Dialogue on the Dark – Nuala Watt
Calder Wood Press, 2016 £5.00
On not being prayed for (Helena Nelson)
These poems soar into existence from unexpected angles, their singular view freed by restriction. The poet (who has partial sight) opens with a riposte to Milton’s ‘On His Blindness’, in which she rejects the whole ‘stand and wait’ idea in favour of acting at her own ‘bidding’, not God’s – ‘I’d rather exploration than lament / sight as lost paradise. So my poems need / to make a sense I’m neither banned nor blessed / but breathing here.’
Neither banned nor blessed. Just breathing, wholly alive and wide awake. But at the same time dealing with the perceptions of others. And from those perceptions, and other hints, we infer the poet does not see well; nor can she easily disappear into a crowd. Her customary gait attracts attention.
‘Evangelist’ opens with a request from a ‘wet-eyed woman’ who interrupts the speaker on her way to a lunch date with a demand: ‘Please will you let me pray for your feet?’ The reader can’t see the poet’s feet, only the patent ridiculousness of the way the would-be pray-er sees them: ‘she stands gawking at my lace-up shoes’ as the poet ‘lurch(es)’ past without any need to be saved. In fact, the prayer is an insult.
The poor ‘vision’ belongs to the praying woman, not the happily hirpling pray-ee. And though, unlike Milton, the poet does not believe in God or prayer, she follows ‘The Evangelist’ with ‘A Prayer To Be Released From Prayer’. All too clearly, she sees how – from the evangelist’s point of view – she is ‘sharing a [Biblical] verse / with a man sick / of the palsy.’ The woman who so crassly accosts her believes the poet is in need of a miracle. But she doesn’t need a miracle. What she needs is to be released from a perception that ‘cripple(s) the morning’. ‘Please God’, she ends (though this is a secular plea and also a cry of exasperation):
show me my hands,
the early scar,
the necessary bones,
how to take up a life and walk away.
What a wonderful phrase – ‘the necessary bones’! This debut pamphlet has nothing to do with bravery in adversity. It’s about joy, comedy, transformation and celebration. It is magnificent.
The blind leading the blind (Giles Turnbull)
‘Learn to assume six impossible things / before breakfast.’
('The Rough Guide to Wonderland')
As a blind reviewer, reading a pamphlet by a visually impaired poet, my immediate feeling was a sense of comfort and reassurance. This was a landscape I felt at home in.
The blindness that comes through in these poems is sometimes subtle, such as ‘as I eat, sleep, kiss, swear, get children dressed’. I don't know whether it’s more surprising or desperately frustrating to consider the abilities and desires that the sighted world thinks a blind or visually impaired person doesn’t or shouldn’t have — blind people can and do have normal relationships, which include jobs and children.
But sometimes the poems in Dialogue on the Dark are in-your-face about blindness. ‘Receiving My Poems in Braille’ gives a glimpse into the world of reading in dots, or in this case not-reading, because the poet, though visually impaired cannot read Braille. This is what it is to be blind:
The dense paper
spins in my hands. Is it upside down?
You can experience this for yourself at home. Pop to your local pharmacy and buy a box of Imodium which has nice firm Braille dots (and a box of Imodium is always handy to have in). ‘My thoughts have arrived in the post’, says the poet. ‘I guess I’m somewhere, embossed.’
Embossing is how machines punch the dots that equate to individual Braille letters. Imagine a grid of 6 dots, three in the left-hand column and three in the right-hand column. The letter A would have the dot at the top of the left hand column raised, but the other 5 dots would remain flat paper; the letter B has the top dot in the left hand column raised and also the second dot down; the letter C has the top left dot raised plus the top right dot in the right hand column. Congratulations! you now know your Braille A, B, C.