The US poet Cole Swenson writes, ‘brokenness is at the heart of the line’, the poem ‘organized around a fracture’ (Rosko and Vander Zee 241). In this view, the constant threat of interruption is what transforms any text into a poem, a body which is vulnerable at every point, not only at the ending of a line. The poem even continues, remains intact, while also being interrupted. This threat – or this promise – comes from the caesura, from the Latin caedere, to cut. The Princeton Encyclopedia defines caesura as ‘a rhetorical and extra-metrical pause or phrasal break within the poetic line’ (‘Caesura’ 95). The resultant interruption can range from almost indiscernibly subtle to violently jarring – a minute pause for breath, an extended white space between words, punctuation marks or lines which separate phrases, a shift in the tone or register of voice, or the sudden arrival of an entirely other voice. Even when it is not literally marked, it interrupts – it scores – the line. The reader is immediately aware of a break in the flow of sound or sense. A fissure has opened up.
It is this rupture, I will argue, that we need to lean into, in order to better appreciate the relationship between poetry and disability. Certainly, how bodily otherness is depicted and given voice within poems is of vital importance, but here I want to focus primarily on the ways in which this otherness – as brokenness, deformity, rupture – is embodied within the formal qualities of poems, in particular the caesura. As we look closely at particular poems, we will begin to see how formal disruption evokes – or even generates – bodily disruption. This is not to say that every appearance of caesura in a poem will reveal that the ‘meaning’ of the poem is concerned with disabled experience. Poems – or meanings – do not, it seems to me, operate in that way. And yet examining the caesura with an attentiveness towards the bodily experience of rupture can illuminate the way bodily form echoes within poetic form. From this vantage point, we might also begin to appreciate the ways in which a disabled voice, which speaks of disabled experience, might grant the caesura added potency. Rupture multiplied by rupture, you might say.
Here I will employ an approach which transposes the insights of Emmanuel Levinas into the field of disability studies. In his ambitious, major, late work, Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence, the Other is depicted as being encountered in a ‘defecting of appearing’ (90). For Levinas, the Other always appears to me as vulnerable, ageing and impaired; disabled, or at least exposed to disabling forces. And yet, the Other is not the only one exposed. The defect also belongs to the way in which they appear, how I see them. The Other is known through the defects of their body, but can only be encountered bodily in the failure of knowing, the way they defect from me. Or, to put it another way, ‘defecting of appearing’ is certainly a figure of speech, but it could also be considered a kind of disfigure.
Along with scholars David Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder, I argue that disabled experience is ‘not just characterised by socially imposed restrictions, but, in fact, productively create[s] new forms of embodied knowledge and collective consciousness’ (2). That is, if we attend to them, if we allow ourselves to be interrupted.
I should emphasise, therefore, that this essay is only a beginning, incomplete and deformed itself. The relationship between poetry and disability is complex, multi-faceted and inter-subjective, so it can only be illuminated by many and varied critics and poets. Here, I take an approach informed by critical disability theory, which reminds us that ‘the authority of literary criticism has typically been predicated on repressing that bodies, not minds, write; that the writing has been produced by some body’ (Stecopoulos 59). This also reminds me that my own writing, that I myself, that you too perhaps, will be disabled, interrupted by the poems we will encounter here.
Curiously, while there have been innumerable essays on the line break, there has been little writing concerned with how the caesura operates within the poem, how its formal qualities shape the human encounter that occurs in language. Gerald L. Bruns writes that ‘caesura is a paratactic event, a break in the integrity of what is formed’, so that poetry employing such techniques of interruptive juxtaposition ‘no longer operates in the service of meaning’, displacing its focus ‘onto language as such’ (158, 160, 159). But this breaking away from meaning, I would argue, is much more akin to Celan’s handshake, a reaching towards the Other in their brokenness (Collected Prose 26).1 Poems are ‘porous constructs’, through whose apertures the Other can be glimpsed, revealing in turn our own brokenness (Celan, ‘From “Microliths”’). As Levinas writes, poetry ‘begin[s] in the for-other speaking to the other precisely this for-other, in signalling this very giving of the sign, ... as if humanity were a species that admitted at the interior of its logical space ... a total rupture’ (‘Being and the Other’ 19). Or, as Robert Bagg writes, the line break is ‘most truly a keen weapon for unearthing and jacklighting buried truths, buried lies, buried bodies’ (qtd. in Rosko and Vander Zee 220).
This essay asks: how are absences, shifts and fragmentation able to unearth buried bodies? What kind of speaking happens within stuttering and silence? Finally, what is the relationship between poetry’s brokenness – at the level of form and in its details – and the interruption to which all bodies are prone? Here, we will examine six recent Australian poems which display various kinds of rupture, in order to see what kind of spaces are opened up. In these caesurae, I argue, we can discern the presence of the Other, even through their absence.
Behind this discussion will lurk all the connotations of cutting. A cut in a body opens a wound, exposing us to hurt or infection. Such a cut could be an accident, a lapse in attention or a failure of implements, prompting an urge to cover over the wound. It can, equally, be a surgical operation, precise, to deliver the possibility of healing. A pointed, critical remark is also called cutting. All these kinds of cutting are incisive, penetrating, opening a breach as a chance for new apprehension or knowledge. But it may go further – caesura not only allows for the possibility of new knowledge, but the birth of new life, via the caesarean.
