Three ways of staging bodily difference

I’m no theatre critic, and this is not a review. Although I’ve performed, I feel like I approach theatre (like many other things) from the outside. I’m interested in how bodies experience each other, how people come together around something ostensibly fictional which can also be excruciatingly real.

In the last few weeks, I saw three theatre pieces, each of which dealt with bodily difference – “Give me a reason to live” by Claire Cunningham, “Underneath” by Pat Kinevane / Fishamble, and “Blind” by Duda Paiva / Black Hole. Each was certainly engaging and thought-provoking, but what I found most fascinating was that they dealt with embodiment and with the theatrical encounter in very distinct ways.

I first encountered the work of Claire Cunningham through the photo on the cover of Margrit Shildrick’s “Dangerous Discourses of Disability, Subjectivity and Sexuality”, an intriguing and provocative book about how disability confronts and confounds our desire for a settled individual identity. Seeing Cunningham listed as performing as part of the Festival of Live Art – with a piece that was described as referencing Heironymous Bosch, the Nazis’ murderous program against disabled people, and the UK government’s welfare reform – seemed an opportunity too good to miss.

give me a reason

“Give me a reason to live” is difficult to describe. I was speechless at its end, but buzzing with inarticulate thoughts. Through its 45-minute duration, Cunningham moves across the performance space, and before us, using her crutches – an extended dance of abstract physical sculpture, endurance, prayer, resistance and sheer presence. The piece is wordless, apart from Cunningham’s moving rendition of a German hymn at the climax of the work, so it relies for its impact on the way a human body – in particular, a body which is marked as disabled – affects other bodies. Cunningham implicates us not by a cliched “breaking the fourth wall”, but simply by being visible. One of the most overtly exposing scenes involves her placing her crutches aside and standing, trembling with exhaustion, the house lights suddenly on us all, as she slowly looks into our eyes.

Because there is no script, and with a very minimal set design that relies on subtle shifts in lighting, “Give me a reason to live” transcends easy sloganeering or categorisation. It’s not about disability pride, not ironic self-exploitation or even theatre with a message – but nor is it intellectualised abstraction or detached and cool (I find a lot of dance or movement-based theatre leaves the particular body behind in its obsession with ideas or with “fit” bodies, though there are an increasing number of exceptions). It’s visceral, moving and generously ambiguous – which is exactly how it is when we come face to face with each other.

Where “Give me a reason to live” is wordless and implicates the audience surreptitiously, “Underneath” is 90 minutes of story, monologue and direct engagement. A solo theatre piece by Pat Kinevane (who I saw perform in Clifden, Ireland, in 2013), through the Fishamble company, “Underneath” is the story of the life of a woman who as a child is struck by lightning and severely deformed. Kinevane is a virtuosic and natural performer, who embodies the role with great tenderness and dark wit, speaking from beyond the grave. The script weaves together accounts of childhood bullying, ill-fated romantic hopes, a life lived in shadows and margins, with improvised interactions with the audience.

underneath

On one level, “Underneath” appears quite straightforward, almost banal, in what it implies – that this world is unremittingly brutal to those who look different, that ugliness is about character rather than superficialities, and (given that you never know what’s around the corner) now is the time to live and to love. But, as with “Give me a reason to live”, description is not the same as experience. To be part of the audience for “Underneath” is to be confronted with human vulnerability – not just the character Kinevane embodies, but our own.  The audience interaction is certainly unsettling, very direct, but it always seems genuinely democratic, leavened with humour and compassion.

For the last work, Duda Paiva’s “Blind”, I have a confession to make. Paiva came to see a Quippings performance I was in in 2014, and seemed inspired by it. But I was unnerved when I saw a promo for his new work. He had a hump attached to his back, as well as lumps on other parts of his body. Was this ‘cripping up’? Had my own unusual embodiment been appropriated?

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In my sensitivity, I should have known, or at least allowed for the possibility, that there is more to a person than meets the eye. Disability takes innumerable forms, sometimes invisible – so that what might at first seem to be projection is in fact solidarity. As a child, Paiva experienced a rare condition which caused painful lumps to grow on his body, including on the inside of his eyelids, which risked his eyesight.  “Blind” turns this experience into a surreal and metaphorical exploration of the desire for healing and self-acceptance.

