When They Consider How Their Light Is Spent: Intersectional Race and Disability Studies in the Classroom

Amrita Dhar

[print edition page number: 161]
Being the visibly non-white and audibly foreigner-sounding person in the room can have some peculiar advantages, such as being permitted a refusal to consider race as a sort of unspeakable in mixed settings in the US. Thus it was, that faced with the apparent difficulty of talking about race in a class of Black and white and brown young people some years ago, I decided that our collective task could be made more and not less intuitive, more and not less accessible, if we added another ostensibly difficult topic, disability, to our discussion. This is where I went — to two poems that I had recently read side-by-side and could not stop thinking about: John Milton’s “When I consider how my light is spent” and Tyehimba Jess’s “When I consider how my life is spent.” They are sonnets, both, and although written centuries apart, they bear the same name. To study them together is to note, between poets, the workings of influence and defiance, reverence and anger, answer and question, accord and grief. As one student later told me, reading the two poems together is like “seeing the work of poetry in action” — as she explained, registering that poets read poets and write what they read, and in any case, “write life, you know?”

This essay is a reflection and an account of how the compressed power of these sonnets can be used pedagogically to interrogate ideas of physical ability, race, agency, and justice. Led by my experience in the classroom, I offer in this essay, first, that these two superlative poems, when read together, enable intersectional awareness of race and disability. As such, they promote discussion about the profound interlocking between premodern and current conceptions of bodily and intellectual integrity. The side-by-side study of these two poems allows students to link literary production across time and place in a grounded and graspable manner; they make real for students the poetic, creative, and human businesses [162] of influence, imitation, criticism, and departure. Secondly, I make a recommendation in this essay for the study of poetry as a political, socially responsive, and urgent artform.[1] This recommendation is not so much a distinct argument here as an essay-long mood and assertion. I make this assertion as someone who grew up surrounded by poetry in multiple languages, with, first, the conviction that poetry is one of the most important forms of human resistance to oppression and, next, that educators should treat it as such in classrooms. I consider this point especially important to stress now, when undergraduate students in the US often remark on poetry as difficult to read or analyze, while the same resistance is not offered by them, for instance, to novels or short stories or even essays in theory and criticism.[2] Finally and cumulatively, I advance in this essay that a mutually informing conversation between race and disability theories opens up both areas of study in rigorously generative directions. Indeed, I argue that the study of any form of marginalization — which is not “out there” in some abstract elsewhere, but everywhere around us in our racist, sexist, ableist societies — is only enriched by deliberately making space for discussion of how a particular kind of marginalization operates [163] in conjunction with other forms of marginalization.[3] The more we as educators connect the dots between the various forms of structural marginalization in operation, the better our students are equipped as citizens of the world we inhabit together. I end the essay with specific pedagogical suggestions and questions for the classroom.

Two Sonnets

Here are the poems. I offer them along with a content warning for violence, police brutality, and grief.

“When I consider how my light is spent”
John Milton

When I consider how my light is spent,
E’re half my days, in this dark world and wide
And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodg’d with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, least he returning chide,
Doth God exact day labour, light deny’d
I fondly ask; but patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts, who best
Bear his milde yoke, they serve him best, his State
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and waite.[4] [164]

“When I consider how my light is spent”
Tyehimba Jess

I squint through the glaucoma of my right eye
to watch the YouTube video of Frankie Taylor,
arrested on a DUI, strapped down in a restraining chair,
beaten unconscious and half blind by the police
of Eastpointe, Michigan. The officer put on his light
blue rubber glove, and in a shout that slowly shrugged
into bureaucratic chant, told Taylor to “stop resisting”
13 times — once for each blow to Frankie’s left eye
until it was pummeled into bloody darkness.
We share a darkness, Frankie and I. Turns out his
blinded eye also had glaucoma, an affliction
more common for those of dark American hue —
this is my true account. But my question chides:
Who labors day and night to deny my darkness light?[5]

I presented my content warnings in class. My students stayed, listened, worked with me. We read Milton’s poem first — but did not stop to unpack it. Then, we read Jess’s poem, for which Milton’s poem is made both reason and reason for departure. Again, we did not stop — yet. I mentioned that I wanted to do an in-class collaborative close reading of both poems: each poem individually, first, and then we would place them in conversation with each other. I explained that I wanted us to purposefully investigate what “happens” to each poem when we reckon with its centuries-spanning namesake, its other.

Milton scholarship is old and rich, but there is not much discussion in it of Milton’s lived blind condition during the writing of some of our landmark poetry in the English language: Paradise Lost (1667), Paradise Regained (1671), and Samson Agonistes (1671).[6] The sonnet I have transcribed, [165] also known as the sonnet “On His Blindness” (a title supplied by later editorial interjection; in Milton’s lifetime, it was published as Sonnet “XVI” in his 1673 volume, Poems), makes a critical elision of Milton’s blind condition impossible, but in a class of non-English-majors and where most if not all of the class was reading this poem for the first time, there arose the question of whether the poet was, in fact, blind. After all, the word “blind” never occurs in the poem.[7] Even if it did, my students and I knew, for we had recently discussed, the easy slippage possible between matter and metaphor when it comes to words such as “light” and “dark,” “day” and “night,” “seeing” and “blind.” Indeed, even outside such ocular-centrism in the day-to-day English we still use, the metaphorical valences of disability — any disability — remain profuse and problematic.[8]

I told my students that the poet was, in fact, blind. I also explained some details of what we know of Milton’s life and time: that Milton lived in seventeenth-century England; that he was a practicing poet and polemic; that he went blind as an adult, in his early-to-mid forties, never fully knowing the physiological reasons for his visual loss; that it took him a long time, nearly eight years, to go from initial limited-sighted-ness to total and irreversible absence of sight; that the loss itself, slow but sure, was accompanied by hope, desire, despair, and longing. What follows now is something of the exchange between my students and me. As in any classroom with active and engaged learners, my students asked questions [166] of me and each other, answered one another, waited for my questions, heard my questions but jumped ahead, and asked their own.[9]

“But the ‘God’ here is actual God, right?”

