Monday, October 22, 2012

The Hospital Poems

Dr. Jim Ferris is the chair of the Disability Studies Program at the University of Toledo in Toledo, Ohio. He is also the author of several books and journals on poetry and disability.

His celebrated creation The Hospital Poems is the winner of the 2004 MSR Poetry Book Award and is a collection of poems published as a memoir to recall his childhood spent in the hospital. Many of these poems go deep inside Ferris's own journey. Ferris' poems range from humorous, to agitation, and optimism. His most well known poem, "Poet of Cripples", has gained critical acclaim for speaking out against the "fix-it" establishment.

Kathi Wolfe (Freelance Writer/Poet) reviews his work in Disability Studies Quarterly:

Anyone who believes W.H. Auden's dictum that "poetry makes nothing happen" will be shocked into disbelief on reading The Hospital Poems by Jim Ferris. Ferris' searing, Whitmanesque volume of poetry, winner of the 2004 International Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award, is a sharper instrument of social change than any political revolution.

Ferris, who has a mobility disability, spent much of his childhood and adolescence in the hospital. The Hospital Poems is a memoir in poetry about this experience. Disability policy, architectural and attitudinal barriers–even a seminal civil rights law like the Americans with Disabilities Act–can seem like distant matters impacting only other people somewhere "out there" to anyone untouched by a disability. Yet, The Hospital Poems, by turns trenchant, defiant, and poignant, makes the tyranny of the "normal" up close and personal for readers with or without disabilities. From the opening poem "A Poet of Cripples," where Ferris, echoing Whitman, says, "Know that you are a cripple too.\I sing for cripples, I sing for you," to "Mercy," where the poet says of his non-disabled eighth grade classmates visiting him as their good deed for the day ("Blessed are the merciful, for they shall have mercy.\ But not from me"), The Hospital Poemsinvites, even compels, readers to share the author's anger, shame, pain, and evolving disability pride. Only the most intractable reader will come away from this work unchanged.

There are three reasons why The Hospital Poems is an almost breathtakingly powerful work. First, the volume is not a disease-of-the-week, let's-have-a-pity-party-every-page, tear-jerker. Ferris, who teaches disability studies and communication arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, doesn't turn the memories of his youth into an "inspirational cripple" tale or a medical case history. When Ferris uses medical terminology, it is with, almost savage, irony–as in "Standard Operating Procedure," a poem, addressed to a surgeon about to operate on a boy. "Tell him this is for his own good, this will hurt you more than him....Then press the drill to his thigh and squeeze the trigger," the poet writes, "....He won't like it much, children are like that."

The Hospital Poems tells the story not of a saintly child but of an ordinary boy who is under the auspices of doctors, nurses and other adults who want to "'fix him' so he'll look 'normal.'" Anyone marginalized because of disability, race, sexual orientation or other difference will identify with the patient in the poem "The Coliseum." A boy is standing before the doctors who are conducting rounds in the hospital. "You are a specimen for study, a toy, a puzzle—they speak to each other as if you are unconscious," the poet writes. Though, anger and sadness are found in many of Ferris' poems, The Hospital Poems has much humor in it. "Fear at Thirteen," which describes an adolescent's fear of having an erection during surgery, is a mordantly funny poem. Ferris writes, "hatchet men waiting to cut you, and what you fear most in all the world is that you'll pop a boner and die embarrassed on this green yet sterile field." In the poem "Robert Walton," the young speaker of the poem can't understand why Robert, another boy in the hospital ward, calls him a "hoar" when he's angry. "I have no idea what this word might mean so I look it up, puzzle over the spelling," Ferris write, "still can't understand why\he would call me a kind of frost."

Another reason why the poems in The Hospital Poems are so evocative and memorable is that this is not a politically correct volume. Though filled with a disability rights perspective and utterly lacking in pity or sentimentality, this work does not pretend that there isn't emotional or physical pain in Ferris' childhood world. In "Meat," the poet, recalls his hospital mates returning to the ward after surgery: "If it's your friend you go by his bed to check on him.....When we pass by, even if you hated the guy, we take care not to bump the bed." In "For His Own Good," one of the most poignant poem in the collection, Ferris reflects on what it was like for his parents when he was an infant, "and I wonder/what it must have/been like to/give your baby/to the doctors./...What do you tell the brave little soldier?"

Finally, The Hospital Poems will be indelibly imprinted on the minds and hearts of readers because the poems in this volume are superbly crafted. Though some of the poems are written with deceptive simplicity, anyone trying to write verse of this quality would fail by a long shot. A couple of poems in this book are too prosaic to be effective poetry. "From the Surgeons: Drs. Sofield, Louis, Hark, Alfini, Millar, Baehr, Bevan-Thomas, Tsatsos, Ericson, and Bennan" is one example. This poem, in the form of a case history, gives the reader insight into the clinical jargon that dehumanizes people with disabilities. Yet, the relentlessness of the medical argot (of such lines as "Physical examination. Head. There is nothing abnormal about the head.") becomes repetitive and numbing. Even the most sympathetic reader may feel at this juncture as if he or she were being, figuratively, beaten over the head by the poet's message. Fortunately, Ferris' forays into preaching are rare, and this is a minor quibble. Ferris is one of the most talented of the new generation of crip poets and artists. The Hospital Poems does what good art does best: engage, entertain and create cultural change.

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