MISSING LARRY: THE POETICS OF DISABILITY IN LARRY EIGNER
how to dance
(Charles Olson, “Tyrian Business”)
The year 2000 marked the tenth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, an event commemorated in June by a twenty-four city relay by disabled athletes and activists. The torch for this relay arrived in Southern California, carried by Sarah Will in a jet ski on Venice Beach. After handing the torch to another disabled athlete, Will was lifted into her wheelchair to join a trek down Venice Boulevard to the Western Center for Independent Living.1 Although some disability activists might criticize the triumphalist character of this celebration––crippled athletes hitting the beach in jet skis––the event’s climax at an Independent Living center was a fitting destination for persons who came out of various medical closets in the 1960s and began living together in communal spaces and public housing. The Center for Independent Living is, coincidentally, the same venue that brought the poet Larry Eigner from his home in Swampscott, Massachusetts, in 1978 to live in Berkeley, California, where he spent his last years.2
The passage of the ADA in 1990 capped three decades of activism by persons who, for physical or psychological reasons, had been denied access to public buildings, insurance policies, housing, medical treatment, signage, education, marriage, sexuality, and childbearing––not to mention legal representation and respect. Activism on their behalf began in social movements of the 1960s, but unlike anti-war, feminist, and civil rights struggles, the disability rights movement has not–until recently––received the same attention by historians of civil rights, This silence is odd since the disabled community cuts across all demographic, racial and class lines and, potentially, includes everyone. It may be that the very pervasiveness of disability contributes to its marginal status as a rights claiming category.
There are a number of reasons why the subject of disability is often omitted in the roster of 1960s social movements, although this absence is being corrected in a number of recent books dealing with disability history.3 Civil rights legislation of the 1950s and 1960s could invoke long traditions of advocacy going back to antebellum abolitionism; the anti-war movement grew out of pacifist and anti-imperialist politics of the nineteenth-century; feminism grew out of suffragism and the labor movement. Disabled persons, however, were treated as medical “cases,” best kept out of sight, their wheelchairs, braces, and oxygen tents sequestered in hospitals, clinics and asylums. Individual disabilities were treated independently of one another, balkanized by separate regimes of treatment, therapy and social service. Social support often came from charity movements and parental groups that reinforced a paternalist ethos of the disabled person as innocent victim or child rather than fully vested citizen. Nor was the disability community unified in its goals and social agendas. Persons with occasional or non-apparent disabilities may choose to pass in able-bodied culture and refuse the protections of social legislation; someone who loses sight late in life may lack the same institutional and cultural support as someone blind from birth; Deaf persons often do not want to be viewed as disabled, preferring to see themselves as a linguistic minority; persons with cognitive or developmental disabilities are often separated from those with physical impairments. Forging alliances among such disparate populations was, needless to say, difficult for early disability rights activists who sought coalitional formations across medical lines yet honored material differences among separate disabilities.
Beyond these factors, there were economic disincentives to recognizing disability as a civil right since redress required pro-active investment in infrastructure modification, technologies, sign language interpreters, transportation and other accommodations. Providing ramps and elevators for wheelchairs, TDDs, and braille signage would cost businesses money, and many legislators felt that federal funds should not be spent when private philanthropy could serve the same function. As Lennard Davis point out, both the political left and right perceived the disabled body as “unproductive,” which, in a world based upon instrumentality and capitalization, was not a basis upon which class analysis or public policy could be forged (“Nation” 18). As I suggest in chapter seven “universal design” means more than ramps for wheelchair users or “talking” traffic signals for deaf persons; it implies breaking the hold of stigma in order to examine the ways in which a rhetoric of normalcy infects social attitudes and thwarts the forming of community. Recently, one of my colleagues who is active in the field of minority rights complained about the university administration’s insensitivity to diversity: “It was like talking to a deaf person,” he said, linking authorities who won’t listen to people who can’t. The idea that the deaf are “dumb,” in any sense of that term, is precisely the stigma that needs to be erased if alliances between traditional civil rights based on class, race, gender, and sexuality are to be forged with disability.
Which is why a poetics––as much as a politics––of disability is important: because it theorizes the ways that poetry defamiliarizes not only language but the body normalized within language. A poetics of disability might unsettle the thematics of embodiment as it appeared in any number of literary and artistic movements of the 1960s. This same thematics was shared with the New Left in its stress on the physical body as localized site of the social. Whether in feminism’s focus on reproductive rights, youth culture’s fetish of sexual liberation, cultural nationalist celebrations of “race men,” or the anti-war movement’s politics of heroic resistance, the healthy, preferably young body becomes a marker of political agency. Within the world of art, this same emphasis on a normalized body emerged through a set of imbricated metaphors––gesture, breath, orality, performance, “leaping” poetry, “action” painting, projective verse, deep image, happenings, spontaneous bop prosody––that organized what Daniel Belgrad has called “the culture of spontaneity” in the 1960s. While a poetics of embodiment foregrounds the body as source for artistic production, it nevertheless calls for some unmediated physical or mental core unhampered by prostheses, breathing tubes, or electric scooters.