“Must be, it also says ‘maker’ here.”

Yes, I answered.

“Is he [Milton] talking to himself about why he is blind?”

Yes, I said — that is a great way to put it.

“Is he asking why God made him blind?”

Is he? — I asked back. Let’s read those lines again.

“I feel like he’s asking what he’s supposed to do now.”

“He’s blind — is he saying he’s ‘useless’ now?”

Is he saying he is useless, or that something “lodg’d” with him is useless? — I interposed.

And so we went, talking through the sonnet’s initial build and then the volta: “but patience / to prevent that murmur” (my emphasis). We noted that a different force, “patience” — was this patience as Patience, personified, or simply the poet’s own patience? — was presented as stepping in to resolve for the poet something of his feelings of conflict.

And what does this “patience” say or “reply”? — I asked.

“It stuck out to me too that he says ‘replies’ — does that mean the poet asked a question? To ‘patience’ directly?”

“Patience is speaking on God’s behalf … ?”

“Is ‘patience’ God?”

“No, ‘patience’ can’t be God, ‘patience’ is saying what God needs.”

“Actually, doesn’t need.”

We thus arrived at the famous final lines of the sonnet, and its very end, with its single-syllable words, only the “only” and “also” even extending into two syllabus: “They also serve who only stand and wait.” I pointed out that if we read the line without the only two disyllabic words in it, we should have on our hands an even sparser, more intense, no-arguments-brooked statement: they serve who stand and wait. As I spoke, I found myself, as often in my classroom presence, scanning/stressing as I spoke. [167] In my own pared construction of this line, the perfect iambic pentameter of the original had converted into an emphatic spondaic trimeter: they serve/ who stand/ and wait.


Would he like to explain that assessment? — I asked my student, although and perhaps because his reaction made me smile.

“I mean, he wants to be okay with his blindness.”

Just as traditional Milton scholarship has not dealt sufficiently with disability, so too has race scholarship, whether in premodern critical race studies or current-day critical race studies, not often contended centrally and explicitly with disability.[10] Yet, disability is a strangely accessible topic — perhaps because, as disability studies scholar Tobin Siebers points out, a disability identity is the one bodily identity that any of us may at any given point, and potentially suddenly, come to inhabit:

The presence of disability creates a different picture of identity — one less stable than identities associated with gender, race, sexuality, nation, and class — and therefore presenting the opportunity to rethink how human identity works. I know as a white man that I will not wake up in the morning as a black woman, but I could wake up as a quadriplegic, as Mark O’Brien did when he was six [168] years old (O’Brien and Kendall 2003). Able-bodiedness is a temporary identity at best, while being human guarantees that all other identities will eventually come into contact with some form of disability identity.[11]

I had earlier brought Siebers’s scholarship into this class, in the form of the Introduction to his book Disability Theory (2008). In this ground-breaking monograph, Siebers outlines the “ideology of ability,” the almost-entirely-unexamined societal assumption that bodies must ideally be perfectible and perfected and perfect, present and able and presentable. As Siebers points out, “[d]isability identity stands in uneasy relationship to the ideology of ability, presenting a critical framework that disturbs and critiques it. [ … ] Disability creates theories of embodiment more complex than the ideology of ability allows.”[12] Many days after our class session with Siebers’s work, one student wrote to me that the discussion had been important for her because she did not earlier imagine that something as “expected” and “normal” as ability could be so because of an ideology: “Just knowing that ability is an idea is incredible.”[13] Even later, another student walked out with me after class ended and said that understanding disability as something that can be invisible and “unavailable to me” (to the student) but nevertheless present (“there”) had helped her relationship with a family member.

From Siebers and the “ideology of ability,” we turned to Jess’s sonnet. As we had done with Milton’s poem, we re-read and read aloud this poem. It ended: “Turns out his/ blinded eye also had glaucoma, an affliction/ more common for those of dark American hue –/ this is my true account. But my question chides:/ Who labors day and night to deny my darkness light?” And without fully knowing why, but myself at the mercy of the [169] momentum of the poem, its true account, and its ask for accountability, I departed from what I had written in my lesson plan (“Work through Jess’s poem line by line in a close reading”) and asked the class: so, who labours day and night to deny this darkness light? Again, I caught myself stressing the words as though I was scanning the poem’s last line: who la/bours day/ and night/ to de/ny this/ darkness/ light?[14]

What ensued was a discussion on racism, police brutality, and state-sanctioned violent disabling of individuals from marginalized communities. In brief, this was one of the most generative discussions of race or disability that I have known. Today, as I recall the swiftness with which the conversation got under way, I assert that it is precisely the fact of race and disability being on our table together that enabled the class to tackle them both, and to tackle them with political consciousness and critical capaciousness.

Scholars of disability studies on both sides of the Atlantic — the post-civil-rights US and temporally aligned UK were early leaders in this field — now concede that the interdisciplinary field of disability studies as pursued in the global North has been overwhelmingly and even dangerously white and bourgeois.[15] Thus, it was striking to me that of all the conferences [170] and seminars I had so far attended, it was in this undergraduate classroom composed mainly of individuals not otherwise trained in disability studies that we addressed the intersections of disability, race, systemic and targeted violence, and disablement carried out in the name of the law.

