Shechinah – or God meets Temple Grandin


Poetry appearing on this page was produced with the generous support of artsACT

This is a poem about the spiritual journey of Temple Grandin, a famous designer of humane livestock abbatoir technology who also happens to have autism.  She writes about the evolution of her faith at length in her book Thinking in Pictures. I have tried here to condense it to poetry – please comment if you think I have failed ( or even if you think I have succeeded ! ).

For structure I have used a quote from Albert Einstein ( a quote which Grandin also cites with approval in her book).  If you look carefully you’ll see that each stanza has one word of the quote in it somewhere ( in order, of course – this is an autism poem, after all 🙂  ).

The Hebrew word ‘Shechinah’ in the title means ‘the in-dwelling presence of God’.

I actually wrote this poem back in June, but entered it in a competition so couldn’t publish it (even on my blog) until the results were announced. It didn’t win, but I hope you enjoy it anyway…

Science without religion is lame.  Religion without science is blind.
                                  – Albert Einstein

Shechinah – or God meets Temple Grandin

I find Him first in logic: in the science of snowflakes;
in the patterns silver makes on platinum.

Then entropy terrifies me, chaos as telos.
Without order, I worry: where can He dwell ?

Perhaps if He keeps the gate, shepherding each atom
on its path from heat to cold ? In this image I remake my religion.

I discover Him also in libraries: my serene heavens of silence
and infinite shelving. My dearest wish is an afterlife of browsing,

tasting the bliss of the Great System – the halt and the lame reclining
in the silent reading corner; angels bringing them books.

Then: a swim in a dip tank drowns my religion,
organophosphates douse my pillar of flame.

The hangover leaves me without my wonder.  I am Dorothy, aching for awe,
raising the Wizard’s curtain, staring at the little old man.

At long last I find Him in science again, not in order but in the mystery
of entangled subatomic particles: their synchronised vibrations

span universes in an instant.  He is everywhere at once ! And again, after all my seeking
He comes to me where I am: He is with me in the slaughterhouses,

with me in the daily work of death. He blesses my sacred charge:
to ease each animal, calmly, with love, through the blind valley of the shadow.

(c) Melinda Smith 2011

CircleQuirk is coming!

You may have heard I’m publishing a collection of poems about autism. Lots of the poems destined for the collection have already appeared on this blog. However now I have a working title for the book – CircleQuirk – I have decided it needs a home of its own. Enter the CircleQuirk blog.

Over the next little while I will put copies of all the autism poems from this blog over at CircleQuirk, and from now on when I post a new autism poem it will go up on CircleQuirk first. I will still be posting my non-autism poems here though.

The plan is that all the CircleQuirk poems will get together, descend from cyberspace, arrange themselves between two covers and be available for you to read IRL in April 2012 (Autism Awareness Month). Excited? I am !

Hope that makes sense – and thanks for reading 🙂

To Tweet, To Who…..or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Hive Mind


Poetry appearing on this page was produced with the generous support of artsACT

So. On 23 May 2011, I discovered Twitter. Well…not ‘discovered’ so much as ‘actually began using and enjoying’. 

Right now you are either thinking ‘I can barely handle Facebook, get thee behind me’ or ‘sad Gen X dinosaur, you only beat Jerry Seinfeld by a few weeks, and by Christmas it will be just you and him tweeting at each other because everyone else will have shifted over to Google+’

 Bear with me please, both groups. I promise there will be funny jokes further down.

 So why am I bothering to write this down and share it on the interwebs, more than five years after the Twitter site first launched? Because I am blown away by the fact that the Twitterverse is much much better than I thought it would be, and I want to take a moment to record that fact before it goes the way of Usenet and Commodore 64s. Like many non-Tweeps, I had thought it was just for pre-teens who wanted to know what Justin Bieber picked out of his nose yesterday. Instead, I have found:

  •  In two months I have made dozens of new contacts in my fields of interest (poetry, autism, books, literature, social comment and people who write funny stuff). Many of these people live overseas and I have never met any of them (or their friends), so this is networking and sharing I could not do very efficiently on Facebook, and could do even less efficiently on the wider internet via laborious time consuming searches. Twitter is searchable by conversation topic so it is easy to find and ‘follow’ people talking about things you are interested in.
  • Suddenly I feel like I am ahead of the news, rather than hopelessly behind it like most parents of young children. I was all over John Birmingham v Bob Ellis, Geoff Lemon v the Carbon Tax Whingers, Noni Hazelhurst and GTF to Sleep v YouTube, and The Bloggess’ Giant Metal Chicken well before the ‘mainstream’ media. ‘Slipstream’ media, more like it.
  • Limiting posts to 140 characters is *great* discipline for a writer.

