Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer 2006, Volume 26, No. 3
<www.dsq-sds.org>
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies


BOOK & FILM REVIEWS

Ferris, Jim. (2005). Facts of Life: Poems. Madison, WI: Parallel Press. 33 pp. $10. ISBN: 1-893311-55-4

Reviewed by Harvey Molloy, Porirua College, New Zealand

Over the last two years there has been a resurgence of interest in the chapbook. Consider the advantages of the chapbook: easy to read in a single sitting, inexpensive to both publish and buy, and able to "cut to the chase" to the major concerns of the poet. Facts of Life shows just how much punch a chapbook can pack–this book isn't just a precursor to a longer, more fully fleshed-out volume but rather, is a small, powerful and accomplished volume of poetry in its own right.

The first poem, "Poet of Cripples," immediately establishes Ferris's intentions as a poet:

Let me be a poet of cripples,
of hollow men and boys groping
to be whole . . .

A common depiction of the cripple in literature is the broken child waiting to be cured or mended by a saviour – a saviour in the guise of a Jesus who implores the child to have enough faith to "Take up thy mat and walk" or else a wise, caring doctor who sometimes employs tough measures to "cure" the patient. Ferris explores the mythology of the cripple/saviour pairing in a strikingly personal manner. He never simply rejects the saviour figure as an oppressive myth; rather the poems take us through a journey of trying to reconcile what kind of God would single him out to wear a leg brace and would demand such faith from him ("When the healing fails/it is my fault for not having enough faith – mea culpa.") The poems explore whether the blaming of the cripple might be a response to the cripple's dangerous knowledge. "The Way of the Cross" begins:

In more myths than I can count the hero
back from the underworld returns lame,
scarred, crippled. Marked. Maybe this is why
they fear us so. . .

The cripple's knowledge is the fact of having wrestled with opposites, "with the dark and the light," and of having survived and returned. Christ here is the returned cripple. What the poet learns at the end of the volume is forgiveness: "And then, maybe, I can learn to forgive – forgive the healers, the normals, God – perhaps even forgive the crippled child who has carried my burden so long." The chapbook takes us from the "blame game" associated with condemning the cripple to the ongoing work of forgiveness: to blame God is merely to continue the game; God must be forgiven in order for the blaming to end.

Yet there is more to Facts of Life than a sustained and somewhat dour reflection on Christianity. Ferris, who won the 2004 MSR Poetry Award for his book Hospital Poems, is a communication scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has worked as a playwright, performance artist, and actor. His experience as a playwright allows him to orchestrate a variety of differing voices in the chapbook. There's the matter-of fact voice of "The Doctor" which recounts in a nonchalant fashion how the pleasant, foreign doctor breaks both his legs so as to fix them (the procedure doesn't work). In the surreal, adrenaline-fuelled "High Concept," the poet visits Los Angeles and calls the Screen Actors Guild on a whim to check if any actor is using his name. (The guild has a rule that no two actors can use the same name.) To his surprise he finds that his name has been used and he has an agent who has been waiting for his call – the agent thinks he's a big movie star. He shows his agent and the producers his leg brace –"no movie star wears a brace like this" – but they shrug it off as a stunt and he decides to go along with them and become an actor. The poem ends with Ferris becoming a successful actor who wonders

What's become of the other Jim Ferris?
Maybe he's back home, paying better attention
than I ever did to real life, my life.

That "real life" is a life not defined by the barriers erected by the leg brace and the persistent belief that the poet's legs must be fixed at all costs. Mobility is rarely discussed in these poems– the issue of how one gets about pales into insignificance compared to the problem of the brace as stigma. One of the cold facts of life is that if you wear a leg brace, "normal" people want to "correct" you and you spend a great deal of time pretending to be like everyone else. Facts of Life reminded me in a more direct way than any theoretical article that people labelled as different often have to learn and engage in the amateur dramatics of "pretending to be normal." The danger lies in pretending your real life away. This is a powerful, remarkable chapbook.





Copyright (c) 2006 Harvey Molloy



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