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Review by Jose Miguel Esteban, University of Toronto, Email: miggy.esteban@mail.utoronto.ca

As I begin to write this review of Gut Botany, I struggle to find the words that describe all that author Petra Kuppers (2020) offers to me as a reader. And so, I start by enacting a gesture that recurs throughout this collection of poetry—that of a bow. Very early on, she guides me through this gesture:

Bow forward, pour yourself into your capable hands, and hold

your heart.

Bow forward, pour your stomach into your feeble hands, release 

the binds that bind so tightly to your spinal column.

Bow again, drop your sexual organs into waiting hands, wait. 

Breathe in, out, in, soothe. (p. 3)

I allow myself to respond to these poetic prompts. I find them choreographing my body into a moment of vulnerability. I hold various parts of my body in my hands, catching them as they succumb to the force of gravity. In this moment of holding, I embrace my struggle to articulate a response to Kuppers’ words. It is in this embrace that I begin to understand the critical and creative possibilities that her poetry collection could inspire for all of us engaging in disability studies. 

Kuppers (2009) has previously invited us to rethink how we encounter the term disability. Through her exploration of a rhizomatic model of disability, she has suggested: “Disability culture poems become rhizomatic assemblages, bringing familiar things into unfamiliar constellations” (p. 230). While we could read Gut Botany as an example of such a poetic exploration, my body gestures to the possibility of Kuppers offering us more than just a sample of a rhizomatic assemblage. I find myself being drawn to the ebbs and flows of her words as my body moves into this space of unfamiliarity. As I search for the unfamiliarity of my relationship to the space around me, her written poetry becomes an invitation to join in a practice of creatively pursuing all that I can learn from my body. This pursuit is one that pushes me to interpret her words differently, beyond what I expect of myself through the writing of this book review. My interpretation manifests itself as an embodied expression of my own movement entangled in her assemblage. As my gestures embody her words, and the meaning of her words become embodied through my gestures, I find myself travelling with her and sharing in her crip/queer ecosomatic journey. 

As a dance and movement artist myself, I resonate with Kuppers’ work as a community performance artist. We share a common language of somatic exploration, and I encounter her poetry in Gut Botany as a movement score—a series of prompts that inspire our movement without dictating how we must enact our specific gestures, that acknowledge our different ways of interpreting embodied expression while connecting us with each other in a collective dance. In her “Field Notes” section, she describes her writing practice as grounded in “surrealist and situationist techniques of dérive and freewriting” (p. 85). I become entangled in this free movement of her writing. I find my body joining her own experiences of “losing myself in land, letting my attention drift as I wheel myself through space” (p. 85). I become lost in her words and their placement on the page. I try to capture meaning, but it is only when I let go of my desire for familiar knowledge that I begin to pursue the unfamiliar meanings that reverberate through the duet of my movement and her words. 

In the section entitled “Contours,” we leap from word to word and pause in blank spaces for moments of reflection. These spaces also present holes through which we might slip down prematurely to the next line. They become openings through which we might jump up to revisit a word that draws us back. This game of leaping, flying, falling, and returning invites us to make and re-make connections between parts of our bodies, objects, garments, plants, animals, water, sky, and earth. In this dance we negotiate our different embodied experiences and our embodied experiences of difference, navigating our place on these lands where we play.

Kuppers describes Gut Botany as “chart[ing] my body/language living on indigenous land as a white settler and traveler” (85). More than a reflexive exercise of positionality, or of locating oneself in relation to the land, I find myself experiencing her poetry as an invitation to dance and move through space differently. In the section entitled “Bug Junction,” she evokes the Anishinaabeg teachings of Grandmother Moon while confronting the precarity of her own belonging within settler colonial contexts. Responding to “Big Spirit Moon” she writes:

I am not spared precarity

in my occupation of indigenous lands.

I cannot see the lake the way you root

drum, burn the chitin, an alarm. (p. 72)

She provokes us to understand the implications of our inhabiting and settling in any place as she does through her own process of navigating and negotiating her movement as a disabled settler on Indigenous land. Through such a practice, she pushes us to encounter questions of access in a way that attends to our simultaneous experiences of belonging and unbelonging within the fragility of settler colonial imaginaries.

In the section entitled “Moon Botany,” she creates her poems through a practice of “armchair botany” where visual artist Sharon Siskin “went on wheelchair-inaccessible nature hikes and brought back found materials for a creative exchange” (p. 42). She invites us to join her in a precarious act of reimagining how we form relations with the land and how we might access the spaces in which our presence has been made unexpected. Together, we attend to the presences that have been made absent.

Throughout her collection, Kuppers draws me deeper into a sensual investigation of my relationship to the memories held in the spaces through which we move. In the poem “House Concert,” she pushes us to ask, “What hides under the chairs? What sighs under the upholstery?” of her performance space (p. 33). As we drift through the Traverse City State Hospital in the poem “Asylum,” we confront the haunting “smell of hair” (p. 29), as we hear the “howls on the other side of the door” (p. 31). In “Court Theatre” and “Craniosacral Rhythms,” the body itself becomes a space through which impressions of trauma and pain are expressed and felt. Our bodies become aware of the memories that reverberate through every space we encounter. We hold ourselves within the tension that shapes our presence through experiences of oppression and through histories that have marked our unbelonging in any space. We hold this in tension with the communities of belonging we create in every place.

As I conclude this review, I return to our gesture of the bow. I place my hands on my stomach and feel the weight of my gut. I become aware of my own vulnerability through experiences of racialization, of mental and embodied anguish, and of navigating queer (un)belonging. I become aware of my precarity as a Canadian settler on Turtle Island. I fall into the vulnerability of questioning my belonging to any land as I confront what it means to find community within the Filipino/a/x diaspora. And as I hold myself, encountering my body as a found material from a distant place, I feel Kuppers catch me in this creative exchange. I hold onto her words, and her words hold onto my body as we continue this shared dance of finding belonging within the unfamiliarity of our relations.

Gut Botany embodies this gesture of bowing as a way of honouring the presence of our bodyminds, our presence in space. Moreover, this act of bowing becomes a gesture of respect and humility, of being in relationship with our bodies and with the land—in relationship with all the stories that reverberate through our bodies and that pulsate through our connection to the land. Through this gesture, Kuppers’ poetry becomes a provocation, a method, and a practice. This collection of poems does more than just suggest a poetics of disability, it pushes all of us engaging in disability studies—students, teachers, activists, and artists—to feel more critically through our own physical movement in, and embodied relationships to the spaces we inhabit. As we allow our bodies to respond to Kuppers’ choreographic prompts, perhaps we might begin to encounter our critical work as also engaging in moments of creative play. In this space of play, we can begin to imagine and re-imagine how we come together in space and how we dream of coming together in community.

Works Cited:

Kuppers, P. (2009). Toward a rhizomatic model of disability: Poetry, performance, and touch. Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, 3(3), 221–240. https://doi.org/10.1353/jlc.0.0022  

Kuppers, P. (2020). Gut Botany. Wayne State University Press.

Ojibwe Moons. (2015, August 14). MUSKRAT Magazine. http://muskratmagazine.com/ojibwe-moons/ 

This review was published as part of Disability Studies Quarterly, Spring/Summer 2022.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated.

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

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