If I were giving out prizes for literary achievements for 2012, I would have awarded Melinda Smith's book "First... Then..." as a discovery of the year in the poetry category. I have first come across Melinda's poem which gave the title to this unique book back in September 2011 (you can read my old blog post as well as the poem here) and was eagerly awaiting for the book to be published.
Imagine my delight when the book arrived from the publisher.
I have greedily swallowed it in one go, then started re-reading, piece by piece, randomly opening the pages and discovering new meanings and finding new food for thought.
This book of poems is all about life with autism. It gives a deep insight in what it is to be a parent of a child on the spectrum. But not just that. As the title suggests, you will hear different voices from planet autism, this planet which is so close and so distant at the same time. Some of the poems speak for those who have no voice to speak for themselves, like my non-verbal son.
Melinda Smith writes in the foreword to the book that she has been "engaging in the time-honoured creative practice of standing in the shoes of my fellow humans in the hope that we may all start to better understand each other."
I have read "First... Then..." poem many times, and each time it makes me emotional, as it is true on so many levels.
Or take "Brain Weather (Autistic Meltdown Ground Zero)":
When was it that your frontal lobe
Cauterised itself against your will
leaving you endless automised local storms
with no way to blow them -selves out?
When my son Sasha has meltdowns for no apparent reason, I can sense he's sometimes as bewildered by having them, as if they truly come and go against his will. If he were verbal, he might have vented his frustration in a rant, but he doesn't have this luxury, the inside storms cause the meltdowns.
I have also written about "Autistic Acrostic" earlier last year and it still strikes me as a powerful poem. This is another poem about which I'd like to say: I wish I wrote it. It is about me. About the way I often feel helpless, vulnerable and desperate. In such a short space Melinda managed to encompass the world.
Melinda has a great gift of writing on behalf of her fellow humans. Like any great writer, she is full of compassion and understanding. Reading "Autistic child with acute auditory processing disorder" allows you to gain an insight on what it feels when you have a sensory overload:
"at a birthday party, buried under cushions and wailing like a siren
trying to say I can't stand it, the music and the voices
are tearing at me, pecking me apart"
We don't do birthday parties anymore, Sasha's or any other child's, they are an instrument of torture for him and what is the point of a party if you cannot enjoy it.
"in my bedroom after school, kicking my baby sister in the face
trying to say go away, go away, you're noisy, you're unpredictable
I've been clinging to a cliff face for six hours
and you're dangling yourself from my ankles"
That is exactly how Sasha feels, he's been enduring the school for hours. The last thing he wants when he comes home from school is the attentions of his little brother. And though he doesn't kick his younger brother, he doesn't welcome his embraces either, especially after he arrives home from "work", from being surrounded by a group of adults and children, some of whom can be very loud and noisy. And yes, anything or anyone unpredictable could be scary and uncomfortable.
The rhyme and style of "What the child hears" reminded me of Eric Carle's soothing rhythms of "Polar bear, polar bear, what do you hear?". In a way it is a homage to a children's favourite, with the same rolling sounds and a chain of animal characters.
"A prehistory of autism" is simply beautiful. It was inspired by Temple Grandin's quote "The first stone spear... was probably invented by an Aspie who chipped away at rocks while the other people socialised around the campfire". Each verse is a story in itself, creating a portrait of a prehistoric human. Clever and imaginative.
Melinda Smith takes the traditional metrical patterns of poetry and extends them to the breaking point, when they acquire an aesthetic virtuosity. Rhyme, assonance and alliteration work to evoke emotive responses from the readers. Each poem challenges our understanding of autism.
Each poem tells a story and is an inkling of what it is to inhabit the planet autism.
"I prefer" (to read the poem in full, please follow this link) is written from the point of view of a child with autism, and I imagine it could have been my son's litany and invocations of preferences:
torture to haircuts
libraries to birthday parties
standing ankle-deep in ocean...
looking at things out of the corner of my eye...
death to dentist visits...
not to see my school friends outside of school...
truth to sarcasm
to be left alone"
Melinda Smith is an inspirational poet and a linguistic virtuoso. She is a unique voice from planet autism.