Already it begins to seem as if caesura not only operates so as to disrupt any given text, but that the concept itself is disrupted. While language and knowledge must proceed to some extent on a clarity of terms, they are also always in the shadow of an impending interruption, the saying beneath the said (Levinas, Otherwise Than Being 5–7). Bodies know this all too well, in themselves and in writing (Stecopoulos 55–61).2 Accordingly, this essay will attempt to explore caesura as a poetic motif of productive brokenness, without attempting to insulate itself against interruption, suffering, the Other.
Another Body in her Body
We begin with a poem whose caesurae appear primarily technical, minimal pauses in the lyrical line. Yet they are decisive pauses which suggest a link between poetry’s formal breaks and the ruptures of interpersonal bodily subjectivity. Sarah Holland-Batt’s ‘Reclining Nude’, an ekphrastic response to Lucian Freud’s 1995 painting Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, focuses for most of its thirty-six line single stanza on a linguistic translation of the work’s visuals and affect, both embodying and critiquing Freud’s lurid disdain, his desire and aversion for his sitter. Here is the poem in its entirety:
So we reach the end of our argument with beauty –
the pink nude sails like a conch out of her girlhood,
exiled from its whorled walls and tiger shell,
a refugee in her soft new body.
It happens swiftly, while she sleeps – one day she is monstrous.
She loafs like a cloud that has drifted indoors
and no longer knows what to do with itself.
In his studio, drop cloths slather the windows like lard,
apricot roses fray, olive upholstery fattens
into the great abstraction of her body –
flesh squidged over the couch in a thick salve,
hillocks trowelled with creamy putty.
She has outlived sex. As she poses she dreams
of long walks down Job Centre’s fluorescent halls,
the monotony of standing-room queues. Her eyes roll in sleep
the way a bar of light rolls under photocopier glass,
smooth as charity. The artist tells her to crawl, spread
her legs, grind her arse like a pig.
In the scrunched paint rag of her face
there is a crease, as if to say here intelligence lives,
here the rational, the sceptical, but also
something that rebels, says you are rump, hog, beast.
He swaddles her hips and boulderstone breasts, grouts
her moon-drum stomach in blue oil,
winnows a hog’s hair brush down her caesarean scar.
She has kernelled another body in her body there,
perhaps one of his, it doesn’t matter, he can’t
remember if he has had her, the point is
she understands largesse, he can see from the way
she dangles the hock of her arm casually
as he paints between her legs –
there is nothing to which she will not submit
like a nihilist Cimabue madonna
who lifts the son of god on one hip
but shrugs her other shoulder
as if to dismiss the weight of her gift.
As soon as the poem begins with its announcement that we have reached ‘the end of our argument with beauty –’, the language of ‘Reclining Nude’ is undeniably beautiful – the early sentences proceed smoothly, with a rhythmic lyricism. The obesity of the subject appears in thick layers, as the paint does, sensuous and assonant – ‘the pink nude’, ‘her soft new body’, ‘flesh squidged over the couch in a thick salve’. The poem’s initial lines also establish a strong, fluid meter, moving subtly into and away from iambic pentameter. Then, the first technical caesura occurs, in the middle of line five, a much longer phrase, ruptured in its middle with a dash – ‘It happens swiftly, while she sleeps – one day she is monstrous’. This isn’t unusual for caesurae, which are often made explicit by scansion – a mark, scratch or scar on the page. Such a metrical disturbance certainly ‘provides a form of expressive counterpoint’, emphasising either the artifice of poetic construction or the intimacy of colloquial speech (‘Caesura’ 96). Here, the caesura prompts the entry of a more direct and matter-of-fact voice, but this break also disrupts the poem from its immersive lyricism into much more unsettled ground. The pause prefigures monstrosity.
The monstrosity evident in the poem is creative, in two senses. First, note that Freud’s subject is not born abject, but abjectness happens to her – ‘swiftly, while she sleeps’. This echoes the central insight of the social model of disability, that people are disabled not by their unusual embodiment or neurobiology, but by the society in which they live – through stairs where there could be ramps, through staring where there could be recognition.3 Second, the poem creates the experience of monstrosity through its formal techniques. ‘Reclining Nude’ subtly foregrounds the interpersonal dynamic of artist and subject by generating a compelling lyricism which is then disturbed, not only by its images but by its caesurae. What might seem natural to us – observing another person through the eyes of the artist, thereby objectifying them – is revealed to be much more constructed and problematic.
From the sixth line onwards, ‘Reclining Nude’ contains a number of the more subtle, straightforward caesurae. Sentences end mid-line, or a comma is placed so as to suggest the need for a longer than usual pause. The descriptions pile up, layered with desire and an unsettling ambivalence – the ‘drop cloths . . . like lard’, her body ‘like a cloud that has drifted indoors’. But the poem’s interruptions seem to accumulate and expand particularly around lines twenty to thirty. This is not coincidental, but occurs as a function of the poem’s saying, how what is said begins to fracture under the pressure of the other’s resistance to being figured. Right as the artist is busy arranging the subject’s body, we – viewers or readers – are forced to reckon with the profound otherness of this woman.
