A hair-raising look at intimacy, disability and soul

April 29, 2007|By Leslie Schwartz | Leslie Schwartz,Special to the Sun

The Amputee's Guide to Sex

By Jillian Weise

Soft Skull Press / 84 pages / $14.95

Readers who can handle the hair-raising experience of Jillian Weise's gutsy poetry debut, The Amputee's Guide to Sex, will be rewarded with an elegant examination of intimacy and disability and a fearless dissection of the taboo and the hidden.

Weise fuses the sterile language of medical science with the fragile territory of the heart and dares to ask whether the body is the temple of the soul or its prison. In the poem "The Local Human Being," she writes: "You say I'm obsessed / with bodies; they are nothing, they are everything." Then she dips into the ineffable region of the soul and its relationship with the physical form, teetering between the desire for connection and the vulgarity of ill-mannered seduction.

This seesawing between body and spirit is reminiscent of Flannery O'Connor's short story "Good Country People," in which a seemingly dimwitted Bible salesman asks a woman to prove her love by removing her false leg. At first she's horrified. "She was as sensitive about the artificial leg as a peacock to its tail. No one ever touched it but her. She took care of it as someone else would his soul, in private and almost with her own eyes turned away."

For Weise, as it was for O'Connor, the prosthetic is like a third person, barging through a locked bedroom door. She drags her reader into the messy world of desire, disability and sex, as well as pain - both physical and psychic. She knows the subject intimately: Born with a congenital defect, she had a leg amputated during a bone-lengthening procedure in her early teens. But be careful about reading too many autobiographical details into her work. You'll miss something deeper.

When it comes to love and sex, she declares, we are all susceptible to the betrayals of our bodies and hearts regardless of our physical limitations, a point she makes clearly in the remarkable title poem. In the first stanza, she writes, "Wait for shadows to stand still, then quick, under the covers, remove the prosthetic. Let it slip beneath the bed, under clothes, behind a door." And in the last, "Think for two people. Know where your limbs are at all times; know where your partner's limbs are at all times."

She makes no apologies for laying everything bare and thus forcing us into the mix. Like people passing an accident scene, we become the voyeur, rubbernecking in the treacherous realm of the body. Yet the humor and muscularity of her voice obliterate any tendency toward self-pity. This balance between raw suffering and efficiency of language eventually turns the watcher in us into the wounded.

The book's second half is a bit more intangible, less in-your-face. But the epilogue is a breathtaking poem that shows the heartbreaking distance between the "us" of the disabled and the "them" of the able-bodied as Weise contemplates a woman on the Metro with her knees in a man's lap. "Before normal," she writes, "there was ideal. The face on the billboard with the bottle of perfume, not ideal. Athena and Aphrodite, ideal. The woman is not ideal but has two knees."

Leslie Schwartz, the president of PEN USA, is the author of the novels "Jumping the Green" and "Angels Crest."

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