|cover credit: ELJ Publications|
Precipice Fruit by Sara Biggs Chaney
ELJ Publications (2013)
Reviewed by Michael VanCalbergh
The best place to start talking about Sara Biggs Chaney’s poetry chapbook, Precipice Fruit, is with the afterward. In a courageous and rarely seen (in poetry) break of the “fourth wall,” Chaney addresses the readers of her poems to provide an insight into some of the intentions behind her poems.
The two biggest insights into Chaney’s work are that “every child has a personhood” and that she is not writing a book about autism but “a work of imagination, grounded in experience.” This allows Chaney to provide a variety of voices to the subject because the poems are her own creations, not poetic representation of her experience. At the end, she asks three questions regarding this choice: “Who is Jenna,” “Who authors Jenna,” and “What should matter to us more? The institutional story of the child, or the child’s story of herself?”
Jenna is the autistic child whose presence ripples through each poem. Chaney balances three sets of voices that seek to define Jenna. The first set includes the doctors and teachers that refer to Jenna by a set of afflictions or to “normal” behavior. From the second poem in the collection that tells us there are “possible markers of genetic disorder” to the last poem, which provides a 5th grade report card, Chaney includes a variety of found material that portrays how the world outside views autistic children.
The outside world’s observations start many of the poems and allow Chaney to use Jenna’s mother as a balance or reaction. The two blason of Jenna are perfect examples of responses to the doctors’ jargon. In “Blason for Jenna (II),” Chaney presents a new way of understanding the technical terms of diagnosis. She explains:
Your head is a fountain
held by tender skin.
Your arms and legs
are the soft ending
of a nighttime song.
Your mouth, a seashell
speaking the ocean’s story.
Chaney uses the mother’s voice to provide moments of absolute beauty with Jenna—“her mouth sings / easy sound, sweet innard / of a thousand little thunders”—to incredibly visual terror—“Jenna’s ribs arch & chase / a magnet to the ceiling. / Her joints do circus tricks.” With this second poetic voice, Jenna is less clinical and more human.
Readers also see a mother’s vulnerability as she imagines her child as “cliffside fruit” in the title poem “Precipice Fruit.” As the speaker metaphorically hangs onto the last vein of her previous life, she takes in the “one tiny beautiful thing” that hangs there with her: her daughter. Chaney writes, “Reach for it and fall. / Don’t reach for it, and fall.”
Jenna, in the beginning of the book, is not a real person, merely the subject of poems. Halfway through the book, the readers may expect a continuation of the mother’s voice and the clinical coldness of medical records. Although a fantastic way to construct a collection, Chaney does not stop there. She stretches her imagination further and gives voice to Jenna. She states, “Jenna teaches / another way / to be here”. Jenna’s voice is superbly constructed when she states, “I kiss the glass, / make it shiver. // I kiss outside.” Even when Jenna is “writing a script for a television show” or sitting on “a black leather couch next to Charley,” the voice is a child’s.
Giving Jenna the space to express herself through the latter half of the book emphasizes the problem with trying to represent someone else’s experiences who may not have the ability to do so themselves. A balance is created by giving Jenna a unique voice without making her a caricature of disability or childhood. Chaney allows the space for Jenna to be the author of her own story, not a subject in someone else’s.
Giving space to Jenna to tell the story of herself allows readers to see autism as another state of being and not just “an idea of a girl / dancing in a fountain.” Therefore, the mingling of different voices gives a balanced insight into the world of autism. With every experience represented—doctor, teacher, mother, child—we are left inhabiting the life Chaney has created instead of just reading about it.
Chaney takes a remarkable step toward allowing a deeper understanding of how another person, seemingly incredibly different from us, could be considering the world. As Jenna says at the end, “You might like to know: / I have my own strategies. / I am practicing every day”.