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"Dropping crooked into rhyme": Djuna Barnes's Disabled Poetics in The Book of Repulsive Women
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"Dropping crooked into rhyme":
Djuna Barnes's Disabled Poetics in The Book of Repulsive Women

In the early decades of the twentieth century, Djuna Barnes envisioned modern poetry as perhaps the last space for the ugly, disabled, and unsightly in America—a metaphorical and imaginative space, of course, but a realm nonetheless open to ideological, physical, and aesthetic differences in American culture. While the rest of the country grew increasingly enamored with the standardizing ethos of the new century that sought to excise physical difference from public space, Barnes turned to avant-garde verse to imagine a new body for American women that celebrated rather than sterilized American difference. Scholars have hailed Barnes's Nightwood for liberating the modern subject from racial, sexual, and gendered restraints, but it is actually her largely forgotten early poetry that places her at the center of disability discourse in the modern American scene. Her first published collection of poetry, The Book of Repulsive Women, rejects the principles of the American System—a national program of standardization that flourished in the early decades of the twentieth century—and instead indulges in the unsightly, the non-normative, and the vulgar. Published in 1915, this chapbook contains eight "rhythms" that feature ugly and disabled women and five drawings that illustrate human difference within US literature and culture, puzzling together a modernism out of American non-normativity rather than American standards of order, efficiency, and control. In this way, Barnes fashions disability as a modernist and particularly feminine aesthetic for American poetry, a cultural medium that in turn offers a place for the unsightly that national space no longer provided.

Because of an emerging legal and social infrastructure that aligned unsightliness (often figured as disability or physical differences in general) with threats to national order, American space had turned particularly hostile toward ugliness [End Page 124] by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. New systems of municipal legislation, police enforcement, and civic regulation that removed the unsightly from public places—known as "ugly laws"—"may be understood as an interlocked attempt to map and contain deviance," Susan M. Schweik explains: "the politics of fear and aversion that underpin all forms of the ugly laws . . . motivate a normative gaze that seeks to contain and institutionalize forms of human difference that lie at the intersection of disability and poverty" (28, 33). This "politics of fear and aversion" and "normative gaze" align categories of ugliness in modern America with the disabled, immigrant poor, or those who otherwise deviate from a national standard. As such, ugliness in this era acts as a way to identify aesthetically those who present a social or cultural danger to the nation. By removing such bodies from the public eye and institutionalizing them in prisons, hospitals, and asylums, the nation could perpetuate its fantasy of itself as cohesive and modern.

Yet this imagined national standard and the ugly laws that enforced such a fantasy would not have been possible without a much larger and older cultural phenomenon known as the American System. Dating back to the eighteenth century and advocated by political leaders such as Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams, the American System initially referred to the pursuit of a secure and unified American economic program independent of European markets; over time, the term became associated with mechanical forms of production (soon known as mass production) that British observers identified in the mid-nineteenth century.1 But the term bears cultural, not just economic, significance. Historian Daniel Walker Howe explains that under the American System, "[t]he leading values of the culture, such as order, harmony, purposefulness, and improvement, found expression in the form of an economic program. Through this System, the future of America would be shaped in accordance with those values" (137). The American System refers not just to particular modes of industrial production, then, but also to the assimilation of efficiency, order, and conformity into the daily life of the nation.

This impulse—later referred to as Fordism, Taylorism, scientific rationalism, and bureaucratic management—exploded in the twentieth century, producing, as Robert H. Wiebe writes, "[e]ndless talk of order and efficiency, endless analogies between society and well-oiled...