Here, the ‘argument with beauty’ merges into the argument with subjectivity, which on the surface of the poem might appear unresolvable. At first, her painted body is all surface, immense and fleshy. Then, in the midst of this objectification, her very materiality appears to suggest intelligence and thoughtfulness, only to be depicted again as meat, animal. There is ‘another body in her body there’, but we cannot be even sure whose that body is, whether this woman can be truly known. The poem’s tension and oscillation – the sense that visual display generates a profoundly discomforting intimacy with an Other who refuses to be known – is generated not only by its ostensible argument, but also by its formal breaks. ‘Reclining Nude’’s increasingly intrusive caesurae provide the hesitations and fractures that bring us to an acute consciousness of our own desire to know the Other, and her defecting from us. The Other, who might be called monstrous, or disabled, lives beyond any of our labels or understandings. The poem pauses most strongly right at those moments where we might hope she will be revealed – “as if to say – here ... here ... here ...’. Each revelation becomes a contradiction and a withdrawal, and as the caesurae recede, it can only be ironic to say ‘there is nothing to which she will not submit’. Because what we are left with is only the evidence of prior rupture, a caesarean scar.
Ribs Flare with Erasure
There are also poems whose fracturing is more comprehensive, where the other’s absence is a presence rupturing subjectivity and voice. Lindsay Tuggle’s ‘On Floating Bodies’, from her debut 2018 collection Calenture, is this kind of poem. Tuggle, born in the United States and now resident in Australia, describes the book as an ‘ossuary to a constellation of deaths’, the most significant being that of her sister, more than ten years prior to the book’s publication (xi). The poems are also concerned with those who have donated their bodies to medical research and publishing, often involuntarily – bodies on display in museums and images, books bound in human skin. The poetry is both ‘diagnostic [and] hysteric’, dwelling simultaneously on both sides of the clinical equation, generating an uncanny sense of fevered research, both unsettlingly personal and surgical (xi).
‘On Floating Bodies’ takes its form through an accumulation of interruptions, violent shifts in tone and attention that mirror the violence it depicts. Here is its first half:
Her guttural silhouette
in bruised relief –
basalt-mouthed, truant beauty.
Sleeves reveal wrists
graced in the master’s hand.
The tyranny of childhood is boredom.
Violence, when it comes,
is some thread of glassy splendour –
blood laced with blonde.
Each sentence arrives as a disjunction or as a swerve from what came before. And within each sentence, there are further contradictions, so that the poem overall generates a sense of being unsettled, disrupted. We see a silhouette, an insubstantial, featureless outline. Then, its ‘truant beauty’ appears, with truancy as a kind of disobedient absence, dark-mouthed. But that obscurity is then undercut with severe and vulnerable detail, the tense sibilance of ‘wrists / graced’. The boredom of childhood is broken by violence, which then reveals itself as ‘glassy splendour’. Here, caesura is a kind of cinematic ‘cut’, as of the film director who feels that the scene should pause or be re-performed, or a jump-cut, a sudden visual and perspectival discontinuity. The concrete is always interrupted by the abstract, and vice versa, as if the poem were perpetually liable to break under the pressure of its own multiple arguments, torn between speechlessness and keening.
The poem shares its title with a two-volume third-century BCE treatise on fluid mechanics. In it, Archimedes establishes a fundamental principle, namely that any body immersed in a fluid is buoyed up by a force equal to the weight of the fluid it displaces. In Tuggle’s poem, the female body takes its form in ‘relief’, a sculptural technique where the material is carved away so that only the figure remains, yet here the relief is ‘bruised’, a figuring achieved only through disfigurement. As the poem proceeds, each of the apparently ephemeral qualities of this body that remains – that is remains – is made visceral. The silhouette is ‘guttural’, the relief ‘bruised’. In this way, the body somehow displaces more than its own weight, leaving behind substantial gaps.
These gaps exist in terms of the poem’s meaning and its physical form. The twenty-six lines which make up ‘On Floating Bodies’ arrive almost entirely in one- or two-line stanzas, without any consoling, predictable pattern. If lines are breath-units, then these lines, as composed and clinical as they may seem, are gasps, laboured, short of breath. As a body on the page, the poem is encroached upon by a silence which wells up from within it. This insistent caesura arrives not only between the short stanzas, but also in the middle of the poem – the first nine lines are divided from the rest of the poem by a vast white space. There is no textual mark separating sections, only this significant lacuna, a breath held for around the length of ten lines. The violence of the preceding images reverberates through this blankness – both the Other and the speaker of the poem have become overwhelmed by silence.
This is a space that is not at all empty, but ‘an active significatory presence’, resonant with the bodiliness of writing, and the differences between bodies. Poetic white space, here in particular, speaks of a ‘consciousness divided by ... pain’, the text ruptured ‘to accommodate things that can't be articulated in words’ (Lauro and Riordan). This activates empathy, certainly, but a version of empathy which is acutely aware of its own failures of knowing. The reader takes into their own body a trace of the disorientation and disruption of the Other’s body, while knowing more than ever that the Other is elsewhere.
A poem that embodies the disruption of otherness, then, invariably carries some kind of paradox. In ‘On Floating Bodies’, suffering is somehow both viscerally shared and utterly personal, and grief is both transformatively disabling and matter-of-fact. The ‘bodies’ the poem refers to are of the living and of the dead, and they are ‘floating’ in this space of language interrupted by the silence beneath it. In this, we are reminded that we cannot insulate ourselves from disability and death; they are intimately close, haunting the spaces between our breaths.