The piece begins wryly, Paiva sitting among the audience, asking people why they are here also, in this waiting room – what physical problem do they hope ‘madam’ will be able to solve for them? The audience engagement is bold, funny and (where Paiva experiences some reluctance) almost yet not quite intrusive, a risk he clearly loves taking. This aspect of “Blind” is profound in its simplicity and potential resonance. Theatre itself is presented as ritual, as a kind of collaborative public medicine – and all of us are broken or incomplete.

But “Blind” is a show of two realms – the predominant one archetypal, internal and personal. From out of Paiva’s deformities, three puppets emerge – which seem to represent beauty, ugliness and vulnerability. It’s an affecting and resonant conceit. Yet, due to the nature of this metaphorical treatment, the piece implies that these qualities exist in the body itself, rather than in the space between bodies – in the complex weave of physical form, interpersonal interaction and cultural myth.

The show also has a complicated relationship to normalisation. In a series of compelling and highly skilled scenes, ugliness is exposed and wrestled with, but this only happens because the character’s lumps have been excised. By attaching the physical characteristic so strongly to the metaphor, particularly an exaggerated form, “Blind” runs the risk of unwittingly portraying human variability as something to be transcended (whereas I suspect Paiva intends to depict an embrace of the real, vulnerable body).

My ambivalence, of course, only underlines the fact that “Blind” is a thought-provoking piece. I’m intrigued to imagine what Paiva will do next. I wonder how the two realms of “Blind” might be brought together – the collective ritual of theatre and the particular autobiography, the social model of disability with the subjective experience of impairment, and the desire to be well with the acknowledgement of inevitable failure.

Southerly Journal: four more excursions into poetry & bodies

Last month, I was the guest blogger for Southerly Journal.  For those of you who missed it, I made various attempts at hacking through the dense undergrowth around poetry, form, embodiment and otherness (as is my wont).  I won’t reproduce the posts here, but here are some teasers and the links…  Thanks to Tessa Lunney and David Brooks at Southerly for their support and kind words.

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1. Normal Land: Poetry, Disability and Solidarity (by way of Ian Dury and Quippings)

The more I immersed myself in poetry – reading it, writing it, performing it – the more I began to feel that poetry derived its power from the bodily experience of solidarity. The Macquarie Dictionary defines solidarity as “union or fellowship arising from common responsibilities and interests” or “community of interests, feelings, purposes”.7 Solidarity is complex, especially because what is “common” is not always obvious. Solidarity can be latent, persisting underneath our social reality, in our biology and chemistry and physical interdependence. Something needs to unearth and activate it, some experience or event which prompts us to recognise that our lives are inextricably connected.

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2. Poetic Tourism & Deforming Form: India, Ghazals & Otherness

I’ve suggested elsewhere that we encounter poems as physical objects, textual bodies which have their own particular shape and energy, as a result of the subjectivity embedded in them14. Each poem is a mix of order and chaos, of expectation and surprise. On the page, and as sound, poems are instances of particularity, where precise detail catches our attention and where form refers back to cultural norms. And, in my experience, the ghazal is a particularly heightened example of this. There is a “normal” ghazal, just as we have a certain image of a “normal body”, and it is in the ways in which we depart from this norm that intrigue and frisson occurs. Of course, relatively normal bodies and formal ghazals, too, have their own undeniable, disruptive energies.

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3. Poetic Epigenetics: Bodily memory, silence & community

What my body is and what it isn’t seems like a pretty straightforward distinction. But perhaps “my body” as a phrase isn’t quite right – it assumes certainty and singularity, yet if we look closer, in spite of the continuity and stability we feel in our bodies, we might detect numerous possibilities, even multiplicity.

Certainly, when I look back at what I’ve written over the years, I can see the inflections and energies of other poets and writers. They course through my body and writing as disturbance and affirmation. And I can’t imagine who I am without recalling them. Think of this as poetic epigenetics.

