“Staring at the Other” and “Unsettled Inhabitations”

I’m almost a Doctor. Of Philosophy, of course. Specifically, since doctorates are always severely specific, a doctor of poetry and bodily otherness. In the process of getting there, I’ve had two essays published.

The first was “Unsettled Inhabitations: Bodily Difference in Poetry”. This is a chapter in “Inhabitation: Creative Writing with Critical Theory”, edited by Dominique Hecq and Julian Novitz. My chapter was first delivered as a paper at the 20th annual conference of the Australasian Association of Writing Programs in 2015, and it scrutinises major modern and contemporary essays on poetry by poets – T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Charles Olson and Adrienne Rich – and finds that the body is often ignored or downplayed, yet always affirms itself through difference. I then propose a kind of “Disability Poetics”, adapted from writing by Tobin Siebers and by Mitchell & Snyder, and do a close (bodily) reading of a few of my own poems from “Music our bodies can’t hold”.

inhabitation cover

Second, the Canadian academic journal Critical Disability Discourses has published “Staring at the Other: Seeing Defects in Recent Australian Poems”. This is an expanded version of the third chapter of my PhD exegesis, “Disabling Poetics: Bodily Otherness and the Saying of Poetry”. The essay looks at poems by Cate Kennedy, Hazel Smith, Kit Kavanagh-Ryan, and Peter Boyle, all of which focus on encounters with disabled or physically-other people. I take an approach inspired by Emmanuel Levinas to suggest that the Other, to varying degrees in each poem, stares back.

What will happen to the other chapters of my PhD, and the poetry manuscript that was also part of the thesis, I’m not yet sure. Hopefully publication in some form, at some time. But right now is a time for recovery, recuperation, letting time do its work.

A matter of surprise

“For myself I am neither ‘jealous’, nor ‘inquisitive’, nor ‘hunchbacked’, nor ‘a civil servant’. It is often a matter of surprise that the invalid or cripple can put up with himself. The reason is that such people are not for themselves deformed or at death’s door. Until the final coma, the dying man is inhabited by a consciousness, he is all that he sees, and enjoys this much of an outlet. Consciousness can never objectify itself into invalid-consciousness or cripple-consciousness, and even if the old man complains of his age or the cripple of his deformity, they can do so only by comparing themselves with others, or seeing themselves through the eyes of others…”

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Phenomenology of Perception”

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Around two weeks ago, two things happened that I didn’t expect.  I went to the funeral of a dear friend.  Norman was a phenomenally curious and wise man, and while I was trying to pull myself together to write a eulogy, I was reminded of his blogs.  One of them, “A body’s in trouble: some resources on the lived body in philosophy and the arts”, was in a way a parallel to the journey I’m on with this blog, though it’s much more a reference point, containing some key resources and insightful juxtapositions.  This is where I found the astounding Merleau-Ponty quote above.

Is it a surprise that I can put up with myself?  Do I have a hunchbacked-consciousness?  Do I know myself only through the (imagined) eyes of others?

maurice merleau-ponty smoking

I know almost nothing of the life and physicality of Merleau-Ponty.  Here he is smoking.  The phrasing of the quote is intriguingly ambiguous.  He says he is neither ‘jealous’, nor ‘inquisitive’, nor ‘hunchbacked’.  That these words are held in quote marks seems to me to potentially imply that he is these things, yet is not defined by them.  Consciousness is consciousness, shaped not by itself, but by its position in the world, in relationship.

At the funeral, I had the sense that my friend was not in the coffin, or in heaven, or anywhere else but in the bodies of his family and friends.  It was as if, without the central consciousness, his core of being, all that was left was the reflections, resonances, seeds, which we held in us.

The day after, I was offered admission to a PhD program, with scholarship – my proposal was titled “Disabling Poetics: Bodily Otherness and the Saying of Poetry”.  I’m planning to write a thesis and a series of poems which will “attempt to outline the mechanisms through which poetry can generate a productive, bodily encounter with the Other”, drawing on the ideas of Emmanuel Levinas and Tobin Siebers, and the work of a few of my favourite poets.  I suspect that poetry is uniquely placed to incorporate (pun intended) the consciousness that arises from unusual bodies.  We’ll see.

I’ll be writing in the context of a community of friends, poets and thinkers that have come before me, and are around me now.  Perhaps they are my others and I am theirs.  Which makes this richly complex and unpredictable.  So, I don’t know what will come out of this, though I’m certainly looking forward to the privilege.  Here’s where you’ll find sporadic updates and minor insights…

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.

kindergarten

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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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poetry and flesh

Sometimes you may not want to know the poet behind the poem (let’s not go into that right now), but sometimes it’s unavoidable.  When I say “poem”, I think of a page – white A4, bound into a book, or some kind of virtual scroll.  Unavoidable and instant association.  And while I know there is a poet behind the page, culturally the page appears as some kind of mask.  The implied contract between reader and writer is to focus on the writing, and that the writing will involve a self or selves that both reader and writer readily identify with – but who is neither of them.  Reality is a metaphor.

I’ve been thinking about the relationship between the body of the poet and the body of the reader.  A close friend loaned me their copy of “Beauty is a Verb: the New Poetry of Disability”.  This anthology of poems and essays, edited by Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black and Michael Northen, is a brilliantly provocative (though US-centric) introduction to the advancing maturity of the “disability poetry” community.  It’s thrilling and confounding.  Because bodies are foregrounded, because the real world is not a metaphor, but unavoidably seeps through the page onto the fingers of the reader.  And, as we all know, skin is porous.