If few students in this general education class had earlier read extensively in Milton, even fewer seemed to have heard of or read Jess. Yet, Jess did not need as much of an introduction as Milton had, for the contemporaneity of his work made it easier for the students to know just where the poet was coming from. No student asked who Jess was, or where he was writing from; I later volunteered the information that Jess was a US author who in 2017 received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. For the duration of our discussion, Jess was simply a poet who had written for us in our time — and there he remained. It was his poem that had our attention.

Who la/bours day/ and night/ to de/ny this/ darkness/ light? Sometimes my students answered my questions directly, sometimes indirectly.

“This is not disability in the same way [as in the previous poem] at all.”

Why not? — I asked.

“It’s violent.”

It was this simplicity and accuracy in my student’s statement that allowed me to mention something fundamental also about race-making: that it’s violent — because the point of it is to establish hierarchy. Medieval studies scholar Geraldine Heng’s definition of race-making as a practice of strategic essentialism in order to create hierarchy is crucially pertinent here.[16] This commonality of process is where race intersects most powerfully [171] with disability; in disability-making, too, is involved a practice of strategic essentialism, and a strategic exclusion on the basis of that essentialism — and the point of the exercise is to establish or reinforce hierarchy and a withholding of access.

But why was I suddenly talking not so much about race as race-making, and not so much about disability as disability-making?

Because neither race nor disability was born in the void; neither dropped from the sky. We must think about race because race-making has already happened, because race-ism is real; we must think about disability because disability-making has already taken place, because able-ism is real. Only, the processes of race-making and disability-making are very good at not seeming as such, very good at disappearing into mainstream history or circumstance or “norm” or “culture” or “tradition” or “just how things are.” In other words, infrastructural race-making or racism is hardly ever put under scrutiny when we study history or policy or science or technology or business, or even art or fantasy or poetry. It is only the demands for inclusion and equity — when they happen, if they happen — that are marked. And whenever these demands for inclusion and equity are marked, they are perceived as political. When occasionally achieved, those demands for inclusion are even hailed as “milestones” — as the abolition of slavery is, or the achievement of the women’s vote in the US. But the fact that the exclusion was itself political, deliberate, clear in its priorities of establishing or maintaining hierarchy, escapes notice in most teachings of history, policy, science, technology, and art. But no exclusion is ever inadvertent; an individual or a system always plans it. Race-making is real.

In disability studies, we have a slightly better handle on things: we know that impairment does not equal disability. It is when a social system makes of an impairment — such as blindness, or a missing limb, or a chronic illness — a lack and a problem and a restriction to access and participation [172] that it becomes a disability. Thus, we notice disability in the making; we register the process of disability-making. But in this field, too, the paucity of layered political dialogue, and the absence of activist and scholarly voices from non-white communities, means that we don’t come anywhere near contending with the multitudinous horrifying intersections at which disability-making takes place. These are not horrors to turn away from — again, they did not materialize out of the ether; human-engineered systems of hierarchy and exclusion created these horrors. Rather, they are matters that we must pay attention to. A Dalit man who attends a wedding feast in Uttarakhand and eats in the presence of upper-caste guests is ritually humiliated and evicted, then ambushed after leaving the gathering; next morning, his mother finds him half-dead outside their house; nine days later, the man dies.[17] It is a civilising example to other Dalits to not get above their positions. A woman who has brought inadequate dowry to her newly-married-into household in Bangladesh, and whose family comes short of making the full “gift” to the in-laws after the wedding, has acid thrown on her face.[18] It is consequence for her party’s failing an evolving agreement. An eighteen-month-old baby girl in Kashmir is shot at with a pellet gun and blinded in one eye by the Indian armed forces when she, in her mother’s arms, tries to escape tear gas, also deployed by the army, the keepers of the peace.[19] It is retribution for the toddler’s keeping the wrong religion, the wrong geography, and the wrong company. A man of dark American hue is strapped to a chair and punched in the face, an eye, repeatedly, by a keeper of the law in the US. It is reprimand, according to the keeper of the law — whose own hue is not in question because he is simply a keeper of the law who is lawfully sorting matters out after [173] the arrest of a man for Driving Under the Influence — for resisting while restrained.

It is only when we are willing and able to note these workings of multiple marginalizations, often decisively abetted by the state, that we can discuss together the parallel mechanisms of race-making and disability-making, and similarly note how one route of discrimination facilitates another.

The Work of Racism, the Work of Ableism

“‘Who labors day and night to deny my darkness light?’ I mean, he’s right, this police officer is doing a lot to make this darkness happen!”

Yes, he is, I said. It is worth noting this. Racism is a matter of its own labour: deliberate racist labour. Jess’s poem allows us to see an example of the work that a racist must put in in order to commit racist actions.[20] Racism takes work: racist work. And I want us to remember that ignorance (the “I did not know”), which is often invoked as an “unwitting” reason for racist actions, is also fostered through a particular kind of labour. That is to say: if there is a lot of evidence on a particular issue, and we still deny that evidence, or steer ourselves and our communities away from that evidence, then our ignorance is a result of careful cultivation and dedicated labour. One has to be committed to one’s ignorance in order to preserve it in the face of overwhelming evidence. Therefore, the cultivation of ignorance is also racist work. It is one thing to actually not know — and this is not a common state for anyone paying attention — but it is another to go out of one’s way to not know, or to claim that one does not know.

After a brief silence: “But what do you do if you really did not know?” [174]

That is a good question. My answer is: you apologize, step back, and do your homework. As long as you are not defending or cultivating your ignorance, you’re all right. Do your homework.

