Monday, July 16, 2007

Ona Gritz

Ona Gritz is a poet whose work deserves much wider attention. Gritz is mostly noted as a children’s author, but as a writer with CP, she also merits much more recognition from the disabilities community. Some of her strongest work deals directly with disability and what is particularly striking about her poems on disability is the lack of a surfeit of emotion that detracts from the experience of the poem. She is neither angry nor resigned, neither sentimental nor heroic, and, thankfully, does not pass a torch of responsibility or solution off to God. In “Hemiplegia”, she conveys her own experience.

Left, my bright half, gets all of it...
soft sharp prickly wet lined.
But press your head against my right shoulder,
I sense weight but no warmth.

Her prize-winning poem “First Anniversary”, written for poet Dan Simpson, she says considers a different aspect of disability,

One night, you asked the color

of my hair then repeated the word brown,

an abstract fact to be memorized.

The dark strands were splayed

on your chest

Gritz’s only published book of poetry, Left Standing, was put out by Finishing Line Press as part of a women’s writing series and is, unfortunately, not too readily available. Nevertheless, if you can get it, the search is well worth it. The book deals with her parents, one in each half of the book. One of he highlights of the book is her poem “Til Death” in which her mother finally escapes from her marriage to her father by being cremated rather than buried next to him. The poem ends:

Sealed from Jewish heaven, like Lilith,
she shrugged. She’d had enough of him in life.
Fifty years, shrill spats. Silent treatment,
separate beds. At last it was official, eternal.
The way she saw it, he dug this grave.

For those beginning writers who think that poets can only be successful through the use of $50 words and extra-textual literary allusions, Left Standing should be mandatory ready. Without pretense or fanfare, Gritz shows you how it’s done.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Helen Reconstructed

David Mitchell, one of the toughest-minded critics emerging from the Disability Studies movement, has chastised poets and writers of life narrative who focus on their personal experiences and do not foster a sense of solidarity with others who identify as disabled. In particular, Mitchell believes that in their literary works, writers need to reference the cultural contributions of other writers and artists with disabilities. One example of such cultural cross-referencing is Noria Jablonski’s short story, “One of Us” in which she alludes to Todd Browing’s Freaks, Eng and Chang, Violet and Daisy Hilton, and Alice Dumant Dreger’s book of the same title.

In the genre of poetry, there is the work of Michelle Burke and Kathi Wolfe, both of whom base a collection of poetry on Helen Keller. If there is a literary ancestor for disability literature, it is Keller. Both embraced and reviled by writers within the DS movement, Keller is the Phillis Wheatley of disability literature.

Burke and Wolfe come to focus on Keller from different directions and with different motivations. Wolfe, who is visually impaired, has had Keller held up to her as a model since early childhood – a model whom Wolfe rejects:

I don’t want to be
goody-two shoes Helen.
I want to baptize
my new sneakers in the mud

It was not until doing graduate work and being introduced to the socialist leanings of Keller, that Wolfe changed her perspective. As Wolfe sees it, “Helen Keller Keller is the most famous person with a disability in history, and how people perceive Helen impacts how they perceive all of us with disabilities.”

Burke came to an interest in Keller later in her life. A social worker and political activist she returned to OSU for a graduate seminar in “Gender and Disability.” Already interested in poetry, Georgina Kleege’s Blind Rage motivated her to write poetry about Helen Keller. An issue Burke faced as a sighted person that Kleege and Wolfe did not was the validity of her attempt to understand Keller. She tried to view Keller through various voices – first, second, and third person – finding eventually, she finds that she must address Keller, through the eyes of a woman of the twenty-first century, with all of the knowledge that entails.

Both writers make extensive use of the facts and documents of Keller’s life. One of Wolfe’s poems is actually a “found poem” from among of Keller’s writings. The creativity used in deconstructing and re-imaging Keller’s life is evident in both and, while at times, they cover some of the same territory – such as Keller’s aborted engagement- each has poet has her own distinctive style. Wolfe’s poetry tends more towards the didactic and concerns itself with social questions. At the same time, she implicitly establishes a more personal relationship with Keller.

Burke, on the other hand, is more tuned to the artistic demands of the poem and the philosophical questions that art and beauty surface. In “Phallogocentrism,” for example, she begins:

They cling to the walls as the crowds rush by.
Marginalia – the woman, the cripple,
the hooded, the desired.

Then conflating the figures of Helen of Troy and Keller, looks at the way that men have co-opted the concept of beauty, ending with the words,

…the backward
glance. The come-hither stare. How we love
the Venus de Milo, all that broken beauty.

Whatever their differences in styles, both Burke and Wolfe answer Mitchell’s criticism.