Poetry review – KIN: Emma Lee is impressed by a collection by Karl Knights which uses poetry to convey something of the experience of disability
Karl Knights’ Kin explores issues around disability, not just the experience of being disabled but also society’s attitudes towards the disabled. Disabled people aren’t just excluded from certain situations: they also have to put up with intrusive questioning and the burden of educating abled people about their disabilities. The first poem, ‘Growing Pains’, starts,
I didn’t know I was disabled. I thought everyone went home and sat in their wheelchairs.
It’s a child’s view of the world, the assumption that everyone is like them until they meet more people and discover that’s not the case. The poem continues,
My parents give me a bear with a lab coat and thermometer from the hospital gift shop. * The first kiss and she says ‘I’m surprised you can kiss.’ * ‘Why do you like the hospital?’ ‘Nobody stares at me here.'
The deliberate choice to refer to the toy bear’s clothes as a ‘lab coat’ rather than an old-fashioned doctor’s uniform and thermometer rather than stethoscope implies the bear represents someone carrying out experiments rather than healing people. It’s left for readers to decide for whose benefit those experiments might be. The response of the girl to a kiss is stereotypical of able-bodied people who assume wheelchair users have other disabilities too. But school leads to the discovery of allies. In ‘A Speech Impediment’, the speaker becomes translator for the speech impaired boy, and explains to us that
We never spoke of it. He didn’t ask about my legs and I didn’t ask about his mouth, that was the gift.
The unspoken pact enables the pair to focus on their friendship rather than their differences. Later a poem about sex highlights how the disabled speaker places disability equipment out of sight and has to continually offer reassurance when his body reacts in a way his lover was not expecting. The lover’s job it seems is to recoil and be uneasy at the adjustments required. Although not explicit, the poem implies it was a short-lived relationship.
The title poem is a short one,
I was teaching and then I saw him, out the window in his walking frame, playing football with the other kids. I saw the way his legs bent inwards, how his toes touched the floor before the heel. I wanted to catch his eye, have a chat, show him my splints.
The title normally implies family or relatives but here it’s another person with a very similar disability.
The United Nations has been critical of the “human catastrophe” created by the Department of Work and Pensions’ handling of disability welfare benefits, referring to “grave and systematic” violations of human rights. In ‘The Night Before My PiP Tribunal I See My Dead’, PiP refers to the personal independence payment which disabled people may be eligible to claim. It’s not usual for first claims to fail and then the claimant has to go to tribunal to appeal. Sadly it’s also not unusual for the resultant stress of the initial refusal and then the appeals process to have a severely negative impact on the claimant. The delays in the process lead to extreme hardship and, in at least 69 cases, suicide,
Bailiffs found your body. Your cat was screaming, they said. You were so thin. They slid bags of sand into your casket so we could feel the weight on our shoulders. You would have liked the crowd, the thick procession of callipers, canes, crutches. The relatives always asked me to speak. I was the writer, I’d know what to say.
However, it’s tough for a writer to know what to say when it’s one tragedy out of many and when faced with evidence that nothing changes and the system will not become humane.
Knights uses very direct, pared down language to describe disability and what it means to be disabled in an abled-bodied world and the unthinking lack of compassion shown by some. He doesn’t hold back when discussing the impact of the inhumane benefits system which takes an energy and persistence to negotiate that isn’t always available to disabled people already hit with extra expenses and effort required to live from day to day. The poems are only tempered by reports of moments of kinship and finding allies in what is often a hostile world.