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:
One editor said, “Write a book
and don’t cuss in it and don’t
have any sex and if you must
have sex, then have it with
one person and let it be tragic,
for example, he is only sleeping
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 their assault. “Variants of Unknown Significance” begins, “The stalker is standing near my car.” Those familiar with Weise’s work can draw a connection from this line to her essay in Tin House “Why I Own a Gun,” in which Weise details her encounters with a stalker as evidence for the threats and violence disabled women are disproportional in danger of. This threat of violence is then substantiated in “Attack List,” which lists the ways media reports attacks on disabled women. Here are a few lines from the poem:
Disabled woman ‘trapped’ in home on Christmas Eve
Man admits sex assault on disabled woman
Missing disabled woman found safe in Lake Tahoe
Disabled woman attacked from behind by robber
In so many headlines, the disabled status of the victim is held on equal footing with the crimes that have been committed against them in. What is more important, the crime or the identity of the victim? The turn here from the existential ways people with disabilities are forced to play the part of the disabled person to the very physical consequences this flattening gives Cyborg Detective an urgency to it. The book starts with jokes about and invectives against William Carlos Williams:
Dear Very Dead Doctor,
Stop taunting me...
for you have thunk
“I don know what
to write about” and put
Elsie on and took Elsie off.
And then it reveals the ultimate results of confining someone to a single part—violence, death. Weise will make you laugh before knocking the air out of your lungs.
I have stressed the ways defining others flattens them. I do not want to seem to make the claim that Cyborg Detective wants its readers to forego categorization. In fact, the book often revels in the ways the different aspects of a person can help reveal the complexities of life as well as the problems that surface when people do not think about categories and either silence the voices of those with disabilities (as in “10 Post Cards to Marie Howe” and “Cathedral by Raymond Carver”) or misunderstand their circumstances (as in “I Had a Little Cash” and “Nondisabled Demands”). Maybe one of Weise’s main points in the book is that we need to move beyond simplification whether that is rigid categories of “disabled” and “nondisabled” or no categories at all. We need to acknowledge the parts and the symphony.
“That part you wanted. / Did you get it?” What parts do we want and what parts do we get? Are they the same; are they different? These questions reach a climax in the final poem of Cyborg Detective, “Anticipatory Action.” Beginning with a response to Cathy Park Hong’s “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde,” the poem asks:
If cyborg enunciations are the future
avant-garde, then what are real cyborgs?
Do we have to be avant or can we
Weise has written about how those with cybernetic implants are present-day cyborgs in her essays: “Common Cyborg,” “Dawn of the Tryborg,” and “Going Cyborg.” Seeing the assertion that “cyborg enunciations are the future” as another form of ableist erasure, Weise asserts that cyborgs are the present and need to be counted. While this aspect of the poem is certain—writers with disabilities need to be supported as much as able-bodied writers, this quatrain does well to show the uncertainty around aesthetics and identity. How it breaks across the line splinters the question—can we be avant garde, and can we be ourselves. This seems to show how neither part—aesthetics or self—is an easy question to answer and how combining them compounds the difficulty.
Uncertainty and all, I think this question might be the only answer to the question in “Variation on a Wedding.” Perhaps, the best way to go about answering the questions of what parts we play and what parts others play for us is to ask if we can be ourselves and to understand others as being themselves (and all the complexities that come with any concept of the self). Cyborg Detective refuses to provide a rubric for doing this. Instead, it prompts its reader to sit with uncertainty, to reflect on the ways we relate to each other, to ourselves.
Brian Clifton has work in. Pleiades, Guernica, Cincinnati Review, Salt Hill, Colorado Review, The Journal, Beloit Poetry Journal and other magazines. They are an avid record collector and curator of curiosities.