Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Sheila Black

We called ourselves cripples
Because that was the word we could not use.
-Sheila Black, “Physical Therapy”

It always exciting to discover a poet whose work speaks with the quiet defiance of personal knowledge but whose artistry raises her above the mere shouts of activist rhetoric. Such is the work of Sheila Black. Black is the real deal.

Black was born with X-linked hyperstomia (XLH) better known as vitamin D resistant rickets, a condition which two of her children also share but which is so rare that she did not meet another individual with XLH until adulthood. Black’s poetry reflects the experiences of growing up with the particular body that she has and with society's reaction to it.

The year they straightened my legs,
the young doctor said, meaning to be kind,
Now you will walk
on your wedding day
, but what he could not
imagine is how even on my wedding day
I would arch my back and wonder
about the body I had before it was changed.

She does not just limit herself to a critique of medical practice which, almost by its very nature, locates disability in the individual body. She goes forward not just to claim, but to love the body that was rejected by standard concepts of normalcy.

the crooked body they spoke of,
the body which made walking so difficult
…was simply mine
and I loved it as you love your own country
the familiar lay of the land, the unkempt trees

While she does not shrink from expressing opinions that run against the current of common thought, you will not find the obligatory buzzwords of poststructuralism in Black’s poetry. Without a single reference to the social construction of disability, she describes the discovery of a sense of community upon for the first time meeting others with XLH like herself.

We could be anywhere but we are
here with our stories. Timidly we pull
them out like rare coins, only to discover
how common they are at this table.

The one disappointing aspect of Black’s poetry is that there is so little of it available. Though her poetry has received recognition by winning prizes both from Main Street Rag and the Inglis House Poetry Contest, her first book, House of Bone, will not be available until 2007. It should be a publication well worth waiting for. This is true not only because of her art itself, but because the field of disability poetry is one in which, when thinking of a significant body of work, the first names that come to mind – Ferris, Fries, Andrews, Kuusisto, Skloot – are men. It would be good to be able to add Black’s name to that list.

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