Outsider poems, a mini-anthology in progress (39): From 'Missing Larry: The Poetics of Disability in Larry Eigner' by Michael Davidson

[NOTE. Michael Davidson has been a major thinker toward the construction of a new poetics of disability, which raises questions as well as to how disabilities, physical as well as mental, might affect ideas of outsiderness that I’ve been exploring in these postings & that John Bloomberg-Rissman and I are moving toward publication in an anthology still in progress. It is in particular the connection between the physical body and the structure & shape of the poem that Davidson gets at clearly in the following, which should be read as well in connection to an earlier posting in Poems & Poetics. (J.R.)]

how to dance
sitting down
(Charles Olson, “Tyrian Business”)

My title refers to Larry Eigner, a significant figure in the New American Poetry, who is missing in a number of senses. On a personal level, I miss Larry, who died in February 1996 as a poet whose curiosity and attentiveness remain a model of poetic integrity. Although his movements were extremely restricted due to cerebral palsy contracted at birth, he was by no means “missing” from the poetry world, particularly after his move to Berkeley. Thanks to the efforts of Bob Grenier, Kathleen Frumkin and Jack Foley, Larry was present at many readings, talks, and parties throughout the 1980s. Nor, as those who knew him can attest, was a reticent presence at such events. He was a central influence on the emerging “language-writing” movement of the mid-1970s, publishing in their magazines (L=A=N=G=U=A=G=EBezoar, This, Hills) and participating in their talk and reading series. His emphasis on clear, direct presentation of moment-to-moment perceptions also linked him to the older Objectivists (George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff, and Louis Zukofsky) as well as poets of his own generation living in the San Francisco Bay region such as Robert Duncan and Michael McClure.  

A second dimension to my title refers to the Eigner missing from discussions of postwar poetry. Although he was centrally identified with the Black Mountain movement and corresponded with Olson, Creeley, Duncan, Corman and others, he is seldom mentioned in synoptic studies (including my own work) of that generation. What few critical accounts exist of his work come from poets. Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Clark Coolidge, Cid Corman, Charles Bernstein, Robert Hass, Ron Silliman, Barrett Watten have all written appreciations of his work, but he has had little response from the critics. And although he was aligned with language writing later in his life, his name seldom appears in books or articles about that movement. Perhaps most surprisingly, given his centrality in the New American poetry, he is seldom included in discussions of disability arts. With the exception of an appearance in Kenny Fries’ anthology of disability writing, Staring Back, he is not included in major treatments of disability arts.

This brings me to the tertiary level of my title — the absence of cerebral palsy in discussions of Eigner’s poetry. In what little critical treatment of his work exists, the fact of his physical condition is seldom mentioned. The lack of reference to cerebral palsy leads me to ask how one might theorize disability where least apparent: how to retrieve from recalcitrant silences, markers of a neurological condition that mediated all aspects of Eigner’s life. In the process, we might discover ways of retrieving other social markers — of race, sexuality, class — where not immediately apparent. Eigner by no means adhered to New Critical warnings about the biographical fallacy–the idea that poems should finesse biographical or historical contexts through formal, rhetorical means. At the same time, he seldom foregrounded his mediated physical condition–his daily regimes of physical exercise, his limited mobility, his slurred speech — preferring to record real-time perception and observation. In order to retrieve disability from this lacuna we need to “crip” cultural forms, not simply to find disability references but to see the ways Eigner’s work unseats normalizing discourses of embodiment. Cripping Larry Eigner allows us to read the body of his work in terms of his “different” body and to understand how the silences surrounding his poetry are, in some way, a dimension of — perhaps a refusal of — that embodiment.  

