School of the Blind. Daniel Simpson.
Poets Wear Prada, 2014. 31 pages, ISBN: 978-0692284575
Homer and Milton were blind poets but one doesn’t think of them as blind poets, only as poets. And that is what Daniel Simpson is: simply a good poet. He also happens to be blind. School for the Blind is his first collection, and, yes, it centers on his life growing up blind. The reality is that we are all blind in some way and that is what surfaces in these poems, not simply physical blindness but a failure to see, to notice the reality of others, even to notice what we reveal about ourselves.
. . . in conversation,
I try to act undivided
while, in fact, I’m on alert
for any glitch in composure,
any revelation of an actor playing a part.
It’s often a matter of tone of voice.
Most people don’t realize it goes even further —
that I’m listening to them breathe,
that I hear body language.
(“Vigilance and Dissembling”)
This is the larger blindness, in ourselves, that, toward others, is the one that leads to indifference, fear and sometimes cruelty which many of the other poems explore.
Opening and closing with poems related to his twin brother, also blind, the poems in between for the most part chart the course of life growing up in a school for the blind. There, he has his first French kiss, witnesses power struggles among faculty members and learns, eventually of the larger reality of people’s lives beyond what we assume of them. In what is one of the more poignant poems of the collection, “The Luxury of Being Children,” the assertion that “certainly, we could be forgiven/for not caring much beyond ourselves” is a kind of outrage in the context of the poem’s closing with one of the faculty members freezing to death, alone, in a cheap apartment for lack of money. What is innocent in a child is callous in the adult who is surely the one reading the book. And that is the point. . . of the poem and much of the collection.
In the poem “About Chester Kowalski I Don’t Know Much,” the admission to himself of what he didn’t know about his schoolmate becomes real to the speaker only after Chester drowns. These incidents shock the speaker and the reader into taking note of his blindness to the reality of those around him. Self-absorption is the primary blindness of the young and is forgiven as innocence. But we must surely learn from that as we grow. A collection like this, which distills that insight into fine poetry, is a helpful schooling for all of us. And, what is more, it is done, in these poems, with a wonderfully skillful hand.
The poems in School for the Blind are sensual and reflective, providing the telling detail to draw us in to their emotional reality. They are musical without being overstated, poignant without being lachrymose. Simpson is a very good poet, one whose work I look forward to reading more of. Until that next collection, savor this small one that carries a clear and moving voice.