She doesn’t look up, swaddled in pink toweling. Dinner in the Day Room, haddock on a tray,
the old queen who lost her soldiers slumps an empty table.
Above her head the TV plays silent memories,
survival of the fittest in exotic locations.
A lioness stalks prey while another dies.
She doesn’t look up when I speak.
Lips rotate, chewing, tasting the sins of the world
cut up in pieces. Her hand trembles as she adds salt.
My absent presence, invisible bones on the edge of her plate.
She starts on the sponge pudding with custard.
She doesn’t look up when I leave.
She doesn’t look up when I leave.
She starts on the sponge pudding with custard,
my absent presence, invisible bones on the edge of her plate.
Cut up in pieces, her hand trembles as she adds salt.
Lips rotate, chewing, tasting the sins of the world.
She doesn’t look up when I speak.
A lioness stalks prey while another dies,
survival of the fittest in exotic locations.
Above her head the TV plays silent memories.
The old queen who lost her soldiers slumps an empty table,
dinner in the Day Room, haddock on a tray.
Swaddled in pink toweling,
she doesn’t look up.
The Day Room is an example of a specular poem – the second stanza mirrors the first. Please see a-poem-for-remembrance-day for another example.
Our new English teacher wore corduroy and a Polio limp.
His hair curled over his shirt collar. His flares hung loose
on his wasted shin, inciting an uneasy silence. He was unlike
the others. I forget his name as he didn’t last.
Our first English lesson was unlike the others.
Our pubescent class took turns reading aloud
a poem by Toge Sankichi, a survivor
of Hiroshima. Can we forget that flash?
We learned about the four minute warning.
We heard an air raid siren, oscillating ice
through our veins. Seek cover immediately.
We were told to write how we would spend
our last four minutes. This is not a test. I descended stone stairs
to a cold, dark place.
Frida Kahlo is my third choice for The Purple Hermit Hall of Fame, my regular feature on disability and resilience. I first discovered her paintings when I was a mature student at Art School. I was drawn to the surrealist images, folk art style and vibrant colours. It was rare to see such powerful images of pain and disability. Frida’s work was autobiographical. She was fearless in her honesty, exposing vulnerabilities, her emotional and physical suffering. But at the same time there was a joyousness in her painting. Frida Kahlo was a passionate woman. She loved people and animals, she loved the world.
When I learned more about her life-story I was struck by the many similarities with my own and she became one of my artistic and personal influences. Frida was born in Mexico in 1907, just three years before the start of the revolution. Her father was a German immigrant who ran a photography business and her mother was Mexican. Frida contracted polio at the age of six. She missed time at school and was bullied by other children. She was set apart from siblings by her illness which left her with a wasted limb, one leg shorter than the other. Her father began to take a special interest in her and taught her photography, philosophy and literature.
At the age of eighteen Frida was involved in a horrific street-car accident which left her with severe, permanent injuries and a life-long legacy of health problems and chronic pain. Surgical interventions by doctors were disasterously unsuccessful. She had to abandon her education and her ambition to become a doctor. She spent months in recovery and in isolation, confined to a bed where she began to paint using a specially made easel with a mirror. Her work explored identity and included many self-portraits.
In 1927 Frida joined the Mexican Communist Party where she met her future husband, the famous muralist Diego Rivera. Throughout her life she was politically active campaigning for peace, equality and the promotion of Mexico. She chose to dress in traditional Mexican clothes as a gesture of support for her native culture and a rejection of U.S. ideological dominance. However, later in her career she travelled and work in the U.S. where her art was enthusiastically received.
Diego and Frida had a turbulent relationship punctuated by extra marital affairs on both sides. At one point they divorced and later remarried. Frida was a sexually liberated woman having affairs with both men and women. One of her lovers was the revolutionary Leon Trotsky. She defied many social expectations of how women, let alone a disabled woman, were supposed to behave. Even today, disability and sex is a taboo subject. But Frida let nothing stand in the way of her passion and being true to herself. She used her experiences as a disabled woman in a positive way, channelling her pain into amazing art. Towards the end of her life her health problems became more debilitating and she suffered greatly both physically and mentally.
Kahlo pre-empted Tracey Emin’s controversial unmade bed installation by about fifty years. In 1953 doctors had advised her not to attend the opening of her first solo exhibition saying she needed bed rest. So Frida arranged for her four poster bed to be taken to the gallery and she arrived there by ambulance on a stretcher. She stayed in bed while the party unravelled around her.
Since her death in 1954, possibly by suicide, she has been adopted as an icon by various political and feminist groups. It’s strange that her disability is often minimised in biographies even though it was plainly part of her identity as evidenced by her own paintings. Her art grew directly out of her experience of disability. But perhaps it’s too much of a challenge for many people to reconcile negative stereotypes regarding disabled women and the vivid truth of Frida Kahlo’s life as a beautiful, charismatic and talented artist.
Ray Charles is the second musician I want to celebrate in my regular slot on resilience and disability. He defied stereotypes and broke down barriers in music, race and public perception of the blind. He did not allow others to diminish him because of his disability and was true to himself. He became a stronger not a weaker person because of his blindness.