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4. “Becoming-Marfan”: Poetry, Genetics & (Auto)Biography

Becoming proliferates in the soil of the complex instability of each body. The writer mines the multiplicity of their body in order that their writing becomes truly creative and viscerally connective. The writing implies not just one writer and one reader, but many others. Deleuze asserts, “[h]ealth as literature, as writing, consists in inventing a people that is missing”.15 Reading this kind of writing involves a kind of recognition, a sense that the reader’s own intuitions and bodily stirrings have been acknowledged, and even encouraged. The lone reader, sensing other hypothetical readers, suspects the existence of a community she might belong to, or come to belong to. In fact, she creates it by affectively engaging with the text and her own multiplicity.

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literature’s deformities (part 3 of 3)

[Below is the final, 3rd part of an essay I wrote a while back, but revised recently.  I’m currently looking at the position and impact of the unusual body in contemporary poetry – this essay looks at the role of these bodies in fiction.]

Even within the Magic Realist novel, perhaps especially within it, we find the extraordinary body laden with meaning. As a counter to the typical Western association of illness, curse, error or problem, there is the unusual body as a site or catalyst for transformation. In Erri De Luca’s God’s Mountain, a coming-of-age story set in post-War Italy, a young boy befriends a Jewish refugee from the Holocaust. Rafaniello has a hump on his back which will reveal wings to carry him to Israel.

Rafaniello is so light you can pick him up. His bones must be hollow. There’s air in his jacket. I see the curve of his folded wings and pass my hand over him to cover them better. In Naples people call the hump a scartiello. They think that stroking it brings you good luck. People are always putting their hands on Rafaniello’s hump without asking permission. He lets them. “In my hometown they called me gorbun and no one would even brush against me. Here I like the familiarity that people have with my hump. I don’t think I’ve brought anyone good luck, but all those strokes have helped me. They’ve awakened my wings”.

A body that, in its particular time and place, appears strikingly unusual will have meanings attached to it. Arguably, this could be some kind of recurrent tendency of ours to attempt to resolve intense anxiety over the results of capricious nature or of human evil.

Gunter Grass’ central character in The Tin Drum is both a magnet for such significances and ultimately manages to elude them. On receiving a tin drum for his birthday, young German boy Oskar decides not to grow up, retaining the stature of a child throughout World War Two. The drum remains his cherished possession and means of communication, along with his piercing wordless shriek which can break glass at a distance. After the war, while burying the body of his presumed father, he suddenly decides to grow again; the growth is so quick that he is deformed. Later, he earns an income and fame as an artist’s model.

Professor Kuchen led me to a studio, lifted me up with his own hands on a revolving platform, and spun it about, not in order to make me dizzy, but to display Oskar’s proportions from all sides. Sixteen easels gathered around. The coal-breathing professor gave his disciples a short briefing: what he wanted was expression, always expression, pitch-black, desperate expression. I, Oskar, he maintained, was the shattered image of man, an accusation, a challenge, timeless yet expressing the madness of our century. In conclusion he thundered over the easels: “I don’t want you to sketch this cripple, this freak of nature, I want you to slaughter him, crucify him, to nail him to your paper with charcoal!”… These sons and daughters of the Muses, I said to myself, have recognised the Rasputin in you; but will they ever discover the Goethe who lies dormant in your soul, will they ever call him to life and put him on paper, not with expressive charcoal but with a sensitive and restrained pencil point? Neither the sixteen students, gifted as they may have been, nor Professor Kuchen, with his supposedly unique charcoal stroke, succeeded in turning out an acceptable portrait of Oskar. Still, I made good money and was treated with respect for six hours a day.

For readers, The Tin Drum is almost infinitely interpretable. Oskar’s child-size body is a rejection of the duplicity and cruelty of the adult world, and his sudden deformity is his body’s own reaction to taking on that world again. His body may be the physical expression of the inability of language to express the atrocity of the War. He could be symbolic of Germany’s guilt, or perhaps of Germany’s economy. Oskar’s body has by some been conceived as a Freudian reflex. Even as the Twentieth Century itself.

