Message 140, Summer Poetry to Enlighten and Inspire: Jim Ferris and the Voice of the Challenged, 8-18-13jim ferris


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During this month of August, I’ve used three different contemporary poets to not only highlight great poetry, but to also lead us on a path of empathy for others.  Two weeks ago we looked at Richard Blanco and his poem about his immigrant mother.  Through his simple but beautiful verse, we read of a gay son’s love for his mom but also his pride in her American story – her life as an immigrant.  Last week, we looked at a poem by Pulitzer Prize winning poet Rita Dove and her distinctive way of telling stories with her poems – ones that prompt a reader to feel and experience universal emotions.

Today, we consider the poetry of Jim Ferris to take us on a journey of empathy for the so-called physically and mentally challenged.  Ferris is the winner of the prestigious MSR award for Poetry and he is the acclaimed leader of what is now referred to as “disabled” or “crip” poetry.  This artistic movement, which is joined by many other disabled writers, seeks to reorient thinking and understanding about those who are physically or mentally different.  While some decry the fact that such poetry calls attention to disability, others have praised this expanding genre as a unique way to change the perspective and understanding society has for the handicapped.

Ferris is most known for, and won his poetry award for, his book entitled Hospital Poems which details the many years he spent as a young boy and teenager in hospitals undergoing surgeries and treatments for a birth condition of one leg significantly shorter than the other.  The experiences he underwent were painful, humiliating, emotionally scarring and mostly unsuccessful.  He still has great difficulty walking.  Most of all, the poems call attention to how he was treated, and how many disabled persons are still treated, by the medical community and by society at large.

In a poem entitled “Meat” he describes how he and other young patients were literally treated like slabs of flesh – processed through operating rooms without any consideration of their humanity.  In the poem “Standard Operating Procedure” he mockingly offers advice to the surgeons who treated him, “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….He won’t like it much, children are like that.”

In another poem entitled “Coliseum” he writes of being subjected to the grand rounds of doctors as they discussed his case – analyzing how to make Ferris supposedly “normal”.  The poem resonates with all who do not measure up to what society expects – and how professionals seek to make them acceptable to a culture that hates abnormality.   “You are a specimen for study,” Ferris writes in the poem, “a toy, a puzzle—they speak to each other, as if you are unconscious.”

In another poem, Ferris writes of a young teenage boy’s nightmare – a poem that adds mordant humor to the indignities he faced.  He writes in a poem entitled “Fear at Thirteen” how he felt as he lay naked on an operating table just before a surgery (and forgive me if these words offend you): “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.”

Finally, in a poem entitled “Mercy”, Ferris describes a time when all of his eighth grade classmates visited him in the hospital.  All being non-disabled, his fellow students approached him and treated him like an object of pity – one to be gawked at, whispered over and used as a way to claim a good deed for the day’s effort.  He writes about them in that poem, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall have mercy.  But not from me.” 

W.H. Auden, the famous writer, once asked, “What good is poetry?  It accomplishes nothing.”  With all due respect to him, I totally disagree.  Ferris’ poems are not intended to elicit pity nor are they written as a way to wallow in the horrors of what happened to him.  Rather, they stridently decry the inhuman treatment shown to most who are disabled – the condescending sympathy offered, the view of them as different, non-functioning, and defective, the interaction with them that is devoid of normalcy and the everyday dignity most others enjoy.  Instead, Ferris takes us on a journey to the hospitals of his youth, into the crowded wards, the operating rooms, and the theatre like arena in which he would stand to be studied and probed as if he were a specimen or, as he writes, a piece of meat.  Ferris wants us to feel the humiliation, to understand the indignity, to know of the indifference with which not only he has been treated, but so too are all other physically and mentally challenged persons.  Ultimately, like the other poets we’ve looked at, he calls us to understand and empathize with the disabled – not to offer sympathy or meager pity – but to fully know and understand how they feel so that they will be treated not as outcasts or objects of compassion – but as fully human worthy of respect.

