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Poetry offers us a place for powerful reckonings with the body    
Mon, 02 November 2020



Annually, from 3 November, disability activists invite South Africans to reimagine the world for a month, culminating on 3 December in the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. This is an opportunity to remove our blinkers and to listen to the experience of those with bodies unlike most people’s. 
 
South Africa has exceptionally gifted poets who write about their disabilities with supreme artistry, avoiding the trope of the “Hallmark card” which aims to instil inspirational and sentimental messages romanticising the tragic lot of people with disabilities.
 
Helen Moffett is an award-winning poet, novelist, editor, teacher and activist. She appears on the AVBOB Poetry’s YouTube channel too. Helen is hearing impaired and lives with chronic debilitating pain. Her poem, ‘Salvage’ is published in her most recent collection, Prunings, with the typeface struck out, as below. 
 
What do other people do
when they’re in dreadful pain?
Not the kind that requires morphine; 
but the sort for which there is no cure
except time; and that’s never any good
at the time. 
I remember a bereft friend, 
moving from room to room,
indoors to outside, sitting, then standing, 
pacing up the stairs and down, 
hoping the brute dog might lag
momentarily behind. No such luck.
 
This visual effect echoes the self-erasure that is expected by a society defined by normative bodies: Be quiet! Get out of the way! Suffer in silence! Don’t disturb my normality! Trying to read a text that is crossed out gives the so-called able-bodied reader a brief visceral experience of struggling to read a text, in the same way that Helen must struggle to lip read.
 
Jacques Coetzee is a singer and songwriter for Red Earth and Rust. His debut solo poetry collection, An Illuminated Darkness, will soon be published in Braille by uHlanga Press and BlindSA. In a New Frame article on this remarkable event, Megan Ross, describes the collection as a “powerful reckonings with the body and blindness, and all that orbits it.”
 
The AVBOB Poetry Competition matters to Jacques. “It is an astonishing platform enabling people to share difficult and ambiguous emotions. Grief and disability are both things that don’t go away.”
 
He noted increasing pressure on people to be okay. “We feel we must tell upbeat stories of survival and recovery. The more long-term discomfort, the way disability never actually leaves you is less welcome. It’s harder to witness, to endure. The temptation to put an upbeat, positive spin on stories about disability is almost irresistible.”
 
Jacques continues, “On a national level, ideologues and nation-builders tend to promise easy answers that steer clear of trauma and loss. Poetry is helpful here because it provides a map into difficult territory and a way of enduring with discomfort. AVBOB takes this a step further by creating a shared, safe space to talk about difficult topics. Loss and discomfort are great equalisers. I can’t think of any other ritual that works to unite people across linguistic boundaries. It’s a remarkable achievement.”
 
Kobus Moolman is a giant in the South African poetry landscape, with many awards to his name and his eighth volume of poetry, The Mountain Behind the House, due out during Disability Awareness Month. Professor of Creative Writing at the University of the Western Cape, Kobus won the Glenna Luschei Prize for A Book of Rooms, which explores the experience of growing up and living with spina bifida. 
 
“Poetry is a way of paying attention and making sense of the world,” says Kobus. “It is a way of drawing attention to what it feels like to be alive in the world... Often I do not know what I think or feel about something until I have put it into words on the page. Then I can see it and understand it.” 
 
“Poetry is an embodied art,” says Kobus, “It comes from instinct, from the blood and the breath. It does not come from the head. Or from the heart. Poetry is a hand that reaches out through the darkness and the aloneness of suffering. It touches you and says that you are not alone, really, that other men and women have been there, that you are not a freak or even really different. Poetry makes us human. It welcomes us into our common humanity.”
 
In other words, poetry gives us a place where we can bring our misshapen selves and our grieving psyches, our mental health injuries and our body’s wounds. We find a space, both literal and metaphoric, that accommodates our process and language. We are transformed when we discover the place where we fit in. 
 
The AVBOB Poetry Competition welcomes poets living with different bodies who write in all 11 official languages. Visit www.avbobpoetry.co.za to check the rules and enter your poems before 30 November 2020.



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