Cloning Disabled Subjects

Jillian Weise

1. The Possibility of a Disabled Reader

To speak at a conference, I have to take possession of someone else’s body. This body should have two arms, two legs and a straight back, even if “straight” is a misnomer, since the spine should be naturally curved in a naturally specific kind of way. But let us not put this into words. Because when we say “straight back,” we know what we mean. I have to convince myself that when I walk into the ballroom of a hotel, I am just walking into a room. There is nothing exceptional about it. I sit down and wait until my name is called. I walk to the lectern as I have been trained to walk. Now it is time for the introduction. An introduction is like an elevator that dings before it arrives at a floor. It should be brief. It should not say anything about the speaker’s body. Since I have taken possession of someone else’s body, how could I introduce it to you? To speak at a conference, I should not use the word you. I may use the word we but only in matters of general agreement. For example: “We all agree not to talk about our bodies. This is the contract to speak. It is much like the contract to read, where also I have to take possession of someone else’s body, although in a private way, just between myself and myself, in order to get through poems that use disabled characters, so I can think, “Oh, that’s not me.” For example, when I read the title of Louise Glück’s poem, “Cripple in the Subway,” I take possession of someone else’s body, put on the arms and legs, make sure the back is straight, zip everything up, and resume reading. Now I am safe. This new body has never been called a cripple, and so can read the word cripple without even flinching. This new body is academic and objective and Everyman. This new body is cross-genre and transcontinental. This new body is second nature. I don’t even have to think about it. It just happens. Someone else steps up to the lectern, adjusts the microphone, and says: “Can you hear me?”


2. Identifying as a Cyborg

Because my daily routine depends on an electrically charged knee—which sometimes misfires, runs out of power, and dies—I identify as a cyborg. This word is preferable to the other words I have been prescribed such as patient, handicapped, physically challenged, or even person with a disability. The word cyborg functions as both description and rebellion. So here I am, writing about speaking as a cyborg, from someone else’s body, with double ankles and double knees, while also writing from my shadow body, while also interrogating the subject of my subject-hood. Someone inevitably thinks: “What does she have? Is it spina bifida? What is it?”

My mentor, who is an Elder Statesman of Poetry, says that in order to write about my disability I must in every talk, essay, and poem “come out and say it.” What I have is I’m a cyborg. Let that be it.


3. Reading Louise Glück’s “The Cripple in the Subway”


When I first read Louise Glück’s “The Cripple in the Subway,” I was an undergraduate at Florida State University. I had not yet learned the importance of taking possession of someone else’s body in order to read. I read the poem, went to the web to find out if it was true, if this voice coming to me from the page was truly Glück, the disabled poet I’d been searching for, found no evidence to support such a claim, and filed the poem away as another able poet writing disability. It bothered me, but what could I do about it? Poetry has no charge to be factually true. Glück is not at fault for wanting to take possession of a “cripple” body. I did not return to the poem until years later.

The poem appears in Glück’s collection Firstborn. Here is how Kirkus describes the subject material of Firstborn: “She [Glück] deals in wastelands [...] the lost lives of cripples [...] the hopeless and loveless.” The language of the review—“cripples” are “lost” and “hopeless” and “loveless”—means that I will need to read it from the cool distance of someone else’s perspective, someone else who must share these views about cripples, that they wander around lost and unloved. At the same time, I can’t read the review statically, since I am simultaneously mocking the review’s language, picturing a group of cripples, who wander the streets lost, and can’t find the subway. Glück’s narrator has found the subway. She is going somewhere. The poem is a dramatic monologue in her voice, presented in one sentence of fourteen lines. The last two lines rhyme, indicating a throw-back to the sonnet, and making it possible to read the poem as the speaker—this cripple—engaging a beloved. Is it possible she is loved?

The word “cripple” comes from Old English and German. In German, the word is from the verb “to creep.” Although the term “cripple” has fallen out of use, the word “lame” – its synonym – has become acceptable and pervasive to express something “not cool” in vernacular discourse. Presumably, I am not offended by the word “cripple” in 1969 (when the book appeared), just as presumably I am not offended by the word “lame” in 2012. I am not the intended reader for this poem. This poem intends a reader who is neither cripple nor lame. One of my colleagues likes the word lame. “That is so lame,” he says to me. I call my friend to ask if she thinks he is using this word repeatedly and purposefully as a kind of subtle violence against me. Or to gauge my reaction. Or to provoke a conversation. Or to show that he doesn’t think of me in those terms. Or what? “He has no idea,” my friend says. It must be so nice to have no idea. It must be like writing a poem and having no idea that a cripple might read it. In the opening lines, “For awhile I thought had gotten / Used to it,” there is an elision of the word “I” where the line should read: “For awhile I thought I had gotten used to it.” The elision is used for a euphonic effect or a slurred effect or a disabled effect. The poem thus far clones not only the disabled body but also the disabled mind.

The poem then describes how the speaker is not “used to it” and obsesses about the sound her brace makes when she walks. The brace is made of iron. Here in the poem, if you are a reader with an orthotic assistive device, such as a leg brace, you are surprised by the word “iron.” Braces have not been made of iron since the 16th century when a French locksmith introduced leather, paper and glue to replace the heavy material. It would be difficult to walk on a brace made of iron. Especially if, like this speaker, you are hiking up and down stairs, riding the subway. We are confronted with options. Either the speaker of the poem does not know what material the brace is made of or the author of the poem does not know what material orthotics are made of. Either the reader of the poem is presumed to have no idea about braces or the reader of the poem knows enough to believe, henceforth, this speaker is unreliable.