Some more silence.

Let me give you an example from my part of the world, I said. Where I come from, which is supposed to be postcolonial — India gained political independence from the British in 1947 — we talk often of something called decolonization. You can probably guess what it means: it is an effort to shed the vestiges of colonialism. The thing is, we talk about decolonization knowing that every single person has to put in the work every single day. There is no achieved state with decolonization. The work of decolonization is never “done.” That’s okay. We are not free of the colonial.[21] When something is part of the air for centuries, it cannot just go away one day because there has been a transfer of political power. In fact, it may never fully go away, because the roots of our state systems and our mindscape are so deeply plugged into the colonial. So, actual decolonization is a never-ending process. It is a matter of doing one’s learning, or un-learning, every day. It is the same with antiracism.

Yet another silence, and then: “I don’t want to offend anyone, you know.”

That is a good thing to want to do: not offend. However, I should tell you that it is not possible to never give offence. Like with any other learning, one is liable to make mistakes. The point is to learn from the mistakes, and move on, and not give up on the work of learning. It is also important to know that calling people out — unless there was deliberate and [175] wilfull wrongdoing, of course — is usually not personal. Calling people out in a manner of calling people in is a matter of extending the conversation and helping our collective learning.[22] If anyone calls you out on something because they have been offended, apologize, learn the lesson, and move on. They simply want you to know better.

“Did this author know of Milton’s poem?”

What do you think?


“Yes, I mean, it’s even the same title.”

“And it’s about blindness. He knows.”

“And it’s fourteen lines, like the other one.”

Yes, it’s a sonnet. This might sound like a digression, since we haven’t spoken today about metrical units — but stay with me. Do you know what “stanza” means?

“Like in a poem?”


“It’s used in poems.”

“It’s a kind of verse … ?”

Yes, a stanza is a unit of verse. And yes, the word refers to the basic metrical unit of a poem. A poem can have several stanzas in it. In a sonnet, which is fourteen lines, there’s technically only one stanza. The poem is a stanza. But what does the word “stanza” literally mean?

My students waited for me to continue.

In Italian — the language from which the sonnet form entered other languages — the word stanza means “room.” Another US poet, Phyllis Levin, has this lovely formulation about the sonnet. A sonnet, Levin says, is a room forever “haunted by the presence of its former occupants.”[23] Levin [176] is referring to the fact that the sonnet is one of the most widely known verse forms in the world, and a form which enjoys a distinction as one that writers flex poetic muscles in. It is a form that exacts poetic discipline, a form that authors have returned to over generations, either for stand-alone creations/poems or for “cycles”/groups of poems following a particular theme or story. Notable sonnet cycles in English go all the way back to early modern authors such as playwright and poet William Shakespeare, and Catholic-turned-Anglican preacher and metaphysical poet John Donne.[24] In recent times, the US writer Marilyn Hacker has used a sonnet cycle to great effect in the telling of a twentieth-century lesbian love story, and US author Terrance Hayes writing in the post-Trump-election moment has documented in seventy sonnets of the same name a resonant narrative of risk, recursive history, and Black belonging.[25] What I’m getting at is: the choice of the sonnet form is never by chance — it is a form that is difficult to pull off well, and a form that comes with a lot of baggage, because it has centuries of history. The choice of the sonnet form is by intention.

“So he [Jess] has definitely read the Milton poem!”

Yes, I said, he has. And Jess wants us to know that he has.[26] Why is this important?

“Milton is a biggie, isn’t he? Like, a famous poet?” [177]

I agree. Milton’s status as one of the pre-eminent poets in the English language means that Jess’s ability to “do” Milton is itself a statement of Jess’s poetic ambition. And Milton is already one of the most ambitious poets that ever lived. Jess’s signaling that he wants to share space with Milton is a means of his laying claim to a specific poetic tradition.

What else could we say about Jess’s having read his Milton?

“He’s using his poem to talk to the other one.”

Exactly — and what is the conversation? What similarities and differences can we mark?

“This one is not about his [the author’s] blindness, he’s telling us about another person, Frankie Taylor.”

“And this one is not about going blind, and as [another student] said, this one is about a different kind of blindness. It’s violent.”

Yes, and yes. This is worth underlining, for one of Jess’s achievements in this poem is precisely this elucidation of how disability and race intersect. For understanding this poem, and by extension, understanding the world in which the person named in this poem, Frankie Taylor, lives, we cannot consider Taylor’s disability — a violently inflicted disability — and race as unrelated from one another. As such, this poem provides a cue for readers to think of other situations where specific marginalized identities forcefully intersect with other marginalized identities. Thus, this poem trains us to develop an intersectional awareness of marginalization — namely, that any form of marginalization can be used to further endanger and hurt.

