As a poet with Cerebral Palsy, I have been interested in Christopher Nolan’s work for some time. However, until recently I didn’t know the titles to look for. Thanks to a Vevo video of U2 performing their song “Miracle Drug” which is inspired by Nolan, a Wikipedia search, and Ebay I have been able to aquire all three of his titles: “Dam-Burst of Dreams”, “Under the Eye of the Clock”, and “The Banyan Tree”. This is a review of “Dam-Burst of Dreams”.
First some important background on Nolan: Nolan was born with severe Cerebral Palsy into a time and place that still had much to learn about disability and how to approach it. Avoiding technical language or a long drawn out explanation of CP, the easiest way to describe Nolan’s health condition is to say that he appeared to be quadriplegic. That term is inaccurate in regard to his true condition, but is probably most accessible as far as a healthy person’s understanding. He communicated through his eyes only since he had no control over the rest of his body, including speech. His family became adept at reading his needs and wants through a system of meaningful eye movements. When he was 11, the medication Lioresal was put on the market and it allowed him enough muscle control to move his head. After much trial and error, a “unicorn” device was created whereby he could learn to type. Suddenly, the world was privy to the secret universe of the severely disabled. For his elementary education he attended Central Remedial Clinic School which was specifically for disabled chilren who were under the care of the clinic. After a battle, he was admitted to public school and attended Mount Temple Comprehensive School for his high school education and later went on to Trinity College, Dublin. It was during his time at Mount Temple that “Dam-Burst of Dreams” was published, when he was fifteen years old.
My first reaction to learning about Nolan and the overflow of praise connected to his work, other than profound curiosity, was the firm belief that the said praise needed to be taken with a grain of salt, so to speak. After all, until very recently the accomplishments of a disabled person were rarely held to the same standerds as everyone else. They were met either with dismissive prejudice or sickeningly sweet euphoria, always extremes, rarely balanced. Hence why I as a writer took all pains to keep my disability out of my work as much as possible: we, as a group, want to be received more or less the same as the rest of humanity, with the exception of consideration for our different physical needs. In other words, as there is generally no deficiency in our intelligence, any accomplishments springing from that intelligence should be judged accordingly. Christopher Nolan shared these feelings, as indicated by his refusal to allow “Under the Eye of the Clock” to be made into a movie. I am determined to extend Nolan that dignity, though it be belated (Nolan died in 2009).
“Dam-Burst of Dreams” is a collection of poetry and other writngs, including short stories, letters, and plays. I instantly understood the constant comparisons of Nolan’s work with that of James Joyce. Nolan obviously embraced his distinctly Irish literary history that includes Joyce with a joy that is almost physical in its intensity. He demonstates a similar love of the aural richness of the English language. He takes alliteration to such an extreme and exalted plain that the reader easily gets lost in the sounds and textures and forgets to even consider meaning. Nolan’s drive for musicality leads him to invent words and, in some cases, invent his own grammar and sentence structure. This is absolutely astounding when one considers his age. The various writings are laid out chronologically, each piece dated and placed into sections according to his age at the time of writing. It is clear that other people composed the nature of the manuscript, most likely his mother. But that fact allows the reader to marvel at Nolan’s genius with soundscapes. There is no other word: genius.
That being said, it must be noted that it is clear these are the writings of a child. Yes, they often deal with very adult issues, such as his disability, the years when his communication was severely limited, the reaction of others to that disability, spirituality, etc. These are all issues he had to deal with from birth and in a sometimes adult fashion. But, again speaking as a poet with CP myself, the child trumps these moments.
His lack of formal education is also apparent (though in his case this is a decided advantage). No one ever told Nolan that his writings were overly loquacious to the point of sometimes burying clear meaning (although this may be the point as it sometimes was for Joyce). No teacher or parent taught him to revise, revise, revise. No one stood over him saying “make it shorter”. No one had him break down sentences and repeat adjectives, adverbs, modifiers, etc. by rote. These writings are the product of a mind left free of convention and generally understood expectation. It might be helpful for some to read them with dictionary in hand and fully prepared for the fact that said dictionary will not always yield an answer. This is challenging work, almost as challenging as it was for him to write it.
His aim was to foster understanding between the healthy ranks and those of us who are less healthy, to highlight the strong intellectual and creative forces at work behind what may appear to be a useless and inaminate exterior. Though I think some of the praise surrounding his work may be the result of too much sympathy, it is clear he acheived his objective and pried open a beginning that no doubt benefited all people in Ireland and continues to do so. He was a pioneer in his way and the trails he blazed of understanding are now open and fairly busy highways.