This is an anthology of poetry by poets who have disabilities. The book's sections are ordered more or less chronologically, although the editors have identified other groupings as well: "The Disability Poetics Movement," "Lyricism of the Body," and "Towards a New Language of Embodiment." Also included is a well organized preface by editor Jennifer Bartlett and an informative "Short History of American Disability Poetry" by editor Michael Northen. An essay by or about each poet prefaces that poet's work. The book makes no pretense at being comprehensive but offers a large selection of poets with a variety of physical impairments (e.g. cerebral palsy, rheumatoid arthritis, dystonia, blindness, deafness, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, stroke). It presents important figures who have contributed to current thinking about the disabled body and social and physical constraints imposed on it, as well as poets who do not/did not identify themselves as disabled in their work.

The first section, "Early Voices" presents poets no longer alive who wrote in the mid to late 20th century and rarely forefronted their disability (Larry Eigner, Vassar Miller, Robert Fagan, Josephine Miles-- and  Tom Andrews, who DID write about his hemophilia). Their work took place mostly during a time when disability was stigmatized and kept hidden. Michael Davidson's essay on Larry Eigner's work is particularly informative, showing how the poet's severe cerebral palsy, which kept him housebound, pervaded his work although he made no overt reference to his condition.

"The Disability Poetics Movement" highlights poets ("crip poets") who openly celebrate their unusual bodies. These are poets who emerged shortly after passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1992. Some, such as Jim FerrisKenny Fries, Petra Kuppers became disability rights advocates and educators in the field of disability studies. Editor Michael Northen speculates that Fries "may be the single most powerful representative of this group" because he rejects both the medical and social models of disability and is "asking instead for a redefinition of beauty and of the way that disability is perceived" (20-21). Other poets in this section are Daniel Simpson, Laura Hershey, Jillian Weise, Kathi Wolfe, and John Lee Clark.

Ten poets contribute to the section, "Lyricism of the Body," most of them unknown to me (Alex Lemon, Laurie Clements Lambeth, Brian Teare, Ona Gritz, Stephen Kuusisto, Sheila Black, Raymond Luczak, Anne Kaier, Hal Sirowitz, Lisa Gill). Their prefatory essays are particularly helpful in providing context for their work. The final section, "Towards a New Language of Embodiment," is more experimental than the rest of the collection. "Rather than explaining an individual story, bodily condition is manifested through the form" (17). Poets are Norma Cole, C. S. Giscombe, Amber DiPietra, Ellen McGrath Smith, Denise Leto, Jennifer Bartlett, Cynthia Hogue, Danielle Pafunda, Rusty Morrison, David Wolach, Kars Dorris, Gretchen E. Henderson, Bernadette Mayer.


This is an important and interesting anthology.There are many wonderful poems but the book is greatly enhanced by the essays accompanying them. A good example is Laura Hershey's essay, "Getting Comfortable," (129) in which she painstakingly instructs her caregiver to push, pull, and otherwise maneuver her body and pillows so that she can get comfortable and write; then four of her poems follow : "I count on key click / crack swish front door open / bump close / footsteps" ("Morning"). Or Laurie Clements Lambeth's essay, "Reshaping the Outline," (174) which describes how for years multiple sclerosis did not enter her poetry, "but then it did and my experience of disability deepened, or vice versa. They helped each other along" (176). Then we read her poems, "Hypoesthesia," "The Shaking," "Seizure, or Seduction of Persephone" ("I convulsed so    hard I broke /  open, broke    the earth, /  erupted and    pushed out   / a narcissus       by the roots.") and "Dysaesthesia."

It is always worthwhile to get the perspectives both of those who have been impaired from birth or early childhood (e.g. Kathi Wolfe) and those who have acquired impairments after a long period of "normal" life (e.g. Cynthia Hogue). Which category they fall into is often discussed in these essays and sometimes in the poetry. Then there are those like Ona Gritz, born with cerebral palsy, who did not consider herself particularly disabled - "mostly when I thought about having cerebral palsy, what I focused on was how people saw me" (192) until she had to take care of her infant child: "my hands couldn't take you to the right place." ("No")  A fascinating essay by Raymond Luczak, who was diagnosed with hearing loss when he was two years old, discusses how his mind switches back and forth between English and American Sign Language. And then in poem form: "A deaf man is always a foreign country. / He remains forever a language to learn." ("Instructions to Hearing Persons Desiring a Deaf Man").

The title of this book may puzzle some, as it did me. What does it mean for beauty to be a verb? Editor Sheila Black explained to me that the phrase came from comments by Toni Morrison in the Afterword of the re-released edition of her novel The Bluest Eye. Morrison "makes the point that beauty should not be considered a noun, a static thing that one simply possesses, but rather a thing one does" (quoting Sheila Black's e-mail message to me). This anthology is replete with writing that "does" disability and the body.  It provides a journey through the history of perceptions of and attitudes toward disability in the United States from the mid-20th century to the present time.  Excerpts from it could easily be part of courses in disability studies, medical humanities, narrative medicine, as well as courses on contemporary American poetry.


American Library Association Notable Book of 2012


Cinco Puntos Press

Place Published

El Paso




Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black, & Michael Northen

Page Count