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Thomas S. Disch, 1940-2008
Bar Harbor
On Science Fiction
by Tom Disch

We are all cripples. First admit that
And it follows we incur no uncommon shame
By lying in our beds telling such tales
As will serve to cheer those who share our condition.
It is a painful business. Time does not fly
For paraplegics. Even those who find employment
Manipulating numbers and answering phones
Are afflicted with the rictus of sustained
Disappointment. We would all rather be whole.
There is another world we all imagine where
Our handicaps become the means of grace,
Where acne vanishes from every face,
And the slug-white bodies rise from wrinkled sheets
With cries of joy. Within each twisted this-world smile
Bubbles the subconscious slobber of a cover by Frazetta.
Of course we are proud of our ability to move
At high velocity among our many self-delusions.
We invalids, because we share the terrible
Monotony of childhood, preserve the childlike knack
Of crossing the border into the Luna of our dreams.
Many cannot. Look deep into the glazed eyes of the normative
And you will discern that genteel poverty of the imagination
Which is our scorn, our torment, our sordid delight.
Why, we ask ourselves, can't they _learn_ to be crippled?
Some do--but only as a father may enter
The house inhabited by his daughter's dolls.
And then only for the interval of a smile, only to visit.
He cannot know what it is to live
Completely in the imagination, never to leave it.
To live, that is, imprisoned in a wheelchair,
In limbs that can no longer suffer pains
Of growth. There is a story that we love to hear told
About a man who comes to our utopia
And is initiated to our ways. We teach him
A special form of basketball. He sees our rodeo.
His normal fingers touch our withered legs.
His mouth makes love. He's soundly whipped
For the careless enjoyment of his health, and then--
This is the part we relish most--he sees us
As we really are, transfigured, transcendent, gods.
We form our wheelchairs in a perfect circle. We
close our eyes, we wish with all our might, and
Suddenly, zap, thanks to the secret psychic powers
We handicapped, so called, possess, we disappear!
Where to? Never ask. Believe, as the hero of that tale
Believed, that we were switched by the flick of a wish
Into that lovely Otherwhere beloved by every visitor
To Lourdes. Suppose, for the sake of story
We were lifted up into the fresco's glory. Believe.
Do we deceive ourselves? Assuredly.
How else sustain the years of pain, the sneers
And hasty aversions of those who recognize
In our deformities the mirror image of their own
Intolerable irregularities? The antidote
To shame is arrogance; to prison, an escape.
To be a cripple, however, is to know
That all attempts must fail. We open our eyes
And at once Barsoom dissolves. We're back within
Our irremediable skin in that familiar cruel
World where every doorknob's out of reach.
You are welcome, therefore, Stranger, to join
Our confraternity. But please observe the rules.
Always display a cheerful disposition. Do not refer
To our infirmities. Help us to conquer the galaxy.

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Tragic irony reigns. Could you post the bibliographic info? And did you type it in or does it already exist online somewhere? I remember the outcry when it first appeared--talk about being politically incorrect.

I remember the outcry when it first appeared--talk about being politically incorrect.

"Politically incorrect"? It's a pretty nasty poem (and a masterful troll of the cross-faction attack style). If one insults people to their face (and you use some other people's identity to do it!) one should expect them to take offense.

I originally encountered this in Nebula Awards 17, where it was reprinted as a winner of the Rhysling Award for best long SF poem of 1981. I happened to read that volume in 2005, while kestrell was working on her thesis, so I typed up a copy for her to read.

When it got mentioned in so many obituaries, I went looking for a copy online to link to, but did not find one. So (with Kes' help) I found the copy I had typed up for her.

Politically incorrect it certainly is, but I think it's a successful piece of Art that more people should be exposed to.

Wow--the "outcry" I remembered was as long ago as 1981! You've got to hand it to the Rhysling Award judges, who were able to suspend their personal sense of outrage and view the poem as a work of art, as you say.

It's getting harder for satirists to push people's buttons, in a society that is bombarded with stupid media insults, yet is inexplicably litigious and sensitive. Still, the effort to understand written irony defeats some of us. Freshmen continue to tell me that Swift is in favor of eating Irish babies (a reading of "A Modest Proposal" that was not unknown in its own time).

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