Expanding, With or Without You: A Review of Crumb-sized by Marlena Chertock

UNNAMED PRESS, 2017. 80 Pages. ISBN: 9781944700478

By Reign Manzano

“No one dares call Harriet Tubman / a disabled person, but why not. . .” Marlena Chertock asks in Crumb-sized (unnamed press) “. . .the full truth? A disabled woman of color / led hundreds of slaves to freedom.” Using down-to-earth language and wit , this “young woman with 80-year-old bonespasses us the telescope of scientific poetry so that we can observe the unseen details of her disability for ourselves. 

With its musings on elementary school bullies, burgeoning sexuality, and simplified explanations of planetary phenomena, Crumb-sized seems constrained to a specific audience. Nevertheless, Chertock’s poetry is accessible to those who have ever endured suffering, who have ever felt disconnected or alone among a majority. Implicit in the descriptions of “Life on exoplanets” is the isolation, loneliness, and harsh environment which might sprout resignation—or worse, resentment. But despite her disclosure of the 5,400 mph winds on HD189733b (where it “rains glass sideways”), the 500 light-year distance between Kepler-186f and Earth, or the obscurity of Proxima b, Chertock challenges readers to “keep magnifying the universe— / because it’s still expanding, with or without you.”

Bring food to the hill—you all rely on each other.
If you collapse or get stepped on, the others will
place you on their backs, return you home.

Yet, Chertock avoids challenging “the universe’s most feared unknowns” with naivety. Throughout Crumb-sized, she highlights the truths of skeletal dysplasia while assuring readers that they too can rise above victimization by confronting the black hole “absorbing . . . smile and confidence / and blasting out darkness.” Her greatest moments of triumph (against a competitive and hypercritical society) happen when she communicates self-awareness: a balance between acknowledging her limitations and preserving the conviction to realize “far-fetched dreams.” “Even if all the pain I’ve felt in my whole life doesn’t equal / the pressure an astronaut experiences in G-forces on reentry,” she writes in “Application to NASA,” “still I’m strong. I may be one of the strongest / candidates you’ve ever had.” Drawing from autobiographical memory, Chertock understands that the antidote to the disadvantages she faces is less likely to be discovered in willful ignorance of her “misshapen hips” than in honest consideration of all the aspects which shape and structure her identity. In “It should be called womenstruate,” she writes of her feminine self:

This power socket of cum joules, 
this tingling triangle, this coaxing
cave, this primordial pomegranate
is not monstrous, is full of sap
and blood and ever-expanding, 
like the universe after its big bang.

“Rikkud,” a poem that invokes Chertock’s Jewish upbringing, explores the tension between her cultural identity and the reality of her disability. Disassociation is pervasive even during communal celebration, and we are made aware of the limitations of both self and society: 

lit in amber. Moths and bats swoop overhead,
like us, congregating below on the dancefloor.
I’m part of the circle, hands clasped,

more Jewish in this two hours of folk
dancing every Friday night in the summer
than in a synagogue, ancient words
I don’t understand swirling in the air.

As the poem continues, the pain of exclusion is made as apparent as pain caused by skeletal dysplasia. “the only bonfire dancing. / I watch the others dance / through every song. / Their bodies so fluid / filled with bones their age.”

Ultimately, trusting in one’s own internal foundation emerges as the theme of Chertock’s deeply introspective poetry. It’s how the outcast in At 13 I lived in the forest” reclaims her agency as a participant: “I shattered / my reflection in rivers and creeks. / At 18 I changed, / stood up on two paws.” This progression toward self-authorship is reinforced as she gains the confidence to pilot her own narrative:

I let my paws sink
as deep in the soil as they could.
I went to school with other wolves,
wrote down my life in the forest
to share in writing workshops.

It also runs parallel to Robert Nash’s conception of “the scholarly personal narrative,” a form of confessional academic writing which frames intimate experience within a larger social context such that reader (as well as writer) may gain insight on how to better engage with and make meaning of the world.

Bridging science and spirituality, Crumb-sized succeeds not simply in its subjective interpretation of objective reality, but also in its consideration of how our individual interpretations interact therefore impact one another—perhaps this type of reflection is how moral relativism reconciles with universal truth—perhaps Chertock never intended to comment on moral relativism or universal truth. Regardless, Chertock’s voice is vital to creating a higher resolution image of our human condition.

Unfold me gently, I’m brittle
calcified stardust. Me, mineral dense

Collagen quirky. Unravel the cartilage
from my joints, throw my bones

to the unloved dogs.

By the end of my journey across the pages of Chertock’s cosmos, I began to visualize moons of resilience in orbit, applying gravitational pull on an ungrounded species. If planetary hardship catalyzes universal growth, Crumb-sized embodies it: for Marlena Chertock, it is the turning of her experience, her disability, her pain on its axis to reveal the reflection of light we secretly wish for—and when it arrives, upon. In these poems of movement, self discovery, and transformation, a space-traversing poet informs us that the light of faraway objects sometimes must travel billions of years just to be seen, but not without reminding us that it is on its way.