What would happen if we subjected a poetics of embodiment to the actual bodies and mental conditions of its authors. What would it mean to read the 1960s poetics of process and expression for its dependence on ableist models, while recognizing its celebration of idiosyncrasy and difference? By this optic, we might see Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and John Berryman not only as confessional poets but as persons who lived with depression or bi-polar disorders, for whom personal testimony was accompanied by hospitalization, medicalization, and family trauma. What would it mean to think of Charles Olson’s “breath” line as coming from someone with chronic emphysema exacerbated by heavy smoking? What if we added to Audre Lorde’s multicultural description of herself as a Black, lesbian, mother, “sister outsider,” a person with breast cancer (as she herself does in The Cancer Journals)? Robert Creeley’s lines in “The Immoral Proposition,” “to look at it is more / than it was,” mean something very particular when we know that their author has only one eye (125). To what extent are Elizabeth Bishop’s numerous references to suffocation and claustrophobia in her poems an outgrowth of a life with severe asthma? Robert Duncan’s phrase “I see always the underside turning” may refer to his interest in theosophy and the occult, but it also derives from the poet’s visual disorder, in which one eye sees the near and the other far.4 Was William Carlos Williams’s development of the triadic stepped foot in his later career a dimension of his prosody or a typographical response to speech disorders resulting from a series of strokes? It is worth remembering that the signature poem of the era was not only a poem about the madness of the best minds of the poet’s generation, but about the carceral and therapeutic controls that defined those minds as mad, written by someone who was himself “expelled from the academies for crazy.”5 And if we include in our list the effects of alcoholism and substance abuse, a good deal of critical discussion of 1960s poetry could be enlisted around disability issues.
I am not suggesting that a focus on the disabled body is the only way to read postwar poetry, but it is worth noting that its poetics of embodiment brought a renewed focus on the vicissitudes of hand and eye, musculature and voice, as dimensions of the poetic. The salient feature of poetries generated out of Beat, Black Mountain, New York School, Deep Image and other non-formalist poetries was a belief in the poem’s registration of physiological and cognitive response, the line as “score for the voice,” the poem as act or gesture.6 Charles Olson’s assertion that “Limits / are what any of us / are inside of” speaks as much for the creative potential of the disabled artist as it does for the American self-reliant hero of his Maximus Poems (17). Perhaps it would be more balanced to say that the self-evident status of a certain kind of body has often underwritten an expressivist poetics whose romantic origins can be traced to a tubercular Keats, syphilitic Shelley and Nietzsche, clubfooted Byron, and mad John Clare and Gerard de Nerval.
II Missing Larry
My title refers to Larry Eigner, a significant figure in the New American Poetry, who is missing in a number of senses. On a personal level, I miss Larry, who died in February 1996 as a poet whose curiosity and attentiveness remain a model of poetic integrity. Although his movements were extremely restricted due to cerebral palsy contracted at birth, he was by no means “missing” from the poetry world, particularly after his move to Berkeley. Thanks to the efforts of Bob Grenier, Kathleen Frumkin and Jack Foley, Larry was present at many readings, talks, and parties throughout the 1980s. Nor, as those who knew him can attest, was a reticent presence at such events. He was a central influence on the emerging “language-writing” movement of the mid-1970s, publishing in their magazines (“L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E,” Bezoar, This, Hills) and participating in their talk and reading series. His emphasis on clear, direct presentation of moment-to-moment perceptions also linked him to the older Objectivists (George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff, and Louis Zukofsky) as well as poets of his own generation living in the San Francisco Bay region such as Robert Duncan and Michael McClure.
A second dimension to my title refers to the Eigner missing from discussions of postwar poetry. Although he was centrally identified with the Black Mountain movement and corresponded with Olson, Creeley, Duncan, Corman and others, he is seldom mentioned in synoptic studies (including my own work) of that generation. What few critical accounts exist of his work come from poets. Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Clark Coolidge, Cid Corman, Charles Bernstein, Robert Hass, Ron Silliman, Barrett Watten have all written appreciations of his work, but he has had little response from the critics.7 And although he was aligned with language writing later in his life, his name seldom appears in books or articles about that movement.8 Perhaps most surprisingly, given his centrality in the New American poetry, he is seldom included in discussions of disability arts. With the exception of an appearance in Kenny Fries’ anthology of disability writing, Staring Back, he is not included in major treatments of disability arts.9
This brings me to the tertiary level of my title––the absence of cerebral palsy in discussions of Eigner’s poetry. In what little critical treatment of his work exists, the fact of his physical condition is seldom mentioned. The lack of reference to cerebral palsy leads me to ask how one might theorize disability where least apparent: how to retrieve from recalcitrant silences, markers of a neurological condition that mediated all aspects of Eigner’s life.10 In the process, we might discover ways of retrieving other social markers––of race, sexuality, class––where not immediately apparent. Eigner by no means adhered to New Critical warnings about the biographical fallacy–the idea that poems should finesse biographical or historical contexts through formal, rhetorical means. At the same time, he seldom foregrounded his mediated physical condition–his daily regimes of physical exercise, his limited mobility, his slurred speech––preferring to record real-time perception and observation. In order to retrieve disability from this lacuna we need to “crip” cultural forms, not simply to find disability references but to see the ways Eigner’s work unseats normalizing discourses of embodiment. Cripping Larry Eigner allows us to read the body of his work in terms of his “different” body and to understand how the silences surrounding his poetry are, in some way, a dimension of––perhaps a refusal
To confront this issue, I have appropriated Barrett Watten’s important essay, “Missing ‘X’,” which locates the salient features of Eigner’s writing in its suppression of predication and syntactic closure. According to Watten, the most characteristic feature of Eigner’s poetry is its truncation or effacement of rhetorical connectives, creating a “predicate for which the act of reference is located outside of or is generalized by the entire poem” (178). One could supply an “X” for elements outside the poem that are nevertheless implicit in the phrase-to-phrase, stanza-to-stanza movement. Hence, to take Watten’s example, Eigner’s lines “Imagination heavy with / worn power” could be rewritten as “an element of the world is ‘Imagination heavy with /worn power.’” The couplet “the wind tugging / leaves” could be rewritten as “an element of this poem is ‘the wind tugging / leaves.’” The suppression of subjects and predicates allows Eigner’s noun phrases to function independently of any overarching narrative, creating unexpected links and suturing discontinuous phrases. To some extent, Eigner’s use of abbreviated phrases resembles the practice of language-writers––including Watten––who restrict the logical and rhetorical completion of a period, leaving shards to be recombined in new structures.
