Sheila Black, Jennifer Bartlett, and Michael Northen, Beauty is a Verb

Publisher: Cinco Puntos Press

2011, 383 pages, paperback, $20

I think disability is so interesting because other people find it so threatening; much as Occupy Wall Street represents this kind of political disobedience that says our whole system of ‘rugged individualism’ just isn’t working for enough people, disability suggests all things wrong with a purely Enlightenment view of the world—namely that everything is fair, that everyone can be an island, or that striving and pushing is the meaning of life. Just by its presence disability implies otherwise—other ways of seeing—and that scares people a lot.

pause for a moment to consider this statement by Sheila Black, co-editor of Beauty is a Verb. Please read it again. What could be so threatening about the worldviews of persons in wheelchairs we open elevator doors for; those whom we tend to lavish our pity on? As Jennifer Bartlett states in the introduction to Beauty is a Verb, “mainstream writers tend to reflect the predominant view of disability as tragedy. We wanted to avoid this norm not because it isn’t valid, but because we are interested in investigating an alternative.” Bartlett traces the genesis of this remarkable anthology to a reading by the poet Norma Cole, which was given after Cole had had a stroke. Struggling through already hard-to-enunciate words with “temporary aphasia and slurred speech … Cole laughed at the ridiculous, yet utterly wrenching, situation of a poet losing words.” The audience laughed along with her, but the laughter was far from comfortable.

The art contained in Beauty is a Verb is art as heroic journey, which seeks to unite rather than to polarize. Shot through with physical struggle, it becomes much less the product of ego than of genuine humility. Think of Flannery O’Connor writing one masterwork after another about spiritual redemption through the severe pain of Lupus. While there are both clearly identifiable disabilities and those that are harder to see, Beauty is a Verb concentrates exclusively on the former for the sake of maintaining the voice of a distinctive community. Still, it often isn’t easy for a disabled poet to write frankly about disability. Laura Hershey, who for years omitted any mention of hers from her poetry, recently decided to “violate what Nancy Mairs, that chronicler of her own discombobulated body, calls ‘the conventions of polite silence,’ in order to write, as she puts it, ‘as plainly and truthfully as the squirms and wriggles of the human psyche will permit.’” From her poem “Working Together”:

Her job: brisk bristle circle on teeth

My job: sneer

open wide

Her job: apply soap


Hot spray

My job: how hot

Say stop

Perhaps ‘rugged individualism’ is a lethal term because it goes against the grain of interdependence, the spiritual and emotional benefits of a community of love and fight, dedicated to a common cause. In the essay, “Keep Your Knives Sharp,” Jim Ferris writes, “the rugged individualist is a trope that is hard to sustain in contemporary life, harder still for disabled people. Disability culture, which values interdependence over the illusion of independence, privileges not a uniform perspective but the validity and value of a wide range of ways of moving through the world—and the varied perspectives those different experiences engender.” Diversity and inclusion are among our greatest strengths, America at its most ideal. Listening to the voices of ‘others’ is one of the most affirming gifts we can give to them; however, attempting to learn their language goes a step beyond. But learning a new language forces the tongue to work well outside its comfort zone. Ferris invented Crip Poetics, a poetics that valorizes the wide range of ways of being in and responding to the world and that claims space for alternative, non-normative experience, language, thought, and feeling. The following stanzas of his “Poet of Cripples” read like a manifesto:

Let me be a poet of cripples,
Of hollow men and boys groping
To be whole, of girls limping toward
Womanhood and women reaching back,
All slipping and falling toward the cavern
We carry within, our hidden void,
A place for each to become full, whole

Maybe what we’re afraid of is perpetual insecurity—something like the inner void Kurtz discovered in Heart of Darkness. Perhaps this fear forces us to confront the question, “What happens if I find my own choices permanently restricted by the most rudimentary conditions of my life? What happens when all that is supposedly healthy and good about me begins to attack itself?” In the mental sphere, this is called neurosis. In the physical … well, we know this will happen if we get old enough. We’re scared of death too—so, in order not to confront that fear, we rationalize locking our sick and frail elders away, often to die in squalor and neglect. We hide what we fear, which is perhaps why we fear the voice an unfortunate—one might say ‘accursed’—who reaches out for the rest of us with the affirmation that a limited life can be lived fully. Where does that leave us rugged individualists?

—Joe Vastano