TW/CW: Disability, Medical Trauma, Allusions to Sexual Situations
Review written by Rachael Crosbie
If you are seeking out a book that details what it’s like to live with disability, then Handbook for the Newly Disabled, A Lyric Memoir is an absolute must read. The book’s hybrid nature stems from necessity—as a generally sick and disabled person, I find it necessary to use any/all methods to describe my pain and experience. Sometimes words aren’t enough, and sometimes the manner in which the words are expected to come out aren’t enough.
When I read Blevin’s book, I felt so in-tune to the overall conceit of the book. The chapter structuring of a typical work of prose or memoir is familiar, but the poetry and visual aspects are transformative devices, inviting readers to best experience a similar, if not same, pain and longing that shifts between each page, each chapter. They also subvert readers’ expectations of a typical memoir. Here, the language is pointed and poetic, even the accessibility notes for the visual elements are, too. Here, the hybrid nature exists to best paint an image of disability—what’s true for the reader’s experience as well as Blevin's experience.
Each read begs for the dissection of each chapter. Its five page/poem structure has a specific focus, all of which highlights Blevin’s command of surrealism and color-infused imagery. Here is a brief and non-exhaustive look into each chapter:
Chapter 1: After Rembrandt’s “Self-Portrait,” Damaged by Acid in 1997
This chapter starts on an intense and dreamy note. There’s a strong relationship between the speaker and the body. The non-circular narrative running throughout emphasizes how the passage of time can be experienced, especially by a disabled person. This chapter also sets up the main themes running throughout the book, such as disability, sexuality, queerness, and motherhood.
Chapter 2: Disability if the Crescendo of a Bette Midler Song [with Photo Illustrations]
Here, Blevins introduces visual elements, as well as their accessibility notes. The writing in this chapter pushes forth a song and dance of pure desperation and power: “Her face a porcelain mirror, her voice a hammer.”
Chapter 3: Brain Fog
This chapter presents a memory or a multitude of them and their ever-consuming command they have on the mind and body. Toward the end, Blevins describes medication and labels as prisons instead of what they’re “supposed” to offer, such as a form of healing and understanding, respectively.
Chapter 4: Five by Five
Here, each page is an erasure. It’s an incredible way to visualize pain and the experience of being chronically ill, as in, there is always so much going on every single day. There is so much noise. It can be filtered out, distilled to something specific, but there is only so much to be contained and so much to process throughout every single day.
Chapter 5: How to Read My/Our/Their/Your Future Scattered Bird Bones [with Photo Illustrations]
There is nothing I can say that will effectively illustrate the beautiful and blunt power of this chapter, so I will leave it on a quote: “How will I ever stop / writing about illness?”
Chapter 6: Signs
Here, Blevins dives into different signs of death and dying, and how when we know it will happen, when we live to prepare for it, we will find it anywhere: past, present, and future.
Chapter 7: My Neurologist (Who Doesn’t Have MS) Explains Pain is Not a Symptom of MS
This chapter presents the bleak reality disabled people face: 1) doctors don’t always listen, 2) “Disability isn’t always like the child born blue and still— / some is simply a dream of rewind, how a person can never go back to their warm bloody shell.”, and 3) the hospital trips are incredibly nauseating. It also offers another: “pain must become aphorism”. However, both of these realities coexist.
Chapter 8: How to Fuck a Disabled Body
Here, Blevins sets up a chapter of sexuality and reclamation.
Chapter 9: Cubist Self-Portrait of Woman and Anger
This chapter rings true of the quiet and composed anger disabled people are forced to have when they experience daily chronic pain. It also contains one of the most powerful lines I’ve ever read about disability: “Do you ever feel so sure you’ve died and the road might drone on endless / like a treadmill?”
Chapter 10: White
This is another chapter where I do not have the words to adequately explain its importance. It needs to be read. So, I will leave it on another quote: “When you read / your handbook for the newly disabled, you’ll want someone to hold you.”
And it’s true, when reading this book, you’ll want someone with you. When you experience daily pain and worse, you’ll want someone there for you. It’s hard to go through this all alone, and this book is a friend—it understands and sees you.
Handbook for the Newly Disabled, A Lyric Memoir by Allison Blevins is forthcoming with BlazeVOX Books on April 15th, 2022.
Rachael Crosbie (they/them) is writing poems about their cat, Peanut. Rachael has four poetry chapbooks: Trick Mirror or Your Computer Screen, self-portrait as poems about bad poetry, swerve, and MIXTAPES. Their fifth poetry chapbook, Peanut [the cat] auditions as Courage […from Courage the Cowardly Dog], is forthcoming in the summer of 2022. You can find them on Twitter @rachaelapoet posting about squishmallows, She-Ra and The Princesses of Power, and Courage the Cowardly Dog.
Tip them on Venmo: @Rachael-Crosbie-7