And that is the fundamental message of Jim Ferris’ poetry.  He demands we understand the difference between sympathy and empathy.  He asks that we treat the disabled or any person, for that matter, much like we would treat a person who has fallen into a deep pit.  Our inclination will be to stand around the rim of the pit and peer down on the poor soul at the bottom.  We’ll offer the usual platitudes of sorrow and perhaps a bit of encouragement.  We offer our sympathy.  But, the person at the bottom of a pit feels little solace – how can we at the top understand his or her perspective and feelings?

On the other hand, as Jim Ferris implicitly asks in his poetry, we can figuratively climb down into the pit with the person who suffers or is in a difficult situation.  Down there we can understand what it feels like to be in a pit, to hope for a way out and to feel fear.   So too can we offer tangible help to the other – we’re with them, beside them and fully aware of how they suffer and what their needs are.  That’s the difference between sympathy and pity versus empathy – to undertake the time and the effort to listen, feel and experience the plight of the other.  That is what we are called to offer the disabled and, indeed, all people.

When it comes to being physically or mentally challenged, Ferris reminds us in one of his poems how we can empathize.  As he writes, we too are disabled and we, too, are challenged.  For the poem we consider for today, read it with me on the back of your programs as I read it aloud…



Poet of Cripples

By Jim Ferris

Let me be a poet of cripples,

of hollow men and boys groping

to be whole, of girls limping toward

womanhood and women reaching back,

all slipping and falling toward the cavern

we carry within, our hidden void,

a place for each to become full, whole,

room of our own, space to grow in ways

unimaginable to the straight

and the narrow, the small and similar,

the poor, normal ones who do not know

their poverty. Look with care, look deep.

Know that you are a cripple too.

I sing for cripples; I sing for you.

          Ferris’ poem draws heavily on the influences of other famous poets.  It is highly evocative of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass poems – ones where he writes of the song of the body, of its essence, of its oneness with nature and creation.  So too does Ferris use references from T.S. Elliot’s poem “Hollow Men.”  As Elliot wrote in that poem, “We are the hollow men, We are the stuffed men, Leaning together, Waiting and leaning, drawn, they stand in that – Shape without form, shade without colour, Paralysed force, gesture without motion…”

As humans, we worship the body while taking healthy bodies for granted.  We idealize the body’s symmetry, its form and its vibrant, sensual beauty.  For bodies misshapen by disease, birth anomalies, injury, or age, we are reminded of death, of the aging process and our fears of them.  And so we diminish the disabled bodies.  They are imperfect.  They are to be pitied.  They are to be studied, worked upon and made supposedly normal.

But Ferris reminds his reader that we are all hollow people.  And, we all have a void within – the inner cavern that we long to fill, the void that defines how we too are crippled and challenged.  Even as Ferris is physically challenged, many of the so-called normal people are challenged by inner demons, inner deficiencies, inner fears, inner depressions.  What is your void that needs to be filled?  What is mine?

As Ferris writes, the disabled have the unique gift of knowing the void they must fill.  They long to be whole, to feel human and able bodied.  As I so often say, such feelings as those come only through one’s mind and cognitive perceptions.  As one thinks, so one is.  While I might smugly reassure myself that I am healthy and abled, I must see the crippling void in me –  my psychological feelings of inadequacy and an insecure desire to be liked and loved.   The physically and mentally challenged persons, however, are daily confronted with their handicap.  It can’t be overlooked or ignored as I do with my more hidden challenges.  And so, as the poem tells us, the disabled find ways to fill that inner void – their missing piece – with a sense of contentment, with strength, confidence, and acceptance in who they are.

How many people, how many of us, struggle with handicaps of addiction, depression, arrogance, materialism, inadequacy, work-a-holism or anything else to fill their inner voids and missing pieces?  As Ferris writes, we are all crippled.  We are all stunted and deformed.  We all need to find the kind of personal awareness that comes from knowing ourselves, from finding self-assurance, inner love and the satisfaction that brings what I repeatedly wish for me and for you – peace and joy.  As the Buddha taught, when we let go of what we lack or what we wish for, we will find that despite our disabilities we are rich beyond our dreams – in life, in friends, in family, in the inner security that surpasses all understanding.

