ORION‘s poetry editor Camille Dungy and friends are back with another suite of poetry recommendations we’re excited to share for October, National Disability Employment Awareness Month.
In this gathering of books you will find important work from an expansive group of poets. Some are well-known voices in disability poetics, while others don’t consider their diagnosed conditions to be disabling on most or perhaps any days. Some live with invisible or hidden disabilities—autoimmune conditions, chronic depression, epilepsy—while others live with reproductive health issues, or varying degrees of neurodivergence. You will also find poets who are family members or caretakers of members of the disability community, poets who don’t use the word “disabled” to describe themselves, and poets who claim crip labels.
The following recommendations are less interested in these writers’ diagnoses and far more interested in the ways the poets’ writing can help us all connect more fully and completely with the planet on which we all live.
Camille Dungy Recommends:
Gut Botany by Petra Kuppers
In work by Petra Kuppers there are always revelations and revolutions, and this is certainly true of the poems included in Gut Botany. Kuppers is interested in the ways the unstable language of “poetry provides a site to explore crip experience” (see Kuppers’s 2007 article “Performing determinism: Disability culture poetry), and also how the unstable language of poetry reveals the human role in ecological violence as well as potential environmental renewal. As has been the case in so much of Kuppers’s work, the poems in Gut Botany beg questions about culturally enforced binaries of all kinds. Kuppers moves beyond the limits of what separates the human body from the fish’s or the lake’s or the dinosaur’s, the female body from the male, the “disabled” body from the “able” body, a settler’s body from an Indigenous one, and more and more. Kuppers’s writing is additive, even multiplicative, rather than subtractive or divisive. The book explores myriad forms violence, but also makes room for bodies touching other bodies in wonder and in love. (Wayne State University Press)
Another Last Day by Alex Lemmon
I wonder how many poetry book reviews use the words “liminal space” to describe the zone of wonder and horror good books can exist within. This book exists in such a liminal space. A space between the body and the mind, not quite fully in either, between sickness and health, care and destruction. The word “liminal” points to a threshold, where a body may as likely enter as exit. Each section’s set of couplets looks with striking precision on the living world that, day by day, we love and lose. This long, linked series is divided into fifty-four sections. The Roman numerals only go up to LIII, but look closely. Like Adrienne Rich, whose Collected Poems should also be of interest to readers drawn to the poets included in these reviews, Lemmon includes a floater. Stability and instability. Hope and dread. The world spins on its axis and, for a time at least, we’ll go along for the ride. (Milkweed Editions)
In the Field Between Us by Molly McCully Brown + Susannah Nevison
These poems! These poems! These letters between friends, lifelines and love notes, these acts of witness and rage. Every line in these pages guts me and sews me together again. “When I open / my hands, I’m never surprised by the birds they turn into” writes Nevison in one of the collection’s “Dear M—” poems. And Brown writes back, “Dear S— / The birds our hands become / are the ones with holes cut / in their cores so you can see / right through them to the world / they’re leaving toward…” Page after page, this book sees the body in the world and the world in the body, and both are flawed and routed with pain, and also lyric and lovely and, thank the Maker, most days still fully alive. (Persea Books)
Anodyne by Khadijah Queen
The poems in Anodyne are carved out of the landscapes of this world, like rock art that seems to scream SOMEONE WAS HERE!! These poems refuse to be “invisible, unspoken.” Refuse to be “covered up / by made-up valor or resilience.” They insist on taking up space in the landscape, as painful as that might be. They remind us that our culture’s judgments suggest that “some / people are not worth saving,” and they resist such judgments and the actions such judgments unleash. The poems remind me that “Hordes of animals without teeth crash the window in a / dream & it means you’re not hungry enough.” These poems make me hungry, if hunger means I must look more closely at many types of pain and the roots of that pain too. If hunger means I will pay attention to the bodies that live alongside me, where they hurt and what it means to acknowledge the hurt bodies that are fully and fiercely HERE. (Tin House Books)
Starshine & Clay by Kamilah Aisha Moon