Perhaps it is all of these interpretations, or even none of them. Oskar tells the story from the bed of an insane asylum, flips between the first and third person, muddies the narrative waters in innumerable ways. Grass evokes a strange kind of alienated sympathy for Oskar in his readers, but he does not want us to have confidence in Oskar’s story, and certainly not in any larger historical or national Narrative. Like the drum and the shriek themselves, what The Tin Drum speaks is both devastatingly critical and irreducible to a particular ideology. Grass offers us the truth of the inconclusiveness of reality, its essential ambiguity. The extraordinary body is certainly still a spectacle, but it also has its own uncontainable meanings.

Exceptions unsettle. They mock our sense of certainty, our familiar and comforting associations. They provoke a rupture in the mundane. Deformity can be arresting, fascinating, confusing, awe-inspiring, even spiritual. All the same, with Medicine’s accelerating ability to alleviate or remove deformity altogether, the unusual body has become even more invisible, especially in the West. This adds another layer to the archetypal response – the sense that a body has slipped through the medical net, the unnerving possibility that Nature is still uncontrollable.

The body I inhabit, or perhaps I should say, the body that I am, is visually extraordinary, due to a condition known as Marfan Syndrome. I am six foot three, and weigh around sixty-five kilograms; I am slender, with long limbs. My spine curves dramatically from side-to-side and front-to-back; I would be perhaps six foot six if my spine were straight. In a way, my body has easily adjusted to this shape. But in another way, this is the shape of my body, and it is normal. I do not experience pain or physical difficulty, as some people have assumed. My body experiences its shape in much the same way as any body experiences its shape. Except, at times it seems little literary micro-ghosts hover over my shoulder.

I was born one hundred and forty years after Quasimodo, into an immensely different era, in terms of medicine, media and social structures. Yet I have been called by his name many times, mostly from the windows of passing cars, by men in their twenties. They are gone before I can conjure an appropriate retort; ensuring I remain, for them, a body. They are not interested in the speculations of a French paediatrician Antoine Marfan, whose intense and close observations of his patients in the late nineteenth century led him to describe the key visual features of the syndrome.

Interestingly, the most common parental response to the curiosity their children display, is an embarrassed injunction not to look. I suspect this looking-away, this leaving-be, is common in many cultures, but is acutely expressed in Australia. There is a profound caution about the way we relate to each other, which reflects our political history.

In celebrating the fair go, Australians portray themselves as fundamentally relaxed about the doings of others, as tolerant. The very need to paint such a picture, however, reflects less its veracity than a wish for projecting an image. The image is defensive. “We are patient in the judgement of others” means, really, “Do not judge us”… Such an ethic is self-protective and concealing, amounting to an agreement not to discuss one another’s sins. Extending the right to a fair go amounts to an injunction to each mind their own business.

Daniel Ross, “Violent Democracy”,  2004

Everyday public speech is the very opposite of deconstruction. It leaves things, efficiently, alone. This is not just about people’s right not to be questioned about their behaviour or inheritance, but also about their bodies and the meanings attached to them. Our culture has evolved a plethora of ways of describing the other. Yet we do not seem to have grasped a way of apprehending the world, a way of speaking together, that is able to adequately deal with variety – that is able to recognise the other within the self.

literature’s deformities (part 2 of 3)

[Below is part 2 of an essay I wrote a while back, but revised recently.  I’m currently looking at the position and impact of the unusual body in contemporary poetry – this essay looks at the role of these bodies in fiction.]

Shakespeare was Freud before Freudianism, a psychologist of powerful poetic suggestion before it settled historically into a definitive diagnostic shape. In Richard III, Richard, jealous and ambitious, intensely sensitive to his deformity, plots through flattery and murder to take the throne of England.

