BOA Editions, Ltd./2019/88 pp/17.00
Reviewed by Veronica Mattaboni
I find myself meditating on the phrase “don’t let your disability define you” since reading Jillian Weise’s poetry collection Cyborg Detective. It’s a phrase I’ve come in contact with many times while working with students with disabilities, and the involuntary cringe it elicits is always just as potent.
I am thinking about the way this phrase is positioned as though it is in the best interest of disabled people. I am thinking about the fact that this advice is most often given by those who do not have disabilities. I am thinking about how this phrase serves only to generate shame toward disabilities, implying that a person is lesser for being affected by a disability.
In this unapologetic powder keg of poems, Cyborg Detective digs deep into this concept of shaming people away from their disabilities under the guise of helping them. Nothing short of a swift boot to the teeth, Weise’s poetry collection pulls no punches in its scathing review of ableism in the canon of poetry and the world at large. Weise is a long-time poet, performance artist, and disability rights activist contributing to the larger conversations on disability through her book, essays, anthology contributions, and satirical alter-ego Tipsy Tullivan. This collection follows the success of her previous books, The Book of Goodbyes (2013), The Colony (2010), and The Amputee’s Guide to Sex (2007, 2017).
With poems that take up space, make prolonged eye contact, and disrupt your regularly scheduled programming, Cyborg Detective takes a good hard look at all the ways ableism manifests in poetry and literature. This collection covers everything from the way disabled characters are personified and characterized by poets without disabilities to how disabled poets are asked to write, speak, and be less disabled in their work.
This book is a spit in the face to every person who has said “don’t let your disability define you.” In Weise’s collection, the speaker empowers herself with her disability, refusing to make herself manageable for the onslaught of mentors, editors, directors, and other authority figures that ask her to be less visibly disabled in her work. These lyric and narrative poems range in length, some swallowed quickly in one bittersweet bite, such as “The Early American Hour:”
The Puritans often
thought about wolves
and thickets full of girls
figuring out how
as early as 1645.
You could pretend
not to do anything.
You could share
Some poems can be chewed over for pages in a stream of consciousness collage, such as “On Closed Systems,” that begins in one rabbit hole and exits from another. As the title suggests, the speaker in many of the poems identifies herself as a cyborg, a posthuman being that is part woman, part machine, part poet, part disability, part software, part romantic, and all fury. She is emboldened by the very anger and frustration that she is told to tone down.
Weise dismantles demeaning roles and images disabled people are pigeonholed into, such as damaged goods, casualties of tragic and unsatisfying romance, emblems of helplessness. Instead, the speaker of the poems overtly calls out these images for what they are—and more importantly, what she is not. In poems that show complex love, a gun-toting poet, and a series of strongly-worded postcards tearing apart an ableist poem, the speaker forces the reader to see her for the firecracker that she is. These poems are then followed up with one of the more dire reasons why she must be as strong as she is: the abuse disabled people face around the globe on a daily basis. Perhaps the most harrowing piece of the collection, “Attack List,” consists of headlines of various crimes against disabled people, including these statements:
Disabled woman attacked from behind by robber
Staff at NY facility for disabled sued over rape
Are you disabled? Now your boss wants to know
The poem runs three and a half pages long, single-spaced, and is absolutely sickening to read—which is, of course, the point. This poem is, unfortunately, only the beginning of this list. The list lives on via Twitter at twitter.com/AttackList where Weise continues to collect headlines in real time.
Some of the most enduring lines in this collection come from the poem “Imaginary Interview,” in which the cyborg speaker is interrogated about her status as a disabled person by some unknown entity.
Q: Are you disabled?
A: It depends. I need context.
Q: Are you rendered incapable?
A: I am awake and sober.
Q: Are you limited by parts of the body?
A: My arms are not wings.
Here, Weise troubles and unravels the concept of disability, broadening its definition. Reminiscent of a quote frequently attributed to Einstein, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid,” these lines conjure a scenario in which any person could be considered disabled given the right context. It asks who is deciding under what context we consider others to be disabled. Who is the unnamed interviewer trying to goad the speaker into labeling herself by their standards, and why do they get to create the standards in the first place?
The speaker goes on to explain how the government decided she was too educated to be considered disabled anymore. She contemplates how, to the government, disability is synonymous with uneducated, impoverished, and blue-collar. In these lines, she rewords the letter revoking her rights to accommodations:
. . . If you want to
protest, if you want to continue our relationship, then un-
educate yourself. It would be helpful if you worked at a factory,
worked at a factory, or could not find work. It would be helpful
for something inside you to hurt.
The interviewer then attempts to have the speaker describe or define what it is like to have a disability. The two voices go back and forth in a series of inquiries about how she came to be a cyborg and possess her cybernetic prosthetic leg. Eventually, in a plea to have more control over her body, the speaker comes to this description:
. . . Let’s say you
purchase a BMW convertible, which costs the same as this leg.
Say you want to put the top down. But in order to do that,
you have to drive to the shop, talk to the mechanic, take off
your pants, and then he, with his key fob, puts the top down.
It is still sunny out. Are you happy?
This collection does so much work to dismantle and disrupt ableist practices, particularly when it comes to poetry and literature. Never once does Weise flinch while describing what it is to be a poet with disabilities writing in the genre of disability poetics. Never once does she adjust herself or soften her metaphors for the comfort of the reader. This collection forces us to sit in our discomfort and become familiar with it, learn its name.
Veronica Mattaboni is a poet, editor, and writing coach living in Pennsylvania. She will receive her MFA in poetry from Spalding University in June of 2021 and is the editor in chief of Peach Velvet Mag, a themed zine press.