Defecting is a collection of poems of bodily otherness. The poems inhabit otherness from within extraordinary embodiments, but also as an ongoing undercurrent within the everyday. With direct language and a conscious attention to poetic form, they emphasise the inter-dependence of bodily vulnerability. In the process, they reveal that the common conception of disability as a broken version of normal human ability is in fact reliant upon a mirage of ‘normal ability’, an ‘unbroken’ humanity.
The Defecting poems are currently being written as part of a PhD at the University of Adelaide. The thesis, Disabling Poetics: Bodily Otherness and the Saying of Poetry, brings critical disability theory together with the writing of Emmanuel Levinas, to explore the ways in which poetry can generate a productive encounter with ‘the other’, by attending to the brokenness integral to both the body and language. The essay here explores this in the context of the poetic devices of caesura, and what the author refers to as hyperopia.
Unnoticed, something in the cartilage
of the house begins to deteriorate.
Years of drought crumble the earth,
shift the bones. Home is an ageing body
that seems to cause no trouble. Each night
I sleep through it. A fine mist of plaster
dusts the bed-head, tiny grey-white pebbles
halo the furniture. A crack slowly opens
along the ceiling edge – one night, filament-thin,
the next, finger-width. Cold, dark air breathes
down towards me. 3 am. The long bulk
of the cornice stirs, begins to detach. From above,
a rasping, tearing – something gives way,
low rumble becoming thunder, crashing
through oblivion into muscle and core –
like prey, the body moves before thought.
The collapse, waiting, patient in the roof-space,
has plunged the room into a cloud
of debris, plaster shards, dust, the remains of insects.
And I am standing in the doorway, white-faced,
looking back at the bed, the fallen broken
cornice, where my body is not.
Song not for you
after ‘Das Lied des Zwerges’ (The song of the dwarf), Rainer Maria Rilke
Crooked blood, stunted hands, cripple,
out of place – uncanny how small
thoughts can be, while I’m incomparable,
only a dwarf because the so-called average
person is taller. You ought
to just walk on by, but don’t. Ever thought
how inflated you must look from this
height? When I walk or shop, I’m inspiring,
it seems. Fantastic to see you getting
out, you say, imagining waking
up in my body, the courage
you’d need not to kill yourself, stat.
How do you do live with that?
That’s me wondering back,
distractedly eating (wow!) a sandwich.
In my home, I’ve made it so I come
face to face with the cupboards and oven, belonging
as we all want it. I sleep in my bed (some-
times alone). At work, my cubicle’s longer
and wider than yours. True,
this isn’t much of a song –
but then it never was meant for you.
from the Rabbinic scriptures and a Buzzfeed article
A hunched back could be a misshapen eyebrow.
Withered could also be dwarf.
Some of our problems are to do with translation.
Here, perfection and human weakness touch.
You wouldn’t want to distract the people from YHWH.
Without eyebrows. Missing teeth. Nose too big.
The people will stare at you. There is nothing wrong with them.
A priest is like an X-ray physician – at far more risk
than the patient. Inspiration is too much for your body to lift.
Breasts like those of a woman. Bowlegged. Epileptic.
You’re shaped into a question that confounds them.
Unmatching eyes. Crushed testicles. Blind. Lame.
You can still sweep the courtyard, and eat the holy food,
but you can never offer the sacrifices.
A rare sight at Fashion Week – you walk down the runway
and the audience cheers. This is not frightening.
All you can do is love every single part
of the body you will have for the rest of your life.
You get made up, pose, look beautiful.
Pockets of the industry are ticking your box and feeling good
about themselves. Your gait reminds some of a marionette.
Today, you are the most inspirational, viral thing.
Your face, with patches of pigment missing.
How the wheels turn beneath your hands.
People who thought they were alone
send you desperate, ecstatic messages. You know
even the fit models wear padded bras and butt pads.
Has anyone even noticed the clothes?
Then the lame will leap like deer,
the tongues of the speechless sing for joy.
for the residents of Tsukui Lily Garden, Sagamihara, Japan
breaking a window I bring clear air
into the wards
thinking of my tired country
the economy weighed down
night shift only six workers
to tie up I apologise to them
new moon the sound
of my footsteps as I move from room to
the neck a more merciful
place than the chest to open
eight homes in the facility –
dream flower rainbow the Pleiades breath harvest
something stops me entering wings hope
where I used to work with these people
one of the knife handles
hurts a little after a while I must use another
security cameras blink
I walk across the screen no-one watching
tweet I hope for world peace
beautiful Japan! many likes comments retweets
I turn myself in the officers seem unsurprised
but the blood
I plead not guilty by reason of insanity I will be taken care of each night I watch the news the tv in a cage on the wall shows a photo of my face then soon enough gone no honour or dishonour as if nothing has happened
each new moon the sound
of footsteps outside my room that never arrive
we are huddled on a rope bridge
around a fire for warmth and light
a few have already approached
to whisper the same phrase into me
what happened to you?
