BOA Editions, 2019. 112 pages.
Reviewed by Brian Clifton
About a third of the way into Jillian Weise’s latest book of poems, Cyborg Detective, one of her speakers asks, “And did you get it? That part you wanted.” In the context of its poem, “Variation on a Wedding,” the speaker is asking about an audition for a symphony, but the question itself resonates throughout the entire book. From beginning to end, Weise interrogates what parts we play for people and what parts we want people to play for us, especially the parts of abled or disabled. While Cyborg Detective rips into canonical poetry for the ways able-bodied writers have erased those with disabilities in their poems, it also reminds that those with disabilities are multifaceted and should not be confined to their disability. These two thoughts—the canon has erased disabled voices and writers with disabilities should be free to be other than disabled—are well-woven throughout the book’s five sections, often occurring within the same utterance. In this way, Cyborg Detective looks into the past as it pushes into the future. Moving deftly between engaging with canonical authors and broken engagements, between Torah and Tinder, Weise focuses on the many ways we see the parts and not the whole and the consequences thereof.
Cyborg Detective begins with “Poem Conveyed,” a poem that quickly asserts, “In the glut / of ghosts, it is hard to tell / who is speaking.” This assertion chimes with the question that ends “Variation on a Wedding.” While “Poem Conveyed” is talking about an otherworldly possession, it also opens up the ways “identity” haunts our interactions—are we assigning certain moods or intentions to an utterance based on someone’s identity (whether that is disabled, queer, black, female, etc.) or are we trying to disentangle the complicated ways a person can exist beyond those categories as an individual? What part do they want and what part are we giving them? This attention to ghosts makes apparent the ways the categories we belong to might overshadow ourselves as individuals. Later in “Poem Conveyed,” someone tells the speaker to read Alexander Pope “because he was disabled”—presumably, given disability is at the forefront of so much of Weise’s work, that Pope could act as a guide or a ghostly mentor. The speaker responds, “And I thought: Oh no / now Pope will warm my pillows / and haunt my dreams.” The speaker’s reaction is not only hilarious (the break at “Oh no” reminds me of my own reaction to much of the canon) but also underscores the visceral desire to reject outside definition, to be seen as an individual and not as an example of a category (in this case disabled).
Weise’s tone in these lines, both witty and dead serious, captivates and demands second and third readings. It also, because it has multiple emotional resonances, mirrors a theme of the book—how can we have an identity and not be confined to it. So many of the poems in Cyborg Detective turn this question over and over, drawing our attention to the many ways a person can be defined and how often our definitions of others negate their complexity. And while this question can be metaphysical, Weise, in poem after poem, shows the very physical consequences of flattening a person to one aspect. For example, “Of the Impending Mission” shows how a disabled person is forced into the part of a disabled person for the interest of others when it says:
with you b/c you are disabled.
The way the editor gives a list of things that are acceptable to write about and then confines the speaker to the role of a disabled person is an example of flattening a person to a series of attributes. This is then amplified first in “Variants of Unknown Significance” and then in “Attack List,” both of which look at the ways women with disabilities are especially vulnerable to physical and sexual assault and subsequently how their disabled status is focused on as much as thei