The implications of Watten’s argument are significant for differentiating Eigner’s poetry from that of more traditional poets for whom metaphor often contextualizes the outside within the poem. For someone like Hart Crane, as Watten observes, predication is propositional; all grammatical elements work to render an idealized object. An object (Crane’s “Royal Palm” is his example) may be invoked by discontinuous means; nevertheless, it organizes the processes of predication and metaphorization. All figures, however oblique, point toward a single focal point. Eigner, on the other hand, creates a mobile grammatical structure in which subjects and predicates occupy multiple positions. “In Eigner an absolute object is not referred to in the poem. Rather the entire idiom is predicated on the lack of such reference” (179). But what is the nature of this “outside” that serves as an absent cause for partial phrases? What are the implications for the disabled poet when we base predication on “lack”? Is the mobility of noun phrases strictly a function of indeterminate syntax, or a register of alternative modes of mobility and cognition in a world based on performance? The danger of providing concrete answers to these questions is that they make Eigner’s poetry a compensatory response for physical limits rather than a critical engagement with them. Conscious of this danger, I want to extend Watten’s useful speculations about predication to describe the ways that the “missing X” could also refer to an unstated physical condition that organizes all responses to a present world. And since that world is defined by compulsory able-bodiedness, not referring to its coherence and unity may indicate a nascent critique.
III Page / Room / Weather
In order to discuss Eigner’s poetry in terms of disability we must first honor his own reticence on the subject. Throughout his memoirs, interviews, and poetry, the subject of his cerebral palsy seldom appears. In his author’s biography at the end of Donald Allen’s anthology, The New American Poetry Eigner describes himself as a “shut-in partly,” (436). Bob Grenier observes that “Larry’s work does not derive from his palsy,” but on the other hand, his poetry cannot help but be affected by it. In order to discover disability where it is not present, it is first necessary to find where it is––in Eigner’s numerous prose writings, memoirs, and stories. Consider the following passage from his 1969 memoir, “What a Time, Distance”:
Cigarette cigar signs stores mostly Variety groceries and how many things candy a little not much good might very well be a good deal everything smelled bread was designed with packaged loaf fresh and down the street daily paper words flashes and then sentence dateline dispatches...(Selected 114)
Here, Eigner remembers childhood experiences in a variety store, the sights and smells of products and signage rendered in quick succession. One might imagine such passages divided into lines and splayed out over a page, but these memories are constantly mediated by conditions of restricted motion, regimes of physiotherapy and exercise, which frame his access to such “variety”:
Over the toilet rim in the bathroom at home into the bowl his weemer between large knuckles, cigarette shifted to mouth preparatory or in other of grandfather’s hands. Coffee label. Good to the last drop. Waste not want not. To go as long as you could manage it. Bread is the staff of life, Grampa said many times buttering it at the beginning of dinner. Relax, try how get to fling ahead legs loosened quick as anything in being walked to different rooms the times he wasn’t creeping to do it yourself as soon as possible, idea to make no trouble or spoil things but live when somebody agreed to a walk as he ought to have, sort of homework from the therapy exercising not to sit back need to start all over to come from behind. Thimble yarn darn stocking waterglass stretch wrongside patch, cocoon tobacco cellophane bullet wake finger ring. (Selected 115)
A series of Joycean associations mark this passage––from peeing, with his grandfather’s help, to a coffee label and its ad (“Good to the last drop”), to Depression era adages about thrift (“Waste not want not”) and health (“Bread is the staff of life”). These axioms rhyme with internalized parental imperatives regarding physical control (“Relax”) and self-motivation (“do it yourself”), which for the young boy with motor impairment mark his distance from an able-bodied world. Those difficulties are rendered syntactically in the phrase “try how get to fling ahead legs loosened quick as anything,” which may provide some verbal equivalent of the child’s anxiety over muscular control.11 Adult advice to “make no trouble or spoil things but live when somebody agree[s] to a walk,” express a world of agency where everything from urinating to walking requires assistance.