In the poem’s final lines, the speaker can think of nothing but the accident. Though she wishes for the memories to disappear, they continue into the present. What do we know about the speaker so far? I do not know why I have assigned her a gender. Gender is not specified. The speaker is a cripple. The speaker is “in the subway.” The speaker has a sister and an accident. The repetition of the sounds of the brace (“down-hard, down-hard / Upon wood, cement”) and the object in the accident (“the bike, the bike”) displaces the identity of the speaker. There is something voyeuristic, and perhaps fetishistic, about the speaker’s appetite for discussing the leg, the brace and the accident. The impetus for Glück’s poem is the traumatic event. The speaker has no other interest than to tell us that she is a cripple, that there was an accident with a bike, and “all that easy kidskin.” The speaker’s mind is made up about her (or is it his?) disability.

I would like to never read this poem again. I would like to read this poem again to an audience of people with mobility impairments. I would like to read this poem to Louise Glück and find out if she still likes to read this poem.


4. Switch Mode

Yes, I have thought about “switch mode,” how it happens, from me to other-me, especially now as I am switching from Old Leg to New Leg. The Old Leg is in the corner of the bedroom next to the nightstand. The computer part is hidden under foam and hose. You would never know a computer was over there. It looks so leg-like. The New Leg is on me, or on someone else who wears this kind of leg, this leg with its guts showing, its metallic calf and platinum bone. What kind of person walks around with their processor exposed all the time? My guess is 1) a sporty person, a person who runs marathons or 2) a person who can’t be bothered with the extra weight of the foam or 3) a person who can’t afford it or 4) a person making a point by choosing not to pass or 5) a man.

Final guess: A person in switch mode, who is switching from one leg to another, who has to leave her new leg uncovered until all the adjustments have been made. In this liminal state, I become trifarious. Here I am in the corner of the bedroom next to the nightstand. I no longer work. I am outdated and out-of-commission. I feel heavy, slow, and clumsy. Here is this object on me with its sleek and shiny parts. There is a ruler on my calf. There is the text C-LEG below my knee. Everyone says: “You walk better.” Now I take even steps, one foot precisely X inches behind the other, and it hurts like hell. I am conscious of walking as someone else should walk. I am conscious of these steps as the right way to walk. I go to the park and watch people’s feet and I am amazed that all their steps are even and they don’t appear to be thinking about it. Finally, here I am in-between Self of the Old Leg, Self of the Real Self, as I have been for five years, as I know how to walk comfortably, and with mastery, etc., and Self of the New Leg, Self as Someone Else, as I will be for the next five years, as I walk according to bipedal normative values, confidence with inclines and declines, the computational green zone. Too bad it hurts to go from here-to-there. Switch mode: The mode in which a person feels unhinged, disembodied, neither like herself nor someone else.


5. Reading Marie Howe’s “The Star Market”

The second poem I will read is Marie Howe’s “The Star Market” which appeared in The New Yorker. To read this poem, I clone a technique used by Joseph Grigely, a deaf artist and activist. Grigely wrote Postcards to Sophie Calle, whose exhibit he viewed, and found problematic. The exhibit was a series of photographs of blind people whom Sophie Calle had asked: “What is beauty?” In an attempt to be inclusive, she hung their responses in Braille alongside their photographs. However, the Braille was hung upside down. Grigely responded by writing postcards in which he expresses a range of emotions toward the project’s voyeurism and appropriation of the blind experience.


Dear Marie, I just read your poem “The Star Market” in The New Yorker. Felt like killing myself. Must mean it’s a good poem—right? Yours, Jillian


Dear Marie, Okay. I get it. Jesus is in a wheelchair. “Could I bear the look on his face when he wheels around?” Is this supposed to make me feel better about the lines that precede it? I don’t want to be Jesus. Or a saint. Or stuck in your poem anymore. Yours, Jillian


Dear Marie, You creep me out. Yours, Jillian


Dear Marie, Sorry. This isn’t productive. Yours, Jillian


Dear Marie, What I need is a surrogate to approach you, someone who is of your status and generation, someone whose poems represent the Disability Rights Movement of the 1970s, someone whose name you would recognize, along the lines of Allen Ginsberg, so that person could say, “Let’s have coffee.” Yours, Jillian


Dear Marie, Today I took out all the words in your poem that invoke disability and replaced them with words that invoke race. Are you ready for this? “The Blacks, the Negros, I could hardly look at them.” Yours, Jillian


Dear Marie, Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586) prescribes two emotive responses for the disabled subject in literature: laughing or crying. Your poem has given us the latter. Yours, Jillian


Dear Marie, What’s with the metaphors “sour milk, bad meat” to describe the disabled? Are you kidding? Yours, Jillian


Dear Marie, I too would like to skip to the future where these postcards are irrelevant b/c we are all on the same page. No one likes the poetry police. I’m not the poetry police. Did you ever think your reader might be the man coughing into his sleeve? Yours, Jillian


Dear Marie, I would like to believe you didn’t really mean it. Yours, Jillian

Jillian Weise
Jillian Weise

Jillian Weise is a poet and novelist whose books include The Colony (Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press, 2010) and The Amputee’s Guide to Sex (Soft Skull Press, 2007). Her forthcoming collection, The Book of Goodbyes, won the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award. Her work has appeared in A Public Space, The New York Times, Tin House and elsewhere. She teaches at Clemson and co-directs the Annual Clemson Literary Festival.