Donora Hillard. The Aphasia Poems. San Francisco: Solar Luxuriance, 2014. 16 pages. $5, pamphlet.
Confession: upon first seeing the chapbook, The Aphasia Poems, I was skeptical. The volume is tiny even by chapbook standards. Its size is deceptive, however, because the project itself is quite ambitious. In this series of poems, each untitled, Donora Hillard resists grounding us in a specific place and time. She defies our expectations of poetry by privileging words as words and eschewing the use of imagery and its metaphorical strategies. These appear to be Found poems, “adapted with permission from my work as a mentor to those with linguistic disabilities” as Hillard tells us in the “Afterword.” She continues,
I find the connections between fragmentation induced by poetics and the fragmentation in modern life to be striking; I know I am not unique. The parameters of language ignore anyone unable to communicate through traditional means, and those considered “normal” also write/speak/scream along a vast continuum. In employing the rhetorical theorist Thomas Rickert’s concept of a postpedagogy, something is always out of place, sticking out, slipping, in error. Therefore, let us listen more carefully. We are all in this house, and we are all in pain.
Hillard’s choices for this book—deciding which snippets of speech to include, how to break the lines, whether or not to use punctuation—are where the artist in her comes through in this collection. Through this small work, Hillard reveals her empathy and her intellect, and gives voice to those who struggle to communicate.
At times, Hillard’s work resembles L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry with its jumbled word order and lines that defy interpretation in the traditional sense. She wants us to experience this confusion to evoke how it feels to talk with these speakers, but she also hopes to enact on the page their own confusion. For example,
I there is a do you know there is a up
around in the there is a it’s a long I know
he didn’t know what I could do
The speaker here acknowledges that “he” underestimated her abilities. We don’t need to know more about this situation; the strong, clear statement at the end surprises us, and we know the speaker has succeeded in her attempt to convey something important.
Throughout the book, Hillard avoids the use of end punctuation and capitalizes only the pronoun I. This strategy is effective as it calls more attention to the fragmentary nature of aphasia. As Heather McHugh states in “Broken English,” an essay on fragments, “All poetry is fragment: it is shaped by its breakages, at every turn.” Though this is a statement about all poetry, it applies quite well to Hillard’s work in this chapbook. Hillard is aware of what is unsaid—or, rather, what cannot be said—and the poems’ breakages allow the reader to feel this as a loss. The frustration of the speaker is particularly clear in the following poem:
this you should see what
tell me what you see
I’ll say it is this way but not quickly, that’ll kill
not ever heaven could be and not
it begins not for me
there won’t be one that is
I’ve got to use you because
I’m trying to tell you something
Most of us take for granted our ability to string words together into a comprehensible sentence and to make our desires, needs, and thoughts known to others. Those of us who write poetry are free to fragment our language in the service of our art, but we don’t often consider what it would mean to lose this language, to be left with only the fragments and never the fully expressed ideas.
Donora Hillard helps us to empathize with those people who are affected by profound linguistic challenges. Though the instinct of other poets would be to speak about or for these individuals, Hillard allows them to speak for themselves. The voices in The Aphasia Poems do not demand our sympathy, however; they merely ask that we listen.
More about this author:
In addition to The Aphasia Poems, Donora Hillard is the author of Covenant (Gold Wake Press, 2012) and other collections of poetry and hybrid text. Her work appears in Hint Fiction (W.W. Norton & Company), Monkeybicycle, Pedagogy, Women in Clothes (Penguin), and elsewhere. The projects she has been involved in have been featured by CNN, Lybba, MSNBC, and the Poetry Foundation. She teaches medical humanities in Ohio, where she lives with her fiancé.