Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Josephine Miles's Crip(t) Words: Gender, Disability, "Doll"

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Josephine Miles's Crip(t) Words: Gender, Disability, "Doll"

Article excerpt

Social philology, Rachel Blau DuPlessis's name for a method for reading, can be productively applied when analyzing poetry's relation to disability. The essay maps out some exploratory paths toward such a social philology, following a precursor whose own poetic interests more than match DuPlessis's appetite for philologies: the American poet Josephine Miles, whose poems across five decades resoundingly and cryptically grappled with gender and disability ideology in modernity and postmodernity. Focusing on Miles's late poem "Doll" and its relation to a precursor text, Katharine Butler Hathaway's The Little Locksmith, the essay examines how Miles transforms disabling "crypt words" into "crip"t words, complex signs of disability survivance.

How do we read disability in or into poetry? Literary disability studies has tended to focus its attention on narrative. Foundational texts like Garland-Thomson's Extraordinary Bodies and Davis's Enforcing Normalcy trained their attention primarily on novels; Mitchell and Snyder's "Narrative Prosthesis" set narrative, not other literary resources like pun or line and stanza break, at the center of literary analysis of disability effects.2 In cultural studies of modern literature, as Rachel Blau DuPlessis has pointed out, critical engagement with the social and historical issues that texts "encode, pursue, and hint at" is still generally "most comfortable with prose fiction and its poetics" (6). How do we read the ways in which what Susan Wolfson calls events of poetic form-poetic line, rhyme, white space, image, wordplay and so on-encode, pursue and hint at events of disability (191)?

In Genders, Races and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry (2001), DuPlessis models a method for reading social meaning, social conflict, and the "textual iruptions of subjectivities, contradictory or self-consistent" in poems -reading them, that is, not just "in poetry but as poetry" (11). DuPlessis names her method of "reactivated" close reading influenced by the approaches of cultural studies "social philology":

Philology begins, etymologically, in 'love of words' and their density; the method examines what words do contextually, what they gather up, what they layer, how they are gapped and positioned syntactically, and what is suggested by their specific structural trajectories....I use the word philology in order to sum up a concern for the textures and fibers of poetic language....A social philology claims that the social materials...are activated and situated...on the level of word choice, crypt word, impacted etymologies....All the materials of the signifier are susceptible to a topical/topographic reading in a social philology. The attentiveness that poetry excites is a productive way to engage ideologies and contradiction in texts, while honoring the depth and complexity of poetry as an intensive genre. So by a social philology, I mean an application of the techniques of close reading to reveal social discourses, subjectivities negotiated, and ideological debates in a poetic text. (12)

DuPlessis's topics and topographies in this book map particular dynamics specified clearly in her title-races, genders, religions-with emphasis on formations of subjectivity "entitled new" in the United States in the early twentieth century: New Woman, New Black, New Jew (1). So, for instance, she analyzes the wordplay in African American poet Countee Cullen's use of "whit" (with its hints of wight/wit/white) in his "Incident"; she examines the complex work of the word "gay" in Gertrude Stein's "Miss Furr and Miss Skeene," in which the "condensed, implosive meanings" of the word suggest "three discourses, three pathways, and the open pathways between them": gay as mirthful, gay as fast or sexually active, gay as homosexual; and she explores the crypt word "bitch" as the "presenting symptom of the 'botch/Boche'" in Ezra Pound's "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly."3

Nowhere does DuPlessis take disability into account as a contested and productive term, a generator of social and textual complexity like gender or race or religion; disability does not register in this book as a social phenomenon. …

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