Jesus also taught that we fill our inner voids not by trying to be good enough, not by wealth, not by being hypocritically pious, but instead by claiming and owning our imperfections and our flawed humanity.  We find the god within that is strong, capable, giving, loving and good.  No longer do we fill our voids with false idols like drugs, alcohol, relationships, work, religion or anything else.  We all have feet of clay with our missing pieces and disabilities.  We are born and shaped as the creator made us.  As Ferris says, all humanity is crippled and yet all people are beautiful and worthy in their imperfections.

It is in that light that we identify with the physically and mentally challenged – people like Jim Ferris.  In this recognition of our own challenges, we can discover our ability to empathize with the disabled and understand their perspective.  Such an enlightened and inspired attitude enables us to love them as fully human and to stop our condescending, superior attitudes.  By recognizing the many ways we ourselves are challenged, we can see and understand their struggles.

I have shared with a few of you my challenges the last two months in assisting my parents as they move.  What I have not mentioned to many, and not in here, is how I and my siblings have been confronted during this move with my mom’s advancing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.  She is slowly fading away from us, becoming a confused, frightened and overly paranoid person.  This move has only added to her confusion and fears.  She’s become combative and angry at me, my siblings and my dad as we helped her move – as we arranged with movers, charities and an estate sale company to transport or dispose of belongings.  Her loss of short term memory and cognitive function has sped up with all of the trauma in this move.

And, she should have stopped driving months ago but she insisted she was fine.  This past Monday she was in a bad car accident that she caused – banging and bruising herself terribly – but thankfully not hurting anyone else.  She admitted on the spot that she should no longer drive and yet that has caused her still remaining faculties to become deeply depressed – her whole life, her home, her mind, her independence all slowly slipping away.

As with most of the messages I deliver, I speak to myself as well as to you.  I’ve had to reflect most especially this month on what I’ve encouraged in here – to find empathy for others. In saying a slow goodbye to my mom, in seeing her terrors, frustrations and combativeness for a move she wasn’t able to understand, I had to let go of my simple sympathy and occasional frustration with her.  Doesn’t she understand what we are doing and why?  No, she doesn’t.  Her whole world was turning upside down.  She’s moving permanently away from her home of half a century – the house she made her own, the house in which she made a family, the sense of place she created.  Many of her belongings that had given her identity and comfort were suddenly ripped away.

This past Wednesday, just before I drove she and my dad to the airport to leave their home and their city – perhaps forever – she asked me to get the gun my dad owns, put a bullet in it, and give it to her.  In that moment, I understood what she meant and how she felt.  I don’t know if she was serious – but then she broke down and all I could do was hold her like she was my child, so small and vulnerable, as she sobbed in my arms.

Placed in her shoes, I would likely be reacting the same way.  The mind is a terrible thing to lose – and as she is losing hers – along with her home, her hometown and so many of her friends.  In that moment when I held her in my arms, I could feel her loss.  I could feel her fear.  I could feel all of the anger and confusion in her life.  I understood.  I knew of her present disability.  I had, totally unplanned, climbed down in the pit with her – to console and help and listen and do – to understand the dimensions of her loss and the depth of her emotions.

Dear friends, we are all a Jim Ferris in our physical limitations.  I have a bum knee, some of you have aches and pains in joints and muscles.  And, we are all my mom in our mental incapacities – emotionally drained or challenged, sad, threatened, afraid.  But in our shared challenges, we feel the humanity in us.  We see the beauty of creation that flourishes in us – the body and mind fantastic in their design and complexity, each person different, each person diverse in ability, each human so very, very wonderful.  We see that empathy is both a way to understand and way to truly help.

To close, I echo the last line from Jim Ferris’ poem: “Poet of Cripples.”  I echo his themes and messages of empathy as well as the other poets we considered – Richard Blanco and Rita Dove.

Know that we are all immigrants in this life.  Understand that we each face times of loneliness and longing.  Believe that we too are crippled.  We sing not for the immigrant.  We sing not for the lonely or for the disabled.  We sing for us.  We sing for humanity.  We sing for the beauty that all possess.                          I wish you much peace and joy…