 It has even started to influence my poetry. There are already a gazillion Twitter poets (see this New York Times article from March of this year) so I do not pretend to any great originality there. But it is new for me, and it is fun squeezing things down into such a tight space. I find it makes for very very spare and (occasionally) hard hitting micropoetry. Also I like how the #hashtag (a way of manually tagging the topic of the tweet so other Twitter users can find and join the conversation) adds another dimension, working like a commentary or postscript (or preamble or title) to the actual poem.

To illustrate, I’m going to finish with the complete Tworks of @MelindaLSmith, micropoet. Enjoy, comment below, and if you are also a Tweep then come follow me. I promise to follow you back 🙂

Twitter Poems by @MelindaLSmith

Autism poems

my boy perches on the pool’s edge/flapping his wet hands/people are staring/he sees only me, and grins:/’I caught an imaginary trout’ #ASD

#micropoetry #ASDparenting #firsteverjointsleepover Both sons away tonight/after 7 years/I don’t recognise this quiet/or this calm

Boy-Girl poems

@Twaiku_Poetry: If she says she doesn’t like poetry, run #micropoetry #advice #lifelessons
.@Twaiku_Poetry: if she says she *is* a poet, run faster #micropoetry #lifelessons #youaintnoboyfriendsuckayoumaterialnow

#divorcepoem they say this too shall pass/ – passing is no good to me / I just want him back like he was / before he betrayed us

your electricity / prickles and hums / I ache to close the circuit / but I dare not / flip the switch #micropoetry

#aubadeyourselfbastard you don’t tell me this is goodbye/but I hear it in the stutter, the buzz/of your zip closing #micropoetry

Moving house poems

#realestatepoem He said, ‘We’ll uplift your home/onto the internet’/- but then/ this hole in the ground/will look nothing like the pictures

#realestatepoem2 seven years / of divots and small fingerprints / this fresh paint / claims they never happened

Random poems

What can 140 characters hold? News of near misses, small wars, large arguments; the singing of bullets, the murmur of hearts? Such birdsong!

bottle of red / half empty / – or hangover / half full ? #micropoetry #koanp1sstake #toooldtodrinklikethisanymore

#inthenightkitchen #micropoetry the fridge makes small sighs/testing the silence/the central heating rumbles and sings/you are not alone

The impossible blindfold


Poetry appearing on this page was produced with the generous support of artsACT

The following autism poem used to be up on this blog (in draft form). I had to take it down for a while because I entered it in a competition and the rules stated that entries could not be published online or in hard copy until the results were announced. Well, they’ve been announced now, and while this poem didn’t win, at least I get to put it back on the blog again.

  For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways – Isaiah 55:8

The impossible blindfold

: an autistic adult prepares for a day in the workplace

Today again I’ll strap on my mask for you;
zip up my ludicrous human suit;

force most of my thoughts into small closed boxes
so that when I speak, you are not made uncomfortable.

When I am not trapped in a room full of chattering
sometimes I can pass for one of your kind.

You few who reach for me with well-meaning thoughts:
even you have no clue how hard this is, nor can you. 

If you are sighted and want to try blindness,
bind your eyes for a day, a week – you might come close.

But there are no easy ways to shut down your empathy,
lock yourself in my clumsy robot cage

and be. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways.

(c) Melinda Smith 2011

Not the Botany Bay song


Poetry appearing on this page was produced with the generous support of artsACT

A bit of fun this week. Try singing the draft poem / song below to the tune of ‘For we’re bound for Botany Bay’ (an old Australian popular song about the convict days, for those of you from other countries). 

The thing that got me started writing this little ditty is the thought that, in my humble opinion, having a child with autism is not so much like a trip to Holland, as like being hauled against your will to an inhospitable wilderness with a bunch of strangers, dumped there and left to survive on short rations and daily floggings.  You make friends with your fellow prisoners, you adapt, and after a few years you can even see how to make a life for yourself in this strange new land – but you can never go home again…

Anyway, not meaning to get all depressing or anything – the following is meant to make you laugh, as well as say a few things ASD parents and carers are not ‘allowed’ to say. Enjoy, and comments welcome.

Not the Botany Bay song

         : A Sea Shanty for ASD Parents and Carers

Farewell to the high life forever
Farewell to my suits and my heels
For my child’s on the autism spectrum:
my career juggernaut’s lost its wheels.

Singing echo-lay, echo-lay, la-li-a
Singing meltdowns as public disgrace
Singing though we might live in Australia
It can seem we’ve been shot into space.