you can be safe and not feel safe
someone is missing in the morning
a frail one who lost her voice
mouths closed allergic to smoke
the pleas of wood seem pitiful
there are limits to empathy
someone looks at me as if I am all surface
but how do I overcome myself
other than to cease to exist?
around the fire it’s hard to see much
listening for twigsnap you can trip
stumble into embers
you can feel safe and not be safe
There was no consolation
nothing that could be held
in the mind or the hand.
leaf-washed creek flowed on.
The steep gorge-side
held thin eucalypts and fallen
boulders. The sun
was everywhere. Around us,
blue wrens hopped, almost
into our open hands.
You brushed my arm, casually,
tenderly. A strong wind
picked up and did not
take any of this away.
Still, the pain
dug further in, muttering
in a language I could
not comprehend –
And the birds, the birds
kept feasting on insects
too small to see.
Defecting Poetics: The Broken Appearance of the Other
Signification, the one-for-the-other, has meaning only among beings of flesh and blood—Emmanuel Levinas
The other in the same determinative of subjectivity is the restlessness of the same disturbed by the other—Emmanuel Levinas
The last two decades has seen the subtle appearance of an intriguing word, poethics. The neologism seems to have been separately coined by both Gerald Bruns and Joan Retallack, each without reference to the other. At its heart, it is concerned with the ways in which the use of language is central to ethics, and vise versa. This poethics emerges out of the post-structuralism epitomised by Jacques Derrida, who reiterated in numerous ways the profound insight that words are necessarily unstable and equivocating, always deferring their meaning, opening up ruptures in sense. Hereafter, philosophy could hardly concern itself purely with what is said, with the denotative, the referential or abstract. It had to become reflexive, poetic, to grapple with and embrace the instability of writing. G Matthew Jenkins refers to this as ‘the double-double turn’ (2008: 6-22), a facing up both to the ways in which the other is encountered in language and the ways in which language itself is other.
Ironically, though, many scholars who saw their work as concerned with poethics have articulated an ethics of language so much concerned with the otherness of language that it precludes an attention to the otherness of the other. Or, more precisely, such writing presents the other as featureless, disembodied, entirely alien, while simultaneously relying on figures of speech which are the features of disability.
Bruns exemplifies this irony when he quotes Levinas’s close association of hypertrophy with spirituality. ‘[Levinas’s rhetorical] question (with its implication of the monstrosity of modern art – ‘hypertrophy’ means excessive growth or deformity – a nice anaesthetic concept) suggests that what is really at issue here is not the ontology of the modernist work but the limits of its reception within traditional aesthetics’ (2002: 219). Replace ‘modernist work’ with ‘disabled person’, and ‘traditional aesthetics’ with ‘social life’, and I could scarcely agree more. It is not so much a question, though, of replacement as it is of relationship. How is the deformed or unstable other encountered in the fragmented forms of poetic language? This essay, with the six appended poems, considers this question.
To be sure, the other deserves a reticence when it comes to identifying or representing them. To claim to know the other tends always to reduce or misrepresent them. Nevertheless, if as Levinas suggests ‘signification… has meaning only among beings of flesh and blood’ (1981: 74), then forms of embodiment are inextricably linked with the signifying operations of language. A genuinely ethical encounter, I would argue, requires an attentiveness towards both kinds of instability, material and linguistic, as well as their mutual implication.
In another essay, ‘On the Conundrum of Form and Material’, Bruns quotes Adorno, who writes that ‘the articulation by which the artwork achieves its form also always coincides in a certain sense with the defeat of form’ (2004: 146). A poem, then, particularly in the post-modern era, is a literary form of instability, characterised by an unruliness, a resistance to being integrated into the order of the normal. Bruns is acutely insightful when it comes to the centrality of fragmentation to poetry, writing that ‘caesura is a paratactic event, a break in the integrity of what is formed’, and that this is its ‘repudiation of the concept of meaning, and its refusal of closure’ (2012: 158). He asks, ‘then what is language when it is no longer in the service of meaning?’ (160).
