On Her Blindness

Adam Thorpe

Thorpe’s title alludes to John Milton’s Sonnet 19, often known as ‘On His Blindness’, where the 17th century poet considers his blindness to be a ‘mild yoke’ and that bearing it patiently will ‘serve’ God ‘best’. He that does so, Milton states, is ‘Kingly’. Thorpe’s poem is a direct riposte to that idea: unlike Milton, it is not the speaker who is blind, but the speaker’s mother, so gender has changed too. Bearing the burden of blindness is not a route to God, but it is ‘hell’. This contemporary poem about physical affliction rejects the pieties of former ages.

The poem is structured in 22 unrhymed couplets and a single final line; only four of the couplets are end-stopped, so continuous sentences are broken up, dislocated into fragments. The reader therefore has to piece their way through the poem, feeling their way in a manner mimetic of a partially sighted person negotiating their way through the physical world.

Milton’s poem is an early example of the fortitude in some ways expected of those who suffer, but Thorpe debunks that attitude from the start, acknowledging that ‘My mother could not bear being blind/ to be honest.’ The alliterative ‘b’ enforces the idea, while the phrase ‘to be honest’ suggests far more than the casual colloquialism, confirmed by the societal expectations of ‘One shouldn’t say it’ after the caesura. It is notable that this blunt opening couplet is one of the few which is complete in itself.

Challenging Milton’s patience and the ideals of Roman stoicism, Thorpe’s speaker admits that ‘catastrophic/ handicaps are hell’ and the realisation is pinned on a specific memory, a revelatory moment ‘in a Paris restaurant’, introduced in casual narrative style over five lines in three couplets, full of clauses and parenthesis to delay the climax in the sixth line:

‘It’s living hell, to be honest, Adam.’

The confession, ‘whispered’, gives devastating force to that repeated colloquialism. Again the punch comes in one of the end-stopped stanzas. It is followed by suicidal thoughts to which the son cannot reply and his guilt and sense of inadequacy is emphasised by the third end-stopped couplet, describing himself as ‘inadequate: the locked-in son.’ Honest communication has failed.

The conversational expressions of the mother – ‘to be honest’ and ‘I’d bump/ myself off’ – imply a truth, while the colloquial humour of the speaker’s and his father’s voice imply an avoidance of truth. The mother’s difficulty with movement is described in a horribly comic simile as ‘bumping into walls like a dodgem’, while father jokes that she has ‘no built-in compass’. Mother too ‘laughed it off’, but as readers we are aware of ‘the void’ which they all circle without naming, apart from that moment of honesty in the restaurant.

The particular details of the memories in the second half of the poem balance uneasily between humour and pity – the smiling at ‘the latest drawing’, even driving ‘the old Lanchester/…/down the Berkshire lanes’, watching TV ‘while looking the wrong way’. But in the midst of those details, we have her ‘vision/ as blank as stone.’ The cold, impassable hardness of the metaphor is a sudden reinforcement of the situation faced by the mother. Even the ‘while looking the wrong way’ is delayed by the stanza break so that ‘sink into television’ at first sounds like an attractive escape before it is cruelly negated.

The real focus of the poem emerges in the 17th couplet:

‘Her last week alive (a fortnight back)’

and we find we are in a poem of raw grief. The poignancy of the last third of the poem is that, despite the new knowledge and that it describes the mother’s final days, all the traits of the first two thirds are continued. There is the irony of the ‘golden weather’ and trees ‘ablaze with colour’, but the mother maintains her pretence, agreeing that ‘it’s lovely out there.’ The autumnal imagery, while gloriously colourful, also betokens death, and the poem’s last image is of her in the coffin, with ‘eyelids… closed’. The family, which has avoided the issue by being ‘locked-in’, or making jokes, or allowing her to drive and taking her to exhibitions, continues to comfort its members with imagination:

‘…it was up to us to believe

She was watching, somewhere, in the end.’

While the poem has considered hell, it has never mentioned heaven, and Milton’s Christian worldview has been rejected, so this ‘usual sop’ is not convincing, emphasised by the single line, rather than a complete couplet.