I wanted to make another point about the disability-making as we see it in horrible “action” in this poem. The use of state-sanctioned — indeed, state-invented and state-finessed — violence in order to impair and disable a state’s citizens is not new. Some citizens/members of any given state are always more “equal” than other citizens/members, depending on status, financial reach, politics, background, religion, ethnicity, and various realities of difference and dis/empowerment. Jess’s poem’s narration and witnessing of state violence, even as Jess consciously picks up a poem by Milton and talks back to that seventeenth-century sonnet, should remind us of the early modern (in the West, the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries) practice of punitive disabling carried out by the state. State punishments such as blinding, and the cutting off [178] of ears, hands, nose, or tongue, were a reality for the England that Shakespeare lived in and that Milton, in the generation following Shakespeare’s, inherited. Executions were still publicly performed, capital punishment still meted out through horrific body- and mind-breaking means. The police officer abusing Frankie Taylor has history behind him. In disability studies today, we have mostly forgotten that state-imparted or state-endorsed disability, mutilation, and sometimes, breaking-until-death have been time-honoured means of keeping a population under obedience, bringing a people to heel, and generating terror and personal censorship. In the overwhelming majority of disability studies discussions of the twenty-first century, we consider congenital disabilities (the “born that way” discourse) and sudden-onset disabilities (the “this can happen to a person peacefully living their life and minding their own business” discourse) in our search for structural reform — when we search for structural reform at all. We tend to forget that just as the means of racism have changed but racism itself thrives in our unequal world, so too have many means of disabling changed but disabling policies and practices continue to determine our lives today.[27] Even when scholars such as Jasbir Puar, for example, lay clear the lines of continuity between state-sanctioned methods of disabling, maiming, and debilitating, indeed, even when she does this work with hemispherical expansiveness and rigorous precision, we still largely ignore the everyday ramifications of this violence in our individualistic, capitalist society.

But on the point of the connections between violence, the state, and what can be made to count as legal, let me bring you back to the poem, back to both poems, to think about justice and accountability. Let us also look at form. Where is the volta, the turn, in Jess’s poem?

There was some counting, underlining, writing. [179]

“Turns out his/ blinded eye also had glaucoma … ”

It was now my turn to be silent for a moment.

Yes, that is absolutely a turn, I finally said, although I had thus far not quite noticed it as such in my own readings. That is where the poem turns from a narration of incident to a narration of background and a narration of context and a narration of lived history. Thank you. And good work with the looking, for it makes sense to search for the turn close to the point where the sonnet’s octet meets the sestet. Talking about which, what happens at the precise point where the octet meets the sestet?

“A ‘bloody darkness’!”

“And in the next line, it says, ‘We share a darkness, Frankie and I.’ He [Jess] uses the word ‘darkness’ to talk about the blindness but also race.”

“He also brings up glaucoma again.”

“He says it’s more common among African-Americans.”

“I did not know that.”

“And this [glaucoma] is something he [Jess] has in common with Frankie Taylor.”

“This [glaucoma] is another thing that they have in common.”

Yes, and yes. And there is yet another turn. Can you find it? Jess even uses the same word to set off that turn as Milton used in his poem: “but.” As in Milton’s poem, there is only one “but” in Jess’s poem.

“This is my true account. But my questions chides … ”

“Oh, Milton uses ‘chide,’ too! — but it’s God [who chides] in that poem.”

Well spotted. And look at the contradiction Jess sets up: between a “true account” and his own question, “my question,” that “chides.” Why should a true account be followed by a chiding?

“Because this is not a blindness to be okay with.”

“Could we say that Jess is calling Milton out, in a way?”

Classrooms: The History of Ideas

My class ended, as classes sometimes do, somewhat abruptly. I barely had time to pull various threads together and say out loud my emphasis on intersectional thinking, and to thank my students. But, as often, my students left the room talking to one another about the material we had just been through. I made my own notes that evening. [180]

I want to teach these poems again, for there are further threads to explicitly discuss, depending on the purpose of the class.

In a class on ideas, history, and ideology, we should talk about, for instance:

What is the difference between conceptions of divine and human justice?

What is a true account?

Where is the line between what is legal and what is ethical?

What is justice?

What does it mean for a blind person to wait for justice? (And which blind person are we talking about? The moment we phrase it like that — about a blind person waiting for justice — are we implicitly defaulting to whiteness for personhood?)

What does it mean for a Black person — specifically, a Black person of the twenty-first century US — to wait for justice? And how long are they supposed to wait?

What does it mean for a Black person to present their true account, when their truth has been historically denied in the making of a nation?

What do we understand by history? What have we been taught in our schools, and who wrote the “true” accounts we have grown up reading? Whose truth did we read? Whose truth did we unwittingly, or wittingly, turn away from, erase?

Classrooms: Theory

A class on theory is another excellent venue for discussion of these poems; it is through texts that theory comes alive. In this sort of class, I should scaffold a discussion of Milton’s and Jess’s poems with, or position [181] the poetry to directly precede, readings in critical race theory and disability theory. Accessible introductions to the topics of critical race studies and disability studies have existed for two decades.[28] As I have indicated, these poems taken together facilitate not only a discussion of critical race theory and disability theory, they also encourage a propulsive intersectionality animating that critical acquaintance.

Further: bringing these two poems into a class focused on theory makes it possible for students to register what we lose — or deliberately exclude — when we generate and use theory along a single analytical lens or selected analytical lenses at the expense of others. I contend that all the four critical lenses — of gender, race, sexuality, and disability — that currently lend themselves most emphatically to activist and institutional energies in our world, do so for good reason, and that they must be supported as areas of further growth in the academy and the social sphere. Gender, race, sexuality, and disability are matters of what is profoundly owned or disowned in the body; they are therefore matters of what can be viscerally targeted in instances of discrimination and by oppressive structures. They underpin or exacerbate a host of other relatively more mobile but often no less crucial markers of inclusion or exclusion, such as age, social class, religious orientation, cultural background, medical history, post/partum status, financial standing, im/migration, un/documentation, and un/imprisonment record. As teachers, it is our job not only to make sure that our students develop awareness of all four key critical lenses for considering the world and its complex and interlocking texts, but also to facilitate students’ recognition of how these critical lenses talk to each other and to other brackets of segregation, belonging, and omission. There is no greater collective intellectual skill that we can impart today than one which teaches our students to work together toward a just future. [182]

The following are some questions to bring into a class on theory and criticism:

What is race?