There’s the doctors, the psychs and the speechies
There’s the OTs and physios too
Yet not one of these qualified specialists
knows what we poor parents go through.

Singing maybe this thing is contagious
Singing I used to think I was fine
But now all of my best friends are therapists
– or they’re parents of children like mine.

‘Taint the unscheduled detour I cares about
‘Taint the fact that I still don’t know why
But it feels like we’ve both turned invisible
as the rest of the world rolls on by.

Singing mindfully making the best of it
Singing gazing from gutters at stars
But the heartache and stress and the rest of it
feels like being ‘transported’ to Mars.

Well our home is all plastered with visuals
and we never have guests as a rule
and the unstructured horror of holidays
means we can’t wait to get back to school.

Singing Floortime and Musical Therapy
Singing PECs and Lovaas ABA.
Singing snake-oil and rebirth and mercury
– for those shysters can smell desperate prey.

Then there’s friendships and hygiene and puberty
and employment and learning to lie.
It’s a long row to hoe, that’s for certain sure
– and then who’ll step in when you die?

Singing once I was witty and erudite
Singing once I had beauty to spare
Now I bang on about intervention plans
and I think I’ve got lice in my hair.

So I s’pose we should make ourselves comfortable
’cause the voyage will last many years,
so let’s chuckle along with our cabin-mates
because where there’s no laughter there’s tears.

Singing God Bless our good ship The Spectran
may she weather the storm and the swell
and may all who sail in her land safely
though they’ve hair-raising stories to tell.

(c)  Melinda Smith 2011

A prehistory of autism


Poetry appearing on this page was produced with the generous support of artsACT

As the mother of a child with ASD I have often wondered how my son would be perceived if we were living in a different place and time – one without a mass education system, where the main societal unit was a small community or tribe.  Of course no one can ever know the answer to that question, but my hunch is that his ‘deficits’ would not be as much of a problem, and would be tolerated better because his ‘gifts’ would be thought of as supremely useful. What follows is a poetic response to that thought experiment.  It will form part of my book of poems about autism (coming out in April 2012 – Autism Awareness Month).

UPDATE: Since writing this poem I have come across an article published in May 2011 in the Journal of Evolutionary NeuroPsychology, hypothesising pretty much the same thing. Here is a summary of the article and here is the article itself. Jared Reser, the author, weighs in on the comments below this post.  Great minds think alike…

A prehistory of autism

This one can run and run, never tiring;
climb trees and cliffs until the gibbons are afraid for him.
Even when he falls he feels no pain.  He has little need for sleep.
He speaks only by repeating what he hears
but he is the best of nightwatchmen
and in the hunt he is magnificent.

That one scents the lions on the wind;
smells the poison in the berries.
If her special stone is taken away
she makes wounded beast howls
but she can spot a snake’s hole at forty paces
from three newly bent twigs and a fresh hollow in the dust.

This other knows the places of the stars by heart.
He speaks often of the wandering ones:
he can see their journeys as clear as the track to the waterhole
although he will not look any man in the eye.
He sits alone all day, dotting sky pictures on pieces of bark.
Only he knows the day when the wildebeest will move.

That one over there has no love but for making spears.
He chips stone after stone until the sun is low;
walks far to find good wood for the shafts.
He does not join the hunt: he is slow and clumsy
and does not do what he is told – but in the hands of others
his weapons fly true and bring down many gazelle.

Another has the gift of singing –
all melodies are hers at one hearing.
She has mastered the speech of those over the mountain
and of the fishers by the lake.
She will not let men come to her, although she is grown.
She screams and spits at any who try.  Her kind smiles are only for small children
and for those who bring her new songs.

 (c) Melinda Smith 2011

Love song of autistic husband


Poetry appearing on this page was produced with the generous support of artsACT

Yet another draft autism poem. This one is in the voice of a high functioning autistic husband talking to his neurotypical wife. It is not meant to be a portrait of a particular relationship, but it owes a lot to Edgar Schneider’s book Discovering My Autism and a little to the film Snow Cake.

The poem also explores a particular kind of slightly awkward, repetitive rhythm. I’d be really grateful for any feedback.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways
– Isaiah 55:8

Love song of autistic husband

It is pleasant to see you;
when I’m near you I’m happy –
and if ever you leave me
I will think it a pity –

but my love is not your love.
You assume that your feelings
are a halo around you
I could see if I tried to;

that your heart is a mystery
I could solve if I wanted –
but to me it’s an organ
and the secrets inside it

are just muscles contracting.
I am always a stranger
understanding you sideways
but I’ll always be loyal;

I can’t help being truthful
I remember the housework
and I’m there for the children –
surely these are important ?

