“I Have a Vision for My Poems” belongs to a series of Sylvia Plath found poems Nazifa Islam is writing “to dissect, examine, and explore the bipolar experience.” The poem exemplifies how Islam is using this series to openly connect with a disabled ancestor, which is important because, while various cognitive disabilities have probably existed as long as humans have, the language to frame and see them as distinct embodiments and identities has not. Plath is a natural choice, since, in her own words, she sought to express “what it is like to be alive in this body-mind.” Islam belongs to a growing number of poets who are recognizing what this means: that until recently, neurodivergent poets sometimes only found each other by chance or by intuition, but now we can trace and celebrate our connections. Beyond this, those of us who are neurodivergent (I am myself ADHD, autistic, dyslexic, and more) can also learn about and celebrate each other across our divergencies. In doing so, we are beginning to model how non-neurodivergent folks might reread the works of our ancestors while seeing our own contemporary works in a clearer context. With this said, I invite you, dear reader, whatever your neurotype, to come along for a neurodivergent stroll through this neurodivergent poem.
Although I am now a middle-aged adult, I still have a recurring mental image of walking as a child deep into the woods behind our home all the way to a creek. At some point during an afternoon of wading and exploring, I found myself standing in a pool in the creek and seeing periwinkles at the bottom. Being young enough, I reached down through the water and grasped a handful of sediment that had in it a periwinkle or two. After doing this several times, I had a nice collection of them carefully laid out on a creek-side rock, which of course I needed to soon return to the water. Nazifa Islam’s poem uses an approach that is similar. She settled on a passage from Plath’s unabridged journals and has reached into the text to grasp the periwinkles of words and phrases that appealed to her and has arranged them into a poem for us. The paragraph this poem derives from is an expression of some of Plath’s writerly frustrations and a statement affirming her resolve as a poet, whereas Islam’s poem seems to be a modest reflection on making poems within the vastness of time while seeing some need “To rewrite a poem / so it is bigger, freer, stranger // than light / & somehow as righteous.” While the journal entry was written as something private, the poem is intended for a public audience—for us. And, considering what I’ve said about neurodivergence, how might a reader take it?
I suggest thinking about “I Have a Vision for My Poems” exactly as Islam is asking us to: in relation to Plath and the bipolar experience. To this I can add a reader might also think about it alongside the poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, of John Clare, of Thomas Lovell Beddoes, and of Robert Lowell, as well as alongside poems by other contemporary bipolar poets, like Ina Cariño. Look for connections and things these poets—past to present—might have in common. Such things may be in crucial ways expressive of bipolar experience. Often, they may involve finding a niche. For example, a dyslexic astrophysicist I know of once explained, as a dyslexic who hated reading and found it ironic that so many dyslexic people write books, that to have a career he kept moving to emerging subfields, thereby avoiding the need to read. Instead, he was there to help lay the foundation before moving on to the next thing. What I’ve noticed as an autistic reader of poems by bipolar poets, is the tendency of these poets to create places to rest in their poems. I liked this and noticed how I do it in my own poems, albeit for different reasons. A bipolar poet may need a place to rest in relation to shifts in mood, while an autistic poet may need a place to rest due to external factors that then cause sensory overwhelm. To repeat the final lines, “I Have a Vision for My Poems” reaches out in a simple need to grasp the periwinkle of the poem that is “bigger, freer, and stranger // than light / & somehow as righteous.” Any reader might sympathize with this.