Ray Charles experienced trauma in childhood when he witnessed his four year old brother drown in a laundry tub, leaving him with a life-long sense of guilt. Shortly afterwards Ray lost his sight due to glaucoma. His mother instilled tremendous self-worth and encouraged him to tackle challenges. She made him promise to never let anyone or anything turn him into a cripple. She would say, ‘You’re blind, you ain’t dumb; you lost your sight, not your mind.’ In 1937 his mother sent him away to a Special School for the Deaf and Blind in Florida. In the same year she died. Ray learned to read Braille music and quickly developed his musical talent, refusing to be labelled or exploited because of his blindness. He insisted, “there were three things I never wanted to own when I was a kid: a dog, a cane, and a guitar. In my brain, they each meant blindness and helplessness.”
Ray Charles refused to play racially segregated concerts and contributed financially to the Civil Rights movement as well as blind and deaf charities. His music was sometimes considered controversial, merging the genres of gospel, rhythm and blues, country and jazz. He also defied expectations of how blind men are supposed to behave by being a tremendous womanizer. Many women were seduced by his charisma. He fathered twelve children and married multiple times.
Ray had a heroin problem which he eventually overcame through Rehab. He was resilient in the music business and in his private life. Ray won many awards for his music and also received a star on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame for his achievements. In 1994 he was honoured with the Helen Keller Personal Achievement Award, which celebrates individuals who have improved the lives of disabled people. Ray continued working until his death at the age of 73 in 2004.
He is a role model for all of us, whether disabled or not, showing that adversity can make us stronger and that we do not have to be defined by the expectations of others.
Last week was Resilience Week according to the Scottish Government. Citizens were asked to think about how well they would deal with any emergency situation such as terrorism, pandemics or power outages. This got me thinking about the meaning of resilience. Is it the same as ‘strength’?
The dictionary definitions are:-
1. The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.
2. The ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.
So it occurs to me that people with physical or mental disabilities are more resilient than the non-disabled. It’s through dealing and adapting to problems that we become stronger. Living with any Disability is a test of survival skills. It’s strange that society tends to dismiss disabled people as weak because I think the opposite is very often the case. Just to get through one day can be as tough as climbing a mountain or winning a war. Many non-disabled complain about the slightest of ailments and crumble when things don’t go exactly their way. Any disabled person has to confront obstacles every single day, not least of which is discrimination and the patronising attitudes institutionalised within society.
I’ve decided to do a regular feature on this blog highlighting famous people whose achievements were due to the resilience gained from being disabled.
The first of these is Ian Dury. He had a difficult childhood after contracting polio, being brutalised by the healthcare and education systems. But later he channelled this rage and energy into his music. It’s doubtful that he would have written such unique and passionate songs if not for his experience of Disability. He was unafraid of what people might think, unafraid to be different, unafraid to speak truth about his life. He was one tough cookie.
Here is a YouTube video of Ian Dury performing one of his most controversial songs, Spasticus Autisticus which was banned at the time by the BBC and created a public furore. Stick around when the video is over to hear Ian Dury interviewed about why he wrote the song and how he was influenced by the film ‘Spartacus’.
I would welcome your suggestions for other famous disabled artists, musicians, writers, scientists, explorers, etc, who deserve to be featured on The Purple Hermit blog. Please leave a comment. Thanks.
Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses
Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its
heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.
And could you keep your heart in wonder at the
daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem
less wondrous than your joy;
And you would accept the seasons of your heart,
even as you have always accepted the seasons that
pass over your fields.
And you would watch with serenity through the
winters of your grief.
Much of your pain is self-chosen.
It is the bitter potion by which the physician within
you heals your sick self.
Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy
in silence and tranquillity:
For his hand, though heavy and hard, is guided by
the tender hand of the Unseen,
And the cup he brings, though it burn your lips, has
been fashioned of the clay which the Potter has
moistened with His own sacred tears.
I was recently reminded of this poem by the Lebanese-American poet and artist, Kahlil Gibran. He is one of the best read poets of all time, famous for his book The Prophet from which On Pain is taken. Undoubtedly, this poem is stunning but is it helpful to those of us who suffer from chronic physical or mental pain? Is it inspirational or insulting? Gibran seems to say pain is an inevitable part of life (much like Buddhist philosophy) and we must try to see beauty beyond the suffering. I’m not sure how realistic this approach is. When one is imprisoned within a broken body or injured psyche how can one believe the pain will pass? Do we really chose our pain? I’m not at all sure….On the other hand to fight against the inevitable is a waste of energy and perhaps acceptance is the way out? My reaction to this wonderful poem is confused. What do you think?
Her country was besieged.
The Great Saphenous Vein,
a lonesome road to nowhere,
a waste-land, booby-trapped with incendiaries.
Scarpa’s Triangle sailed a quiet sea
and Hunter’s Canal lay stagnant.
Beyond a cotton screen of chrysanthemums
her body bore a map no longer secret,
sketched out in clumsy biro, red for arteries, blue for veins.
Red and blue make purple, she’d learned at school.
Legs splayed a landscape across the table,
roads and rivers marked
soft, pale flesh, inert on padded leather.
Like seagulls scavenging an empty shore
the white coats gathered in freezing stares
while she traced the tangle of petals,
leaves and stems interwoven beyond.
Pointless, she listened to foreign tales;
remembered a white horse
galloping circles in the wind,
her purple coat flapping open
as she ran down the road.