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,

Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;

I, that am rudely stamped, and want love’s majesty

To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;

I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion,

Cheated of feature by dissembling Nature;

Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time

Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,

And that so lamely and unfashionable

That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;

Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,

Have no delight to pass away the time,

Unless to spy my shadow in the sun

And descant on my own deformity:

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,

To entertain these fair well-spoken days,

I am determined to prove a villain

And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

The snowball-like trajectory of tragedy ensures we cannot (like Richard himself) see any other possibility. The exact fuel for Richard’s machinations is left unclear. The ugliness of his body could be a catalyst for his political and moral degeneracy, or a convenient excuse for it. At the very least, the play portrays physical deformity as psychological intensification. Richard is shut out from what he sees as his entitlement, grows increasingly resentful and determines to assert himself, to challenge the place assigned to him by nature.

Regardless of the measure of propaganda that influenced the transition of the historical story to the theatrical script, there is a familiar association hunching over Shakespeare’s version of Richard – the shadow of gendered power. Julio C Avalos Jr reminds us that the common conception of women at the time was that they were half-made men. Richard sees himself not just as unattractive in appearance, but as insufficiently male.  Violence and usurpation present themselves to him as the sufficient proof of manhood. Tragic indeed.

 

literature’s deformities (part 1 of 3)

[Below is an essay I wrote a while back, but revised recently.  I’m currently looking at the position and impact of the unusual body in contemporary poetry – this essay looks at the role of these bodies in fiction.]

It is almost a truism to say that each body is unique – medically, biologically, psychologically. Not only that, but each body is unique in each moment, continually in a state of flux and vulnerable to threat – healthy one moment, deformed or worse in the next. And yet, for almost all characters in literature, the particularities of their bodies are insignificant. Their embodiment is either unmentioned, or most often secondary to the narrative, or subsumed within the common human body, a device for identification.

Deformity, on the other hand, always seems symbolic in some way. If the body of a character is unusual, it determines that character’s entire identity, trajectory and destiny. It is as if, for the author and the reader, deformity is a provocation towards fate. I am interested in how these portraits of extraordinary bodies shape (or, it could be said, mis-shape) how we see other people, even how we see ourselves. This essay hopes to direct an unflinching gaze upon that looking.


Did Victor Hugo fully know what his vision would contain? Hugo would say yes, but what would Quasimodo have said? He could, of course, only speak Hugo’s words, could only make the movements prescribed for him. And Hugo’s Quasimodo isn’t exactly articulate. He is brutish, a lump of flesh, as if an excess of physicality must inevitably swamp the intellect.

If the epic story The Hunchback of Notre Dame could be reduced to a few sentences, it would be because of its melodrama. Quasimodo, born severely deformed, is abandoned at the steps of Notre Dame and taken in by the archdeacon Frollo, who is infatuated with the beautiful young gypsy woman Esmerelda and has her beau Phoebus stabbed. Esmerelda is charged with attempted murder. Quasimodo abducts her and takes her back to the cathedral, which is then assailed by the mob. Esmerelda dies in the commotion. Quasimodo realises Frollo, his proto-adopted-father, was behind the whole scenario, and kills him. In deep grief, he then entombs himself with the body of Esmerelda – a tragic resolution, certainly, but also oddly fitting for a central character who, essentially, is imprisoned in his embodiment, whose body offers only questions, especially to those who cannot identify with him.

Consider Hugo’s sketch, and the struggle to explain Quasimodo.

His whole person was a grimace. His large head, bristling with red hair – between his shoulders an enormous hump, to which he had a corresponding projection in front – a framework of thighs and legs, so strangely gone astray that they touched only at the knees, and when viewed in front, looked like two sickles joined together by the handles – sprawling feet – monstrous hands – and yet, with all that deformity, a certain awe-inspiring vigour, agility and courage – strange exception to the everlasting rule which prescribes that strength, like beauty, shall result from harmony… One would have said a giant had been broken and awkwardly mended.

The portrait, in its avalanche of hyperbole and its convoluted grammar, is as deformed as the character. Hugo’s Quasimodo literally embodies a mistake, and the tragedy that results. He is an engine room for the building up of archetypal associations. He is immensely strong and correspondingly simple in his intellect. He is unpredictable, a reflection of the capricious nature which created him. The crowd certainly don’t understand him. He is deaf; the world does not quite reach him. What moves him is the female of the story; yet she is unattainable. Esmerelda continually struggles to see the human in him, trying to imagine how this giant’s puzzle pieces could be more humanly rearranged, while knowing they never will be. He is intensely alone. In his gentle monstrousness, he is able to be manipulated; his surrogate father Frollo leads him astray. He is not the mob, nor is he the reader. He approaches but never quite reaches the full status of a subject.

