Beautiful Malady by Ennis Rook Bashe
Interstellar Flight Press (June 2023)
72 pages; $14.99 paperback; e-book $9.99
Reviewed by Joshua Gage
Ennis Rook Bashe is a nonbinary graduate student from New York who loves their rescue cat, making cosplay TikToks, and watching horror game streamers. They write books about queer and disabled people surviving and recovering from trauma, finding community, living their best lives… and falling in love. Their newest book of poetry is Beautiful Malady. Though short, this collection is a powerful exploration of what it means to be disabled in a world that is not willing to accommodate or undersand, written from a place of honest authenticity that will capture the attention of any reader.
There is a lot in this book that deals with disability through speculative terms. Bashe addresses the issues with being disabled, with having a body that is often at odds with the world’s expectations and the laws of physics, in a way both haunting and speculative. Take, for example, the poem “on having had wings,” in which Bashe uses the image of flight and having wings to one of freedom from the heaviness of the earth:
I don’t like this human thing of yours; wingless,groundbound, foot after foot. Do you like haulingyour whole solid self everywhere? Do you likethe clomp of staircases, the creak of knees.
The speaker here is burdened by the ability to be human, which is a fascinating take on disability, especially when presented to a non-disabled audience. The idea of making a normal body the faulty thing, and to wish for a less normal body, one that is “made of thoughts and glass and light,” puts disability into a perspective that will both build empathy in the reader, but also make them feel guilty for being unaware of just how privileged being able-bodied is. Poems like this will make readers uncomfortable, as well they should.
However, this is not a one-note collection. Bashe also uses speculative tropes to condemn the disability itself. For example, in “mad, without scientist,” the disability is seen as a curse to be coddled by society, but also feared:
Archetypes are invariable, nothing like dice:you must have two hands to cradle someone else.No mad without scientist. No scars without sneers.
Here, Bashe explores how disabilities are seen by society, and how those who are disabled are both cursed and blessed by society. “Churn out enough/numbers to become a priority and thus deserve flesh.” The idea that those who are disabled only have value to society if they can produce something — math, science, etc. — and that their disabilities are glossed over so long as they are of use should unsettle readers. However, Bashe does not blame, merely present the information.
The fact that speculative tropes were used to promote this message is especially appealing. In a world where the disabled community has to learn how to navigate not just physical systems, but also legal and medical systems designed to ignore them and not take them seriously, the idea of a character or script takes on a new idea. If part of the disability is being forced to put on a mask to make others comfortable, then is the disability really accommodated? If the able-bodied heroes of the tales can have their medals and honors, why not the disabled? Poems like “this universe and all others” work to asking those questions through the lens of alternate realities and the myths contained therein:
Goddess of cryogenics and cave silt,of wheelchairs on spider legs,of clockwork hearts, sword canes in ballroomsand bionic eyes on the spaceship bridge…
This poem is one of defiance and triumph, and ends with the prayer:
Let us, in any universe,refuse to be erased.
Ennis Rook Bashe has provided a glimpse into the world of living life as a person with disabilities. They use speculative tropes, from horror to fantasy to RPG gaming, to address the issues of dealing with a disabled body. They also condemn the disability and society’s reactions to it. They also use this book and their poetry to declare that they and their communities have purpose and value, and there is almost a fierce declaration of refusal to submit or be erased. This is a powerful collection, and it will unsettle readers, calling attention to their own privileges and perceptions. The fact that it does so through a lens of speculation, including horror and dark fantasy, to drive these themes forward is impressive, and any fan of speculative poetry needs to read Beautiful Malady.