I want to quote two poems.  The first is by Jillian Weise, and also appears in her book “The Amputee’s Guide to Sex”.

The Old Questions

When I asked you to turn off the lights,

you said, Will you show me your leg first?

 

I heard Rachmaninov through the wall,

a couple making love without prerequisites.

 

Do you sleep with it on? I forgot

there would be this conversation.

 

Do you bathe with it on?

I need to rehearse answers to these questions.

 

Will you take it off in front of me?

I once steeped into a peepshow in New Orleans.

 

Over the door, signs read: Hands off our girls.

Is it alright if I touch it?

 

I am thinking of a hot bath, a book.

The couple on the other side of the wall laughs.

 

She has found the backs of his knees.

What I love about this poem is its revelations and its withholdings, how it turns the usual mix of discomfort and furtive empathy that sex usually conjures into a productive and open encounter with another person.  I was going to write “encounter with the other”, but this poem proves such a phrase abstract and almost absurd.  We are reminded that sexuality is an encounter between particular bodies,  bodies that desire, but also can’t escape their history, politics and positions.  It begins with a moment of iconic intimacy, but its trajectory is interrupted – by the “old questions”.  She is pulled back into self-consciousness, memory and the allure of easier sensualities (a hot bath, a book).  The reader is taken, too, from this scene of intimacy into a peep-show, from the private to the (male) public, where broader questions of spectacle, exploitation, entitlement and ownership are opened.  And it is also no coincidence (I think) that Rachmaninov is the composer who seeps through the walls – a man who suffered depression and (arguably) Marfan Syndrome.  Bodies and their unerasable traces.

Weise is revelatory here.  She takes risks.  But while the poem ushers us into her private, bodily space, it also pushes us back out into the world, into ourselves and our own positions.  It re-presents us with the complicated, beautiful weight of our bodies.  Interestingly, “The Old Questions” is also an intensely visual poem that absorbs and refracts the gaze.

John Lee Clark’s poem “Deaf Blind: Three Squared Cinquain” engages with the visual and otherness in another way, both witty, mundane and sublime.

 

Deaf Blind: Three Squared Cinquain

BARBARA WALTERS IS IN AWE

of a deaf- blind man

who cooks without burning himself!

Helen Keller is to blame.

Can’t I pick my nose

without it being a miracle?

 

AM I A NOBODY, TOO?

I am sorry to disappoint,

but I am.  But nobody

would let me be one,

not even when I catch

a bus stinking of Nobodies.

 

ONE AFTERNOON, I FOUND MYSELF

walking with my cane dragging

behind me but still knowing

the way.  There was nothing

to see.  Everything saw me

first and stayed in place.

Again, one of the things I love about this poem is that Clark has placed himself firmly in the center of the frame (and I do mean this visual metaphor deliberately), but uses this turn the reader’s gaze back on the broader society – on stereotype and othering – and finally on our own subjective sensory worlds.  Not only do we find ourselves in a bus “stinking” of Nobodies, but we’re also drawn empathically into the experience of negotiating city streets as a blind person.  Knowing most of his readers will not have had this experience (and that some certainly will), Clark writes with a lightness and vividness that brings the poem close to a sense of epiphany, while never allowing his experience to be anything but everyday.  His embodied life cannot be appropriated, but it can be appreciated.  Like Weise, Clark uses honesty, movement (both poetic and physical) and discomfort to open up some vital questions.  The answers, like our bodies, our lives, are always ultimately outside the poem.

I said earlier, I’d been thinking about the relationship between the body of the writer and of the reader.  But it’s broader than that – I’ve been thinking about how different art forms affect us differently, how bodily presence is sometimes viscerally communicated, while at other times the body is theoretical, abstract, conjured but not felt.  Recently, I visited ACCA to see “We are all flesh”, an exhibition of sculptures by Berlinde De Bruyckere.   In the cavernous main room, two huge bodies hang suspended from industrial structures – they are horses and yet not horses, corpse-like yet somehow they have the weight and presence of life.  In another room, a museum cabinet displays branches and blankets.  In another, a lump on the floor becomes as you approach it a human figure, curled in on itself, as if wanting to escape a world of grief or terror.  Sticks, bones, flesh, intenstines, hair, history, colonialism, war, animality and humanity.  What sounds on paper grotesque is in presence beautiful and sympathetic (while always remaining viscerally and philosophically challenging).

It’s not a cop-out on my part to say that it’s hard to communicate the power of these sculptures, but it’s at the heart of what I’m trying to get at here.  After going to the exhibition, my partner and I looked up more images of her work online.  In a short span of time, I found myself fatigued – the sense of empathy I had in the gallery had evacuated, leaving me with a sense of discomfort in the spectacle/spectacular, the freakish otherness of these bodies.

We have a visual culture, no doubt.  But there is a huge difference between the digital screen and the breathing body, between the reproduction and the original.  In the presence of a something or someone, you are in a relationship.

What’s that got to do with poetry?  I’m still unsure.  But I have an instinct that moves me towards readings – where poets take to the stage or microphone or just stand up and project their poems to an audience.  I don’t want to play that off against the page, like some contest.  I just know that when a poem is lifted off the page by a voice, pushed across the space between people, landing on bodies with skin, organs, hearts, histories and desires, the poem is changed and our relationships to each other are re-vital-ised.  Anyway, I have spent enough time now with this computer, thinking, typing, erasing, rewriting.  Maybe I’ll see you out there.

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?