Two Poems from “Slouching Towards Guantanamo” by Jim Ferris


Jim Ferris is an award-winning poet and professor of disability studies at the University of Toledo. His first full-length collection, The Hospital Poems, won the Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award in 2004. In The Hospital Poems, Ferris writes about the multiple surgeries he endured as a child to correct skeletal abnormalities. He questions the purpose of the isolation, pain, and stigma he experienced as a perpetual patient. Was this course of treatment really for his benefit, or primarily to bring him closer to society’s idea of a proper-looking human body, to make others comfortable looking at him?

In his new book Slouching Towards Guantanamo, also from Main Street Rag, Ferris extends this radical inquiry to our body politic. Our discomfort with the body’s vulnerability forces certain lives offstage–the lives of the crippled, the war-wounded, the oppressed–and once we can no longer see them, we can allow ourselves to think that they don’t have feelings equal to ours. Who sees and who is seen? What is the difference between being seen and merely being looked at?

This prophetic poet asks us to shed the burden of our ego so that differences between ourselves and others can simply coexist without comparison or judgment. Notwithstanding the spiritual weight they carry, these poems are playful, musical, satirical and passionate. The poems below are reprinted by permission. Read more on his MSR author page.

FACTS OF LIFE

Where’s the glory in it? I am not
a survivor. Whatever the state
of my legs, whatever happened
there, know this: I walk down the street
whole, whether I limp or stumble,
cane or crutches, roll in a chair.
This is my body. Look if you like.
This is my meat, substance
but not essence, essence but not
fate, sum of all its particles
back to the big one but particular
to no single interpretation
in a cosmos of possible ontologies
that we all try to limit with all
our soft might but which accepts
only the most temporary
instructions: you, sir, explain
that birthmark, and you, how about
that nose? We are not signs,
we do not live in spite of
or because of our facts,
we live with them, around them, among,
like we live around rivers, my cane,
your warts, like we live among animals,
your heart, my brace, like we live with,
despite, because of each other.

****

MANIFEST DESTINY

I love Mark Twain and the Mississippi steamboats and Abraham Lincoln’s dogs.
I love the fields of wheat and corn and the smell of Virginia tobacco.
But I am not American.
. . .
Take the stripes of your flag
and give us the stars.
     –SAADI YOUSSEF, “America, America”

I see you, America.
I am your dying son.
I recall your stories
of hope and of glorious
trails to true freedom.
Give me liberty, go west, go deep.
One small step one giant

I hear you, America.
I am your deaf-blind child.
I may have been cute once,
up on that poster, but America,
you are my inspiration.
We hold these truths
to be self-evident,
we who have hands to hold
and eyes to see.

You watch me as I cross the street—
I must be something to see.

Send me your tired,
your poor, your huddled masses
yearning to breathe free—
take a deep breath—now ask
why they look at us that way.
Greatest country on earth—
in the history of the earth.
In the universe. Ever. Top that.

I smell you, America
you are in my pores, you
are the dirt beneath my nails—
you are my nails. All I eat
and drink and breathe are you.
Why am I no longer high?
Why does my head hurt?
Why do I have so many staplers?

You watch me as I buy groceries—
I must be something to see.

I feel you, America,
even deaf-blind I feel you go by,
I am your comatose wife.
Yoked together by a vow
made long ago, now I lie
here, and you lie away. When you love,
when you honor, will you protect
me from yourself? Just who is

your self, America? Do I
count? Three-fifths, say? I
am the crippled newsy on the corner,
the guy on the knuckleboard, not a leg
to stand on. Now I am the standard-bearer,
standing out not up. Stand by, America—
this just in: you need me. I am your face
in the family portrait, just as you blink.

You watch me though you are discreet.
I must be something to see.

I taste you, America,
pilgrims pride and fruited plain,
turkey dinner once a year,
I am your orphan child.
I am your silenced majority.
You would pave me to make me whole,
bronze our laughter to save it,
feed the world on hamburger,
coke, fries, and freedom’s tales,
talk of choice and honor
and a thousand channels.

I watch you, America,
I am your slow son,
your dumb-blonde daughter,
you are what’s on. Is anyone
listening? I am the deaf-blind cripple
who is always listening,
watching, waiting to be fulfilled.
I see you, America, I see you,
see me, hear me, be me too.

You watch me like I am quite chic.
I must be something to see.

I am too hard for poems, America,
too empty. You are too brittle, too small.
One drop overflows me,
the oceans cannot fill you,
nothing soaks through.
The maw of America is open,
friendly is our middle name,
the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
We take care of our own. We’ll take care
of you, too, if you don’t watch out, bud.
We have no room for poems, no time
for poems, no place for the people
of poems. Be one of us, be
a winner, be a saint, be secure
in righteousness, look forward to glory,
and take rewards both here and hereafter.

You watch me as I eat.
I must be something to see.

Liberty or death, America,
and you stand for both, indivisible,
one nation under the wrath of an angry God,
meting out liberty and justice to all
who get in our way. Forty acres and a mule,
America, paddy wagons and loyalty
oaths, banned books and internment
camps, peace pipes and more treaties,
and how about some blankets, too.
The policeman isn’t there to create
disorder, America—the policeman
is there to preserve disorder.

You watch me as I walk down the street.
I must be something to see.

I have a dream, America. Ask not.
I have lost my way, America,
but I’m right here with you.
Oh, you who would eat the earth
and call it free, the only thing we have to fear
is fear itself. Take this hand, you who love arms,
take this hand, America, opposable thumb and all. We
are the people of poems. Let us bind up our wounds
and refit the prostheses we all require.
I need you, America,
I am your child and I need you.
We are all your children, the atoms of your hope.
Let the better angels of our nature
form a more perfect union,
and let us be orphans no more.
The tired, the poor, the high and low—
we are all watching.
I see you, America. We see you.

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