Cripple Poetics

I just finished reading Cripple Poetics by Petra Kuppers and Neil Marcus. I read it in one big gulp because of course I couldn’t resist a book called “Cripple Poetics” that is also a love story. There’s a lot I could say about the book, but for now I want to focus some more on thoughts about metaphor, how single words become metaphor and how metaphors are used to explain single words.

Early in the book in the form of a personal ad, Neil describes himself as a “handsome romantic 53 yr old spastic revolutionary with vision.” The pairing of the words spastic and revolutionary has made me catch my breath and hold it, letting it out ever so slowly, as I roll those words around. Spastic is one of those one word metaphors: the phrases “spazing out” or “he’s such a spaz”–meaning uncoordinated, incompetent, foolish, to be discounted–have currency because of cultural and institutional assumptions about bodies that are spastic, bodies that move in uncontrolled, jerky ways, muscles tense, constricted, spasming. If those bodies were appreciated as sexy, beautiful, desirable, then “she’s so spastic” would be a compliment rather than a put down.

The words lame, black, crazy, gay, retarded, fag function in the same way. They have become generalized put downs or associations with badness/negativity precisely because the bodies they describe are pitied, marginalized, and/or hated. Of course many of these words are also used as slurs in primary ways: fag used to bully/harass gay and bi men/boys specifically, crazy used specifically to shame people who have psych disabilities.

A slogan like “Lame is sexy” or “Black is beautiful” takes much of its power from not only an affirmation of identity but also from reversing the metaphor. This is the context and function of “handsome spastic revolutionary” and has struck me so because it strikes so close. Even with all my politics about using the ugly words as insider language (LGBT peoples using queer, disabled people using crip, Black people using nigga, however ambivalently with a lot of community disagreement in all these examples), I have always ducked spastic. I’ve tried not to pay attention to it; I’ve not challenged its metaphoric use; I’ve always felt raw in its presence. And so the identity affirmation and the metaphor reversal feel particularly potent to me who lives in a body full of tremors, tics, spasms, tension: spastic revolutionary.

For next time, more about Cripple Poetics and the word cripple itself and what it means for a white person to think about race and ugly language (I certainly paused long and hard before I wrote the n-word).


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