This brief passage could serve as the “missing X” for many poems in which reference to physical limits has been evacuated, leaving only the “variety” of the Variety store on the page. In his prose, Eigner merges sensuous associations with things seen and felt (“thimble yarn darn stocking...”) with physical contexts of their apprehension. In his poetry, specific references to those contexts drops away, leaving acts of attention and cognition paramount. Those acts are deployed through three interrelated spaces: the page on which he worked, the room in which he lived, the weather or landscape he saw from that room. I would like to look for Larry in these three frames.
Eigner’s is decisively a poetry of the page, a field of intense activity produced entirely with his right index finger, the one digit over which he had some control. The page––specifically the 8 ½” by 11" typewriter page––is the measure of the poem, determining its lineation, length and typographic organization.12 Although a few poems run on for several pages, often as not Eigner continues the poem as a second column on the same page.13 Nor is the machine by which he produced those pages insignificant. Because Eigner needed to lean on the keys and peer closely at the sheet of paper, he could not use an electric typewriter and thus worked with a succession of Royal or Remington portables that permitted him a degree of flexibility in composition. The manual typewriter also allowed him to release the platen occasionally and adjust the spacing between words or lines, jamming letters or punctuation together or running one line onto the next. Eigner’s careful spacing of letters and words, his indentations and double columns, could be seen as typographic idiosyncracy, a variation on Charles Olson’s “field” poetics, but they are also cognitive maps of his internally distanced relation to space. In a video of Eigner’s funeral made by Cloud House productions, the film maker, Kush, returns to Eigner’s house following the gravesite ceremony, and trains his camera on Eigner’s typewriter for several minutes, a cenotaph for the poet’s living remains.
We can see the characteristic qualities of Eigner’s page in a section from air the trees. The page is divided into three areas, a long, short-lined poem that fills the right half of the page, a short epigram to its left and a longer poem––perhaps a continuation of the second––at the bottom left. Each of the three elements drifts gradually from left to right, reflecting Eigner’s characteristic carriage shift, one that never quite seems to reach the left margin. While it would be impossible to verify that this rightward drifting lineation was a result of his physical difficulty in shifting the carriage, it was certainly the case that typing, for Eigner, required a considerable effort. Thus the epigrammatic tercet at the left, “slow is / the / poem,” may describe considerably more than a Chaucerian resignation (“The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne”) and testify to the sheer physical difficulty of making a mark on a page.14 Acts such as hitting the space bar, putting a new sheet of paper into the typewriter or moving the carriage for a new line are no small features in creating the measure of Eigner’s line.
The poem in question––or perhaps three poems––seems to concern a seascape with birds, whales, clouds, and islands. At the center of the longer section is a reflection on the poet’s reflexive interest in the shifting movements within this landscape:
vibrations of air
spiders, then birds, settle
bringing what he can
the quickening run-though
one thing at a time
tides, a large motion
small waves give boats (air 25)
The phrase, “quickening run-though,” appears to be a typo for “run-through,” in which case the poem chronicles its somewhat tentative, incomplete nature, as though Eigner is trying to approximate multiple simultaneous perceptions in a linear form. The poem does seem to be about a “reflexive / man / bringing what he can” to the diversity of movements suggested by this watery landscape. As in Wallace Stevens’s “Sea Surface Full of Clouds,” with its five balanced variations on the phrase “that November off Tehuantepec,” Eigner wants to render a seascape that, by its very nature, cannot be fixed: “tides, a large motion // small waves give boats.” The couplet compacts the “large” motion of tides and their local effects on “small waves” and “boats,” and these contrasts are further enhanced by the lines to the left of these:
rock crumbles to earth
clouds mulct the moon
the whale is still hunted
in certain parts
the deep light (25)
The poet’s “reflexive” interest in things leads to reflections on the creation of geological forms through the interaction of rock and water. The whale, “prodigal / the deep light,” stands as the talismanic figure for the poem’s contrasts––large yet human, mammal yet stone-like, deep yet surfacing, inert yet “prodigal.” Eigner’s steady attention to phrasing and evenly patterned syllables (“the voice far tinkling bells,” “small waves give boats”) shows an intense concentration on small verbal elements, yet his focus is always on the creation and destruction of large forces. The interplay of three separate elements on the page permits each to join with the others so that, for example, the reference to islands rising like whales in the longer poem seems to continue in the reference to “menageries / from the bottom” in the third.
I have chosen an example that does not thematize disability in order to suggest how the material limits of the poet’s physical act of writing govern the creation of rhythm. If the poem is “slow,” as he says, it is not for lack of interest or attention. Rather, that “slowness” permits a degree of discrimination and attention; the space of the poem is, in Eigner’s case, less a score for the voice than a map of intensities whose subject is “a large motion” of global, geological forces.