Yet you say that you ‘need me
to be much more supportive’
or you ‘crave’ my ‘affection’
but ‘don’t want to be sexual’;

you protest I ignore you
that I’m cold and distracted –
but you might as well tell me
in Icelandic or Martian.

You insist I’m withholding
all my tenderness from you
but it’s not like a river
that I’ve slyly diverted:

it is more like an absence
like a cave or a sinkhole.
When we fight (so you tell me)
you are harrowed with terror

but my anger is over
when my voice has stopped shouting –
it is you seems to carry
little scars for a lifetime.

When I think of the future
I consider you dying:
what will stretch me to breaking
won’t be grief at your going

but the alien business
of the funeral, the lawyers.
My routine will be scrambled
I’ll be sick to my stomach

I will shout at the children
I will leave the wake early
and when later I’m solo
I will balk at your absence

I’ll be frightened and angry
  – but I don’t think I’ll cry.

(c) Melinda Smith 2011

An autistic woman explains the terror of affection


Poetry appearing on this page was produced with the generous support of artsACT

The following draft poem (comments welcome) is inspired by Donna Williams’ book Nobody Nowhere. In the book she describes how, as a young woman with autism, feeling affection and closeness with another person was a terrifying experience for her, and made her fear that she would be ‘swallowed up’. She did, however, sometimes feel closeness with inanimate objects, and objects associated with certain loved people would become very special to her. It is an extremely powerful book – highly recommended.

The draft poem below is also in the form of a glosa (a poem that responds to another poem and uses some of the original poem’s lines as stanza endings in the new poem). The original poem is ‘Circle and Square’ by Edwin Muir, and the bit I’ve decided to start a conversation with (and use the lines from) is the final stanza, quoted at the start. The full poem can be found here.

Give, but have something to give.
No man can want you all.
Live and learn to live.
When all the barriers fall
you are nothing at all.    
        – Edwin Muir, ‘Circle and Square’. 

An autistic woman explains the terror of affection

A rushing of the sea:
your smile is drowning me –
I have to fight to live.
Why can’t you let me be ?
I feel in negative:
Distress is all you give.

Lost as I have been
I dare not let you in
however loud you call.
I cower in my skin
I curl into a ball.
No man must have me all.

You want to show you care?
You will not reach me there,
that is not where I live.
Just barely touch my hair
– that, I may forgive.
Live, and let me live.

Or give me for my own
a button or a stone –
something smooth and small  –
and when I am alone
I’ll feel you through this wall.
But when the barriers fall

I cannot meet your eye;
you stab me when you try
to look at me at all.
To let you is to die.
I’ll go under, I’ll fall –
I’ll be nothing at all.

(c) Melinda Smith 2011

I prefer


Poetry appearing on this page was produced with the generous support of artsACT

Another draft poem. This one plays around with a common writing exercise, where you have to write a series of statements in the form of ‘I prefer x to y’. When you try writing one of these poems about yourself it is almost always BORING and unavoidably solipsistic. Try writing one from the point of view of someone else – say, an autistic child – and the result is, hopefully, more worth reading…

I prefer

serious illness to surprises
computers to my brother
reading number plates to Christmas morning

straight lines
submerging my ears in a warm bath to waterslides
deep fat fryers to matchbox cars

torture to haircuts
libraries to birthday parties
standing ankle-deep in ocean

tenpin bowling to climbing trees
looking at things out of the corner of my eye
Sonic the Hedgehog to family time

death to dentist visits
my mother with her glasses off
plastic wheelie bins to petting zoos

not to see my school friends outside of school
cricket statistics to Toy Story
chewing clothes-pegs to talking

rules to freedom
truth to sarcasm

to be left alone

(c) Melinda Smith 2011

Brain Weather

Here is another draft poem – again I am interested in any comments.


Poetry appearing on this page was produced with the generous support of artsACT

In case you’re wondering, the extra spaces are intentional.

Brain Weather

:autistic meltdown ground zero

Think of                hemispheres:    Western, Left;
the wind-flows                 that connect them; the currents                       of sea; of electricity.

When was  it that             your frontal        lobe
Cauterized          itself against your       will
leaving  you endless       atomised local                   storms
with no way       to blow them    -selves out?

The last words you          said before the clouds came
stutter on            your small           tongue;
settle    in like cat-and    -dog rain, the syllables
hammering down, fixing one      thought with      a dozen stabs of lightning.

The miracle is not that it                stops, but how afterwards you can be so              calm and charming
– and puzzled that the rest of us still        drip and shiver from the rain.