Quasimodo is both practically celibate and literally promiscuous – the voice of Hugo reverberates through many bodies, gives birth to many children. Visualise the many assistants to mad scientists – hunched over, shuffling obediently to their masters’ next tasks, muttering a vague sense of resentment, yet perennially faithful. Think even of the titular anti-heroes of low culture teen flick Revenge of the Nerds – genetically made other, socially disadvantaged (in a reversal of Quasimodo’s physical/mental imbalance); the clumsy, inarticulate virgins who the audience secretly place in sexual positions, wondering how those bodies would “do it”.

But the strongest family resemblance to Hugo’s child can be seen in the freak show, that institution that Rosemary Garland Thomson called “the apotheosis of museums” that arose in the mid nineteenth century and continued well into the twentieth (and arguably survives in other forms now). “Siamese” twins, little people, giants, tattooed people, half men-half women, sword swallowers, those with extra or no limbs, fat people, African “primitives”, and many others selected according to the anxieties and fascinations of the era performed theatrically, thereby providing both immense entertainment and reassurance of the security of the audience’s physical, racial, sexual and cultural status. The stage is the boundary. The audience become the norm(al) purely and simply by being outside of the spotlight.

Quasimodo defines both the isolated deformed body and the form of the mob.

[part 2 & 3 will appear in later posts…]

Am I my own other?

Should I have been surprised that a meeting about marketing poetry would lead to sobbing in a toilet and pondering phenomenology?

One of my “day jobs” is at Australian Poetry, and of late I’ve been organising the 2011 itinerary for our mobile poetry library, the “Omnibus”.  Basically, we take poetry books around to regional towns, run workshops, put on readings, give people the chance to browse, read, talk about, and buy books they may not normally get a chance to.  I had organised to meet with Marcus Powe, RMIT’s “Entrepeneur-in-Residence”, to chat about how to position and promote the Omnibus, but also how to think about it.  And, no Marcus didn’t make me cry.  The meeting wasn’t the problem – it just put me in a certain place.

I’d arrived earlier than I expected, so I sat on the lawn outside the State Library of Victoria, one of the few green areas in the CBD of Melbourne.  On fine days, it’s bathed in sun and swarming with students and workers of all shapes and colours.  Pigeons and seagulls jostle for crumbs.  The atmosphere is casual; friends meet and greet, some kind of communal recognition just below the surface, we’re all here to rest and take in the sky while the trams rattle past.

One guy, in his mid-thirties, baseball cap and 3/4 length pants, slows down as he passes me, looking back at me with bemusement.  He turns around, walks up to me, directly.  “What’s that?”.  He touches my back, then lifts my shirt, looking and poking.  I can’t remember exactly what I say, but it’s something like, “It’s me.  Do you mind?!…”.  And, as he’s walking away, “maybe you should ask before you touch someone…”.  To that, he says, “don’t fuckin’ talk to me like that”.

Let’s get two things out of the way first.  He wasn’t insane in any way.  He was just your run-of-the-mill working-class tough guy.  And me, I have a genetic condition called Marfan Syndrome – it’s reasonably rare, and within that rarity, my particular manifestation is visually obvious spinal curvature.

I spend a quick half-minute in the bathroom, try to push out some of the excess emotional energy, before the meeting.  You could call it sobbing.  I am sick of being people’s object, people’s Other.

This encounter, both mundane and extraordinary, raises some critical questions.  What does it mean to have a body?  What is normal?  Why is it that now and then something happens to rupture our habitual ignorance of embodiment?  And, do I, as an apparently different-looking person, have a different sense of self?

