Reviewed by Tara Chambers
Beautiful Mutants. Caitlin Press, 2011.
A young boy mercilessly amputates a spider and places it in a jar with eight fully limbed companions. The able-bodied spiders sense the injured one’s weakness, and a heart rending scene unfolds as the physically broken creature puts up a valiant fight for its life. However, it is no match for the frenzied swarm, and the boy walks away in horror and awe over the vicious display he has witnessed. The predator/prey division established in the opening poem of Beautiful Mutants, “The Spider,” entwines itself within the fabric of the volume, a poetry collection by doctoral candidate and prize-winning author Adam Pottle.
Through skipping rhymes, sonnets, free verse, prose, and vignettes, Beautiful Mutants generates a variety of reader-responses. However, the most striking feature of the work is its unequivocal message that people with disabilities are not inferior human beings who need to be fixed so that they fit into ‘normal’ society or be locked away by a system that wishes them to remain invisible. By writing from the perspective of the disabled, Pottle performs an almost Cartesian dismantling of outmoded, socially constructed categories. From the first powerful realization of “I am,” stereotypes are challenged or destroyed, and new and more appropriate paradigms are constructed.
Pottle was born without the typical number of nerves in his cochleae, and his family officially learned of his hearing impairment when he was six years old. As a result, his most recent collection of poetry invites readers not only into the lives of a variety of characters who are born as or suddenly face futures as disabled people, but in it he also shares his personal experiences and observations. In the section “Deaf Speech,” Pottle tackles society’s need to attach labels to individuals and experiences in order to understand a situation which, quite possibly, is not open for public understanding. Communication and identity are addressed with wry wit that is tinged with an element of frustration. For example, when a hearing impaired young man orders a hot chocolate in a coffee shop, he is inundated with well-meaning questions regarding his nationality. “The woman behind the counter asks if I’m Irish, your accent reminds me of Cork” (29). Invoking Joyce’s Daedalus, he struggles internally with whether he should endorse her unintentional ignorance: “Should I say that I am from a small town outside of Dublin…most people don’t know about it…” (29). Society’s reliance on language and communication is also highlighted in “I” and “II,” which are clever alliterative poems that elicit what may be the author’s desire to construct a sense of discordance and call attention to the absurdity of speech, while further in the section the speaker is warmly welcomed to the land of D--- where “language is no longer a trap…” (31).
While Pottle often employs humour (as he does when he describes the disappointment experienced by a hearing impaired speaker when he reads the actual lyrics to some of his favourite songs), he is not afraid to address the inescapable realities that people with disabilities encounter, such as society’s prejudice and the medicalization of the disabled body. A collection of poems, observations, and historical facts entitled, “The Alberta Provincial Training School for Mental Defectives” addresses the infamous hospital in Red Deer Alberta which, for seventy years, operated under the guise of a humane training facility for those who were considered mentally inferior. With the aid of historical documents, Pottle constructs a harrowing account of the mandate of Dr. Leonard Jan De Vann, and the wretched acts that were performed in the hospital. Pottle pays particular attention to the hospital’s policy of forced sterilization for institutionalized adolescents who, like the amputated spider, find themselves trapped and powerless. Pottle adopts a matter-of-fact style when he outlines the reasoning behind the surgeries performed at the hospital. In the short essay “Mary Kept Immaculate,” Mary explains how menstruation was of particular concern to the doctors. They argue, “We can’t have blood (or anything else) running loose in a girl’s body or in a girl’s head” (12). In contrast to the hospital staff’s cold indifference, the victims are vulnerable, trusting, and communicate a profound sense of loneliness and loss. In the poem “You Don’t Feel it Until Later,” middle-aged Brady’s experience is recalled: “It didn’t hurt much then, he says, / lowering his head. I should’ve been more alert” (24). This admission, communicated with such simplicity, epitomizes the sense of resignation that pervades this section of the book.
Descriptive of a dark era in Canadian history, “The Alberta Provincial Training School for Mental Defectives” is an emotionally difficult segment; however, throughout Beautiful Mutants there are inspiring examples of tenacity and courage, which illustrate the human ability to adapt and thrive. In the section “Beautiful Mutants,” Sandra reluctantly visits the Sistine Chapel and learns that profound beauty can be sensed even without the advantage of sight, while Lily relies on her upper body to pull her out of the mud after a rainy day of gardening. Zach, the hormonal teenaged protagonist in the short story “Asymmetry,” shuns a prosthetic leg, “’cause they’re geeky and they look uncomfortable” (68). While his mother is mildly distressed by Zach’s decision to rely on crutches for mobility, she is positively horrified to discover her son’s proclivity for online dating sites that cater to amputees. The ensuing drama is a mixture of humour and heartbreak as Zach navigates growing up, sex and love, and fitting into the world on his own terms.
Forced confinement, spiteful taunts, drug addiction, sex, violence, and family discord: no subject is off limits for Adam Pottle. Often the work is jarring and difficult, yet nowhere in the collection does the author vie for reader sympathy. Instead, Beautiful Mutants forces us to examine our perceptions of people with disabilities and compels readers to reconsider what is ‘normal.’ Pottle suggests that society insists on focusing on limitations and differences, but in Beautiful Mutants he emphasizes what we all have in common: our flawed humanity and the desire for inclusion.
At press time: Tara Chambers graduated with a BA in English and Philosophy from Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, British Columbia. Currently she is a PhD student at the University of Saskatchewan where she also received her MA in English Literature. Her work focuses on Renaissance and Early Modern Literature, particularly John Milton’s political philosophy as it is presented in Paradise Lost.
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