Moon’s empathetic attentions seem boundless in these poems, her ability to hold the pain of others and still sing. “The Vulnerable Leading the Vulnerable,” is one way she describes the kind of love her poems describe. Moon’s previous collection, She Has a Name, holds the hearts of a family who love their autistic sister and child. In Starshine & Clay there are other families, other bodies, living and loving the best ways they can. Through surgery and recovery and surgery again, elegy and eulogy and eclogues and eyewitness, Moon never shies away from what it means, for some of us, to be alive. She’s a shapeshifter. One moment full of “sour seed” and “strange plums.” One moment “on a mountain all moonglow / toad moan & green majesty.” I’d wanted to write this review so Moon could celebrate with me the love so many people feel about her work. But we lost this brilliant mind at the end of September, and with her we lost worlds inside worlds inside worlds. (Four Way Books)
Difficult Beauty: Rambles, Rants, and Intimate Conversations by Lauren Crux
What if your superpower was the ability to see all things at once and to feel it all fully? That’s what it seems like must happen inside Lauren Crux’s brain. What a wonder woman she is! But, as is said in that other superhero story, with this great power comes great responsibility. Crux seems to hold the weight of the world’s burdensome beauty, aware of all that might capture an imagination: “flowers that open when they hear birds,” how “deer raise their heads, stand motionless, then spring into the dry glass,” that “between sky and navy blue is a color called, Tarantula Blue,” that “sharks are freezing to death on the East Coast,” and more and more. The language here is sheer poetry, but these are not meant to be read as poems. They are tiny letters, photographs, journal entries, “rants and intimate conversations,” all of these together and then some. On each candid page, Crux reveals what she sees, how she feels, how she hurts, how she celebrates. “It is the least I can do,” she says in one exquisite ramble, “bear witness.” (Atmosphere Press, forthcoming)
Iron, Ardent by Sheila Black
Where these poems happen is often as crucial as what happens in them. The happenings are wrapped up in the environments in which these happenings occur. There are yellowing trees “dying of / that odd, not-really-Dutch disease.” There are “those marks you made, / a line of tracks cutting/ the field.” There are eels inside a drowned woman. There is the gift to “turn myself into/ blue bruise, ragged flower,// chicory stalk by the railroad tracks.” The world of these poems is rich and wild (wild as in weird and, also, wild as in just beyond control), and that world acts on the people who inhabit these pages in deeply fascinating, often surprising ways. I love the almost gothic splendor of these poems, and I love the ways they strange the world so I see even oft-reviled things (and people) as beautiful too. (Educe Press)
Letdown by Sonia Greenfield
If motherhood makes us mammal (both the women who bear and the babies who are born) then perhaps we are most connected to the greater-than-human world in the moments of live birth (or pregnancy loss) and just after. The long stretch of carrying and caring for an almost helpless human/animal child. Greenfield’s poems are planted in the earth like the bodies of children in a country graveyard and like the budding crocuses of early spring. Birds fly through them. Sometimes safely, other times greatly imperiled. These taut prose blocks live in hospital corridors, in the East River, on neighborhood streets and subway platforms, in a child’s bedroom, and in the heart of a mother learning—through her remarkable, delicate, human and animal child—about the spectrum of what it means to be alive. (White Pine Press)
Recommendations from Poet Friends:
Allison Hedge Coke recommends Doomstead Days by Brian Teare
This book is a whole worldscape, with pathways through intense visual fieldworks, playing on functional white, silence and space, richly motivated with adept sonic play and succinct and surprising lingual effects. The beautiful and the terrible, the horrendous, are here, juxtaposed in some sound-waving vibe moving with us as we travel alongside Teare’s endeavors in a world whose flesh we share, we breathe through, feel ourselves with. Little floating cloudlike triplets engage with all we know and question in the changing world. Couplets stagger in vertical heaps, doubled up and rowed, hissing as they hit ice. Drop lines enhance both intersections and singular idea. The poetic is keen whether trampling fungus or bacterial earth. Teare’s world is a mighty one, undone, unclean, gorgeous, and miserable. What delightful madness, this is. Must read—again and again. (Nightboat Books)
Khadijah Queen recommends: The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus
From the opening moment of The Perseverance, with the single line, “There is no telling what language is inside the body,” we understand that we are about to approach a new universe of information in Raymond Antrobus’ clear, unflinching poems. Through the lenses of Deafness and race and masculinity, we grapple with the existential struggle to understand ourselves through our parents and our childhood experiences, alongside the valuable yet mutable nature of perception. There is love in this work, difficult and frustrated and iridescent and traveling through comparisons and conversations with the self and with family, with strangers and with cultural issues at large. Antrobus writes in “Echo”: Even though I have not heard / the golden decibel of angels, / I have been living in a noiseless / palace where the doorbell is pulsating / light and I am able to answer. We expand our comprehension of humanness in encountering these poems, and recognize the limits of language that is only spoken and heard—The Perseverance is language embodied and utterly present. (Tin House Books)
C.S. Giscombe recommends The Last Custodian by Stephen Lightbown
It’s inventive and apocalyptic and profoundly energetic. (Burning Eye Books)
Ashley Colley recommends Major Works by John Clare
I like that so many of Clare’s poems are unepiphanic. Whether he’s celebrating a snail or lamenting the destruction inflicted on the English countryside by enclosure, he looks closely at the natural world and doesn’t look away, doesn’t look for more meaning. I especially like his animal poems, which are descriptively surprising and humorous, and baldly empathic. (Oxford University Press, USA)
Kimberly Burwick recommends Old Horse, What Is to Be Done? by Stephen Kuusisto
Kuusisto’s newest collection, makes intricate what think we know of blindness. On one level Kuusisto uses birds in motion as floaters to emote what the speaker cannot see, “As a boy I was loud / With rebellions, / Buying birds / For instance, releasing them / In parking lots / Where the grills of Chevrolets / Gleamed in heartbreak . . .” However, the more one reads Kuusisto it becomes clear that the idea of disability is more akin to “ability”. Kuusisto does not only rely upon the other senses, but on global mythologies where “second sight” becomes that visionary intuition. “Now you’re gone / I could transubstantiate / Become an ethereal megaphone / To tell and ask you things / As we did in Helsinki / Side by side / Bundled in raincoats / Scattered leaves flying . . .” (Tiger Bark Press)
Denise Leto recommends The Clearing by JJJJJerome Ellis
The Clearing (released in tandem with an album of the same name) asks how “stuttering, blackness, and music can be practices of refusal against hegemonic governance of time, speech, and encounter.” Ellis expands conversations and creates space for new thinking around history, theory, and lyricism in this remarkable project.
Brian Teare recommends Calligraphy Typewriters by Larry Eigner
From the 1960s to the 1990s, Larry Eigner published dozens of books with small presses that supported innovative mid-century poetry. I often return to the beautiful 1960s and 1970s Black Sparrow volumes in whose pages I first encountered his distinctive visual compositions, his brief lines drifting from the left to the right margin one tap of the tab key at a time. Eigner developed his own version of projective verse through voluminous correspondence with poets and editors and through voracious reading, and the manual typewriter was literally instrumental in helping him to realize the signature form his work took. He was fabulously prolific for over thirty years. Decades before the ADA was passed, his bios in Black Sparrow books always mentioned his cerebral palsy, and in later ones he also described himself as “non-ambulatory.” Though Eigner always acknowledged his disability, his poems rarely mention it; born in 1927, he was not shaped by the disability politics we have come to know. Reading his poems with that in mind, they model ways of attending to embodied experience—vision, audition, and proprioception in particular—and of allowing a poem to acknowledge both what’s coming from outside the poet and what’s coming from inside the process of writing the poem. “good words,” he writes, “feel how / to do it.” Mingling his own spare lyric phrases with fragments of the views from his windows, of radio and television programs, of magazines and books and his correspondence, Eigner’s mode is transcriptive, notational, precise, associative, and full of white space that lets in both light and quiet. As ephemeral, seasonal, and local as the haiku he loved, his work is equally capable of levity and profundity. For many years, his small press titles have been out of print, but recently University of Alabama Press published Calligraphy Typewriters, a generous selection from Eigner’s singular—and singularly important—body of good words. (University of Alabama Press)
Want more poetry recommendations from Orion poetry editor Camille Dungy? Click here.