The caesura, then, is ‘not a dead silence, but one pregnant with possibilities’ (Wassily Kandinsky, qtd. in Lauro and Riordan). And this pregnancy of the poem is not entirely metaphoric, as the poem holds not merely ‘things’ but the body of the other. It would be tempting to suggest that the poem might be able to conduct some kind of caesarean section, that the Other could be surgically delivered to us. The second half of Tuggle’s poem gives us not the linear progression of life and death, but the repetition of trauma, where both haunting and responsibility coexist.
She wakes to remember
her garnet cluster of early deaths
one by flowers, the rest by roads.
In the survivalist’s diaphragm
nothing is wasted.
Ribs flare with erasure,
trivial breath. Winter is
an anathema in this place.
Nothing much happens here.
Cosmetically, it’s abysmal.
Light blooms in neon amnesia
from which we are blessedly immune.
Our blood-teared armour,
warmed by breast and bone,
we’re honeyed anatomies
As it returns to words, the poem resumes its disjunctions, shifts of tone and signification that reiterate the restless disruption at its heart. The figure in the poem returns to consciousness, only to be faced with her own, multiple deaths. The abstract is riven with the visceral – diaphragm, ribs, breast, bone. Where death might be expected to leave darkness, here ‘light blooms’. The trauma, the break at the heart of the poem, is shrugged off laconically (‘nothing much happens here’), only to be taken up again, ‘hourly’. The language alternates swiftly between the stillness of the everyday and the violence of loss in a way which is both hallucinatory and matter of fact. The cumulative tension of this, combined with the punctuations of the stanza breaks, reminds us again of the silence of grief and of death.
Through all this disorientation and rupture, by the final stanza ‘she’ has become – or has entered into – ‘we’. ‘On Floating Bodies’ confronts me with the overwhelming, painful closeness of the dead.4 In her introduction, poet Kate Middleton describes Tuggle’s poetry as ‘us[ing] elegy as a form of resurrection’, a language ‘animated by the dead’. As true as this is, it underestimates the complexity of the poem’s figuring. These others appear in the poem suddenly, almost by stealth, and in a kind of disappearance (or dysappearance)5, because they are ‘immune’ to the light they step into, and their ‘hourly gathering’ is ‘elsewhere’. Where an elegy conjures the other, only to make their absence more vivid, ‘On Floating Bodies’ focuses on an aftermath of rupture, opening up spaces in which the Other is made both viscerally present and absent. It might be claimed as a poem which ‘unsettles the elegiac genre’, enacting an extreme hospitality towards ‘peripheral [dead] bodies’ (Tuggle, ‘Abyss’ par. 3), but it is also a poem which is a kind of inverse erasure. Here, the Other exists not so much in the text that remains, but in the ruptures, the spaces, elsewhere.
There are Voids to Seek
This breaking-open of the poem, which reveals a haunting elsewhere, occurs in a parallel yet distinct way in ‘Archive-Box Transformation’, a recent poem by Natalie Harkin, a Narunnga writer from South Australia. Harkin writes into a colonial context which is already riven with silence and denial, a kind of foundational rupture, through her immersion in the archival record. How to speak of the unspoken? In an interview, Harkin speaks of the archive as representing both painstaking preservation of colonial history and immense loss of ‘all that is discarded and deemed abject’. And yet, she says, ‘the silences scream, and this is where our voices and agency can be found, or in, as Waayni artist Judy Watson states, those overlooked gaps, cracks and in-between silences are often the most revealing’ (Wakeling 93). Or, in the poem itself, ‘there are voids to seek’.
A violent truth on the state’s record sits wedged in my stomach; tagged, wax-sealed, ring-bound and pinned with too many data-files that should have warned, likely to cause anxiety sharp enough to cut you in halves, quarters and one-sixteenths, it has become my addiction and I can't get enough, compelled to do something – anything with this mountain of surveillance that refuses to peak, and I know there is so much more, so much more, to gather.
I'm lost. Can’t find that slither of light to guide my way out. The fever is fast, furious, and any whiff of a name or place or date familiar, then I’m gone … walking a silent and lonely road with too many forks and roundabouts, or noodling the slag-heap, sifting and waiting for the sun to catch a glint in the debris. Paper-trails and clues shrine this crime-scene and I gather all the evidence I can find. Extract. Describe. Interpret. Sort. Catalogue. File. There is no end to this forensic cumulative-gathering. As one box closes, another one opens with more stories, facts and events to map and authenticate. I need time, to mindfully mine, this colonial aftermath.
The archive is alive. I’ve been lured. Captured by what I set out to transform. My ancestors have been used as bait and now here we are. Trapped. Together. Vacuum-sealed in a ‘solander box’ through some kind of sick-twisted secondary-entrapment of the hands of the state. Can’t. Breathe. I have created a beast. A replica of the very thing I loathe. I have given myself to the archivisation process. To the archive itself. The fine red-silk ribbon is cut. The wax seal is hot. I am pressed between the disintegrating folds, about to be locked up. Filed away. GRG51. GRG52. You can find me here.
Stuck in the archive-box for too many years. This story can never
be complete. No endings. No conclusions. Only loose
ones impossible to tie. There are threads to weave.
Blood memory. Haunting. Grandmothers.