The vantage from which he creates this page and watches the world is his room. The best description of his Swampscott room is in the author’s biography at the back of Windows / Walls / Yard / Ways, which was probably written by Eigner, but utilizing a third person perspective. In it he describes
a 2-windowed bedroom (summer heat, winter cold, and snow, wind, springtime, Fall) overlooking backyard and porch with clothesreel in a closed-in while big enough neighborhood (sidestreet and 2 dead-end sidestreets, a path through woods, shortcut to the beach before the easterly one nearer the shore ended, after its joint with Eigner’s street at the foot of the hill much steeper than the one going down from the town’s main road. (195)
When he moved to Berkeley, that room, as the PBS United States of Poetry documentary segment on him indicates, is crammed with pages, each filed in dated folders and placed in shelves at wheelchair height. Like Emily Dickinson, Eigner’s “endless / Room at the center” plays a significant role in determining the content of the poems (Selected xiii). Until 1978 when he moved to California, Eigner spent most of his time in a porch at the front of his parents’s home in Swampscott, Massachusetts, from which vantage he observed the birds, trees, passing cars, clouds, storms and sunlight that populate his verse.
squirrels everywhere all
sudden (Things Stirring 59)
what birds say Comes in
all the windows
No end of wires through trees (Things Stirring 36)
The haiku-like spareness of such lines suggests an Imagist emphasis on objects, but it becomes clear that Eigner’s room is porous. He may hear birds through the windows, but he observes that they sit on the same wires that penetrate the house with news from elsewhere. What might appear as a limited perspective is instead figured by him as “inward performance,” the active measurement of spaces and distances by an unusually sensuous, alert mind:
The midnight birds remind me of day
though they are
out in the night
beyond the curtain I can’t see
Somehow bedrooms don’t carry
and the boxed radio
is off. But what am I reading
Has relevance. Allows me to hear
while something speaks. As for the bed
straightened by visible hands
only it is huge
when I feel Down in darkness (Selected 4)
Lying in bed at midnight, listening to birds outside, the poet feels like a radio, an instrument that although turned off continues to receive messages. The birds beyond his room, the tradition beyond the bedroom, “visible hands” that straighten the bed––these are forms of agency that seem “huge” and threatening. Yet against these “outward” forces, “inward performance” (of which the poem is a record) sustains his nocturnal revery. The awkward phrase, “Somehow bedrooms don’t carry / tradition” can be seen as a rueful recognition of the poet’s confined position. In a world where individual talent is measured against a heroic tradition, one realized in domestic spaces like bedrooms may seem insignificant. Opposed to outward measures of cultural and social value rests the “inward” ability to imagine absent birds as present, night birds in day.
To some extent, the “boxed radio” provides a counter-tradition for Eigner to that of Eliot or Pound, bringing a world of music and news into his room. The radio provided Eigner with a fruitful early poetic education when he discovered Cid Corman’s radio show in 1949 that exposed him to many of the poets with whom he would later be associated. “Radio and TV have been audio-visual prosthesis,” he says in a felicitous merging of media with the disabled body (areas 163). But the intrusion of the news also brings with it a world increasingly administered by the media:
the more read more
at the firecrackers
after what Knowledge
n b c
there’s no bird like a bell
the road of life
is it still going the
is full the
people like radios
radios as people
he claps she swings
they’re passing somewhere
between bursts (Things Stirring 98)
For the person with limited mobility, this poem is strikingly rich in movement. Eigner here experiences the Vietnam War vicariously through its displacement in July 4th celebrations (the title is “4th 4th “). He compares himself to Caliban in The Tempest, alarmed at Propsero’s magical “isle /...full [of noises].” Those noises include the sound of firecrackers in the neighborhood that lead him to think of T.S. Eliot’s “Gerontion” (“After what knowledge / what forgiveness”) and then militarism (“jets blades / these days”) and their appearance in the media (“nbc / from above”). Although the radio provides Eigner with knowledge of the violent outer world, it reminds him of how much people resembles their radios, how much “nbc / from above” determines what knowledge can be. If, as I have surmised, he is playing a subaltern Caliban to Prospero’s NBC, his connection to birds, clouds and nature is potentially subversive. This would seem to be the significance of the final lines, in which he hears a couple outside: “he claps / she swings / they’re passing somewhere / between bursts.” Here, “bursts” extends reference to firecrackers and distant warfare in Southeast Asia, but the sounds also provide a rhythmic––and perhaps redemptive––contrast to the news. Perhaps they express a positive answer to the question raised midway through the poem: “the road of life / is it still going...”?
Once again, these examples do not address cerebral palsy directly; but they embody its effects on the poet as he registers the world from a stationary vantage. So attentive is Eigner to the processes of measuring thought and attention that the subject often dissolves into its acts of perception and cognition. This gives the work an oddly unstable feel as lines shift from one location to another, never pausing to conceptualize a scene but allowing, rather, the play of attentions to govern movement. What might be regarded as a form of impersonality turns out to be an immersion of the subject into his perceptual acts:
back to it
The good things go by so softly
Themselves it is our strengths
that run wild
The good and the strong, dissipant,
an ob-jective joy
is empty There are clouds
there must be sound
the horizons are nothing
the rain sometimes is not
out on the sky
the other direction
growing until it is nothing
there are mirages and numberless deserts
inside the other house
lines, broken curbs
travel and distance
we must be animate, and walk
the lines are irregular (Selected 24)
These lines are irregular, carving the page in variable indentations and spacings. The couplet “the rain sometimes is not /negligible” sits at the right gutter, at the edge of the poem, its double negative animating the contrast between a sky that is both “empty” and full of clouds. Moreover, the poem shifts rapidly between reflective (“it is our strengths / that run wild”) and descriptive (“sky / is empty”) observations. By juxtaposing these two levels, subjective and objective, without transition, the poem maps a “dissipant...joy.”
