DSQ > Winter 2009, Volume 29, No.1

When I received a copy of Petra Kuppers and Neil Marcus's collection of poetry, I studied the book's front cover, struck by its artwork and title. A square black and white photograph of two nude lovers curled into each other, lying on bare dirt in dappled sunlight, emerges from a smoky grey background. We see the male figure from behind. His back is taut and angular; his head is nestled in the crook of the female figure's neck. The female figure is lying on her side; her soft curves contrasting and cushioning his angles. Below the photograph is the title: Cripple Poetics. Like the photo in which the figures' physicalities are juxtaposed, yet lovingly entwined, so are the two words in the title. Both words are capitalized, but Cripple is italicized and overlaps onto the word Poetics, which appears in more rigid block lettering. The cover's image and typeface beautifully prepared me to explore how the book's main subjects — cripple, love, and poetics — would collide, entwine, and ultimately redefine each other. I noticed the book's subtitle, A Love Story, does not appear until the inside cover, which I think is a wise choice because the book, which brings together an intimately personal collection of correspondence between the two lovers, extends far beyond their individual relationship to their network of friends, to the disability community as a whole, and to the nature of disability art and culture itself. Thus, this book will be of great interest to a wide variety of readers: poetry aficionados, disability studies scholars, activists, artists, as well as those who enjoy a great love story.

In the strictest sense, the word "poetics" refers an exploration of the form, philosophy, and fundamentals of poetry. But the word poetics may also allude to Aristotle's Poetics, which explores the drama's constituent parts: theme, character, plot, song, dance, and spectacle. Kuppers and Marcus take on all these meanings of term. Both are poets, but they are also well known as performance artists and dancers. The poetry has a performance quality to it; it dances from the page and begs to be read aloud. Throughout the book, the authors explore the interrelatedness between movement, speaking, and writing: Kuppers explains, "Poetry [. . .] is to me so much about the movement of tongue and throat and lungs, at least when I write and perform it. All writing is movement to me, all movement closely related to writing and speaking" (32). The poems explode beyond traditional and even experimental notions of the genre. Poems and poetic writing take the form of email messages, instant messaging, essays, letters, conversations, and general musings. Woven throughout the book are Lisa Steichmann's stunning black and white photographs of the couple, creating a visual analog to the book's themes.

The book is divided into sections that follow the trajectory of their relationship from its initiation to its deepening to an exploration of issues they both care deeply about. The book begins with a series of delightfully flirtatious poems, adolescent in their giddiness but tempered by the maturity of age with its attendant wounds, both physical and emotional. As their relationship deepens, they gently work their way into each other's lives. The two exchange erotic poetry as well, consummating their love in writing long before it is consummated in the flesh. Even the poems that are not explicitly sexual focus on the body itself, the phenomenology of its textures, pleasures, and pains. The couples explore their bodies, their actual wonderfully crippled bodies, not the sugarcoated body ideals of glossy fashion magazines or feature film. The metaphors they use when describing the body are situated in nature. Their bodies meld with the environment that literally surrounds them as well with those of their imaginations. In "The Metaphor of Wind in Cripple Poetics," which is the book's opening poem and that is repeated at its end, Marcus writes:

How can I speak of cripple and not mention the wind.

How can I speak of crippled and not mention the heart.

Heart, wind, song, flower, space, time, love. To leave

these absent is to leave cripple in stark terms.

As if we were made of medical parts and not flesh and

bone. (7)

Situating their bodies in nature, especially by means of text clearly marked by electronic modes of long-distance communication, resists cultural tendencies to medicalize the disabled body and deny its place in the natural world.

Most of the poems are not directly attributed to either author, but their different voices quickly emerge as they are strikingly distinct. Sometimes the authors' poetic correspondences appear side by side in different fonts on the same page or on different pages, and sometimes they intertwine and flow across more than one page together. This representational strategy mirrors the juxtapositions and melding of the authors' different modes of communication in daily life, their different ways of moving physically through the world, and their different world views and backgrounds. Both authors deal with significant pain and stamina issues. Marcus's physical impairments make typing and oral communication challenging. He is thus frugal with his words. His unique punctuation, spelling, and lexical shortcuts are retained in the publication, lending a stark, powerful beauty and personality to his entries. Marcus's poems are also laced with charming doses of crip humor. Consider the following short zinger:

Will you still love me

If I

Deposit celery


Your. . .


This poem and others pop up throughout the book, both surprising and delighting the reader. Kuppers's entries are as gorgeously effusive as Marcus's are spare:

How about a heart as wide and mobile as an octopus?

Arms reach out through breasts and spines,

caress, twist, touch fire and all elements:

pulled in, pulled out, pulsing

uncoil this somersault

this cycle of embrace

and find some space [. . .] (37)

Just as Kuppers' body curves around Marcus's in the book's cover photo, her writing seems to curve around Marcus's, elaborating, contrasting, and commenting upon it.

As their long-distance courtship evolves through the exchange of their poetic correspondence, they develop a method of writing collaboratively that accommodates one another's impairments while at the same time working out the give-and-take of their relationship. Kuppers writes to Marcus:

Maybe, if you are interested, when you feel well, we can schedule a day or so, and just email back and forth, short bits, writing collaboratively about these things and our knowledges, making our different voices resonant? You can write something short, and I can respond, expand, and you can then edit me, write into my words: a poetic collaboration where I will try to listen to all you are saying, you listen to me, and we can see if that is a good working method that does not tire you too much. We'll find a way. (32)

Accommodation expands beyond how they will navigate barriers to communication when they correspond about preparing for Marcus's visit to Kuppers' home in Ann Arbor. They write about how they will adapt their physical environment as well, from transportation to ramps to bathrooms to the hot tub. Accommodation in this book becomes so much more than making superficial changes to mitigate the effects of impairment. It becomes an act of love, a means of entering one another's worlds and one another's body. It becomes an art.

The reader becomes a collaborator with Kuppers and Marcus in the creation of disability art and culture in the process of experiencing this book. With no linear narrative to guide the reader, one is invited to fill in the gaps, explore the nuances of the various literary and cultural allusions, enter into their debate the use of the word cripple, and argue about the poetics of disability art and culture. The reader must continually make choices about how, literally, to read the poetry. In some of the poems, the way in which the words are laid out on the page offer choices about the sequence in which to read the text, and meaning changes depending on the route one's eyes follow. One poem can become many based on a particular reading. Over the course of my readings of this book, I have mined new meaning and discoveries about poems I thought I had understood. Reading the book also becomes physical. In places, one has to actually wrangle with the book, turning in vertically as the text changes its orientation. Sometimes, Kuppers and Marcus address correspondence to friends that almost serve as theatrical asides, like one or the other or both has broken the proscenium frame and directly addresses the audience with interior thoughts, secrets, or revelations. The reader becomes part of the couple's network of friends, roommates, scholars, artists, medical professionals, and strangers that inspire them and collaborate in art making.

In this short review, I have only been able to offer you a taste of what this collection has to offer. The territory that this book covers is vast and inviting. I am looking forward to sharing this book with my students in a course called "Disability and Representation" that I am teaching this semester. For those thinking about using this book in class, consider sharing the following useful website with your students: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~petra/cripple.htm. The site addresses "frequently asked questions" about the authors and their work. Enjoy the authors' invitation to share in the creation and revaluation of cripple, love, and poetics.

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Copyright (c) 2009 Carrie Sandahl

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ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)