There are voids to seek. Hearts to follow beating
between fragile fading pages
There is agency to
There is resistance
infinite ways to imagine infinite possibilities to
beyond this colonial-archive-box
I was not there with them back then
but I can be this is my version of a new-
I have my memories
and memories of their memories
multiple histories this lifetime ago
I tear my way out
and never end
The first three of the five sections of ‘Archive-Box Transformation’ are in prose, a form which may seem by definition to be uninterrupted, with the speaker recounting their compulsion to investigate and respond to the colonial archive. This ‘violent truth on the State’s record’ is a ‘mountain of surveillance that refuses to peak’. With this knowing pun with speak, it is clear that the archive, in spite of its being beyond the everyday public gaze, certainly speaks, overwhelmingly. The evidence of violence accumulates swiftly as the poem proceeds, somehow able to both invade the body and surround it – it is ‘wedged in [her] stomach’, ‘a silent and lonely road’, a ‘slag-heap’ and a ‘crime-scene’, then a lure in which she becomes trapped, ‘pressed between the disintegrating folds, about to be locked up. Filed away.’ As record of violence, it is itself violence, the irreversible cutting of whoever encounters it – ‘data-files that should have warned, likely to cause anxiety sharp enough to cut you in halves, quarters and one-sixteenths’.
Colonialism is disabling. The First Peoples Disability Network of Australia estimates that around forty-five percent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people live with a disability or long-term health condition, more than twice the rate of non-Indigenous Australians. Further, ‘it is not possible to extricate Indigenous experiences of having a disability from the often disabling experiences of being Indigenous in white Australia’ (Hollinsworth 3). ‘Archive-Box Transformation’ acknowledges not only the damage colonialism inflicts, but how even seeking to repair this damage can itself be traumatising.
Yet it is precisely at this seeming impasse that the poem turns a traumatic, apparent double-bind into something generative, becoming an instance of how a poem, rather than pursuing completion or repair, can embody rupture and thus utilise it. In the poem’s logic, disability is inclusive of ability; or, better yet, the forces that are disabling are themselves disabled. At sections four and five, ‘Archive-Box Transformation’ begins to resemble an erasure poem, phrases scattered across the page in blunt and staccato arrangements. In an erasure poem, certain parts of a pre-existing text are crossed out, so that a new text is created, as if the original harboured some secret body of writing, now exhumed. The poem has gone into the heart of what many have referred to as ‘the great Australian silence’ around dispossession and its legacies, and confronted its inability to retrieve the many bodies held therein (Stanner). Instead, it brings back gaps, fissures, ruptures on the page, the blank space of mourning. The short sentences which traverse these caesurae are determined, clear phrases of resistance. They weave absence and presence, offering ‘no endings [or] conclusions’, either thematic or grammatical (the sentences even lose their full stops at the end of section four). The bodies of the others do not appear – and yet, paradoxically, they do, in ‘blood memory’ and ‘haunting’, apprehended rather than comprehended (DeShong par. 1). Harkin affirms, ‘I was not there with them ... / but I can be’, by attending to the ‘hearts ... / beating / between fragile fading pages’. Hearts that can be felt not only within the pages of the archive, but her own. Perhaps even the readers’.
We are Now(here)
The use of a poetic form can generate a sense of the rupture of physical form. This can happen in the poem’s minute details, but also through its overall structure, which can operate as a kind of interrupting counter-voice. Powerful examples of this approach can be found in Dan Disney’s recent book either, Orpheus, a sequence of poems he has dubbed villaknelles, which attempt to ‘unconceal as if sublime snapshots of patterns glimpsing toward the real’ from within an anthropogenic era of alienation and instrumentalisation (coda).
These villaknelles adopt the villanelle structure – nineteen lines with a strict alternating repetition of two of the lines from the first stanza – in a deliberately imperfect manner. Disney retains the repetitions, with their sense of a subjectivity struggling to resist the imminent power of inescapable fact. These poems, though, appear more like deformed forms, bringing together their own idiosyncratic form and the fracturing of that form. Some exhibit a subtle strangeness – shifts in tone and syntax, or the intrusion of typographical symbols or oversized punctuation. Others are almost monstrous – spilling from one page onto the next, upside-down or side-ways, or exploding outward in radial lines. Refrains are often subtly rephrased, or are enjambed across lines. Each villaknelle is untitled, but includes the name of its main source in parentheses – mostly poets, but also artists, philosophers and theorists. And, though, while these poems are very directly and clearly haunted by these other voices, it is within their form that the most potent yet surreptitious interruptions occur.
Overall, either, Orpheus speaks from within the first-person plural, as a ‘we’ conscious of being acted upon by circumstance. Even where the poems speak in the first-person singular, or even without pronouns, they evoke the sense of people living together under the pressure of contemporary precarity, where late capitalism operates as a disabling force. This is particularly the case in the poem which begins with a line from an interview with John Berryman, ‘I don't think there can be generalisations at all’. Immediately after this paradoxical affirmation, ‘we’ are revealed as a ‘swarm’, ‘a flat presence around little portraits of ourselves’. As each refrain breaks again upon the poem – a regular interruption inherent to the villanelle form – abstractions and quotidian forces like ‘dull brick institutions’, ‘bad coffee’, ‘radio / murmuring in morphine clouds’ seem to reveal that particular subjectivity has been evacuated.
