Remembering Irish Poet Christopher Nolan

I was so sad to hear that Christopher Nolan passed away last week in Dublin at the age of 43. His remarkable memoir, Under the Eye of the Clock, had an enormous influence on my life when I needed it most.

Nolan was born in 1965 with cerebral palsy as the result of oxygen deprivation. He could not speak, walk or use his hands. But his mother, sensing the intelligence and spirit in his frozen body, devised a system that allowed him to write by pecking out letters, one by one, using a pencil stuck to his forehead. In 1981 at the age of 15, he published a collection of poetry and short stories called Dam-Burst of Dreams. I know what you're thinking: Handicapped kid publishes sweet ditties. But no. Critics in the UK invoked Yeats and Dylan Thomas. Describing himself in the third person, Nolan wrote, "Poetry was his vehicle of expression and truth his hallmark." Indeed. Unfortunately, a snarky piece in People magazine suggested Nolan's mother was pulling the strings, and the book sank in the United States.

But then in 1987, Nolan published Under the Eye of the Clock, his bracingly original autobiography. The book jumped onto the bestseller list here and abroad and went on to win the Whitbread Award, beating out Seamus Heaney, among others.

Two years later, my first daughter was born dark blue, severely oxygen deprived. Like Nolan, she cannot speak, sit up or walk. She has some use of her left arm. In those early years, when my wife and I were struggling hard to keep our lives from falling apart even further, someone gave us a copy of Under the Eye of the Clock, and it was a revelation. Here, finally, was a little hope, an insight into the rich, funny, passionate and vibrant world of someone who appears wholly inert.

I don't know how many copies we've given away to other parents and SPED teachers and administrators. When it fell out of print for several years, we bought used copies through Alibris. (Arcade, bless them, brought the book back in 2000.)

"What can a crippled, speechless boy do?" Nolan asked. "My handicap curtails my collective conscience, obliterates my voice, beckons ridicule of my smile and damns my chances of being accepted as normal."

You weren't normal, Christopher. You were extraordinary.

-- Ron Charles

By Ron Charles |  February 25, 2009; 7:31 AM ET Ron Charles
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