Dominique Hecq reviews she doesn’t seem autistic by Esther Ottaway

she doesn’t seem autistic

by Esther Ottaway

Puncher and Wattman

ISBN 978-1-922571-76-2


Esther Ottaway’s third book of poetry, she doesn’t seem autistic, explores a neglected area of psychological medicine: autism in women. It is by default that Ottaway herself was diagnosed, when a specialist established that her youngest daughter was autistic. Although partly autobiographical, the persona in the poems is ‘a composite woman and girl,’ Ottaway tells us in her foreword: she wants ‘to show [us] a profile of autism that [we] are not familiar with’ (12). 

The collection documents the symptoms of female autism across a spectrum as well as the inevitable misdiagnoses. It also poignantly exposes the core of the speaker’s humanity—in this case, what affects her. In Andy Jackson’s words, the book is ‘a revelation.’

Symptoms of female autism include empathy arousal, rejection sensitive dysphoria, alexithymia, situational mutism, masking, echolalia, ADHD, sensory processing disorder, dyspraxia, hypotonia, dyscalculia, avoidant/restrictive food intake syndrome, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, delayed sleep disorder, narcolepsy, pathological demand avoidance, dysautonomia, panic disorder, depression, etc. Repress the desire to laugh, because this is not funny. Miss Diagnosis is psychological medicine’s own worst symptom. As Ottaway shows triumphantly towards the end of the collection, labels come unstuck. Are torn to shreds. And yes, as she affirms in ‘Joy to my world,’ her own ‘revelation’ (74) means a belief in change.

And the poems? Ah, the poems. They show how poetry is created from the bodymind, its affects and memories. Riposting to Ottaway’s dismissal of the word ‘good’ in ‘How are you?’ (57), I’d say the poems are achingly good. These are not poems trapped on the surface—the surface of observation, information, narration, sleek language.  Here, there is rhythmic intensity that fuses emotion, breath and thought, incorporating profound, associative insight.

Consider, for example the opening to ‘There is always a giraffe,’ which takes us back to the persona’s childhood:

Cool as a whale
Mrs Haydon is stepping backwards through water

patient with this small giraffe
who has failed at every sport

all neck and skittery hooves,
large-eyed, patterned with shame.

Consider how it catches gracefully the movement it needs for grief. How it carries with dismay the child’s terror, and then with respect the newly found knowledge of death, ‘asking if it’s worse to drown, or fall’

Perhaps these unknowns associated with terror and death present Ottaway’s powering creativity with a tempering negativity. This would seem to be the implication of the book’s first poem, ‘After writing a book on female autism, I decide to bury it,’ where birth and death, breath and dread are intertwined in the figure of ‘that bleating woman’ (13) who nonetheless dares to offer the danger of poetry. 

‘The shamed body addresses its owner,’ responding to a sense of dissociation, is achingly good, too: its feeling is finely judged, its observation has a convincing mix of deflection, fixation and ambivalence. It is almost speechless:

You say my names: but will you introduce me
to your friends?  Are you still ashamed –

Another standout in this collection is ‘Illanelle,‘ where the body is at war with itself, its ‘lifelong illness… auto-immune,’ adumbrating as it does its own ‘release’ (53). There is something about death that is teaching Esther Ottaway’s layered poetry a new clarity. Perhaps it is a particular kind of newly found carelessness. Or confidence.

At another level, it encourages just a little too much care, as if presence, evoked through sensate detail, might compensate for absence, as in ‘Perennially gaslit, the autistics reject humanity,’ where the persona talks to (her)self and needs more detachment so that desire can get free of guilt and shame:

We aren’t’ wanted,
won’t be missed. Little wonder
that we shy now at this pillory

go to the insects, plants, land, sky. (65)

In the face of such debilitating condition, Ottaway finds in poetic practice a way of enacting a discipline. It might seem effortless, but not many poets can achieve this balancing of the imponderable and impermanent, this balancing of lines so that they incorporate at once the movement of breath and bodymind. Ottaway has learned how to set her subject free: she exercises a discipline of line; she practices precise observation and sometimes self-deprecation; she discreetly deploys a specialised lexicon and, above all, empathy. Some might say that she writes without ego, but I disagree: wit and humour undercut a refreshing self-consciousness.