I would counter that such fragmented poetic language is in fact profoundly meaningful. It operates in the service of a different kind of meaning, one that returns us (albeit to varying degrees) to the reality that the voice and body of the other cannot be assimilated. Disabled people’s continued survival depends on their (our) adaptation, ingenuity and persistence, the ability to turn an unruly physical form or a fragmented way of thinking into the service of a different kind of living. A poem might bring this fragmentation into conversation with the order of the normal.
Not that the question of how the other may be encountered in a poem is at all straightforward, or easily resolved. Failure may reside at the core of the endeavour. The six poems associated with this essay are a selection from a current project which goes by the working title Defecting. This collection of poems inhabit bodily otherness utilising a diversity of voices, and in a variety of modes of address. While many speak from within marginal embodiments, others seek to reveal otherness as an ongoing undercurrent within the everyday – as precarity, exposure to wounding or debility.
The title Defecting emerges from the double meaning which seemed to me to inhere in the word as it appears in Emmanuel Levinas’s Otherwise than Being. Here, the self, in its physical and its linguistic dimensions, is depicted as reliant upon an intense proximity to the other. The other inaugurates me into humanness, and continually disrupts my subjectivity in a relationship of vulnerability and responsibility. Who is the other? They may be profoundly nearby, but that is not to say I know her. Levinas writes, ‘[p]henomenology defects into a face, even if, in the course of this ever ambiguous defecting of appearing, the obsession itself shows itself in the said. The appearing is broken…’ (1981: 90). Note that the appearing of the other is described as defecting, rather than a defective appearance. Encounter is process. The poem, therefore, moves. In both senses.
For these poems, I am interested in two related aspects of the reading-experience of poems – hyperopia and caesura. Also known as far-sightedness, hyperopia is a kind of defect of vision where the closer the object or person in question is, the more they become obscured, blurred. It may serve to describe a writing where the other – rather than being revealed or clarified through confession, or almost disappearing through an avoidance of inter-subjective dimensions of language – is brought uncomfortably close. So close, in fact, that the dynamic of encounter generates a crack within understanding, a seizure or crippling of how the poem moves.
There is a directness of voice in these poems; an assumed, discomforting intimacy. ‘Song Not For You’ perhaps exemplifies this feature most strongly. The poem is a response to Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘Das Lied des Zwerges’, often translated as ‘The Song of the Dwarf’ (1993: 126), from which it also borrows and adapts its rhyme scheme. Whereas Rilke ventriloquises an archetypal tragedy and pity into his poetic persona, ‘Song Not For You’ speaks in a blunt, lyrically sarcastic tone, reclaiming both bodily difference and the mundane. The assertive refusal of Rilke’s (and the broader culture’s) prior representation of ‘the dwarf’ as identifiable only through sympathy unsettles the normality of the ‘you’ in the poem (‘uncanny how small / thoughts can be’), and holds them close in order to push them away (‘you ought / to just walk on by but don’t’). At the same time, the poem ends in laconic self-critique – ‘this isn’t much of a song – / but then it was never meant for you’.
As William Waters has written, ‘the marked refusal or retraction of effective address only sharpens the palpability of the ‘other’… as if negation and absence generated a particularly potent virtual presence’ (2003: 38). This depends, I would argue, on the coexistence of both presence and absence, clarity and disturbance.
Another resistant voice is evident in ‘Blemished’. In two unrhymed sonnets (which are sequential and distinct yet not separated into sections), followed by a concluding couplet, the poem addresses two people. Reiterating Biblical law, ‘you’ are depicted as not eligible to serve as a priest, due to your bodily deformities, the list of which is extensive and diverse, ranging from blindness to ‘missing teeth’, from ‘hunched back’ to ‘unmatching eyes’. Given that the poem reveals the apparent identity of this ‘you’ slowly, with its third line ‘some of our problems are to do with translation’, it is unclear whether these rules apply to you or not. Or, alternately, if they might apply to everyone.
The ‘you’ of the second ‘sonnet’ is a different kind of exemplary human, a fashion model. Just as a priest with bodily imperfections might presumably distract the congregation from the divine, a visibly different model – someone with a skin pigmentation condition, in a wheelchair, or whose movement is asymmetrical – can take attention away from the commercial product, clothes. While this may on the one hand be a revaluation of difference, emphasising the reliance of typical models on prosthetics and the possibility that disabled models may offer ‘inspiration’ to others, the poem also suggests that inclusiveness can also be problematic, the ticking of boxes, an exception that proves the rule. The final couplet quotes the Biblical prophet Isaiah, ‘the lame will leap like deer / the tongues of the speechless sing for joy’. What might cause that, if it was at all possible? Perhaps not the removal of disabilities, but their acceptance and incorporation.