From my meagre understanding of him, French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty says that we engage with the world not as subject examining objects at a distance, but synesthetically and implicitly.  Our body opens onto the rest of the world, is the very condition of our experience.  Our senses resonate with a unity of perceptions.  In a way, the world is made for us, through the medium of our bodies, bodies that are situated and inescapably relational.  Experience is a continual, complex flow, where meaning and relationship is ongoing and always incomplete.

So, in that vast rushing flow of experience, as a universe of different bodies surround and pass us – the gaggle of school-girls, a ragged man rifling through bins, a meticulously groomed business-woman, towering Somalian boys, waddling overweight children, people of all shapes and colours and ways of moving – some kind of sense of “normality” emerges.  Edmund Husserl believed that our bodies seek always to normalise, to assimilate, to incorporate abnormality within the realm of the expected, through understanding or empathy.  Oh, that person is blind, this man is drunk, that woman must be lost.  We build our understanding on familiarity, push experience into categories, to ensure that we can move on, ready for our next encounter.  And, yes, sometimes that process of normalisation stalls; the person appears so other to us, we stare, in confusion, discomfort, anger.

When I mentioned my experience outside the library to people, the overwhelming response seemed to be “how rude!” or “what’s wrong with him?!”.  Fair enough.  What I want to know is this – what does what he did reveal about abnormality in our culture?  What sort of experiences help us to recognise self-hood in others?  How is it we can fail to recognise self-hood in others, or disregard their bodily integrity?  And what does poetry encourage?

Alexander Kozin, in his article “The Uncanny Body: from medical to aesthetic abnormality” (Janus Head, vol.9, iss.2, 2007), says that the experience of some bodies are purely unassimiliable.  He seems to have his epiphany at the Kunsthalle in Dusseldorf, Germany.

“It is there that I saw a person whose appearance broke any and every anticipation of an embodied human being…    She was a collage made of odd objects; her arm stub and her twisted legs looked as if they came off from a non-human creature…  Her body, small and fragile, half a body, appeared to be torn apart by some mechanical mangler of flesh.  This strange assimilation of incompatible parts made her movements as bizarre and as majestic as if she was a royalty raised from some underground dream-world, invading one’s peace and usurping it, leaving us with nothing but emptiness in the wake of explosive astonishment and awe…”

I’m tempted to say, Alex, calm down.  This woman, whose mother took the drug Thalidomid during pregnancy, can hardly be said to have “half a body” – from her perspective, her body is entire.  And I doubt she came from an “underground dream-world” – more likely, her home in a typical German suburb.  But what he is says is revealing, on many levels.

Earlier in his essay, Kozin asks “How can abnormality of the body be available to us most generally?”.  Whether he realises it or not, just who is implied within this “us” is absolutely critical – and it is this that is potentially the most “explosive” element of his encounter with abnormality.  Think about it.  Does he mean “those of us who have normal bodies”?  It seems to me that the person he calls “the Contergan woman” is not included within the “us”.  By definition, she can’t be.

Based on what I know from my own experience of having an unusual body (though certainly not as unusual as hers), I expect that, to her, abnormality is normality.

I also know that the normality of an abnormal embodiment doesn’t cancel out it’s abnormality.  For some, of course, certain tasks, movements, journeys are immensely difficult or impossible, due to their bodily situation.  But even for those of us who are not “disabled”, we get our sense of self through our interactions with others and the world.  If I am continually reminded of my otherness, then I am other.  Self and other simultaneously.

I see people with unusual bodies and, yes, they are other to me.  Yet very often, something in me also feels a tone of recognition, affinity.  Self and other.

Kozin also unwittingly tells us something about poetry, too.  Whenever he discusses the appearance of “the Contergan woman”, he shifts from academic philosophical language into a heightened, almost ecstatic tone.  He crams his sentences with metaphor, analogy, hyperbole, disjunctions.  His experience of her body can’t be assimilated, doesn’t make sense – instinctively or deliberately, he drops the authority and detachment of rationality, dives into a disorienting, passionate poetry.  Then, as an academic should, he composes himself and returns to discourse.

What exactly is otherness?  What make us look at other people as Others?  Is that “making other” inevitable, primal, tribal?  Is it fuelled by an inability to empathise, a simple lack of familiarity, or a kind of shock at seeing repressed aspects of ourselves in other people?  And is poetry the natural home for that space between self and other?

