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Despite This Flesh: THE DISABLED IN STORIES AND POEMS, edited by Vassar Miller (University of Texas: $15.95, hardcover; $8.95, paperback; 146 pp.)

September 29, 1985|Judith Freeman | Freeman wrote and produced a documentary film about mental disability. and

Not all of the 45 poems and stories in this collection were written by physically disabled persons, but each presents a character who is handicapped in some way. The human body itself is the drama: People struggle to form words, control spastic limbs or to move about in a world without the benefit of sight or sound. The collection intends to inform us of what it is like to live in an impaired body, or to deal with loved ones who are malformed by accidents of birth.

Vassar Miller, a poet afflicted with cerebral palsy and a Pulitzer Prize nominee, is responsible for compiling and editing this anthology. Her purpose, as she states it, is to bring the handicapped out of the back bedroom. "What better means of exposure," she asks, "than good literature?"

There is, of course, a tradition on which to draw. The maimed have always been with us in literature. Think of Quasimodo, the living gargoyle, who is shown to possess a soul of shining worth and is given a hero's status; or the malevolent little Oskar, the midget in Gunther Grass' "The Tin Drum."

Miller's intent, however, is to present us with works that describe the everyday existence of the handicapped, fiction that deals with individuals rather than presenting deformity as an adjunct to political metaphor. It's rather like getting the inside story.

There are wonderful poems here by Richard Wilbur, James Wright and Daniel Mark Epstein. Epstein, in "The Sentry of Portoferraio," evokes a common figure of small-town life, cruelly known as the village idiot. "Did we not invest in our cross-eyed sentry/ suffering enough to make a nation wise? It is the fury of providence/ to crowd a family of pain into one creature,/ then crown him guardian angel of a town."

Anne Tyler's story, "Average Waves in Unprotected Waters" describes in detail the day a mother institutionalizes a retarded child. In "Finch the Spastic Speaks," Gordon Weaver gives a shattering account of an honor student with cerebral palsy who makes a date with a co - ed only to find that his body betrays him in a moment of passion: He ends up clawing, drooling, uttering incomprehensible words, much to the woman's horror.

A passage from Christy Brown's remarkable novel, "Down All the Days," is one of the strongest pieces in the collection. Born with cerebral palsy into an Irish family of 22 children, Brown was trundled about in a wooden box as a child by siblings, regarded as unseeing, unfeeling, retarded: When he finally did give expression to his world, typing out words with his big toe, he endowed it with a holy, sensual vision.

Many stories are graced with wry humor. A young woman in Anne Finger's "Like the Hully-Gully but Not So Slow" considers consulting the fashion editor of Young Teen magazine to inquire what dress styles might compliment the metal braces she wears on her legs. "You're in luck," she fantasizes the editor replying, "the fashion shows in Paris this year featured the metal look. It hasn't hit these shores yet, but within a year, the other girls at school will be dressing themselves up in aluminum foil and carrying purses made of steel girders. So just hold on for a little bit more, and you'll be right in the swing of things!"

In a collection such as this there's bound to be unevenness. New, or at least lesser-known writers seem to have been given space--otherwise, I can't imagine why Raymond Carver's story "Cathedral" wouldn't have been included, or Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People," for that matter. This amounts to a small carp, since "Despite This Flesh" contains so many fine pieces of writing that it succeeds in being a remarkable literary anthology as well as satisfying Miller's hope that it might "serve as a midwife" to a kind of humane and clear-sighted understanding of the disabled.

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