The poem ‘Clear Air’ foregrounds the question of empathy and its absence. Written in response to the murder of nineteen disabled people at the Tsukui Yamayuri En residential care facility in Sagamihara, Japan, in July 2016, the poem speaks, not from the perspective of the residents, but from their killer. He ‘brings clear air / into the wards // thinking of [his] tired country / the economy weighed down’ with the expense of the disabled, apologises to the employees at the facility, considers which forms of violence may be more ‘merciful’. Here, the resistance is not within the voice of the poem, but the reader. The acute proximity and clinical violence of the I into whom the reader is ushered generates a desire to dis-identify with him. Yet, while he says ‘no-one [is] watching’, we are aware of our own presence within the scene, impotent, or perhaps even implicated.
‘Clear Air’ proceeds through twelve unpunctuated couplets, reminiscent of haiku, that drift across the page. Between phrases, white space appears. This pronounced, visual caesura is reinforced with another, more subliminal interruption – the disappearance of the voice of the disabled victims.
Caesura is ‘a rhetorical and extra-metrical pause or phrasal break within the poetic line’ (Preminger et al, 1974: 95), which both signals an estrangement from ‘colloquial utterance’ and a recruitment of it (96). This interruption is also an integral element of the poems ‘Home’ and ‘Exposure’. The latter poem evokes the experience of precarity, as a group of people ‘huddle[s] on a rope bridge / around a fire for warmth and light’. Beyond the apparent vulnerability of the group, there are marginal members, who are even more unsafe, questioned because of their difference, or altogether silenced. The uncertainty as to where these events are occurring, coupled with the way in which the stanzas shift in length and subject-matter, contributes to a sense of disorientation. The poem moves through this territory haltingly, interrupted, broken.
The most measured of these poems, in terms of poetic structure and tone, is ‘Home’. In eleven couplets – consisting of mostly short, enjambed sentences – it depicts the tension of an imminent accident and its aftermath, the collapse of a heavy plaster cornice onto the bed of the speaker in the poem. Echoes of the body vulnerable to breakage keep appearing in the poem, displaced elsewhere – as ‘the cartilage of the house’, its ‘bones’ shifting due to drought, ‘the remains of insects’ filling the room. The poem ends with a figure ‘looking back at the bed, the fallen broken / cornice, where my body is not’. Of course, the irony of this poem of survival is that it is written at all, that the caesura has not been the ultimate break. But poems such as this remind us that, whether we are conscious of it or not, any home – physical or residential or poetic – is liable to be ruptured, ‘a crack slowly open[ing]’, allowing in the ‘cold, dark air’.
This essay has, as could be expected, left many things unsaid – including the poem ‘There was no consolation’. It occurs beside a creek, its form on the page echoing that lean and flowing shape, and evokes both how physical suffering breaks us, and the hyperopia of a subject withdrawing. Can pain be spoken? The only answer is a paradox – that it would seem the only way the body can speak is within a writing that acknowledges its limits, its disabilities.
‘Song not for you’ was previously published in Cordite, 56 Explode, Nov. 2016.
‘Clear air’ was previously published in Foglifter, 3, 2017.
‘There was no consolation’ was previously published in Meniscus, Vol.4: 2, 2016.
Adorno, T W (2004). Aesthetic Theory, trans J Hullot-Kentor. Continuum: London.
Bruns, G L (2012). What Are Poets for?: An Anthropology of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics. University of Iowa Press: Iowa City.
Bruns, G L (2002). ‘The Concepts of Art and Poetry in Emmanuel Levinas’s Writings’, in S Critchley and R. Bernasconi (ed.), The Cambridge companion to Levinas. Cambridge University Press:Cambridge, pp. 206-233.
Jenkins, G M (2008). Poetic Obligation: Ethics in Experimental American Poetry After 1945. University of Iowa Press: Iowa City.
Levinas, E (1981). Otherwise than Being: Or Beyond Essence, trans. A Lingis, Duquesne. University Press: Pittsburgh.
Preminger, A, Warnke, F J and Hardison O B Jr (eds.) (1974). Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton University Press: Princeton.
Retallack, J (2003). The Poethical Wager. University of California Press: Berkeley.
Rilke, R M (1993). Translations from the Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. M D H Norton. Norton: New York.
Warnock, E and Obe, M (2016). ‘Mass Killing in Japan Shocks a Gentle Nation’, The Wall Street Journal, 26 July, viewed 10 September 2017. http://www.wsj.com/articles/mass-killing-in-japan-shocks-a-gentle-nation-1469533910.
Waters, W A (2003). Poetry’s Touch: On Lyric Address. Cornell University Press: Ithaca, NY.