By myself, I have no answers.  But then, I’m not by myself, am I?

Bodies of Poetry (an introduction)

Poetry is an artform of language, with its roots firmly within the body – in its fascination with embodied experience and in its incorporation of bodily rhythms.  But whose body are we talking about?  Apart from the question of male and female bodies, how are bodies that are deformed or unusual treated?  Does poetry reinforce a clear line between “human” and “abject”?  Or can it complicate our perception of normality?

This was to be the starting-point for my Masters thesis this year.  As it turns out, I was accepted into the program but missed out on a scholarship.  Since I don’t have a year’s income saved up, I’ve decided I’ll pursue this topic of mine outside of the University.  Masters without a Masters.  Who knows how long it will take, or if I’ll drop it half-way.  But the reading and thinking will be worth it.

My interest in poetry and physical difference is intrinsically linked with my personal experience. I was born with Marfan Syndrome, which has resulted in severe spinal curvature, yet without any significant physical impairment. My own poetry seeks to express the subjective experience of being visibly different, and is in some way an attempt to reverse the usual dynamic of naming and identification.

And, since I don’t want to be doing this “non-Masters” alone, I’ve decided to post short mini-essays on this blog, in a series entitled “Bodies of Poetry”.  I’m interested in how non-standard bodies find expression in poetry.  Poetic licence of the body.  I’d love your feedback, ideas, suggestions, personal stories, rants, whatever you feel fits into the topic, from whatever angle.

My partner and I just recently found a great little shop, upstairs at 381 Sydney Road – Mr Kitly – which has some great books on design, art, architecture, and some gorgeous tea cups and crockery.  Yes, very “new Brunswick”.  Anyway, we found this book – “Difference on Display: Diversity in Art, Science and Society”.

"Difference on Display: diversity in art, science and society"

It’s a mix of artists, film-makers, performers, theorists and activists – Donna Harraway, Tom Shakespeare, Bruce Nauman, William Kentridge, Patricia Piccinini, Louise Bourgeois, Critical Art Ensemble, and a lot more – and it approaches diversity and normality from a huge range of angles.  I’m sure it will find it’s way into my thoughts as they emerge here…

Again, yes, any suggestions and thoughts are very welcome, particularly on poets I should read…

poems, abnormality, puppetry & reviews

What do those four words have in common?  In the best blogging tradition – me. 

October’s been a huge month.  I’ve been adjusting to a new job, ten hours a week (2.5 hrs x 4 days) at a medical library.  Plus, planning and preparing for the tour of the Australian Poetry Omnibus Mobile Library – which included a trip up the Maldon Folk Festival (a fantastic, vibrant, daggy, rain-enduring festival).  And I’ve also been preparing my application for Masters of Arts (Creative Writing) at the University of Melbourne.  If the door’s open (and if there’s a pile of scholarship money awaiting), I’ll be researching and writing about how unusual/abnormal bodies make themselves known through contemporary poetry.  Any thoughts on this topic would be hugely appreciated – from any angle – theoretical, poetic, personal, political, etc…

This week – I’m performing at La Mama Theatre in Carlton – that wonderful, iconic, intimate theatre venue.  They do a series of short seasons for experimental works-in-progress called “Explorations“.  I’m performing an adaptation of my poem “9/10/1973 M3”, called “Ambiguous Mirrors” – it’s a puppetry and poetry collaboration with Rachael Wenona Guy.  Details below.  An edited clip of an earlier version is here on You Tube

  • Ambiguous Mirrors (in a double with Home Stretch, by Tom Davies)
  • @ La Mama Theatre, 205 Faraday St Carlton
  • Thursday 11th, Friday 12th & Saturday 13th @ 7.30pm
  • Bookings on-line or on 03 9347 6142.

Also, now that my book “Among the Regulars” has been out for a while…  how does anyone get reviewed?  Is this because reviews are rarely published?  Is it because people write more than they read?  Do we just not have much of a reviewing culture?