Thursday, March 24, 2016

For Linda Cronin: A Tribute to Her Work

While it may be true that we stand on the shoulders of giants, it is equally true that the giants are only giants because they stand on the shoulders of those who never achieved their success.  Far too often, those who were among the first in a marginalized population to try to let their voice be heard do not have the connections to an academic institution, the friends in the know, or the literary sophistication that opens the doors to public acclaim.  This was brought home to me sharply a few days ago when I heard about the death of Linda Cronin, my poetry co-editor at Wordgathering.

Linda’s work first came to my attention in 2005 when I was involved with the Inglis House Poetry Workshop, reading through the submissions on work for our annual contest for disability related poetry. The poem she submitted described a time in her youth when there was a popular theory that wearing copper could help alleviate the pain she experienced from rheumatoid arthritis.  Linda continued to submit her work to the contests, and I got the chance to meet her in person when she showed up at the workshop’s first (and as it turned out, only) Disability Poetry Conference, coming down to Philadelphia from northern New Jersey.

One of the poems that she wrote at that time, published in the Inglis House chapbook Something Close to  Beautiful  is typical of  her  work  at the time,  drawing from her own life experiences and  in expressing concern over  the attitude of the medical  establishment towards people with disabilities.
In my hospital bed, waiting for my dinner,
already an hour late, and sure to be inedible,
I hear a medical resident waking
the old woman in the next bed.
He struggles to talk to her,
realizing she doesn't speak English,
and he can only rely on his Spanish for Hospital Employees,
the required class for all personnel,
to help him. I smile, try not to laugh out loud,
as he confuses dinero for dinner,
barely catching his mistake,
correcting himself swiftly
in English, waving his hands,
repeating No money, No money
as he searches for the right words,
needing to explain she can't eat tonight,
needs to have surgery.
I find the situation funny,
until I imagine the woman,
in pain and scared,
not understanding a word
this man in white says,
pointing at x-rays,
and I wish to comfort her.
Explain we're all frightened and lost
in this medical maze of terminology,
antiseptic corridors filled with
diseases and procedures, always
no big deal to doctors and technicians.
But to us, everything,
the difference between
our lives yesterday and today,
and the terrifying discovery
of the uncertainty of tomorrow.

Linda went on to become part of Sharon Wachsler’s team in getting Breath and Shadow, one of the country’s first literary journals for disability, up and running as part of its poetry editorial team. During that time period Linda continued to write her own poems, which ultimately were collected in her chapbook Dream Bones, published by Puddinghouse Press . 

In her book, Linda expressed those fears growing up  that are recognizable by so many disabled people of her generation.  In her poem “Shame” read:

The shadow I could not name
was the shame I felt each time my body
failed to do what I wanted.
The shame I faced years ago
when Brian called me a cripple
in the lunchroom.

And  in “Sunday School Lesson’s” :

I hear the whispers, I must be doing
something wrong because God wouldn’t
punish me if I was good like they are.
They must wonder if I pray.

However, while she voiced those fears, she alsos came to value her own body, and most often her poetry ended on a hopeful, even Romantic, note.  She shows this in one of most affecting pieces: “Flash Fiction On: Beauty and the Beholder.”

The Spanish Romeo tries to flirt, although he cannot look at me as he tells me my name means pretty. His eyes rome above my head, search for somewhere safe to land, away from my twisted body. He does not want to see the curled and knotted joints rebelling against my name.
I want to reassure him, to say its all right. I have learned to accept this body that betrayed me, that continues to betray me each time another part fails. I want to tell him not to worry there is more to life than being pretty, being desired. I know the thoughts of touching my deformed joints repels him, but that's all right because I have come to love who I am, with my curves and bends in unexpected places.
I want him to know my body is not my prison, my soul soars through life free as an águila finding more love and beauty in the faces of strangers and the eyes of loved ones than he'll every know.
In 2011, Linda joined the Wordgathering staff as one of its associate poetry editors.  In the company of more widely published colleagues, Sheila Black and Jill Khoury, who favored riskier work, she tended to champion the more plain-spoken work that was accessible to the less academic readers, while at the same time working to wean out poetry that perpetuated stereotypes or were calculated to elicit pity.

One of the problems with the emergence of any literature connected to a group whose work has been suppressed is that those who are among the first to put their experience into writing are caught in a squeeze. Disability poetry is no exception.  In putting themselves out there in ways that witness their   own lives and breaking stereotypes in the process, they risk censure from the very communities that one would have thought would be most likely to embrace them. To those in the   world of academic disabilities studies, Linda’s work still appears too close to the medical model because in writing about her own experiences, she did not give enough prominence to the socially  constructed nature of disability.   For those who thought of themselves as poets first and foremost, Linda’s work was too traditional and lacked the innovation and highly skilled manipulation of language that is in vogue.    If this sounds accusatory, then I will point out that I am complicit - exhibit A in this academic snobbishness. Having the chance to include her work in Beauty is A Verb, the anthology that recognized the best and most important work in disability poetry, I did not.

Still, if the truth be told, Linda’s work is probably much more likely to connect with the majority of people in this country who have a disability and who have felt discriminated than many of those writers who reach an acclaim that she never did.  She spoke the language they spoke and expressed their concerns an d feelings in a language that did not require frequent trips to a thesaurus  or a course on postmodernism.  She worked for them.  In a democracy, that is worth a lot.  And she deserves our thanks.  


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