Monday, January 04, 2010

Paul Kahn: Something Close to Beautiful

Early New Years Day of this year, poet, playwright, critic and essayist Paul Kahn died. Paul was not connected with an academic institution. He was not a bullhorn for any particular disabilities movement. Because of that, his work will go unnoticed by most, and that is a pity because, in many ways, Paul was just the sort of man whose work provides the bricks and mortar of disabilities literature. His was the voice that disabilities literature was meant to express in all of its unresolved complexity.

One senses that the protagonist of Kahn’s most successful play, The Making of Free Verse, Joshua was in many ways his alter ego. Joshua, a writer with muscular dystrophy, both embraced and resented his wheelchair. While frustrated with the way that he was perceived by those who could walk and by the medical system in general, he was equally cynical about political correctness.

Asked to write about his few of disability literature Kahn responded, “ I was recently asked to write something about the literature of disability… My first impulse was to say no: there’s nothing different about us. But then I realized that this was a conditioned, reflexive response to an oppressive society which scorns us for our differences, which tells us that we are unworthy of love and incapable of living productive, happy lives. .. A more considered response would be to say that we and, therefore, our arts are not fundamentally different, but we do embody in a more dramatic way, the universal human condition.”

It was from this particular perspective that Kahn does put his own stamp on disability literature and contributes to its development. One of Kahn’s gifts was that he was able to look find these commonalities in looking unsentimentally at his own particular body.

Body, gruff husband,

there you are again-

always disappointingly the same.

Never get more handsome.

Always on minute inspection

ominously changed – more sags and creases,

the flesh slipping off the bone,

a map of entropy.


Yet he could also be wondrously hopeful, as in his marvelous poem “Katharine’s Room.”


In Katharine’s room I do not hate my body anymore.

In Katharine’s room I am happy to have this body

that can feel her friendly heat.

I am happy to let he sculpt me

with her kindness and her hands.

She remakes me into something close to beautiful.


Kahn frequently wrote of sexuality, but was able to strike a balance that often seems difficult for poets who write from wheelchairs. While seeing himself as a sexual being, he did not feel the need to overcome stereotypes through shock. His work is open, but not in your face.

As a drama writer for Opening Stages, he had the opportunity to interview other playwrights with disabilities, like Charles Mee, who took very different approaches to the role of accessibility and drama. While Mee insisted that all of the major roles he wrote were capable of being played by anyone regardless of physical ability, race or gender, regardless of subject, Kahn insisted that his plays actually grapple up front with issues of disability.

Kahn’s work was continually in progress. He provides no quick fixes or easy. It is likely that when the first – and long overdo – comprehensive anthology of disability literature appears, Kahn’s work will be missing from it.It is not always true that we stand on the shoulders of giants. Sometimes we stand on firm ground created unnoticed by others now gone.

3 Comments:

Anonymous jennifer phillips said...

this is my uncle.. and while i never got to know him as well as i would have wished, this loss is something i feel pretty deeply. thank you for this incredible write, and further, for including some of his poetry. do you know where i might read more?

February 03, 2010  
Blogger 清楚 said...

pleasure to find such a good artical! please keep update!! ........................................

March 02, 2010  
Blogger EMMLP said...

More of Paul Kahn's poems including an interview can be found in Wordgathering at www.wordgathering.com. Some of his poetry was also published by the Inglis Houes Poetry Workshop in Philadlephia

June 10, 2010  

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