Bodily Compositions: The Disability Poetics of Karen Fiser and Laurie Clements Lambeth

Article excerpt

The article focuses on the poetry of Karen Fiser and Laurie Clements Lambeth to examine how poetic language and form are shaped by both the poets' bodies and the way that their bodies relate to their environments, to spaces and institutions both private and public. Poetic language allows these writers to articulate the layered, enigmatic relationship between the particularity of somatic "feelings"-the body's experience of itself and the spaces and objects with which it interacts-and emotional expression. Both poets develop an aesthetics that reflects the body's particularity and that explores the tension between the limits and possibilities of communication in speaking about emotion and illness. As aesthetic objects that bridge the gap between the sayable and the unsayable, these poems can be circulated, not only forging new communities of poets and critics, but also extending or changing the terms of the conversations that people are having about disability, the body, aesthetic theory, accessibility, and communication. Through the creation of new, startling, and nuanced metaphors and images, disability poetry can begin to alter the "objects of emotion" that circulate in public discussions of disability.

I'll try to tell you how it feels: girdle

my grandmother wore, tight-laced corset

worn by her mother in Wales, but it seldom slips

from my ribcage. No hooks or laces, only

spaces of remission, then relapse,

a trip to the ancient clothes again:

crinolines, skirts grazing ankles, long

satin embroidered sleeves that rub and pull

naked skin, saying, now and then you must

try to feel through this, and this.

Laurie Clements Lambeth, "Symptoms," Veil and Burn, 3

Imagine the pain you inhabit as a region

in between, ineluctably your own

like your softest skin or the space of freedom

where your memories happen, a room

no one else can come into,

however close they try to stand.

How strange that only feeling

could keep you in this place,


the pool of silence spreading out

from the hospital bed.

Karen Fiser, "Pointing to the Place of the Pain," Words Like Fate and Pain, 12

These two passages from work by contemporary poets are evidence of the intellectually and emotionally rich projects that lie at the heart of the emergent genre of disability poetry. The work of Karen Fiser and Laurie Clements Lambeth extends the reach of poetics by making the body's experiences and ways of knowing central to the poems' forms and use of poetic language. Read within the context of other disability poetry, these poems allow us to theorize an aesthetics that is at once somatic and social, shaped by the particular way in which each body encounters the world. In Lambeth's poetry, for example, the word feeling is informed by the hypoesthesia that she has experienced as a result of MS (multiple sclerosis); throughout, feeling resonates with the complex mixture of numbing and sensation that makes it difficult to distinguish her own body from the objects outside of it. In the first line of "Symptoms," quoted above, feeling refers to the somatic and affective sensations that she describes for the reader. The lines "you must | try to feel through this, and this," directed back at the poetic speaker, address her relationship to her own body as she attempts to "feel through" layers of numbness. These lines gesture toward the multidirectionality of feeling, which functions as both transitive and intransitive, connecting the body with the outside world and to its own interiority. In Fiser's "Pointing to the Place of Pain," feeling refers most clearly to the pain that keeps her in the hospital bed. Yet the "pool of silence" that spreads out from the bed invests that physical feeling with loneliness or loss of connection. At the same time, pain, the central feeling of the poem, becomes reimagined as something potentially tender or precious, "like your softest skin or the space of freedom | where your memories happen. …