To confront this issue, I have appropriated Barrett Watten’s important essay, “Missing ‘X’,” which locates the salient features of Eigner’s writing in its suppression of predication and syntactic closure. According to Watten, the most characteristic feature of Eigner’s poetry is its truncation or effacement of rhetorical connectives, creating a “predicate for which the act of reference is located outside of or is generalized by the entire poem” (178). One could supply an “X” for elements outside the poem that are nevertheless implicit in the phrase-to-phrase, stanza-to-stanza movement. Hence, to take Watten’s example, Eigner’s lines “Imagination heavy with / worn power” could be rewritten as “an element of the world is ‘Imagination heavy with /worn power.’” The couplet “the wind tugging / leaves” could be rewritten as “an element of this poem is ‘the wind tugging / leaves.’” The suppression of subjects and predicates allows Eigner’s noun phrases to function independently of any overarching narrative, creating unexpected links and suturing discontinuous phrases. To some extent, Eigner’s use of abbreviated phrases resembles the practice of language-writers — including Watten — who restrict the logical and rhetorical completion of a period, leaving shards to be recombined in new structures.

The implications of Watten’s argument are significant for differentiating Eigner’s poetry from that of more traditional poets for whom metaphor often contextualizes the outside within the poem. For someone like Hart Crane, as Watten observes, predication is propositional; all grammatical elements work to render an idealized object. An object (Crane’s “Royal Palm” is his example) may be invoked by discontinuous means; nevertheless, it organizes the processes of predication and metaphorization. All figures, however oblique, point toward a single focal point. Eigner, on the other hand, creates a mobile grammatical structure in which subjects and predicates occupy multiple positions. “In Eigner an absolute object is not referred to in the poem. Rather the entire idiom is predicated on the lack of such reference”. But what is the nature of this “outside” that serves as an absent cause for partial phrases? What are the implications for the disabled poet when we base predication on “lack”? Is the mobility of noun phrases strictly a function of indeterminate syntax, or a register of alternative modes of mobility and cognition in a world based on performance? The danger of providing concrete answers to these questions is that they make Eigner’s poetry a compensatory response for physical limits rather than a critical engagement with them. Conscious of this danger, I want to extend Watten’s useful speculations about predication to describe the ways that the “missing X” could also refer to an unstated physical condition that organizes all responses to a present world. And since that world is defined by compulsory able-bodiedness, not referring to its coherence and unity may indicate a nascent critique. 

In order to discuss Eigner’s poetry in terms of disability we must first honor his own reticence on the subject. Throughout his memoirs, interviews, and poetry, the subject of his cerebral palsy seldom appears. In his author’s biography at the end of Donald Allen’s anthology, The New American Poetry Eigner describes himself as a “shut-in partly,” (436). Bob Grenier observes that “Larry’s work does not derive from his palsy,” but on the other hand, his poetry cannot help but be affected by it. In order to discover disability where it is not present, it is first necessary to find where it is — in Eigner’s numerous prose writings, memoirs, and stories. Consider the following passage from his 1969 memoir, “What a Time, Distance”:

Cigarette cigar signs stores mostly Variety groceries and how many things candy a little not much good might very well be a good deal everything smelled bread was designed with packaged loaf fresh and down the street daily paper words flashes and then sentence dateline dispatches...

Here, Eigner remembers childhood experiences in a variety store, the sights and smells of products and signage rendered in quick succession. One might imagine such passages divided into lines and splayed out over a page, but these memories are constantly mediated by conditions of restricted motion, regimes of physiotherapy and exercise, which frame his access to such “variety”:

Over the toilet rim in the bathroom at home into the bowl his weemer between large knuckles, cigarette shifted to mouth preparatory or in other of grandfather’s hands. Coffee label. Good to the last drop. Waste not want not. To go as long as you could manage it. Bread is the staff of life, Grampa said many times buttering it at the beginning of dinner. Relax, try how get to fling ahead legs loosened quick as anything in being walked to different rooms the times he wasn’t creeping to do it yourself as soon as possible, idea to make no trouble or spoil things but live when somebody agreed to a walk as he ought to have, sort of homework from the therapy exercising not to sit back need to start all over to come from behind. Thimble yarn darn stocking waterglass stretch wrongside patch, cocoon tobacco cellophane bullet wake finger ring.

