Take Three on Cripple Poetics

I’ve long been fascinated by the dialogue between writer and reader, by the reader who says, “I want more from you,” and the writer who says, “This juiciness, this heart, this density or dance or lovely flight, is what I have to offer you right now.” I’ve certainly been on both sides of this dialogue. And now I find myself in dialogue with Neil Marcus and Petra Kuppers, the authors of Cripple Poetics, about my discussion of a passage in their book.

One of the points Petra makes, and rightly so, is that I misquote the passage that I’m analyzing. I want to correct that. So here’s the whole passage from Neil (pulled from a longer prose poem called “The Question of Cripple”):

“Neil writes:

when you call us crips
I can’t see or feel your ‘wink’
when you refer to me as a vegetable

or im vegetative
i feel more at ease

is there any humor in crip

maybe wry crips

is our history similarly known to ourselves or the public
as african americans is known

not yet

then why do we borrow a nigger equivalent–is it?–use
of oppressive term for ownership of power

this is my poorly developed opening discussion
even tho im nitwit –not without wit–”

So that’s the whole quote with line breaks. And now I want to go for the nuanced reading. (For a poet, I’m quite a literalist; I miss metaphors and puns and layered nuance all the time. It’s one of my weaknesses as a reader.) I’m struck this time by:

Neil’s playfulness in “wry crips,” which was also the name of a disabled women’s (I think?) theater/storytelling group in the 1980s in the Bay Area, and “nitwit.” This wide ranging exploration of cripple includes this playing with language.

“Our” and “ourselves” can be tricky, elusive words. Who is referred to in the line, “is our history similarly known to ourselves or the public”? I know why I assumed that “our history” means disability history and that disability history is being conceived of as white. My assumptions came partly from the juxtaposition of the very next line, “as afrrican americans is known,” making a simile between “our” history and African-American history. And my assumptions came partly from observing myself and other white activists/cultural workers all too often use “our” to mean white and to make similes with the experiences/histories of people of color. But still in Neil’s line, which singular history is “our history”?

The line “not yet” sits all by itself. Is it meaning to say that “our history” isn’t yet known in the ways African- American history is already known? Clearly that was my earlier reading, and part of my contention was that I don’t believe African-American history is known in such a definitive way. But could “not yet” also be questioning how well both histories are known and undercutting the simile that precedes it? Possibly.

Could I read “not yet” forward, and have it mean that we (who is this we?) haven’t yet borrowed cripple as “a nigger equivalent”? Possibly.

And finally the question, “is it?,” is the most ambiguous two words in a passage characterized by Neil’s spare and dense use of words. I want to explore that question, want to know how different kinds of hate language are connected or not or both. I need the word equivalent to be interrogated. Right here, right now, as a reader, I want/need more from Neil and Petra to entirely trust those two ambiguous words, “is it.” Neil writes in his response to my earlier post, “In the real world sense, would it be too much to suggest that the word “crip” comes from “nigger” a kind of ‘shorthand’ a reference no matter how thoughtless used commonly. Is it thoughtless? or is it a powerful statement? This is what im asking.” If crip does come from nigger, how do I read the word equivalent? How do I tie the very different histories of the two words together? And in this formulation, what happens to people who have been bruised by both words? Inside the book/poem, I have to strain to read/hear all this nuance.

In the end, I am a greedy, literal reader: I know that about myself. I can also be a grateful reader. And I hope my gratitude for Cripple Poetics and for Neil and Petra’s work is also clear and present.

neil marcus said,

September 11, 2008 @ 9:45 pm

dear eli, I think all [AND MANY MANY ISSUES MORE] all impinge upon eachother. you bring attention to them to which i am grateful. the “we” especially insightful and helpful to me.
social analysis in my thinking is best revealed and communicated through poetry [and song]. love too is revolutionary…and Touch

Thank You, neil

Ne James said,

June 19, 2017 @ 12:34 pm

I am black,queer, brooklyn woman with many different disabilities. I recently have discovered your blog, often I read your material and cry. I wish to get involved with Disability Justice on a local level, I’m getting frustrated with the lack of awareness I’m encountering. O get fired up when I read Mia Mingas, Patty Berne or your material but I wish to get my feet wet. Any suggestions of local organizations I can volunteer & use my passion for good?

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