Embodiment, in Disney’s poems, is social, political, literary. What our bodies can do, or signify, depends upon the ways in which infrastructure, attitudes, laws, social supports and medical powers themselves create abilities and disabilities. As readers, we are able to apprehend this due to the ruptures built into the fabric of the poem, which reflect the ruptures of the social world.
Throughout the poems, as human agency appears blunted or diverted, various visceral motifs associated with disability recur – we are ‘a system of spasms’, ‘hysterical’, ‘nowhere with our skin on’. The poem shudders with such subtle yet potent disruptions to the text, through two interrelated ways – by showing how bodies make themselves known within disabling systems, and revealing the vulnerability of the poem’s textual surfaces. Mid-line, words become italicised, underlined or bold. Lines are punctuated with caesurae – empty brackets and ellipses, as well as larger, indented gaps – which don’t coincide with any natural pause in breath or meaning, so that the said of the poem seems to have been broken by a saying, either from outside or within. These fissures open up in the aftermath of two exclamations – ‘I’ll have, I’ll have’ and ‘There! There!’ – both of them compulsive in their repetitions, and pointing elsewhere with hunger or urgent interest. The stopping up of this desire with silence within the poem returns us to our selves, dislocated from our bodily actions, ‘waving theatrically ... our mouths smiling’.
At that point, most hauntingly, the text, at its end – ‘finally (I think), swarming, we are nowhere at all?’ – gradually fades away. The words ‘we are nowhere’ are pale, present but quiet, whereas the last two words are almost imperceptible. It is as if the poem’s attempts to include or incorporate the Other lead to the collapse of the poem’s material form. In the coda to either, Orpheus, Disney wonders if the villaknelles, through their ‘intersubjective stance’, could be experienced as ‘Eurydicean cry’. In the most common version of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, he creates his lyrical songs in the wake of her death, poems of love and grief that move both gods and humans. Here, it is not his words that hold the potential for transformation, but her words, her saying, which speaks through her absence, the ruptures of the poem.
The Other may not always be the obviously abject body which disrupts the figuring gestures of art, or the body within society’s numerous violences, obscured yet resisting. The Other may also be already so close as to be almost indiscernible. Here, the poem’s caesurae occur as formal interruptions, disturbances at the level of the words and of the text as a whole.
Kevin Gillam’s poem ‘propped’ is an acutely haunting example, emerging out of that otherness experienced in solitude, where the most intimate, material elements of experience break open. As we will see, though, the solitude is not quite solitude – the poem speaks from a hospital bed, in a liminal space, suspended between treatment and recovery, thinned.
in the dia
ry of clean be
ginnings. gift of
ponder? you make
an entry. plas
tic beneath sheet.
listen to that
a line about
clouds. absent but
of cirrus. night
nurse moth. how
light goes sepi
a before rain.
hovers. the smell
of wet earth. all
songs of loose pick
ets. heelless. how
the wind stole your
sold them elsewhere.
cuff, swab. then lat
pylons. much lat
er. fluky veins.
how you find your
self. drips. stooped ov
er. neap tide. lap
ping at these same
lines. feeding you.
to scree of now
from a vast un
mapped. inland sea.
Gillam lives with the condition acromegaly, the main symptoms of which include changes to bodily structure, overgrowth of bones, arthritis and fatigue. The poet has endured numerous operations and takes a substantial number of prescription medications. He knows the ways in which the medical system can be both life-enhancing (even life-saving) and depersonalising. Gillam describes the poem ‘propped’ as being ‘deliberately fragmented in structure’, woven through with ‘the whispers of now and of fate’ (in Taylor Johnson 179).
Here, the patient – who, clearly, does not need to be identified with, or limited to, the poet himself – considers whether medical intervention might mean a ‘clean beginning’ or simply an empty space, ‘gift of ponder’. With associative, daydream-like phrases, the poem juxtaposes musical and clinical motifs – ‘night / nurse moth’, ‘ache’s interval’, ‘cuff, swab’, ‘songs of loose pick / ets’, ‘plas / tic beneath sheet’ – in order to evoke how sensory experience is both amplified and interrupted by illness. Here, ‘you find your / self’, that ‘vast un / mapped, inland sea’, through ‘these same / lines’, implying both the intravenous drip line and the poetic line – lyric as treatment.
This would certainly be resonant enough in itself, but ‘propped’ generates its substantial, complex affect primarily through the way it imposes a strict formal grid on its language. The poem is composed entirely of four-syllable lines – a strict regime of surgical enjambment which slices open individual words – ‘be / ginnings’, ‘sepi / a’, ‘dia / ry’. The short sentences, usually between two and six words, also ensure that most lines not only end suddenly but are abruptly interrupted mid-line. The patient is revealed as Other, as precarious, through the imposition of an uncompromising form. Like medical authority, poetic form, when it reaches the particulars of language, of human encounter, tends to discover – or, you could say, create – deformity. Which is another way of saying that the poem affirms brokenness and eloquence at the same time.
We could say, then, that the poem, ‘propped’, stutters. It confronts the reader with the materiality of language, the fact that each word may need to be brought forth with great physical effort.6 It allows the intrusions experienced within bodies to intrude upon the reader’s experience of the language.7 These caesurae, then, act as scansion, invisible but viscerally felt. The stuttering provides ‘evidence of the body behind the “perfected” literary work’, and is ‘the phatic tuning that opens the channel to the other’ (Stecopoulos 22, 23).