What does it mean to think of race in terms of language?

What is disability?

What does it mean to think of disability in terms of language?

What makes an individual “raced”?

What is the opposite of “raced”?

What makes an individual “disabled”?

What is the opposite of “disabled”?

What relationships exist between race-making and disability-making?

What are the other intersections — other than disability — that we can note with race in these poems?

What are the other intersections — other than race — that we can note with disability in these poems?

Classrooms: Poetry

Milton’s and Jess’s poems are, of course, powerfully at home in a class on poetry. Here are some questions for that class:

How do sentences work in the poems? (Milton’s sonnet only has two sentences. Jess’s poem has five. How do the sentences function as units of thought?) [183]

How does rhyme work in Milton’s poem? What is the rhyme scheme? What does an examination of the prosody of the poem open up about its meaning?

How does rhyme work in Jess’s poem? What does an examination of the prosody of the poem open up about its meaning? Is there a rhyme scheme? Does it make sense to think in terms of a rhyme scheme when most of the rhyme is internal to lines and run-ons? (How many internal rhymes can you find? How many assonances can you find?)

What is the architecture of the two poems? How is thought/content distributed across units such as the octet and the sestet?

How do lines end, pause, or run on in the poems? How does that set the pace of the poems?

Jess’s poem is a brilliant exposition of how run-on lines can be used for doubling sense and images — one image/sense activated where the line breaks, and another activated as the sentence “resumes” in the next line. Can you find these doubled images and multiplied meanings? (For instance, where “The officer put on his light/ blue rubber glove,” the word “light” works as a possible noun until the end of that first line, but the run-on converts the word into an adjective. The image changes as we read, deepening the poetic “land”-scape and the scope of the story. For the “shout that slowly shrugged/ into bureaucratic chant,” how is the violent indifference of “shrugged” converted into violent action in the next line?) Is there anything comparable to this pulled-forth intensity in Milton’s poem? (Note, too, that Milton is a complete master of enjambment in his defining 1667 epic poem Paradise Lost. Is Jess again “doing” Milton, in a way, when he uses enjambment to such powerful effect in his poem?)

In both Milton’s and Jess’s poems, the word “light” is used precisely twice. But no two uses of the word are toward exactly the same [184] meaning. What meanings are they, and what are the material and metaphorical affordances of each “light”?

Similarly, can we analyse the word “dark”? Both poems only use that word once. (Note: Jess’s poem also takes on “darkness” itself.)

How can we analyse “labour”/“labor”?

In both Milton’s and Jess’s poems, how do the poets deploy readerly/listenerly expectation? Are there specific ideas/words/phrases that the poem teaches us to expect? (For instance, how does Milton’s assertion of being at “half my days,” or half his life-span, at the moment of writing this poem run up against the invocation to death? In Jess’s poem, how does his assertion that “We share a darkness, Frankie and I” pick up and deflect readers’ anticipation of mentions of race and ocular difference? Given Jess’s use of his poem to talk back to Milton’s poem, and in our world’s context of racist police brutality and murder, could Jess’s use of “darkness” allow a reader not to think of death?)

Literary criticism has many forms, and poetry is one of them. How does Jess’s poem function as literary criticism of Milton’s poem? What happens to Milton’s poem, now that Jess has written a poem of the same name?

Similarly, what happens to Jess’s poem when we read it with Milton’s poem? In the wake of Jess’s poem, how is Milton’s poem re-animated for the twenty-first century? (And how would Milton’s poem read if a student read it after reading Jess’s poem? Could we chronologically foreground the “after”-poem and lead “back” to the earlier one?)

Social criticism and political protest have many forms, and poetry is one of them. Milton and Jess both know this. Milton’s 1673 Poems contained the explicitly political Sonnets 11: “A Book was writ of late call’d Tetrachordon,” 12: “I did but prompt the age to quit their [185] cloggs,” and 18, “On the Late Massacher in Piemont”: “Avenge O Lord thy slaughter’d Saints.” His uncollected poems include Sonnets 15: “Fairfax, whose name in armes through Europe rings” and 16: “Cromwell, our cheif of men.” Jess’s collections Leadbelly (2005) and Olio (2016) both contain poems exploring Black US identities at the intersections of music, orality/aurality, slavery, history, blindness, melancholy, and anger. The “Blind Boone” poems in Olio are particularly compelling in this respect. How can we read the two poems at hand in the context of Milton’s and Jess’s oeuvres of poetry as politics and protest?

What other current-day poets can we place Milton and Jess as sonneteers in conversation with? (For a recent example, there is outstanding work by Jericho Brown: “The Tradition,” “The Water Lilies,” and the genre-expanding “Duplex” poems in his 2019 collection, The Tradition. Like Jess, Brown received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. And there is, as I have already mentioned, the diamond-hard precision of Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets. Every poem in that collection has the same name: “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin” — but the assassins are as wide-ranging as the history that produced them. See particularly the poems beginning “The black poet would love to say,” “But there never was a black male hysteria,” “Probably twilight makes blackness dangerous,” and “Probably all our encounters are existential.”)

