I once wrote a poem that went like this:
i know the cruelty of consonants
the sweep deep swish
of sss-ss-sssss, the fish gaping
i want to float
soft drifting word-sea
slide through meaning
helicopter wings whirring
you guess my words
from my throat
with clear tongue,
precise mouth, cruel
choking, knocking, flapping
This was ten years ago. I was eighteen. I wrote it during an English tutorial on postmodernism at Adelaide University. We were reading poems by Ania Walwicz and J.S. Harry. I sat in the corner, a bubbling mess of emotion. I was in awe of the playful and violent ways they made language sing, but I couldn’t express how I felt. I was too afraid to speak, knowing my words would crash and crumble and collide.
Flashback to a history class, aged fourteen, when the teacher asked me a direct question because she knew I knew the answer, and I pretended I didn’t, because I knew I couldn’t say it.
I sat in the corner some more. And then I started writing. The words tumbled out, as fierce and pure as the words everyone else was discussing. It felt good.
The poem won a competition. There was an awards dinner, and we were supposed to read out our poems. I said no, I couldn’t do it, not this time. So the organizer of the competition said she’d read it for me. She took me aside to practice reading it. She read it well, but not quite right. I would read it more like this, I said. I read it. I made the harsh bits hard, and in the quiet, wistful stanzas I put all my longing. She looked at me. Meli, she said, you are reading that poem.
I did. And I read it again, to hundreds and hundred of people, when the book was launched at Writers’ Week. Someone recorded it and played it on Poetica on Radio National. The best bit was, my second cousin’s step-father, who is an academic in Sydney, heard it on the radio in his car. That night, he said he’d heard an amazing poem about stammering on the radio. That’s Meli, said my cousin. No, he said, it couldn’t have been, it was someone older. And then she showed him the book.
The poem is an elegy. And it is a sharp sword, sheathed. These days, I don’t need to think about it very often. Only sometimes, giving conference papers, or meeting new people, or teaching… Yesterday, my class crumbled a bit at the end. Afterwards, I felt embarrassed and distraught and wanted to hide. I remembered the poem. When I was younger, I used to wish I could swap my disability for something else. I thought – I would rather be in a wheelchair than stammer. Having since worked with people who rely on wheelchairs, I take this back. I definitely have the better deal. But if you’re in a wheelchair, you work things out. You get ramps fixed in your workplace. I can work things out, too. I can work out what went wrong, and how to avoid it next time (in this case, make sure I have all details like names of websites on a printed hand-out). It can be done.