The irregularity of these lines carries more than prosodic implications. For Eigner in his closed-in porch, the issue of access is a problem and a way of being. For him, “travel and distance” do proportion themselves, relative to physical ability. The imperative to “be animate, and walk / turn, abruptly” can only be performed on the page; as a physical possibility, such imperatives must be measured in terms of “lines, broken curbs.” One of the key provisions of the ADA was the erecting of curb cuts for wheelchair users, and although Eigner could not, in the late 1950s when the poem was written, imagine such accommodation, he is speaking of irregular surfaces within the poem as a prosodic principle, and in the world, as a physical set of limitations. That is, Eigner measures an objective world full of “lines” and “broken curbs” as one which he must negotiate with difficulty.
IV “I can’t believe I’m here”
Such negotiations of textual and physical barriers may, as I have indicated, manifest themselves on a page, but they no less dramatize senses of historical otherness that Eigner felt keenly. The claims of presence that animate many of his poems are often filtered through secondary voices––radio news commentators, public officials, friends and correspondents––that ventriloquize his participation. The plural pronoun above who announces “we must be animate” is as much the voice of social mobility and ableism as it is a measure of Eigner’s “irregular” status within such a frame. In the following example, the “I” who announces “I can’t believe I’m here” is not the poet who celebrates survival out of physical infirmity but the survivor of a Nazi death camp interviewed in Claude Lanzmann’s film, Shoah, who, in revisiting the Polish camp of Chelmo marks his disbelief at being able to return:
skulls piled along the wall
I can’t believe I’m here
yes, this is the place
over here were the ovens
planted to hide the graves
at first they just burned the bodies
flame up in the sky (“Dance” [n.p.])
These lines are the opening to a remarkable sheaf of poems that Eigner collected for a project (never completed) on the subject of “Dance.” The chapbook was to be part of a second series of responses to Charles Olson’s “Plan for the Curriculum of the Soul,” a project announced in the late 1960s by Olson, for which various poets were assigned topics.15 Eigner’s selection, “Dance,” might seem an unlikely choice until one understands that for him, dance is a way of talking about movement within severely restricted limits––alternative choreographies that defamiliarize normal movement. And for Eigner as a Jew, such restriction implies the difficulty of movement within a moment of historical erasure. The synthesis of two discourses––of disability and race––come together in a poem written, on the same page to the left of the poem above:
They made him sing along the river
the beautiful the beautiful river
(and race with ankles tied)
— he was agile
while people were dying
he had to
age 13 and a half
so he’s one of the two survivors
out of 300,000
Here is the most disturbed image of dance imaginable: a Jewish boy is forced to run with bound ankles for the amusement of his Nazi captors, the nearby crematoria reminding him of what might befall him. In “He was agile,” the commentator asserts, although the movement must also have been ungainly and awkward. One of the villagers remembered him as having a “lovely singing voice” and another explained that the German captors “made him sing on the river. He was a toy to amuse them. He had to do it. He sang, but his heart wept” (Lanzmann 6). These remarks are transformed by Eigner into a reference to African American spirituals (“the beautiful, the beautiful river”) that links the condition of Holocaust child to black American, Jewish poet to Auschwitz survivor, Jewish survivor to crippled poet.
The epigraph to this page is from “The Dance” section of Hart Crane’s The Bridge: “The long moan of a dance is in the sky,” but given the context in Eigner’s poem, this moan could also be the smoke from the crematoria (73). Eigner thought of titling his series “Gyre / (scope) / loop the / loop,” as if to condense the metaphors of stability (gyroscope), perception (“scope”), historical cyclicity (Yeats’ gyres) and vertiginous movement (“loop the / loop”) in one figure. It is an ideogram that merges Eigner’s primary concerns with perception and place, but sets them against the backdrop of historical vertigo, the rightward shifting margin marking the stumbling movement of movements under duress. The incredulous testimony of survival (“I can’t believe I’m here”) is measured against an act of physical awkwardness that resembles a dance of death, not unlike the coffle songs and shuffle dances developed by black slaves in the antebellum South. Such powerful mergings of physical grace with carceral control turns “Dance” into a personal signature for Eigner’s proprioceptive position.
Eigner’s ventriloquized testimony at being “here” in the shadow of the Holocaust is measured against his own attempts at dance, described in a subsequent section of the poem that invokes, as well, Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” and Keats’ “Ode to Psyche.” From Wordsworth’s lyrical invocation of a “jocund company” of dancing flowers and Keats’ invocation of seeing the “winged Psyche with awakened eyes,” Eigner insinuates his own daily physical exercises:
Out of a leaning towards getting ahead (?)
I’m poor at, negligent of, exercise, inten-
tional back-and-forth or circling movements, watch-
ing dances, especially social ones I guess, I’ve been
but sometimes, at the bar where I do walk to
and fro on the porch. holding on, standing, I
swing hips, revolve them, or in and out, bend,
as holding / jacknife. As holding on I step sidewise, facing nextdoor
along the arteries
bowed lines over the earth
The transition from Auschwitz and the young Jew’s coerced, awkward dance to Wordsworth’s Lake Country may seem an impossible leap, but the connection seems to be made through the poet’s awareness of his own bodily movements. As if to mimic the play of poetic line and dance he segues into an iambic cadence (“but sometimes, at the bar where I do walk”) and sees himself “at the bar” like a ballet dancer practicing plié. By linking his physical exercises to romantic versions of transcendence in Wordsworth or Keats, Eigner takes the subject of dance into his own territory. His enjambments and irregular meters contrast to the steady iambs in the romantic poets, yet his lines pace out an equivalent rhythm to his own motions. In his final image, the various representations of dance–those of his own and of romantic poets–coincide in a kind of cosmic merging “along the arteries / bowed lines over the earth//spindle.”
