Beauty is a Verb
Beauty is a Verb: the New Poetry of Disability
edited by Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black and Michael Northen
Cinco Puntos Press, 2011
Embodiment, Verbs, Poetics
Allison Layfield

The editors of Beauty is a Verb have carefully chosen poems and essays that create a diverse and often contradictory space in which bodily experience is explored.Take for example, the variety of ways the anthologized poets identify (or don’t) with crip poetry. In one poem, Jim Ferris claims, “Let me be a poet of cripples…Look with care, look deep./ Know that you are a cripple too./ I sing for cripples;/ I sing for you.” (pg. 94). The speaker of this poem sees “cripple” as a space, an identity, one that is assigned to “you” and deserves to be sung. Jillian Wise, in an essay accompanying her poems, is wary of this approach: “My reservations about the term ‘crip poet’ are similar to my reservations about the terms ‘disabled poets’ or even the politically correct term, ‘poet with a disability.’ What does any of it mean?” (p. 139). At stake for these poets is the chance to self-identify as crip poets, as part of a community, though at the risk of essentializing the disabled body’s experience. The above examples seem to polarize the positions poets can take in regards to the label of crip poetry, but the approaches to this dilemma are as varied as the writers within the anthology.

For readers new to poetry or to disability poetry, reading the essay accompanying each set of poems can inform or explain the poems that follow. Take for example Kathi Wolfe’s essay on Hellen Keller: Wolfe discusses Keller’s “inspirational” image as the disabled person who overcomes limitations in the film based on her life, The Miracle Worker. Keller is also seen as “a saintly, (presumably) sexless, elderly woman, urging people to help blind people in public service ads” (pg. 151). Through her discussion of Keller as the image projected onto the disabled, Wolfe’s persona poems in Keller’s voice become far more complex, as we see in the poem “She Loved Hot Dogs So Much”:

Inhaling their sweat, licking their salt,
was like kissing Peter on the night train

as if only their tangy passion mattered,
before her teacher’s protestations,

her mother’s remonstrations,
her brother’s gun-waving,

against her deaf-blind,
mouth-watering love

ended their ride to what she’d
always wanted, not fame or fortune,

but the salted happily ever after,
where kisses taste like mustard,

embraces char on the grill, and love,
like onions, makes the eyes water.

It would be easy to read this poem as simply an enactment of Keller’s bodily experience of love. The first two lines have Keller “inhaling,” “licking,” and “kissing,”— sticking to the sensory perceptions of taste, smell and touch. In a very simple way, the poem immediately engages with Keller’s deafness and blindness by leaving out sight and sound. Halfway through the poem, Keller’s experience is explicitly defined as “deaf-blind, mouth-watering love.” It is easy to read these lines as a love poem filtered through a disabled bodily experience, especially because readers are familiar with seeing Keller as the “inspirational” figure Wolfe describes in her essay. However, the poem’s conflation of Peter with the hotdog Keller loves in the title, an explicit and cheeky sexual reference, forces us beyond reading the poem as purely an enactment of Keller’s experience. Instead, the poem is filled with sex in addition to love; in fact, love is sex at every instance; the passion Keller remembers as she eats the hot dog is “tangy” and the happily-ever-after she longs for is “salted” and directly grounded in the body. In this poem, Keller is not the saintly, sexless persona that Wolfe claims has become the model for the disabled community at large. Here, not only has Keller escaped that image, but in this poem she escapes containment altogether. The poem reads as a single sentence, encircling and completing this new image of the sexy, cheeky Keller; and yet, the lines are sometimes end-stopped, sometimes enjambed, completing this image and yet allowing for moments of escape.

Reading the poems along with their accompanying essay, as I have done above, can add depth to the reading experience, but there are limitations to approaching the essays and poems as succinct, tight units that define an author’s work. In a collection that features poets with a variety of disabilities from a variety of time periods, it can become easy for a reader to see the essays/set of poem pairings as generally representative of the poetic approach of blind poets, deaf poets, poets with MS, etc. The reader has to take responsibility for reading past these units and allowing the essays and poems to speak across one another.

In reading across the essays and poems in Beauty is a Verb, Laurie Clements Lambeth’s description of her first MS symptom is particularly memorable: “The outlines of things blurred. Unable to detect the difference between my skin and fabric, my thumb and a button-hole…I slipped into a dimension there was little distinction between the outside world and the inner contours of my own body” (pg. 174). This slight shift, between the body and the outer world, between boundaries that limit and define our perceptions of ourselves and the world, resonate with the experience of reading Alex Lemon’s poem “Mosquito”:

You want evidence of the street
fight? A gutter-grate bruise & concrete scabs—
here are nails on the tongue,
a mosaic of glass shards on my lips.

I am midnight banging against house-
fire. A naked woman shaking
with the sweat of need.

An ocean of diamonds
beneath my roadkill, my hitchhiker
belly fills sweet I am neon blind & kiss
too black. Dangle stars—

let me sleep hoarse-throated in the desert
under a blanket sewn from spiders.
Let me delicate & invisible.

Kick my ribs, tug my hair.
Scream You’re Gonna Miss me
When I’m Gone
. Sing implosion
to this world where nothing is healed.

Slap me, I’ll be any kind of sinner.

As I read across the work of these poets, the boundaries between their bodies and mine begin to blur, as do my sense of poetics and how I approach the body of others, my own body and the body of the poem. In a poetry anthology dealing with identity politics, I expect complexity, diversity, and discomfort. I want to be aware of my embodiment and the opportunities available through this embodiment. There is so much more to say about Beauty is a Verb, but I’ll stick to the key word here: verb. This collection of poetry and essays verbs right into the complex space of disability, and oscillates between the desire to enact the body’s experience and the desire to escape it.

Allison Layfield

Allison Layfield received her MFA from New Mexico State University. She works on the editorial staff of the women's poetry journal, Bone Bouquet, and currently lives in Lafayette, Indiana.