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Peace, Love, Happiness

Paul Guest's least interesting thing.

Book Cover Poet Paul Guest (My Index of Horrifying Knowledge) was permanently paralyzed in a bike accident at the age of 12, which, as Mary Karr points out, “is the least interesting thing about his work.” In “User’s Guide to Physical Debilitation,” he alludes to his situation:
Should the painful condition of irreversible paralysis
last longer than forever or at least until
your death by bowling ball or illegal lawn dart
or the culture of death, which really has it out
for whoever has seen better days
but still enjoys bruising marathons of bird watching,
you, or your beleaguered caregiver
stirring dark witch’s brews of resentment
inside what had been her happy life,
should turn to page seven where you can learn,
assuming higher cognitive functions
were not pureed by your selfish misfortune,
how to leave the house for the first time in two years.
Guest’s new book, One More Theory About Happiness (Ecco), is a memoir written about his life as a quadriplegic that has been compared to the incomparable Lucy Grealey’s Autobiography of a Face. As poet Saïd Sayrafiezadeh asserts, it is “sweet and beautiful and wrenching. By so generously providing a window into his own difficult experience, Guest shows us how profoundly fragile the human body truly is, how quickly our lives can be changed forever, how much strength it takes to continue on—and most importantly, how it’s possible to create a new definition of wholeness.”

Here is an excerpt from the prologue:
I leaned in over it, my face low to the ground, to the thing I’d broken, the cheap firecracker I’d unraveled from its dry, crumbling mates, its fuse gray, unassuming. I’d snapped it in two so that the powder spilled from it. The firecracker was stolen, as was the lighter: my grandfather kept a bucket of them atop the freezer. If it was ever empty, and it rarely was, my grandmother would shell peas into it, wordless and stroke-daft, her fingers shedding beans into the bucket with ease. But, mostly, this pot held firecrackers my grandfather loved: Black Cats and M-80s and spindly bottle rockets he would light in his hand, only to let go in the seconds before detonation.

Somehow I had discovered the powder inside the firecrackers would not necessarily explode. That it would spark up and shower the ground with a few seconds of flinty fire. I would bend the firecracker into a V-shape, its rupture pointing up, prop it on a piece of dusty gravel so that it stayed that way, and snap my grandfather’s stolen fire alive in my hand.

It did not always catch. Some of the firecrackers were old, years old, I think, dry as a mummy. I’d try again, until the fire took hold and the shower of sparks hissed up. It never lasted long. A few seconds. Mostly a smoke that was dense and bitter. But the sparks were starry, amazing to me, bouncing away, obliterated within seconds.

At my grandparents’ home there was access to fire: lighters, matches, gasoline, and addled, inconstant supervision. I could do anything.

At night I would stay awake, long past my grandparents’ bedtime, just so I could wade through the clotted waters of pay cable, flipping through each channel filled with Chuck Norris movies, cheap junk, and worse. I felt as though each film, vile, barely competent, was meant for no one but me. And in that cathode flicker I grew to love a kind of solitude.
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