But who is this other? The poem revolves around the second-person singular ‘you’. As readers, we might lean towards the comfort of this ‘you’ being the speaker within the poem, distanced from themselves by illness, or even a generalised ‘you’. Yet the sense of physical precarity and sensual awareness of the poem lulls the reader into placing themselves within it. Here, ‘the smell / of wet earth’ and ‘memory’s / pylons’ – familiar to us all – are intermingled with the clinical and the biological, so the reader is haunted by the possibility of being the patient. All the while, though, the language is continually disrupted – as those of us in the wards regularly are – so that the concrete particularity of the poem’s experience cannot be wholly appropriated. Reading, I may speculate what such bodily examinations might be like – I might already know something of them – but whatever understanding begins to accrue within me is revealed to be vulnerable, broken, incomplete.
It is this incompleteness of understanding, this interruption of the momentum towards understanding, that is embodied by the caesura. It evokes, without explicitly naming, the gulf between the self and the other. Another way of looking at it is to say that it disrupts meaning in order to introduce another kind of meaning, a saying rather than a said.
This other kind of meaning happens between the body of the reader and the body of (or in) the text. So, when a poem attends explicitly to embodiment, the capacity for the caesura to illuminate rupture or brokenness is multiplied.
This is not to say that disability is to be identified as a deficiency, or a lack. Disability is another way of being-in-the-world, one which persists within incompleteness as complete. So, the encounter with disability can be disturbing or challenging, especially for the able-bodied, but this is not because the encounter is with an absence, but a presence, one that cannot be contained.
In Robin M. Eames’ poem ‘Oracle’, the title suggests revelation. The scenario will be familiar to wheelchair users, and anyone visibly different – strangers probing for an explanation for unusual embodiment. The poem reveals the speaker as defiant, and persistently loving. Here, crucially, at the core of what is revealed is what is withheld.
I have perfected a certain busied appearance
mien of semi-urgent somewhere-to-be
wheeling too swiftly for strangers to stop and ask
What’s wrong with you ?
or perhaps What happened (to you)
(to your legs)(to make you different) ? or
Why (the chair)(your legs)(are you here)
(are you like this)(are you alive) ? ? ?
Each question pierces something deep inside me,
leaves me cradling a wound that I try to hide
for fear of being further exposed, of showing
weakness before a predator whose hunger for
justification won’t be slaked with my discomfort.
Against the slurry of abled inquisition I raise
my own defences: a certain glint in my eye,
a lifting of hackles, a tightness to the corners
of my mouth, and if these fail I have one final
weapon in reserve: a quizzical tilt and question
of my own: Why do you ask ?
All this not from spite but simply because my heart
is already so swollen with various woes that further
distension would make me unable to move at all,
pin me to my bed and prevent me from rousing,
and I love the world and do not want to leave it.
I want to give my heart more room for love
than grief. I want to keep space for warmth
and not that sudden pit of cold that fills my body
at these innocent cruelties. If they want to know,
then let them voice the truth. The madwomen of Delphi
delivered prophecies of nonsense phrases,
inscrutable, opaque. When asked impossible questions
they gave impossible answers.
You have to figure these things out yourself
To look at a poem – that is, before reading, to notice the shape of the poem – is already to apprehend some sense of what it is and does. ‘Oracle’, considered as a body, stands upright, confident and discrete, but certain features stand out, disrupt the visual field. The poem is a single stanza, with all of its lines of similar length, punctuated by white space at irregular moments. These overt caesurae draw the eye, like deformities, or like mirrors.
The poem is broken open by questions. What’s wrong with you? What happened to you? These questions aren’t presented as natural or able to be fluidly expressed. They are spoken hesitantly, awkward and staccato, as if aware of their own inappropriateness, then as bracketed variations on a theme, as if one able-bodied questioner contains a crowd of questioners. They embody ableism, casting doubt over the entitlement of the disabled person to be in public, or perhaps even to live. In the logic of ‘Oracle’, disruption and insight comes not from the questions per se, but from how such questions expose the social dynamic behind the encounter. Here are those ‘buried bodies’ which we referred to earlier, the disabled Other beyond appearances (Bagg, qtd. in Rosko and Vander Zee 220).
The poem goes further, though, to turn the tables on ‘abled inquisition’, asking ‘why do you ask?’. This, not out of any sense of revenge or malice, but radical self-care, and love for the world, a desire to claim belonging. ‘Oracle’ culminates, then, in the only kind of revelation that is possible between human bodies – ‘impossible answers’. As such, it brings to mind Levinas’s account of how the Other is encountered.