What other current-day poets can we place Milton and Jess as protest poets in conversation with? (We live in a time of great poetic richness in the US. For recent examples of superb poetry of protest and witnessing, we have work by Tracy K. Smith, Ilya Kaminsky, Javier Zamora, Natalie Diaz, Joy Harjo, N. Scott Momaday, [186] Layli Long Soldier, and Danez Smith, to name only some contemporary practitioners.)[29]

From Jess’s example, we may understand that contemporary and Black scholars and makers of poetry read their Milton and their early modern poetry. Correspondingly, do we have examples of early modern scholars of poetry reading their Black and contemporary poets, and writing about them?[30] What examples can we name of authors and scholars of poetry examining influence and belonging across centuries — for instance, as Miller Oberman does when he translates/transcreates from Old English poetry into contemporary English?[31]

“But are students ready for these discussions?” “Will they understand?” These are not hypothetical questions; I have been asked them by white and able-bodied colleagues and administrators who themselves felt unready, uncomfortable, or both. I answer those questions in the affirmative, by example of everything I have mentioned of my classes. But in general terms, too, I say yes; our students are ready and expect to enter the conversation.

  1. See, for instance, the former Poet Laureate of the United States, Tracy K. Smith, explain why “Political Poetry Is Hot Again” — and always was, for those in need of language for political thought and action: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/10/books/review/political-poetry.html (The New York Times, December 10, 2018). See also her “Introduction: This Is Why” in Tracy K. Smith, sel., American Journal: Fifty Poems for our Time (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, in association with the Library of Congress, 2018).
  2. In a recent advanced undergraduate seminar that I taught on “Movements, Migrations, and Memories,” the syllabus mostly contained readings in prose — including poems, novels, graphic novels, creative non-fiction essays, and critical essays — and my students, all operating at the advanced level, found the material accessible and discussable. It was the poetry that seemed to be, in the words of one student, something to “get it over with” before moving on to more interesting/accessible materials (classroom conversation, February 2020). Other classroom exchanges I have had confirm my sense that students frequently see poetry as something not for everyone. The usual manner of putting it, however, is in personal terms: that they are “not good at” poetry, or that poetry is not for them.
  3. This assertion is directly indebted to Kimberlé Crenshaw’s teachings in intersectionality, a critical framework emerging from the theory, practice, and activism of Black feminism. For important recent conversations in this field — conversations led by Crenshaw — see the podcast on Intersectionality Matters: https://aapf.org/podcast.
  4. Sonnet XVI [19], reproduced from John Milton, The Complete Works, Vol. III, The Shorter Poems, eds Barbara Kiefer Lewalski and Estelle Haan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012; corrected impression 2014), 245.
  5. “When I consider how my light is spent,” reproduced from the “Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Milton Society of America, 2017.”
  6. The only clear exceptions in book-length work are Eleanor Gertrude Brown’s older work Milton’s Blindness (New York: Columbia University Press, 1934), and William Poole’s recent Milton and the Making of Paradise Lost (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017). I am currently writing on Milton’s blindness and his poetry for my book on Milton’s Blind Language (work in progress).
  7. Neither do the words “sight” or “eye.” The poem is carried by the metaphorical affordances of the juxtaposed “light” and “light deny’d.”
  8. Society’s needs to “explain” disability — the how and the why of it — makes disability especially susceptible to metaphorical uses; however, these metaphors usually work to further remove the actual experiences of disability from discourse. See David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder’s Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001) for pioneering work in this respect.
  9. My students’ comments/questions are in quote marks in the exchanges documented in this essay.
  10. The exceptions therefore stand out with particular brilliance. See, for instance, the work of Justin Shaw in premodern critical race studies: “‘Rub Him About the Temples’: Othello, Disability, and the Failures of Care,” Early Theatre 22.2 (2019): 171–84. See also the volume on Monstrosity, Disability, and the Posthuman in the Medieval and Early Modern World edited by Richard Godden and Asa Simon Mittman (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). In scholarship concerned with more recent literature, see, for instance, Sami Schalk’s Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)Ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018); Therí A Pickens’s Black Madness: Mad Blackness (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019); C. Riley Snorton’s Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017); David L. Eng and Shinhee Han’s Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation: On the Social and Psychic Lives of Asian Americans (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019); and Jason Farr’s Novel Bodies: Disability and Sexuality in Eighteenth-Century British Literature (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2019). Book-length work at the confluence of premodern disability and race studies is still awaited.
  11. See Siebers, Disability Theory (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008): 5. See also Mark O’Brien and Gillian Kendall, How I Became a Human Being: A Disabled Man’s Quest for Independence (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003).
  12. See Siebers, Disability Theory, 9.
  13. My student’s assessment proves correct Siebers’s claim that ideology doesn’t allow its critiques to be registered. “Ideology does not permit the thought of contradiction necessary to question it” (Disability Theory, 8).
  14. In another class, we had just looked at the opening of Paradise Lost, and debated between “till/ one great/er man” and “till/ one great/er man” (Book 1, l. 4). Of course, in Jess’s poem it is “my darkness,” not “this darkness” — with the “my” setting off a brilliant internal rhyme with the following “deny.” But “this” served to ask my question.