A series of Joycean associations mark this passage — from peeing, with his grandfather’s help, to a coffee label and its ad (“Good to the last drop”), to Depression era adages about thrift (“Waste not want not”) and health (“Bread is the staff of life”). These axioms rhyme with internalized parental imperatives regarding physical control (“Relax”) and self-motivation (“do it yourself”), which for the young boy with motor impairment mark his distance from an able-bodied world. Those difficulties are rendered syntactically in the phrase “try how get to fling ahead legs loosened quick as anything,” which may provide some verbal equivalent of the child’s anxiety over muscular control. [1] Adult advice to “make no trouble or spoil things but live when somebody agree[s] to a walk,” express a world of agency where everything from urinating to walking requires assistance.

This brief passage could serve as the “missing X” for many poems in which reference to physical limits has been evacuated, leaving only the “variety” of the Variety store on the page. In his prose, Eigner merges sensuous associations with things seen and felt (“thimble yarn darn stocking...”) with physical contexts of their apprehension. In his poetry, specific references to those contexts drops away, leaving acts of attention and cognition paramount. Those acts are deployed through three interrelated spaces: the page on which he worked, the room in which he lived, the weather or landscape he saw from that room. I would like to look for Larry in these three frames.

Eigner’s is decisively a poetry of the page, a field of intense activity produced entirely with his right index finger, the one digit over which he had some control. The page — specifically the 8 ½” by 11" typewriter page — is the measure of the poem, determining its lineation, length and typographic organization. [2] Although a few poems run on for several pages, often as not Eigner continues the poem as a second column on the same page. [3] Nor is the machine by which he produced those pages insignificant. Because Eigner needed to lean on the keys and peer closely at the sheet of paper, he could not use an electric typewriter and thus worked with a succession of Royal or Remington portables that permitted him a degree of flexibility in composition. The manual typewriter also allowed him to release the platen occasionally and adjust the spacing between words or lines, jamming letters or punctuation together or running one line onto the next. Eigner’s careful spacing of letters and words, his indentations and double columns, could be seen as typographic idiosyncracy, a variation on Charles Olson’s “field” poetics, but they are also cognitive maps of his internally distanced relation to space. In a video of Eigner’s funeral made by Cloud House productions, the film maker, Kush, returns to Eigner’s house following the gravesite ceremony, and trains his camera on Eigner’s typewriter for several minutes, a cenotaph for the poet’s living remains.


1. Benjamin Friedlander notes that in 1962 Eigner underwent cryosurgery to freeze part of his brain in order to control his spastic movements. The successful operation is described in a letter to Douglas Blazek: 

Sept. 62 cryosurgery, frostbite in the thalamus (awakened to see if i was numbed, test whether they had right spot, felt much like killing of a tooth nerve!), tamed (and numbed some) my wild left side, since when I can sit still without effort, and have more capacity for anger etc. Before, I had to be extrovert, or anyway hold the self off on a side, in this very concrete, perpetual sense. A puzzlement of the will.

Friedlander notes that prior to the surgery, “Typing, of all activities, provided relief from the wildness, from the distraction of the flailing, and from the effort of holding the body still, or trying to”.

2. According to Bob Grenier, who edited the recent edition of Eigner’s collected poems, Stanford University Press agreed to honor his page size by printing all three volumes in an 8 ½” by 11" format and in a font that approximates his typewriter font (personal communication, 1/7/06).

3. In his letters, some of which have been published, Eigner tends to fill the page, writing even in the margins and blank spaces of the page:

Well letters get crowded just from attempt to save time, i.e., cover less space, avoid putting another sheet in the typewriter for a few more words as I at least hope there will only be. Thereve always been so many things to do. For instance with only my right index finger to type with I never could write very fast — to say what I want to when I think of it, before I forget it or how to say it; I sometimes say 2 things at about the same time, in two columns. Itll be from not deciding or being unable to decide quickly anyway what to say first, or next. Or an after thought might as well be an insert, and thus go in the margin, especially when otherwise youd need one or more extra words to refer to a topic again.

Here is a good instance of how a textual parataxis that one associates with the Pound/Olson tradition can be read differently by a poet for whom the act of changing a sheet of paper or typing a few more words is a considerably more difficult task. The desire to render the phenomenological moment remains the same for Eigner and Olson, and certainly the look of the page is similar, but the physical circumstance of writing must be factored in as well.