IV Nothing about Us without Us
“As a cripple, I swagger”
Discussing poems like “back to it” and “Dance” in terms of physical access or physical limitations poses an interpretive dilemma: how to avoid reducing the poem to an allegory of disability while respecting the complex social valences of terms like “strength,” “travel,” and “animate.” Are the “good things” that go by “softly” good because they are unobtrusive and thus invisible––the ableist position––or because there is a physically mediated perspective that registers their passing? Because Eigner seldom uses the first person pronoun except when quoting someone else, we cannot easily identify his attitudes about disability or social ostracism. Yet there are moments when the “I” in quotation marks seems to meet the ontological I, and we hear the poet speak in propria persona:
I have felt it as they’ve said
there is nothing to say
there is everything to speak of
but the words are words
When you speak that is a sound
what have you done, when you have spoken
or something I will remember
After trying my animal noise
i break out with a man’s cry (Selected 79)
Were this a poem by Robert Creeley, such lines could be describing the mediating force of language in claiming identity: “As soon as /I speak, I / speaks” (294). In Eigner’s case, we must include in the poem’s deixis the opprobrium by which the disabled person is interpellated in society. “I have felt it as they’ve said” may include feelings inflicted upon one whose own speech may appear to others as an “animal noise.” Terms for agency (“I will remember,” “i break out with a man’s cry”) must be framed by the difficulty of utterance when there is, to all intents, no interlocutor.
I began this chapter by wondering how to represent disability where it is missing, both in critical discourse and in the poet’s own writing. In the 1950s and 1960s, when Eigner was establishing his literary identity, and despite increasing support for social and cultural difference, people with visible disabilities like cerebral palsy, polio, MS and Down’s syndrome were still considered wards of a welfare state, “shut-ins,” poster children for charity telethons. People with disabilities were in many respects invisible, within both the public sphere and emergent social movements. They inhabited medical closets that could be cautiously opened for purposes of sympathy or compassion and as quickly closed again. To be disabled was to be one of Jerry’s kids.16
During this period there were few activists like Nancy Mairs who could emerge from the disabled closet and use the term “cripple” with arrogance and pride:
Perhaps I want them to wince. I want them to see me as a tough customer, one to whom the fats / gods / viruses have not been kind, but who can face the brutal truth of her existence squarely. As a cripple, I swagger. (9)
Mairs writes her coming-out narrative as a person with multiple sclerosis for whom there is no Stonewall or March on Washington to galvanize action. For Larry Eigner in the 1960s, his parent’s home in Swampscott was both a safe haven and a closet, in Eve Sedgwick’s sense, a place of refuge but also a speech act, a place of inward performance but also performativity. The missing X in Eigner’s poems is, to adapt Sedgwick, “not a particular silence, but a silence that accrues particularity by fits and starts, in relation to the discourse that surrounds and differentially constitutes it” (3). That discourse, in the 1960s, is called ableism, and not to speak its sentences is to stutter or mumble, to divert attention from the normalized body outward onto birds, sky and weather. Such a world could never sustain itself as outer or other but was constantly being refigured and remapped through Eigner’s difficult syntax and variable lineation. This was Eigner’s letter to the world, not an “X” but a lower case “i” that says “After trying my animal noise / i break out with a man’s cry.”
1. Manuel Gamiz, Jr., “Torch Relay for Disabled Arrives by Land and Sea.” Los Angeles Times, 20 June, 2000, B 7.
2. Eigner was a reluctant participant in the Independent Living movement in Berkeley. His first communal living situation with other disabled persons was not successful, and he left to form a household with poets, Robert Grenier and Kathleen Frumkin. Nevertheless, he continued to visit local community centers, and working with disabled senior citizens at the Berkeley Outreach Recreation program in Live Oak Park (areas 140-1).
3. The best overall survey of the disability rights movement is Fleischer and Zames, The Disability Rights Movement: From Charity to Confrontation. Other sources include Longmore and Umansky, Campbell and Oliver, Charlton, Davis (Enforcing), Linton, Shapiro.
4. This condition is the subject of Duncan’s poem Crosses of Harmony and Disharmony” in The Opening of the Field:
so that the lines of the verse do not meet,
imitating that void between
two images of a single rose near at hand, the one
slightly above and to the right...
“The double vision
due to maladjustment of the eyes” like
“Visual delusions arising from some delirium
illustrates surrounding spatial regions” (45)
5. These line are from Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” (126).
6. The poetry movements mentioned here received their inaugural appearance in Donald Allen’s 1960 anthology, The New American Poetry, which first divided poets into groups (Beat, Black Mountain, New York School, San Francisco Renaissance) and provided an appendix of poetics statements at the end. Although each of these groups claimed different literary antecedents, they were all influenced, in one way or another, by modernist free verse poets such as Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, H.D., and Gertrude Stein, within the American tradition, and Surrealism and Dadaism within the European avant garde tradition. They strongly dissented from the then-reigning New Critical position that stressed formal cohesion, structural complexity, and impersonality in favor of a freeverse line, cadential rhythm, and expressive–even vatic–use of language.
