Beginning to Speak, Diana Anphimiadi
(translated by Jean Sprackland & Natalia Bukia-Peters)
The Poetry Translation Centre, 2018 £6.00
Autism and sensory experience
In Georgian society [autism], until very recently, had not been discussed openly in public discourse [... ]
These words come from the introduction to Georgian poet Diana Anphimiadi’s pamphlet Beginning to Speak. Major themes include disability, dislocation and women’s issues. In the title poem, ‘Autism: beginning to Speak’, Anphimiadi writes from the point of view of an autistic child. It begins:
The songs perched on the wire
freeze to death, one by one.
I cover my ears with my hands
for the birth of the word,
for who I am.
This striking image of ‘songs perched on wire’ alludes to one of the hallmarks of autism: hypersensitivity to sensory input, and hence sensory overload. Lights, sounds, smell and touch can become overwhelming and emotionally draining. The poet captures this mindset, giving us an insight into the child’s mental processes.
Later on in the poem, the child sees clouds which ‘feel damp and feathery’, a glance is ‘laser-sharp’, and ‘warm hands’ have a ‘violent touch’. Adjectives heighten the sensory scrambling.
As I was reading Beginning to Speak, I often thought of Keats’ poetry, which sometimes has a synaesthetic element, experiencing one sense via another. Anphimiadi uses a similar scrambling technique to explore disabled experience. In ‘Braille’,for example, colour and sound are conflated:
The floor creaks a little
as black becomes grey,
then blue — a cool wave on hot feet.
This synaesthetic effect was intensified by having the original Georgian poem printed on the opposite page. I couldn’t read the original, but the letters of the Georgian alphabet are so beautiful that I caught myself running my fingers over the words, imagining I could read them through touch.
I would recommend this pamphlet to anyone who is interested in how a contemporary poet articulates jarring sensory experience, especially in relation to autism.
From a political point of view, too, I admire Anphimiadi’s pluck.