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Beautiful Malady coverA quick search for the origin of the title of Ennis Rook Bashe’s accomplished, bristling new book of frequently speculative poems will tell you the phrase “beautiful malady” comes from the work of Remy de Gourmont (1858-1915). De Gourmont was a prolific French poet and critic engaged in the Symbolist movement. In about 1891, he contracted tuberculosis of the skin. Before antibiotics, there were no effective treatments except what the French-language Wikipedia article on de Gourmont calls “des cautérisations extrêmement douloureuses,” extremely painful cauterization procedures, which together with the disease sent him into an extended period of seclusion at home. Later exacerbations of his condition would leave him with limited mobility, further restricting his access to travel and public spaces.

He never stopped reading and writing, though. And at some point de Gourmont wrote: “Intelligence is perhaps but a malady—a beautiful malady, the oyster’s pearl.” [1]

Why spend all this time talking about de Gourmont? Three reasons. One: Bashe’s selection of a quotation by a disabled poet for a title reflects their poetry’s fierce championing of disabled traditions of inheritance and community. This is something I’ll come back to soon when discussing Bashe’s poem “theoretically inherited.” Two: it’s important to know the “beautiful malady” de Gourmont is talking about is intelligence, because these are very, very smart poems. And three: shifting a conventional surface-reading of “beautiful malady” from oxymoron to something like a factual and well-inhabited paradox is important, because part of the project of this collection—a project which I expect, though I am no expert, is at least a significant river in the wider confluence of disabled poetics—is to get the reader to understand something about the unique, unduplicatable forms of strength and art and feeling that emerge from the experience of the disabled body.

De Gourmont doesn’t say anything about bodies himself. He doesn’t mention the irritations, the discomforts and pains, that cause the “oyster” of the body to produce the “pearl” of individual intelligence. In his figuration, the possession of a curious self-investigating mind uncomfortably provokes or is beauty all by itself—the body isn’t given a role. But Bashe has plenty to say about bodies and their place in the creation of disabled art. They do so in varied, visceral, playful, enchanting (literally, not figuratively), and justifiably angry ways.

Beautiful Malady is organized around a sequence of seven poems that follow the “rose girl” and her “prince” as they try to restructure old myth to better represent and honor their own experience. Bashe’s rosegirl poems were my first encounter with the use of the Sleeping Beauty story as a disability narrative, but of course this makes perfect sense. In the rosegirl’s kingdom, slumber casts a spell and it’s very hard to get out of bed. That difficult demesne is also a place where one must forge a self-understanding that combines evanescence with deeply rooted strength: tissued vulnerability with an unhesitating willingness to use one’s thorns at need. In Bashe’s figuration this involves a magical double life, which the reader encounters in “rose ghost ii”:

in the capital of mausoleums, the dying make
the best bodyguards
wraiths a shimmer in the air behind breathing charges …
who would learn out-of-body projection
if their bodies were hospitable?
who would build ghost muscles
to fizzle lightbulbs if they could lift weights?

Here we learn the rosegirl’s physical pain and frailty have produced disembodied power, and that in her power she is grateful to its source and origin. “hello, crumbling haunted mansion of a body,” she says, weaponized spirit slipping away from that body to keep her prince from harm. “thank you for keeping me here. thank you for letting me be dangerous.” In a later poem, “rose ghost v,” we learn some of what has made her thus protective, thus dangerous, when she deals lethally with a threat to her beloved. “my pain,” she says, projecting it into the body of a would-be assassin:

is a tangled electric fence. rabid bats
clinging to my hair.
pain is the fairytale stepmother forcing me to sift lentils.
a taskmaster denying life. executioner’s rope.
let me give you what I know best
let me share this light with you
forbidden knowledge twisted inward.

Interspersed with the rosegirl poems are standalone pieces, many of which engage speculative tropes and themes. In “alternate mode: mobility aid,” Bashe presents us with a fierce communion between the disabled, who with care “cradle our wheelchairs after the wrecking/ predations of plane crew, buff our IV fluid ports,” and giant robots from space, relieved to have found unsuspected community on earth. The poem ends, movingly, blazingly, perhaps in the voice of a robot but then again perhaps not:

I have died no less than fifteen times. Locked in
stasis. Orbited dead planets. Without the past
millennia of memories. Without my face. With
wires sparking from
an arm ripped off. Everything driving towards
entropy deserves to be free.

We’re all present in that last sentence. And it’s an urgent, generous communication. Elsewhere in the collection are magi, angels, and Death as a magnetic lesbian lover whom the poem’s speaker knows they’re going to move in with eventually, but not yet. The use of the speculative, its helpfulness as a field of creative action for disabled authors and marginalized writers more widely, is addressed by Bashe in an essay at the end of the collection. “I view speculative fiction,” they say, “as a way for marginalized people to share what has been silenced. The unspeakable things. The things we spend years learning not to speak about because we lose friends and alienate people if we do.”

This speculative way, or road, is thoroughly explored in Beautiful Malady. There are also, however, poems that read as more or less fully autobiographical work. I don’t mean to say the volume is a collection of “real” vs. “unreal” poems, since this is not a very helpful way of thinking about things, both in general, and in this specific instance. I mean Bashe is very good at figuring out when to say something that will land with the force of the everyday, versus the force of say a giant universe-traversing robot. If in their concluding essay they allude to the genre-assisted work as part of trying not to “lose friends and alienate people,” elsewhere in their poetry they name and celebrate forms of knowledge and achievement that are only acquired outside of abled “comfort-zones.” [2] This, like their choice of de Gourmont for a title-poet, reads as a celebration of disabled poetics, hermeneutics, and community.

Early in the collection, Bashe’s poem “theoretically inherited” troubles the question of what familial traditions you can be said to participate in, when none of your biological family has ever really known where and how you live. And it’s a banger:

Welcome to the country no one you love is from,
here is the grandmothers’ food your intestines refuse.
No one who raised you has ever lived here.
You will have to find the way yourself.
Slow across carpeting, vertigo swirl
on hands and knees. Country of silence and shadow and
head under blankets and whisper of breath.
Country of spending more time in bed
than even the most prodigious lovers. Of lying
just so on your back …

A number of Bashe’s readers will already know this country well. For those who don’t yet, Beautiful Malady is a skillful and moving introduction to some of its wild and—yes—beautiful vistas.


[1] You can find the English version I quote here, via Project Gutenberg. It’s taken from a 1920 translation by Isaac Goldberg of selected work by de Gourmont, called in English Philosophic Nights in Paris. [return]

[2] Isn’t “comfort-zone,” it turns out, a problematic phrasing? [return]

Catherine Rockwood (she/they) reads and edits for Reckoning Magazine. Her poetry chapbook, Endeavors to Obtain Perpetual Motion, is available from the Ethel Zine Press. Another mini-chapbook, And We Are Far From Shore: Poems for Our Flag Means Death, was published by Ethel in 2023. They have reviewed books and occasionally TV for Strange Horizons since 2015.
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