MT VALLARTA Reviews
More Than Organs by Kay Ulanday Barrett
(Sibling Rivalry Press, 2020)
First Published in The Asian American Literary Review 2020,
Editor Lawrence-Minh Bui Davis
A Breath, A Beat: A Review of Kay Ulanday Barrett’s More Than Organs
The ferocious poems in Kay Ulanday Barrett’s second poetry collection, More Than Organs, move with a cadence that allows the reader to feel the strength and resilience of thousands—of sick, migrant, queer, and disabled black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) who survive and thrive against routinized state violence. More Than Organs provides room for us to breathe, a collective space of tenderness and care where we can rest, be soft, and even grieve for those we have love and lost. Amidst our current moment of rising environmental degradation, widening socioeconomic inequity, and the coronavirus epidemic, Kay Ulanday Barrett’s collection reminds us the poetic has the capacity to free us, ease us, and incite us to seek transformative change.
Divided into four parts, every section of More Than Organs is rich with poetry that challenges the normalization of our body-minds, how the figure of the normal, able body is not only harmful to sick and disabled people, but all those who are vulnerable to debilitation under racial capitalism. The poem, “What one does after poetry reading at the hotel,” illustrates this where the speaker observes:
“Everyone takes pause,
caterers, servers, custodial staff.
People who are told they
to stop, felt suspended in air. He means
for the last time, she didn’t
bend body over again, die
take food that wasn’t hers” (42).
In this poem, the speaker describes the act of packing baon, the Tagalog word that describes packing a meal for the day, but also taking home food from a place or occasion that is not yours. In this case, the speaker invites the hotel staff—the caterers, servers, and custodians—to pack baon for themselves. While the act of packing baon is a gesture of sustenance and care, this collective invitation to pack food after a poetry reading at a hotel also exposes the food insecurity migrant and disabled people of color experience due to unsustainable working conditions. The lines, “People who are told they / can’t afford / to stop, felt suspended in air,” alludes to these exploitative conditions. However, the lines “she didn’t / die here, / bend body over again, die / feeding strangers, / take food that wasn’t hers” also illustrates how vulnerable communities are exposed to bare life and premature death, when queer, migrant, and disabled bodies are routinely maimed, injured, and harmed to the point where their living conditions and life expectancies are depleted. Living on baon ensures survival, but the lack of access to healthy and affordable food can further debilitate communities who are already vulnerable to state violence.
Furthermore, the title, “more than organs,” reverberates throughout the collection. Oftentimes, the lived experiences of queer and disabled BIPOC are reduced to “parts,” marginalizing them further from progressive spaces that fail to recognize their intersectional identities. Barrett alludes to this in “Spasm: a personal ethnography and then, I thought about Cayden Clarke,” where in part three of the poem, the speaker states:
worked so hard to get to this country so…Cue: Super Crip. Cue:
Look them in the eyes, that’s how they know you are ‘paying attention.’
Question whatever wholeness means, full, unabashed, span…
…Cue: Homogenous understand-
ings of community…
…Oh, I am sorry you couldn’t
make it, maybe next time? Cue: The goal is to be just
like everyone else. FB EVENT reads: This event
is standing room only. Guess it’s just you &
Netflix tonight” (36).
In this stanza, Barrett shows how “homogenous understandings of community” fail to account for the needs of queer, migrant, and disabled BIPOC, particularly how accessibility remains a marginalized and even unaddressed issue in progressive spaces. The lines, “FB EVENT reads: This event / is standing room only” highlights the ways disability justice is not integrated or even considered in BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities. Furthermore, disabled BIPOC are also reduced to “super crips,” where being a crip comes with the obligation and the expectation of being a highly resilient and inspirational figure despite one’s disability. Although it is okay to be an inspirational figure, this can lead to the tokenization of queer and disabled BIPOC, while upholding both disabled and able-bodied people to insurmountable and high-functioning work standards that could lead to further exploitation and harm. The lines, “My parents / worked so hard to get to this country so,” reflect how this exploitative logic is inherited across generations, demonstrating how the reduction of queer, migrant, and disabled BIPOC into “parts” is constitutive of racial capitalism.
Finally, the release of More Than Organs has coincided with the eruption of the coronavirus epidemic. While this book was written before our knowledge of the virus, Barrett illustrates how our current moment of crisis, that includes being regulated to our homes, being unable to visit public places, and wearing face masks regularly, is actually the everyday lived experience of many sick and disabled BIPOC. Barrett demonstrates this in “Love, artifact,” where the first stanza states:
“The air is a thicket of jam.
We’re breathing in bulbous catastrophe but with
layers of plexiglass over our faces, breathing
is a loose word. Shit, wearing masks
used to be
a fashion statement, not need.”
With able-bodied people being exposed to such “bulbous catastrophe,” the demands of queer and disabled BIPOC are finally being considered, but without the proper recognition or institution of prevention and accommodations. Chronically ill and disabled people are one of the most at-risk groups for contracting the virus. According to the CDC, “All people seem to be at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 if they have serious underlying chronic medical conditions like chronic lung disease, a serious heart condition, or a weakened immune system. Adults with disabilities are three times more likely than adults without disabilities to have heart disease, stroke, diabetes, or cancer.” Despite this urgent and precarious reality, many able-bodied people have remained willfully ignorant about the dangers of their harmful behaviors, with many refusing to wear masks in public or still congregating in larger crowds without social distancing. In addition, there are those who state, “We survived the AIDS crisis,” which is an allusion to those who also uttered, “We survived Reagan,” after Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016. These statements fail to acknowledge the thousands of LGBTQ+ people who became chronically ill and died because of our government’s outright negligence. Barrett’s “People say that we’ve survived Reagan” critiques this, where the poem exclaims, “I am sick of that / shit” and “who survived / the / AIDS / epidemic / or what he called / Annihilation” (45). With these lines, the AIDS epidemic is exposed as a distribution of premature death. Barrett shows how epidemics and pandemics are also socially constituted, that a lack of early, swift, and sustained care and action is largely responsible for the spread of the virus.
As a queer and disabled person myself, I hold More Than Organs close to my heart and can still feel its tremors in my body-mind. Barrett reminds us that survival is not enough, that being able to live, breathe, and care for each other fully is essential to queer, migrant, and disability justice.
 “COVID-19: People with Disabilities,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, April 7, 2020), https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/people-with-disabilities.html.