With Hannah Emerson’s book The Kissing of Kissing, Milkweed Editions launches a new poetry series called Multiverse, written and curated by neurodiverse poets—that is, poets, with neurological differences such as ADHD, autism, dyslexia, and Tourette’s syndrome. The Multiverse series operates from the belief that these poets, and perhaps especially autistic ones, have a unique relationship to language. “Please love poets we are the first / autistics. Love this secret no one knows it,” Emerson writes early in her collection.
A nonspeaking autistic woman, Emerson came to poetry through the series editor, Chris Martin, and a writing program he co-founded called Unrestricted Interest. As the inaugural book in a groundbreaking series, The Kissing of Kissing carries a heavy responsibility. It has to represent poets like Emerson and broaden readers’ notions of what poetry can be. It does all of this and also delivers well-crafted, exciting poetry.
In fact, the poet Lauren Russell has compared Emerson to Gertrude Stein for the way she uses sound, syntax, and wordplay, as in lines such as, “Please get that the kissing must / be great knotting of you me great / us together in this hell yes yes yes.” One hallmark of Emerson’s style is the repetition of words, and especially the word “yes.” Martin compares her use of the device to punctuation, providing a division between thoughts. Emerson explained it herself, in a panel at the RCAH Center for Poetry at Michigan State University: “My ‘yes’ gives me my signature, gives me my grounding.”
In general, the repetition provides structure, both to the individual poems and to the collection as a whole. Words like “freedom,” “light,” “kissing,” and “hell” loop around again and again, as they might in a sestina or a ghazal, or in some free verse collections (Rusty Morrison’s the true keeps calm biding its story comes to mind). Since many of the words in her poems come from this stable of vocabulary, rarer words—oftentimes harder-sounding words, such as “normal” or “wiring”—spring from the text with fresh urgency. Emerson often writes in response to her own paintings, and this use of language reminded me of paint layered on a canvas, with these rarer words standing out like an orb of color in a Rousseauian jungle.
Both sets of words, the rarer words and the repeated ones, signal Emerson’s overarching preoccupations. One of these is the experience of managing her neurodiversity, as in the poem “Peripheral”:
Yes I prefer the peripheral
because it limits the vision.
It does focus my attention.
Direct looking just is too
much killing of the moment.
Mainstream society expects people to be able to filter out sensory information—to focus on the whiteboard and ignore the fidgety neighbor, for example. Social success also depends on making eye contact. Both of these skills may be challenging, or impossible, for neurodiverse individuals. In this poem, Emerson explains one coping technique and her experience of using it, and with an economy only possible with poetic language.
Emerson also returns repeatedly to the importance of poetry and of verbal communication. “Please understand” is a constant refrain. Some poems specifically treat her experience of finding a way into language, as in “I Live in the Woods of My Words”:
in each letter that is
where you will find me.
They have been given
to us as keys to the great
breathing hope of life.
I always wanted to live
there but couldn’t live
there until the poetry
gave me life of words.
For many years, nonspeaking autistic people were referred to as “nonverbal,” with the implication that they did not have language. In that context, Emerson’s excitement about being able to express herself comes as no surprise.
In other poems, she describes the porousness of her experience, in almost Buddhist terms: “Please get that I am the trying / breeze going through the really / great great great world yes yes.” The poem “Into the Towards,” blurs the distinction between Emerson and a bird:
The bird lands
on the top
of the tree
and realizes it
is me. It flies
into the window
and really gets
bumped into getting
its birdness. Then we
decide to become
In this experience of oneness—and in the incantatory quality of her verse and her frequent references to “mother” as a stand-in for Mother Earth—Emerson invites comparisons to mystic poets. And like them, Emerson breaks from her singular experience to take on some of life’s biggest questions: What does it mean to be human? Why do we exist? There are moments where the tone sounds slightly naïve, where words like “soul” made me recall poetry workshop dictums, but overall, it’s as though her position, at a certain remove from typical society, allows her to consider more seriously life’s mysteries. “Please try to understand that you / became human so you could / dance dance dance / yes yes,” she writes in “The Reason You Became Human.” In “Keep Yourself at the Beginning of the Beginning,” she says:
try to dive
down to the
that helps you get
that the world was made
from the garbage at the bottom
of the universe that was boiling over
with joy that wanted to become you you
It’s worth noting that “beautiful” and “hell” are both part of Emerson’s stable of words. The Kissing of Kissing often focuses on this tension between desirable things and unpleasant ones—the garbage boiling over with joy, the beautiful muck. And although it’s easy to read the word “hell” as a reflection of Emerson’s own physical struggles, her meaning goes beyond that. After all, virtually no human body is free from suffering, which typically comes with having a nervous system. Her poems understand this, and they repeatedly open up the meaning of the word “hell.” “Please try to go / to hell frequently,” she writes in “Center of the Universe,” “because you will / find the light there”. She insists that suffering is a path to rebirth. With a wryness that is also characteristic of her style, Emerson then reminds us that following that rebirth, we must get back to the business of living. We are not to be too precious about any of this: “please / get that you are / reborn there / yes yes – please // begin your day.”
Within the disability community, there is some controversy around the term “neurodiversity“. Some argue that by focusing on the strengths of neurodiversity, activists shift attention away from efforts to reverse these conditions and ease their challenges. Neurodiversity activists, on the other hand, argue that there’s nothing to cure, only differences to celebrate. The Multiverse clearly falls on this side of the debate, focusing on the strengths of neurodiverse individuals and what they have to offer society.
In fact, Martin hints that if autistics are not the first poets, as Emerson’s poem claims, that many do permanently exist in the state of mind that produces poetry. By this, he means that they don’t have separate voices—e.g., a voice for friends, a voice for work, and yet another for writing poetry. They tend to have one voice that carries across circumstances. In Emerson’s readings and in her online writings, it is clear that for her, at least, that is true. In this series, that becomes a thing to channel and champion. Regardless of how a person feels about the term “neurodiverse,” everyone can agree that a brilliant new voice like Emerson’s should be celebrated. The Kissing of Kissing is a valuable addition to the world of poetry, both for what it can teach us about neurodiversity and about being human.