Pushcart XLIII: Oliver de la Paz, “Autism Screening Questionnaire – Speech And Language Delay” (poem) from Poetry, July/Aug 2017

1. DID YOUR CHILD LOSE ACQUIRED SPEECH?
 
A fount and then silence. A none. An ellipse
between — his breath through
the seams of our windows. Whistle
of days. Impossible bowl of a mouth — 
the open cupboard, vowels
rounded up and swept under the rug.
 
2. DOES YOUR CHILD PRODUCE UNUSUAL NOISES OR INFANTILE SQUEALS?
 
He’d coo and we’d coo back. The sound
passed back and forth between us like a ball.
Or later, an astral voice. Some vibrato
under the surface of us. The burst upon — 
burn of strings rubbed
in a flourish. His exhausted face.

Complete poem available online at Poetry

I was stuck on this poem. It’s moving – of course it is, how could it not be – and the use of unusual form is right up my alley. I started working on ways each “stanza” answered the question asked. The first question of losing speech is answered by a lovely image of “a fount, then silence”, and ellipse, words stored in a cupboard, vowels hidden. A question on repetitive language evokes a “pocket in his brain”, grooves, tracks. When asked if the child “speaks gibberish or jargon”, the speaker raises a defense (or admits denial) with “We make symbols of his noise”. One verse acknowledges the boy does not inhabit the human world of language, but sensation: His god is not our words…. / It is entirely body.” Frankly, on this topic, anything would evoke emotion, and these images bring truth to the questions. But I didn’t feel like I had it.

Then I did my usual google around for other ideas, and found a blog post from Dora Malech on the Kenyon Review website that crystalized the power of the poem: “The fairly flat interrogative language of the questionnaire serves to highlight the intense intimacy and arresting sensory detail of De la Paz’s own writing.”

In the immediate sense, the poem is a heart-rendering story of one family and one child. But in a much larger sense – and this may well be expanding beyond the poet’s intent – it’s a look at how every day, people try to deal with the questionnaires our medical system has come to rely on. The reductionism is mind-boggling, just as the world the speaker in the poem creates with his answers is worlds away from the yes/no answers the questionnaire demands. So much information is lost. A child whose parents don’t give the right answers might be shuttled into a fruitless category. Does any truth remain, except in the speaker’s mind?

And worse, does demanding answers that conform to research protocols change the perception of the parent? Will he edit his own perceptions, see what he’s told is important rather than what is there, see his son differently, as a series of yes/no answers, rather than as a person with his own approach to the world? Does that help the boy?

Zoom out even more, and it shows the consequences of reductionism in a data-driven society. Cost/benefit analyses result in lead in Flint’s water and a fire in Grenfell Tower, resulting in who knows how much loss in human potential, how much suffering to come. Students deciding on computer science majors when their hearts are in history or art might well result in lowered quality of work in all disciplines in the interests of selling more iPhones and creating a culture that sees – and respects – only cost, not value.

Every wrong form
is a form which represents us in our losses,
if it takes us another world to understand.

It comes back to a little boy who has something to say, a parent who can’t understand him, and how to bridge that gap. Maybe the answer is found in the gap between the questions and answers.

Pushcart 2015: Oliver de la Paz, “Boy. Child Without Legs. Getting Off a Chair” (Poem) from American Poetry Review, #42.3

Photographed 1887, Eadweard Muybridge
 
The boy raises himself up by his arms
and follows a sequence of intentions.
 
Thrusts his hips out. In this action,
he is no longer a boy but a bell. The clapper,
 
the weight of his leg stumps. He rocks himself
and sets his body down on his haunches.
 
Then draws his arms slightly up and forward
again. Palms against the wooden studio floor. Perhaps
 
he feels the grit of sand between his fingers
or the lacquer blackening his nails. Regardless,
 
the intent to move is paramount because the line
between frames demands consecutive action.

In 1872, Leland Stanford – railroad tycoon, former Governor of California, racehorse rancher, and educational benefactor (yes, that Stanford) – had a pressing question: does a horse in full gallop lift all four feet off the ground at once? This notion of “unsupported transit” seems to have been something like the extraterrestrial life question of its time. Stanford asked photographer Eadweard Muybridge to photograph such a stride. In 1872, this wasn’t technically possible, but Muybridge persevered, and in 1877, he produced the photographic proof. He might have managed it sooner, had he not spent some time murdering his wife’s lover and standing trial for the crime (he was found not guilty, ostensibly due to the unpredictable behavioral and emotional effects of a serious head injury sustained many years before). The project had widespread effects in the scientific and artistic communities.

In 1884, Muybridge began a similar photographic study, titled “Animal Locomotion,” for the University of Pennsylvania. Using similar photographic techniques, he captured motions of various animals, including people, doing everything from descending a staircase (yes, that’s where Duchamp got his inspiration; I told you, wide-ranging effects) to pitching a baseball and fencing. From the local almshouse, Muybridge recruited some disabled people – like the boy with no legs.

The poem in Pushcart is structured in couplets, although the online version shows a single block. I’m not sure if that’s an upload artifact or if one or the other source was edited, with or without the poet’s request. When I see couplets, I think of a relationship between two people, but I have to wonder here if here instead the two lines are about two legs, legs the boy doesn’t seem to miss all that much since he’s pretty good at getting on and off that chair. Maybe the poet doesn’t mind the missing couplets just as much. Intent is part of the poem as well, and I realize I’ve been wondering about intent as regards formatting, just by coincidence of having found the poem on an online feeder site.

Intent is front and center throughout. The chair is the only thing that has no intent in the poem. The boy, the camera, the photographer, all are present, active. The chair is merely there, the thing to mount and dismount. I wonder if there’s some connection to poetry here, but I can’t see a poet referring to a poem as such a passive thing, merely providing a scaffold for the subject, the writer, the pen to act upon.

The motion Muybridge sought to study is front and center in the language of the poem: the boy raises, thrusts, rocks, demands, shears, peals, sails, wheels, contorts. And, in the glorious finale:

                  .The reel
clicks its repetitions. While the breath of the man
 
behind the camera syncopates with the boy’s own
swaying legs. In this frame, he is sitting still.
 
In this frame he flies.

And then I get it: intent, and motion. In college, I spent a semester comparing action/intent indices of portions of Beowulf to dissect motivation and emotion, authority and passivity. Motion without intent is coincidence, accident; intent without motion is impotence. Put them both together, and you get power: legs or not, you can fly.

But the chair, passive and still: the chair still has to be there.