In ‘Neurodiverse’ Ottaway achieves a level of imaginative embodiment I find puzzling. Through a linguistic play of deferrals and reversals, the poem achieves something close to spiritual power. Something I only experienced by accident in a yoga practice I failed at again and again—and have long since abandoned. Here suffering, emptiness and desire coalesce:

Deserve in our
derive. No ruse.
Revise, undo re
overused rein.
Never die sour! (75)

The imaginative process rests on inter reaching reciprocities; it is useless to want one dimension to explain another, as if the poem were a response to an idea that had some temporal, causal and linguistic priority. It is a pared down, even compact poem. And yet it spawns innumerable interpretations through letter reconfiguration and linguistic border crossing.  Never die sour / [nev-uh-duh-zai-uh]. Rein / rien (nothing). Derive / dérive (drift). Who is writing here? Esther, or me? Until fairly recently, ours (ours?) was not a subject-position from which autism was usually considered, writes another poet grappling, as I do, with what it means to write from the perspective of an autistic subject.1

Themes recur and resonate throughout Esther Ottaway’s work: pregnancy, parenthood, loss, grief and more generally, family ties, but it seems to me that she has found ways to embody them more fully in she doesn’t seem autistic than in her two previous collections to amplify the architecture of her poetry so that what might have been mere observation or information acquires layers of narrative and thought that convey a more profound, a more fully realised experience of interconnectedness. Here is the opening to ‘How to have an autistic friend,’ where the syntax performs this interconnectedness:

See that my scales flash gilt:
the prowess, gift.
Acknowledge the lack in me,
how baffling the lacunae.
Invite me, fit the schedule to me.
If I can’t answer. If I forget,
remind. Remind anyway. When I can’t follow through,
be kind. Remember the iceberg
balancing under this peak,
how intensely I’m thrashing
underwater. See
what can’t be seen, like city stars. Give me rest
and more rest, time, time
and more time.

Above all, what strikes in this collection is the inventiveness of the language. Enjoy the full response to ‘How have you succeeded despite having autism?’. Here is the hilarious beginning:

At first, I am disauder, distressed auganism. I cannot count on the
audinary. Efforts come to naut – I triage, relinquish, harden up: hindsight
and forethaut my advisors, flight my reliable last resaut. I am an auphan
in this singular authogenesis, autonomous but so hamstrung, my
writing my only authodox ability, stamp on my passpaut…

My own revelation comes intertwined with an anecdaut. 

… empathy arousal, rejection sensitive dysphoria, alexithymia, situational mutism, masking, echolalia, sensory processing disorder, avoidant/restrictive food intake syndrome, delayed sleep disorder, pathological demand avoidance, panic disorder, depression… mania and hypervigilance …

My youngest (a boy) says: We’re all on the spectrum, mum. That includes you. My jaw drops. F. labels. Mind the book’s last poem, ‘The autistic woman’s self-compassion blessing,’ I sway to myself. 2


1 Joanne Limburg 2017 ‘The Shape of the Problem’, The Poetry Review, 131.
2 Pun intended.

DOMINIQUE HECQ was born in the French-speaking part of Belgium. She now lives on unceded Wurundjeri land. Hecq writes in English and French. Her creative works comprise a novel, six collections of short stories and  fifteen books and chapbooks of poetry. Her latest publications  include After Cage (2nd ed., 2022, Liquid Amber Press) Endgame with No Ending (2023, SurVision), winner of the 2022 James Tate Poetry Prize, and a bilingual poetry sequence titled Songlines / Pistes de rêve, with photographs by Natia Zvhania (Transignum, 2023).