  15. For important checks, balances, correctives, and turns away from white-centric experience and scholarship and, sometimes, away also from the colonising global North, see the direction-setting work of, among others, Chris Bell, “Introducing White Disability Studies: A Modest Proposal,” The Disability Studies Reader, ed. Lennard Davis, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2006): 275–82; Jasbir Puar, The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017); Julie Avril Minich, Accessible Citizenships: Disability, Nation, and the Cultural Politics of Greater Mexico (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014) and “Enabling Whom?” Lateral 5.1 (2016), https://doi.org/10.25158/L5.1.9; Nirmala Erevelles, Disability and Difference in Global Contexts: Enabling a Transformative Body Politic (New York: Palgrave, 2011) and “Race,” Keywords for Disability Studies, eds. Rachel Adams, Benjamin Reiss, and David Serlin (New York: New York University Press, 2015), https://keywords.nyupress.org/disability-studies/essay/race/; Subini Ancy Annamma, David Connor, and Beth Ferri, “Dis/ability critical race studies (DisCrit): theorizing at the intersections of race and dis/ability,” Race Ethnicity and Education 16:1 (2013): 1–31, https://doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2012.730511; Karen Nakamura, Deaf in Japan: Signing and the Politics of Identity (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006) and A Disability of the Soul: An Ethnography of Schizophrenia and Mental Illness in Contemporary Japan (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013); and Sona Hill Kazemi, “Whose Disability (Studies)? Defetishizing Disablement of the Iranian Survivors of the Iran-Iraq War by (Re)Telling their Resilient Narratives of Survival,” Canadian Journal of Disability Studies 8.4 (2019): 195–227.
  16. See The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), especially “Beginnings,” 1–14, for an excellent overview of the European dedication to race-making and the development of a racialized view of the world. Relatedly: for a clear enumeration of the stakes of race-making in the US, see Ibram X. Kendi’s phenomenal Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (New York: Nation Books, 2016).
  17. See Vineet Khare, “The Indian Dalit man killed for eating in front of upper-caste men,” BBC News, 20 May 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-48265387.
  18. See Eric Nee, “Survivor of an Acid Attack,” Stanford Social Innovation Review (Summer 2014), https://ssir.org/articles/entry/survivor_of_an_acid_attack, https://doi.org/10.48558/v0s4-ng62.
  19. See Malik Sajad, “An 18-Month-Old Victim in a Very Old Fight,” The New York Times, 19 January 19, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/19/opinion/sunday/kashmir-conflict.html.
  20. Looking over the sheer work that goes into racism, scholar David Sterling Brown poignantly writes: “Yet harmed, too, in the process of executing anti-Black racism is the white self, which leads me to wonder: Do white people understand how their irrational fear of and disdain for Black people actually manifests as a form of self-hate and, perhaps more damagingly, self-harm?” See his “‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’: (Anti)Racism and White Self-Harm” in the Los Angeles Review of Books, 6 July 2021, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/antiracism-in-the-contemporary-university/#_ftn2
  21. Those with privilege in India like to claim that we are truly in a postcolonial moment. My analogy for them is that they are like the self-professed “colour-blind” of the US who “don’t see race” because they don’t have to see race. Many upper-caste Indians like to claim that we are “past all that with caste” and that “caste does not matter anymore” in India. To this, I ask: In whose India? For a comparable study focused on the United States, see also Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (New York: Random House, 2020). Wilkerson’s appropriation of the term “caste” for race relations in the most imperial current-day entity of the global North is problematic, and yet she is right to assert that the word “racism” fails to denote or account for the systematic oppression that Black people continue to face in the United States, and to therefore reach for another term, a different vocabulary.
  22. I am indebted to Laura Seymour for pointing out to me the similarities between a compassionate and thoughtful “calling out” and “calling in”.
  23. “It may help to conceptualize the sonnet as a room (or stage) that can be divided in a number of different ways to serve many functions. Since its overall dimensions and circumference do not change, whatever occurs within that space will always be determined to some degree by its size and haunted by the presence of its former occupants. Even if we rearrange, replace, or remove some of the furniture, the marks will still be there to remind us of how things were positioned in the past.” See the Introduction in Phyllis Levin, ed., The Penguin Book of the Sonnet: 500 Years of a Classic Tradition in English (London: Penguin, 2001): xxxviii.
  24. Shakespeare’s Sonnets was first printed as a sequence in 1609; Donne’s series of “Holy Sonnets” was published posthumously in his 1633 Poems.
  25. See Hacker’s Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons (New York: W. W. Norton) and Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (New York: Penguin, 2018).
  26. When next I teach these poems, I shall mention that Jess has possibly also read his Richard Wilbur, who, in turn, has read his Milton. See Wilbur’s 1967 poem “A Miltonic Sonnet for Mr. Johnson on His Refusal of Peter Hurd’s Official Portrait” in his Collected Poems, 1943–2004 (Orlando: Harcourt, 2004): 221. Wilbur knows that Milton used the sonnet for public commentary. Wilbur uses it to write for the President of his country: “Wait, Sir, and see how time will render you/ Who talk of vision but are weak of sight” (ll. 11–12). It is notable that Wilbur, too, uses the words “vision” and “sight” for their metaphorical valences.
  27. This is related to why countries like the US are so eager to jump into wars. Wars produce terrible bodily and cognitive disabilities, but since there is no significant and ongoing pressure to truly and fully take measure of this cost of war, wars remain easy for the US to declare and enter. Of course, wars are also made easy by the country’s collective investment in them. In 2022, the US military budget is over $740 billion. See https://www.defense.gov/cj/.
  28. See Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, eds, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (New York: New York University Press), of which the first edition was published in 2001. This book is currently in its third edition, published in 2017. The first edition of the Disability Studies Reader, edited by Lennard Davis, (New York: Routledge) was published in 1997. This book is currently in its fifth edition, published in 2016.
  29. For only the most recent collections in this embarrassment of riches, see Smith’s Wade in the Water (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2018); Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2019); Zamora’s Unaccompanied (Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2017); Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2020); Harjo’s An American Sunrise (New York: W. W. Norton, 2019); Momaday’s The Death of Sitting Bear (New York: HarperCollins, 2020); Long Soldier’s Whereas (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2017); and Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2017).
  30. I don’t know that there are many. But scholars of early modern poetry should read their contemporary poets, and particularly their contemporary BIPOC poets, and write about them. As scholars of early modern poetry, we are scholars of poetry. This is our work.
  31. See Oberman’s collection The Unstill Ones (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).


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