The Poet at Bay

Joeff Davis/
Paul Guest, Decatur, Georgia, February 2011

Paul Guest was twelve years old in 1986 when he broke his third and fourth cervical vertebrae and severely bruised his spinal cord; the result was irreversible quadriplegia. The handsome boy, who went on to live in a motorized wheelchair and has published three collections of poetry, was raised in the Pentecostal faith in Tennessee by a woman whose father owned a junkyard. A straightforward narrative interrupted by few flashbacks, his memoir, One More Theory About Happiness, begins with foreshadowings of horror: he plays with firecrackers; he reads a children’s book about a paralyzed girl the night before the accident that changed his life. Guest tells us that he learned to read early despite his parents’ humbly nonintellectual origins; he felt an uplift at church that suggests he was an unusually sensitive boy. Had he not excelled at reading, he wouldn’t have been identified as gifted, wouldn’t have had the opportunity to study with a teacher for special students, and wouldn’t have been invited to a sixth-grade graduation party at her house.

As the moment of the accident approaches, the foreshadowing becomes relentless:

I should have been wary. An adult would have known better than to ride those bikes. Leaned against the wall, festooned with cobwebs, skinned in dust, the ten-speed bikes had not been used in quite some time…. I climbed atop the bike, feeling awkward from leaning out over the handlebars…. I felt unsafe but pedaled on slowly.

Seeing that the hand brake is connected to a frayed or torn cable, Guest knows he will crash, and he decides mid-coast to try crashing on lawn rather than asphalt, aiming down a grassy slope. At the bottom of it is a drainage ditch hidden by weeds. Hitting the lip of the ditch, the bike throws its passenger twelve feet. Guest opens his eyes, having shut them mid-flight, and finds he can feel nothing below his neck, which aches dully—“the sudden, violent abstraction of the body, the brain left to believe all has vanished in a terrible, surgical instant.”

Two neighbors appear and attempt to stand the boy upright, but his head droops grotesquely, the neck broken. Later that afternoon, having been delivered to the hospital, placed before a closed MRI machine, and told he must be perfectly still, Guest allows himself to be slid into it, then panics and rocks his head from side to side. These traumatic episodes portray the experience of being forced suddenly to fight for one’s life at age twelve. Guest knew not to move his potentially broken neck after he fell but could not summon the authority to prevent a well-intentioned neighbor’s mistake. Having never been put into an enclosed space, he could not anticipate the potential danger of his first claustrophobic panic.

Guest is weaned from a respirator, learns to drive a…

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