or images.  No tabula rasa.


While Cole's brilliant essay on the non-translation of ideas into words is full of IDEAS -- from the analysis of a word like "sphota, what does it mean?" -- to Jakobson's structural linguistics, I quote this barren straightforward passage used as a "neurobiological" example by Cole -- her own body's neurobiology speaking -- to suggest, as Cole later writes:

you can't change that line, Mayakovsky said.


Much of what Cole read last Wednesday at the Poetry Project -- my Yom Kippur night out with what turns out to be the women poets on my syllabus  (see photo below)-- were remarkable "poet's essays" not yet published.  Cole had her only copies with her in manuscript form.  I will not quote from them here, from my notes, for fear of "changing that line."

So brittle.  Beauty.  The words.

But as they said when I was a kid watching '60's television:  stay tuned to this station.

Because Norma Cole is reading at the City College of New York, for the InterRUPTions series I host, NEXT Wednesday, Oct. 3, at 7 p.m. (NAC 6/316 -- The Rifkind Room).  (And I am also speaking on her poetry in the context of the period of the 1980's and the feminist journal of experimental writing, How(ever).  Welcome all.)

I end here for the moment on the topic of Sheila Black's marvelous analysis in Beauty, of the so-called "confessional poem."  If in recent years the "confessionalism" that might, say, typify the poetics of disability "has become a favorite target of a multitude of poetry critics ... as a symbol of all that is wrong with poetry," Black asserts back that

the confessional poem relies for its charge not simply on the presentation of problem material, but rather on the self-conscious presentation of it before a specific audience.... is much closer to the dramatic tradition of poetry .... the staged scene

("Waiting to Be Dangerous: Disability and Confessionalism," 205)

Thank you, Sheila Black.  Now I understand my own invented poetry speaker's lines -- from a speaker I call "Ubermutter" -- in a poem about, or around,  my son and his death. These lines are from "This Bus to China(town)," recently published in the journal RevolutionESQUE:

below the bus, in the street                         I am supposed to be

a troupe member, the performing figure --

                        of "Mother in Grief"

Here I play

in the Dance of the Plague, in rehearsal time

the Death Dance

                         future or past 


The Mother in Grief is as much the black dragon of human otherness as the stumbling crippling walk of stroke or dis/ease.  She is certainly not a victim. -- LH


Directly above:  "My Syllabus" -- Anne Waldman, Norma Cole, and Marjorie Welish (after the reading, posing for my students who are studying their poetry)

Above right:  Norma Cole smiling and reading at Poetry Project last Wednesday night

Above center: Jennifer Bartlett
(Courtesy Laura Hinton's Iphone)