There is a defecting of the intentional correlation of disclosure, where the other appeared in plastic form as an image, a portrait. Phenomenology defects into a face, even if, in the course of this ever ambiguous defecting of appearing, the obsession itself shows itself in the said. The appearing is broken by the young epiphany, the still essential beauty of the face. But this youth is already past in this youth; the skin is with wrinkles, a trace of itself, the ambiguous form of a supreme presence attending to its appearing, breaking through its plastic form with youth, but already a failing of all presence. (Otherwise Than Being 90)
As a verb, to ‘defect’ is to abandon, desert, leave. As a noun, ‘defect’ refers to a failure, an imperfection, a weakness. Here, ‘defecting’ holds both related meanings. The Other withdraws from their appearance, from my image of them, into their actual self. They are engaged in a continual defecting into their singular body, so that what I perceive of them through my senses is them, and is also not them. I can only encounter the Other through my senses, but this ‘through’ implies not the provision of clear answers, but ‘nonsense phrases, inscrutable, opaque’ – an endless, unsettled exploration. Unlike how we may normally think of defects, as exceptional attributes which create noticeable problems, it would seem here that the defect hides behind appearances, and is also at the very heart of the human. To put it another way, poetry, through its embrace of formal breaks, its dizzying diversity of appearances and voices, brings us an apprehension of the experience of disabling forces – always bodily, relational and political – from which no-one can exempt themselves. Poems such as Eames’ prompt us to be open to those ‘new forms of embodied knowledge and collective consciousness’ that disability offers (Mitchell and Snyder 2).
A Total Rupture
All writing – poetry, novels, essays, exegeses, this writing here – is interrupted, opened to the other. Humanity, whenever it enters language, will somehow reveal itself as ‘a species that admitted at the interior of its logical space ... a total rupture’ (Levinas 19). One way in which the poem can embody this ‘crisis of subjectivity’ generated by the acute proximity of the Other, is to take up caesura as an integral element of its language and form.
Such interruptions can occur through many different technical means and with varying affects and implications. The momentary stutter in the middle of a line, a sharp intake of breath as I turn, self-conscious, to face someone whose body is routinely depicted as abject. Dashes, commas and punctuations, as it dawns on me that, as Holland-Batt writes, ‘she has kernelled another body in her body there’. The regular meter tripped up, as I gaze or stare, my own dimly-felt affinity with this other person blocking the flow and sense of the line.
Within a strict form, I might sense the interruptions of illness, my own body’s hesitations or efforts – or I might realise that I have not experienced this otherness. At least not yet. That kind of form, in its deformity, might fracture the texture of the poem – the text might crack, stutter, or even open onto blankness, towards that ‘vast un / mapped inland sea’ of bodily precarity which Gillam’s poem gestures toward.
Or, as in Natalie Harkin’s poem, I might be confronted by a disturbance in the appearance of the poem under the haunting pressure of history’s lacunae, which are not purely historical at all, but present here and now, within bodies ‘between fragile fading pages’. Similarly, Dan Disney’s villaknelles approach the contemporary moment, and are broken open by an Other voice. In these white spaces, pregnant with possibility, these bodies jolt us into a speechless grief or awe. My open mouth may then become the medium through which the Other might speak.
Critic Luke Carson quotes the German Romantic poet Hölderlin as writing that caesura ‘suspends aesthetic presentation ... so as to disclose “representation itself”’ (199). I have suggested, instead, that in the suspensions of poems, we experience the presence of the Other, seizing us from the inside. To be clear, though, this is not another variation on Arthur Rimbaud’s infamous ‘je est un autre’ (374). The Other is certainly acutely close, felt in the singular and visceral intimacies of the poem. But I am not the Other. The Other cannot be appropriated by me, only apprehended within a responsibility of fractures and fracturing. My knowing is interrupted – disabled – and the poem reminds me of this.
Jonathan Dunk writes of the final line of Paul Celan’s ‘Vast, Glowing Vault’ (‘The world is gone, I must carry you’) that ‘the Derridean conception of literature lives in this line’s caesural comma, and Celan’s negative sense of the poem as a way to nothingness implies the other connotations of the French word “trace” as a path or a track’ (Dunk). Yet, as productive as Dunk’s concept of the ‘negative lyric’ is, it fails to consider the possibility that the failure of the lyrical self may leave room not so much for nothingness, but for the other. Whether deliberate or inadvertent, the saying of the poem is this reaching.↩
Charles Bernstein also writes, ‘to think that there are only texts – disembodied strokes – is to imagine that a plant has no roots’ (A Poetics 185).↩
The relationship between obesity and disability is complex. I would argue, along with Brandon and Pritchard, that there are significant differences, but there is also much to be gained by disabled people and obese (or self-identifying ‘fat’) people working together.↩
There is a sense in which the other’s intimate inhabitation of my language is painful. As Adriaan Peperzak writes, ‘Saying and signification is an exposure through which the centre is transferred from me to the other ... I am delivered over to my neighbor. This passivity without choice can only be thought of as patience and pain or suffering ...’ (To the Other 221). This is the case whether the ‘we’ in the poem is taken to mean that the original speaker now hears the plural dead speaking, or has their own subjectivity inhabited by a singular person who has died.↩
Dysappearance is a term coined by Leder (1990) to describe those situations where the body, rather than its usual invisibility to the self, becomes present due to it reaching ‘the limits of vital functioning ... [or] affectivity’ – fatigue, pain, overwhelming emotion, and so on. I would argue that this happens to a much greater degree in the encounter with the other, and yet also there is an element of invisibility within the apparent heightened visibility.↩
In his A Poetics (222, fn. 3), Charles Bernstein refers to William Carlos Williams’ writing as being a ‘striking example of ... an antiabsorptive or disruptive device’, quoting Gilles Deleuze’s discussion of Godard – ‘not the literal speech impediment, but that halting use of language itself ... it’s a case of being a foreigner in one’s own language’. The distancing from disability is merited, but typical of the de-materialising tendency of many iconic theorists. Not all are disabled, of course, but our aesthetics owe much to disability.↩