Sorry I’m late in posting. My laptop’s decided to break down at a crucial moment in my career, meaning that during the next few days I’ll have to beg, borrow, get behind on deadlines and bang my head against the wall in frustration until I’ve got it working again. Here’s my latest poem for autism awareness week. Unlike the other poems I chose, (as far as I’m aware) it was written by a neurotypical who has an accomplished career in poetry.
Christmas Day in Wilsden Green
for my autistic grandchild
At fourteen, his eyes are dark as wood resin,
his hair is read gold; he is an elf child
with delicate lips, and pale, unblemished skin.
The scented candles and the roasted goose
with apples in it’s throat don’t interest him.
He flicks a dangled string and sets it loose
snatches a cracker biscuit, shaking off
the smoked fish, and then smiles suddenly
as if amused by some mischievous thought
growing out of a landscape I can’t reach,
the unknown pathways lying under speech.
On these cold christmas windows, heavy rain
begins, like the crackle of crumpled cellophane,
or an untuned radio; while Johnny remains soundless,
like a small bird gathering twigs and loam,
completely absorbed in his own business:
gold wrapping paper and coloured ribbons
are the treasures he brings to his sofa home.
It is the first year in seven the whole family
has eaten with him; we have feared his wild
behaviour and forgotten his misfortune,
as if that pain belonged to other people. Now he is mild,
we relax in noise and wine. Is he bewildered
among so many strangers, or reconciled?
This poem is by Elaine Feinstein and can be found in Cities, which I first came across in a creative writing class sevral years ago. You can purchase it here:
I chose this poem because it is simply beautiful writing. The elfen, bird like descriptions of Johnny reminded me of the magic realism of Angela Carter. I felt Feinstein portrayed the rich, inner world of non-verbal autism in a realistic manner, without implying judgements on his strange behaviour. The lines ‘we have feared his wild behaviour and forgotten his misfortune, as if that pain belonged to other people’ were really poineient to me. We spend too much time focusing on how the ‘wild’ and inappropriate behaviour of autistic children affects the people around them, forgetting that they behave this way because they are afraid and unhappy. Despite offering insight into non-verbal classical autism, Feinstein acknowledges that there is still little we know about it. Rather than imagining the thoughts of her grandson, she creates a sense of mystery, even suggesting he knows things that we do not ‘growing out of a landscape I can’t reach’. Feinstein describes typical autistic behaviour, such as flicking a dangling string and laughing at nothing, but Johnny is not pathologised or reduced to a diagnostic criteria. I belive the line ‘the unknown pathways under speech’ refers to neural pathways. However, this could easily be an alternative method of communication that neurotypicals have no access to. Without using clichéd words like ‘lonely’ or ‘isolated’ Feinstein still creates the sense that her grandson is separate from others, and does so far more eloquently and subtly than I did in my own poem “The Glass Box”. She is a wonderful writer.