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Albie Sachs: Disabled Left-Hand Poems?

Albie Sachs’ Soft Vengeance of Freedom Fighter is not the kind of book I usually pick up; autobiography is way down my list. But I had grabbed a copy of Soft Vengeance in a used bookshop for thirty rand, and finally read it recently. Thank god I can’t pass up a bargain. It was a pretty good book.


Albie Sachs is an anti-apartheid activist. Car bomb: he got his right arm blown off while he was in exile in Mozambique. In Soft Vengeance he tells the story of losing the arm and learning to live without it.


There are a lot of ways you could read disability in this book. Here’s what grabbed me.


I know of a few poets who who write left-hand poems, which means that they choose to do creative work with their non-dominant hand. I don’t know much about the why of this, though I have been told a few very general things about the practice over the years. One thing I am sure don’t know is if a poem would be considered a left-hand poem if the right hand is now kept in a freezer as evidence.


Sachs describes trying to learn to write with his left hand:


“Six minutes and fourteen seconds. I count the words: 45. That is about eight words a minute, not very fast, but the occupational therapist said I would get faster. I put my head forward, held the pen as comfortably as I could in my left hand, straightened the paper, looked at the time, and said to my hand: write. My hand responded obediently and well, my whole body seemed to be straining and involved as I forced myself to form the letters as quickly as possible. I had no problem imagining the shape of the words, but found myself whispering to my fingers… move up, now curve downwards, keep going, don’t stop, a little loop upwards, break off and start a new word. There were moments when I imagined the pen of its own accord sliding all over the page, anarchically destroying my meaning; then words seemed to form themselves without conscious direction on my part, the hand just appeared to be writing automatically, later I was murmuring to myself letter by letter again, thinking through each stroke and movement. In the absence of a prosthesis, my left hand that formerly had just been there, ready to back up my right one when called upon, now had to do everything.”


Much later in the book, Sachs and his lover talk about the loss of his dominant arm while they are together in a bathtub. She tells him that he is “lucky it was your right arm that was affected,” and goes on to suggest that


“our right arms are aggressive, especially with men, we keep the world away with our right hands, we try to dominate everything with them, while our left arms express the gentle and receiving sides of our natures. Now you will have to use the kinder side of yourself in dealing with the world and you will come out a more balanced person. You can make a gentle arm more active, but it is very difficult to make a dominant arm more gentle.”


Sachs says that “she has never spoken to me with such certainty. Just as my experience in solitary confinement all those years ago made me intensely aware of my psyche, so the blast has put me actively and overwhelmingly in touch with my body.” (173)


Okay, anyway, I'll stop here. That’s most of the left hand thing, though I've left out Sachs's repeated corny joke about ambidexterity.


(I should probably have consulted Concerto for the Left Hand by Michael Davidson. I own it, but can't find it.)


A couple other notes:


1. Soft Vengeance has a plot point in common with Coetzee’s Slow Man, sort of. See: female hired caregivers.

2. If you’re interested in dis/ability and economic competition, you might want to look at the part of Soft Vengeance in which Sachs, convalescing in his brother’s house in England, watches a tennis game, which he finds very ugly. He writes:


“It is not the running around the court that unsettles me, nor the overhead smashes or volleys, it is the strain on the faces and in the bodies of the players as they serve, their nervousness and the sense that they are doing all this just for money. I have been outside the world of competition for so long that I find myself shocked by the brutal confrontation of will against will (...) in the hospital I always felt I belonged to the caring part of Britain, I paid for some items but not for others, but never had any sense that I was obliged to compete with money for the right to be treated.” He continues, “After living for so long in an environment where the will has been directed towards saving and helping others, it is disconcerting to discover once more that vast universe out there where volition is concentrated solely on destroying the wills of others.” (98)


3. This last quotation may be here for its own sake. If you want the context, obtain the book.


“Suddenly I know what my approach is going to be, and why. It is not a result of thinking the matter through, but of ceasing to think and allowing intuitive certainty, timid but sure, to take over, a feeling that corresponds to the totality of impulse involving my will and body and brain, but not dependent on any of them, a conjunction of past experience and emotion and thought but not weighed and mixed as ingredients, just felt as a single conviction.” (114)



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