Planet of the Blind

On Poetry and the Politics of Breathing
by Stephen Kuusisto

“My name is DJ and I am taking a trip of a lifetime.”

The line above appears in the journal of DJ Savarese who is the co-author of the memoir Reasonable People which has just been published by The Other Press. The sub-title of the book is as important to culture as the title itself: “On the meaning of family and the politics of neurological difference”. This timely book is about the Horatian life, “Life” written with a capital “L”. Accordingly it is about family and the life of the mind; about poetry and the fierce resistance to stereotypes of people with autism.

Assuredly one can think of dozens of additional sub-titles for the book: Living Outside their Boxes; Unraveling the Outworn Tapestry of Academic Autism; A Prayer Wheel by Two Poets; or The Road of Salt and Honey.

This is a memoir about “hard traveling” as Woody Guthrie would say, and yet it is far more than a narrative of trouble and triumph. The poet, Ralph James Savarese, skillfully tells the story of his adoptive son DJ’s former life of physical and intellectual abuse and in turn and almost seamlessly tells the story of how he and his wife Emily must grow both intellectually and emotionally and yes, politically, since DJ’s autism is the kind of disability our culture has misunderstood throughout history.

Ralph James Savarese is a poet who teaches creative writing and literature at Grinnell College. With the publication of Reasonable People he joins a group of poets who have written nonfiction accounts of disability that includes Lucy Grealy, Nancy Mairs, Mary Karr, Kenny Fries, Michael Berube, and Audre Lorde just to name a few. Reasonable People is a landmark book, both in its poetic appreciation of what Carl Jung’s followers call “depth psychology” and for its tough minded counter-statement to a longstanding view that autistic people will, necessarily have limited epistemological options in life. Such views are the product of neo-Victorian science and they depend on the inability of individuals to resist easy classifications. Such resistance is, of course, the business of poetry, that “sweat of the heart” as the poet Marvin Bell would call it.

This is a book about “joint attention” as Emily, Ralph, and DJ learn to appreciate the complex interactions between the self and the other, between the moment and what lies just behind us or straight ahead. The book is about the dark theater of autism and the academy. It is about the flesh of belief. Beyond this I will tell you nothing for I dislike book reviews that retell the story.

Although this is a book about poetry and parenting it is perhaps most of all DJ’s own book for it ends with his journal notes and poems. He is now a young man who speaks for himself and who aims his own telescope at the full moon. Again, and not wishing to give away too much, let me simply quote one of DJ’s own poems which appears near the end of the book. It is as fine a definition of poetry and the life of the mind as I have ever seen:

He was so brave that free people
Saluted him every time he passed by.
So brave, if you didn’t really know him
You’d think he was a god.
So brave, the tests he took couldn’t
Scare him.
And so brave, all the dreadful creatures
That’s brave!