7. George Hart has written an excellent article on Eigner as a nature poet, “Reading under the Sign of Nature” and Benjamin Friedlander has written a useful encyclopedia entry on him in the Gale Dictionary of Literary Biography series. The latter is the best introduction to Eigner’s life and work.
8. This critical disregard may change soon when Stanford University brings out Eigner’s Collected Poems, edited by Robert Grenier and Curtis Faville.
9. Kenny Fries, Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out, features four poems by Eigner.
10. Eigner’s reticence in foregrounding his cerebral palsy aligns him with another Berkeley poet, Josephine Miles, who lived with rheumatoid arthritis from an early age but who did not identify as disabled or with the disability rights movement. Susan Schweik has made the case that despite her reticence, Miles’ early work often anticipates “conditions for the emergence of a new contemporary social group––but only if that group is understood in both broad and complex terms” (489). If we understand “disability rights” in the contemporary, post-civil rights sense, then Miles does not accept the label “disabled.” Schweik locates Miles’ acknowledgment of disability in a discursive resistence to the language of reason and rationality. “In [Miles’ poem] ‘Reason’ and other colloquial poems, Miles devises a vigorous alterative to this particular tradition, one in which colloquy replaces soliloquy. The poem deflects identification, or at any rate renders it elastic and provisional. In ‘Reason’...Miles develops a (counter)narcissistic poetic that challenges a dominant equation of disability with aggrieved self-absorption, not by evacuating narcissism, but by revealing and reveling in it––as the basis of all (un)reasonable spoken interaction, and as a force that both generates and is tempered by conversation” (500).
11. Benjamin Friedlander notes that in 1962 Eigner underwent cryosurgery to freeze part of his brain in order to control his spastic movements (121). The successful operation is described in a letter to Douglas Blazek:
Sept. 62 cryosurgery, frostbite in the thalamus (awakened to see if i was numbed, test whether they had right spot, felt much like killing of a tooth nerve!), tamed (and numbed some) my wild left side, since when I can sit still without effort, and have more capacity for anger etc. Before, I had to be extrovert, or anyway hold the self off on a side, in this very concrete, perpetual sense. A puzzlement of the will. (qtd. in Friedlander,121)
Friedlander notes that prior to the surgery, “Typing, of all activities, provided relief from the wildness, from the distraction of the flailing, and from the effort of holding the body still, or trying to” (121).
12. According to Bob Grenier, who is editing the forthcoming collected edition of Eigner’s poems, Stanford University will honor his page size by printing all three volumes in an 8 ½” by 11" format and in a font that approximates his typewriter font (personal communication, 1/7/06).
13. In his letters, some of which have been published, Eigner tends to fill the page, writing even in the margins and blank spaces of the page:
Well letters get crowded just from attempt to save time, i.e., cover less space, avoid putting another sheet in the typewriter for a few more words as I at least hope there will only be. There’ve always been so many things to do. For instance with only my right index finger to type with I never could write very fast––to say what I want to when I think of it, before I forget it or how to say it; I sometimes say 2 things at about the same time, in two columns. It’ll be from not deciding or being unable to decide quickly anyway what to say first, or next. Or an after thought might as well be an insert, and thus go in the margin, especially when otherwise you’d need one or more extra words to refer to a topic again (areas 149).
Here is a good instance of how a textual parataxis that one associates with the Pound/Olson tradition can be read differently by a poet for whom the act of changing a sheet of paper or typing a few more words is a considerably more difficult task. The desire to render the phenomenological moment remains the same for Eigner and Olson, and certainly the look of the page is similar, but the physical circumstance of writing must be factored in as well.
14. Ezra Pound quotes Chaucer’s lines in his Imagist manifesto, “A Retrospect,” 10.
15. Ben Friedlander was the instigator of this second round of the “Plan for the Curriculum of the Soul,” which was to feature, among other topics, Andrew Schelling on “Walking,” Gail Sher on “cf. Weyl” and Friedlander on “The Dogmatic Order of Experience.” In the original series the subject of “Dance” was chosen by Lewis MacAdams. Other pairings included Robert Duncan on “Dante” and Olson on “Pleistocene Man.”
16. This is not to say that there weren’t isolated examples of disability activism before the 1950s. See for example Paul K. Longmore and David Goldberger, “The League of the Physically Handicapped and the Great Depression: A Case Study in the New Disability History.” See also Longmore and Lauri Umansky’s The New Disability History: American Perspectives which offers a number of essays on pre-cold war disability activism. My point in speaking of the silence of poets like Larry Eigner or Josephine Miles around disability is to contextualize the absence of a fully developed social movement around disability rights until the early 1970s.
[This essay makes up Chapter 5 from Michael Davidson’s CONCERTO FOR THE LEFT HAND; DISABILITY AND THE DEFAMILIAR BODY. U of Michigan, 2008. Reprinted with permission of the author.]