being called normal, Sarah Shapiro
tall-lighthouse poetry, 2021 £8.00
Reclamation — a poetry of talking back
In being called normal, Sarah Shapiro uses quotations from a diagnostic report on her learning disability (or (dys)ability). Her poetry is a dialogue with this text, commenting on its findings and entering into a conversation with its assessment of her. These are poems suffused with defiance and a refusal to be defined by other people.
In a poem titled ‘The Following Relevant Background Information was Obtained’, Shapiro quotes from a report that describes how ‘Sarah was the product of a normal pregnancy’, ‘however, delivery was difficult, / a breech baby’. Throughout the piece, these formal observations are interspersed with humanising comments from the poet, who details how, as a child, she wanted to be ‘like Lara Croft’. She ends the poem by asking, ‘can you tell me the relevance / of this background information?’
Elsewhere, the dialogue between Shapiro and her diagnostic document is even more defiant.
In ‘Behavioral Observations’, for example, Shapiro turns an analytical eye on those writing the report. She quotes the report as saying that
Sarah presents as an extremely
attractive young woman
with long brown hair, hazel eyes,
and a warm winning smile
Then she deliberately echoes this in her own description of the doctor, Pearl, who ‘presented as a classy older woman’. She asks, pointedly: ‘does knowing what she looked like / help you understand her qualifications/ achievements?’
In ‘Sarah’s Areas of Deficit Qualified’, Shapiro lists her diagnoses according to the DSM, but notes that
the DSM is a book
written by people trying to language
while straining to understand.
Indeed, throughout this pamphlet, Shapiro questions not only the official report’s ability to define her, but also the ability of language itself to express emotions and situations. In ‘Sarah attended’, Shapiro intersperses with noises the document’s description of the decision to home-school her. ‘Sarah started high school’ is met with a ‘hesitant-noise’ and an ‘angry-noise’, while home-schooling is met with a ‘relief-noise’.
This is an autobiographical pamphlet defined by the act of talking back. This act is even more potent given that the person talking back has been diagnosed with an ‘Expressive Language Disorder’. The very act of writing poetry is subversive.
This is a poetry which powerfully reclaims language; it is a text in which the person spoken about becomes the speaker.