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‘All the living I have left to do’: a disability poetics of dwelling

We dwell in our bodies; our bodies in the world. Everything we experience of the world we experience in and through and with our bodies. Our relationship with our body informs our relationship with the world. For some people, this is easier to forget than for others. There are times I have wished I could relinquish tenancy of my body, and live easefully outwith its structural issues, but it is my home on the earth.

In the call for submissions for this issue, questions were posed about our relationships with the world around us, including a reference to Jillian Weise’s poem Biohack Manifesto. Weise’s poem critiques the ubiquitous linking of poetry and walking, specifically A.R. Ammons 1967 essay A poem is a walk, and details various ways Weise is told not to write about disability. In an essay commissioned by New Welsh Review in 2019 I used Biohack Manifesto to introduce disability poetics, and its challenges to the expectations of ecopoetry. In that essay I argued that there are many disabled poets writing about our relationship with the world, with environmental crisis and with the nonhuman, but that their work is not always recognised as nature or environmental writing. I argued that the exclusion and erasure of disabled people from the spaces of production of ecopoetry operates in parallel to the erasure and marginalization of ecocrip poetry.

Tentatively, I see signs of positive change. Two anthologies of ecopoetry published in 2020 – Rewilding: An Ecopoetic Anthology (Crested-Tit Collective) and the weird folds: everyday poems from the anthropocene (Dostoyevsky Wannabe) – set out to challenge typical ecological poetry. Both include poems by disabled, neurodivergent and chronically ill writers. Both also seek to respond to the rapidly changing nature of our relationship with place, dwelling and environment in this time of global pandemic, and localised lockdowns.

What might a disability poetics of dwelling in a time of pandemic look like, feel like, or say? I have found a poetics of resistance and perseverance, of anger, negotiation and joy. Travis Chi Wing Lau’s Quarantine Procedures works through all these phases via the dismantling of a flower to drink its nectar:

  1. Acknowledge that bodies continue working, sometimes on your behalf.
    34. Give thanks that your body continues to work.
    35. Implore your body to rest.
    36. Allow your body to resist you.
    37. Admit that you sometimes resist your body.

In the end, the speaker may “concede to a dreamful sleep” and “dream of that nectar we may all share again.”

Hannah Hodgson channelled her experiences of shielding into a lockdown diary of poems, in which the speaker “exist[s] in a vacuum of touch.”(What I wish I could say during this pandemic) She is isolated equally from the human and nonhuman:

I miss being hugged so have bought a weighted blanket. In f-act
I’ve also Blu-Tacked plastic star above my bed to imitate outdoors. They’re supposed to  glow in
the dark, but instead offer a slight hue to the night like heather on a
far-off banking.

(I Lost My Innocence in a Hospital Room, and No-One Handed It in)

Disability poetics is by its nature concerned with what Sarah Jaquette Ray and Jay Sibara call the “contingency between environments and bodies”. In the weird folds this manifests in poems in which the boundaries between the speaker and a dead nonhuman other blur, such as Jane Hartshorn’s Jellyfish in which the jellyfish’s “pale bruise of […] belly” merges with the speaker’s body. Alice Tarbuck questions: “I am not sure how many extinct things you can/ look at before you become one or/ before you are sick”, whilst Miranda Cichy switches places with an exhibit: “my skull is gaping on a rock,/ peeled like an orange, and its visitors/ imagine how I moved or ate or died.” As Stacy Alaimo argues: “When both impending storms and public air fresheners cause pain, diminish mobility, and create mental fog, the ‘environment’ cannot be readily divided into ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, nor are human bodies and minds separate from wider material inter- changes and interactions.” The pandemic has highlighted both the indivisibility of the body from the world, and the breadth and depth of ableism in all aspects of society.

ONS data shows that in the UK younger disabled women are 11.3 times more likely to die of Covid-19 than our nondisabled peers. By November 2020, two thirds of all coronavirus deaths in the UK were of disabled people. As the death toll rose, the BBC began to announce deaths like this: [N] people died, but [X] number of them had pre-existing conditions. As though our lives counted for less.

Responses to the pandemic have highlighted the extent to which ableist assumptions underpin environmental thinking. The triumphal cry ‘Nature is Healing’ and angry calls to give the same attention to environmental crisis as to Covid measures, whilst tens of thousands of (mostly disabled) people died, were mirrored by the proliferation of reductive think pieces by (exclusively abled) writers about the healing power of nature during lockdown.

Cat Chong highlights the shortcomings of language to protect us under these circumstances: “—because I am a crip of the covid century—language is not———— /—enough to facilitate survival” (entre chat et loup, from Rewilding). The existing language “relegate[s] the sick and the old as disposable—.” Poetry may act as a counter-language, or a counter-place, “where language goes to renew itself.” To write becomes an act of disruption, enabling “new ways of speaking”. (When I called my supervisor a weird ass mushroom I was talking about myself— from Rewilding). From this, hope mushrooms, still breathing. This recalls another Hodgson poem, in which the speaker distracts her GP from asking her to sign a DNR order (Do Not Resuscitate): “I refused/instead told him about starlings murmurating/ and all the living I have left to do”  (10 April 2020).

I find hope in the work of disabled writers, editors, and collectives, such as Not Going Back to Normal, which calls for a genuinely accessible post-Covid world: “We were never normal, normal never worked for us anyway, normal was already silencing our voices and killing our friends” (Sasha Saben Callaghan and Harry Josephine Giles). As Karen Jane Cannon argues in Rewilding, “now is the time for a new nature voice, one that aligns with our disabled world and is most able to understand and represent it” (Sightlines: Disrupting the Nature Narrative). I find hope in the refusal of disabled poets to be written out, of the conversation, of the world. We have a lot of living left to do. May we dwell with that.

Polly Atkin

Polly Atkin lives in Cumbria. Her second poetry collection Much With Body (seren, 2021) follows Basic Nest Architecture (Seren, 2017). She is working on a memoir exploring place, belonging and disability.

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