Stephen D’Evelyn on Poetry, Discrimination, and Disability

Playing out on the hot quiet street in the summers when I was growing up, I used to get called Stevie Wonder Blunder.

When I was about fourteen, an enterprising reporter for our local paper, The Needham Times (Massachusetts), discovered that I had a habit of writing and publishing poetry (mostly in a Massachussetts-based newspaper for teen writing, The 21st Century, but also in a national student writing journal, Merlyn’s Pen). I remember the headline ran something like ‘No Pain No Gain Local poet says’.

I had in fact not said any such trite–or rhyming–thing. I HAD probably said something about writing regularly. Creative life is habit. But it is unusual, especially in a middle-class commuter town in the mid-80’s whose main claim to fame was excellence in youth soccer–that perhaps and the Carters clothes factory and outlet store.

When I got to school, I got a lot of attention, but it wasn’t very nice. I can’t remember now what people said, but I remember still that people were not very nice. They didn’t get it. I suppose it was partly that I was unusual and high-profile in being unusual. But maybe it was also that I had gotten publicity for doing something unusual and not understood.

Now, years later, I try to record and plumb the depths of these memories while our three small children play noisily here in our living room. I am drawn to a passage from philosopher William Desmond’s book God and the Between:

‘There is a poetics but no science of admiration. It is the happening of an opening, a self-transcending in a communicating with, or a going towards, the beauty or good of other-being’ (12).

To be honest, I am not completely sure WHY I am drawn to this passage. It is hard (right now) to give a full account, but perhaps it is because the bad attention of bullying–of marginalization–is a kind of counterfeit admiration, a reaction against the possibility of communicating with, or going towards, the beauty or good of other-being.

Yet of course ‘the beauty or good of other-being’ is not and cannot be ‘contained’ by ‘an other-being’, by a being who differs more obviously than others from a notional norm. Perhaps then marginalization is also a kind of fetishization, an impulse to focus on, reduce, control and eliminate other-being by pretending it resides in one person or group.

Perhaps this is part of what happened to me in the hot street and in the bright classroom. But I harbour no resentment. Part of the perspective of disability–a perspective that is surely also available from other forms of marginalization and other modes of experience too–is the impassive open gaze of apatheia, not quite our Englished apathy — but not feeling in the sense of hurting so as to react and respond. Not reacting seems like sealing oneself off. Surely this is quite different from opening to ‘a self-transcending in a communicating with, or a going towards, the beauty or good of other-being’.

Yet perhaps the apatheia of marginalization IS a not-responding to the stimulus of pain which would localize and fetishize the input–the communication to–our selves. Perhaps instead we can see a kind of openness to real otherness not localized or fetishized but truly other from our finitude, the finitude whose recognition enables us to be truly open, unflinching and yet r


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