On the use and power of the word retard

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet,
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams

He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, W.B. Yeats


I want to try to explain what happens when I hear people throw the word retard, or retarded, around. I’ll draw on my special powers. I won’t try to judge or harangue or cajole, just explain as best I can.

When people I know use the word, it’s usually the put-down that signals the end of argument, heated or otherwise.

Can’t take it any further with you, retard.

What are you, retarded or something?

You’re such a retard.

In 99.9% of cases they’re not thinking of my son, who actually is retarded, judging by certain societal and medical barometers. (Hmmm.) In fact they’d most likely be horrified to take their words to that conclusion.

I don’t have that luxury. My mind instantly goes there, because I already know that that is the only logical conclusion. The absolute, only one. Where else could it possibly go? Think about the word. Your intended context is only one facet of it, but who your utterance may attach to, once it’s made, is entirely beyond your control. I didn’t, once upon a time, need to consider that, but those words, whether you mean them or not, whether you’re furious with someone or are just being flip with your friend, will always lead back to my son Jacob. And because he is retarded (by some standards, as we all are by some standards), he will not be as well able to defend himself from the accusation of being so, whether through someone’s careless word, or someone’s hate-filled one.

I mention this to you because it is important to me, and so are many of you. I need you to know that you can hurt me this way, and I know that you will not mean to. Some time back I didn’t think it would, but now with each mention in my ear, retard tears a piece of me. I want to grab people, connect and have my feeling flood their bodies. It does not matter that you did not mean it or you cannot feel it or want to counter me with your no doubt well meant points about political correctness. Those who know me know that I am politically incorrect, whatever the fuck that means. Because words have power. I have no idea how powerful this word will be to Jacob, and as yet, from the safety of cute two year old-ness, he’s relatively untouched. But that is changing a little bit every day, as the defences of cuteness give way to coarser features, to imperfect speech and a lack of social fine tuning. The world, with its retarded ways, is moving in.

I know I won’t turn the tide. It will not stop. It’s much more ingrained as an idiom in the US than on this side of the Atlantic, possibly because we have so many rich Irish put-downs, but nevertheless it has a place in the lexicon here too and it won’t be shifting any time soon, I believe. And I’m not addressing the hate use of the word. All of those folks stopped by when we had our heated debate about Tropic Thunder last year. And most of them were binned because they were reta- oops! Close one.

No, I’m talking about the simply careless use of it by people I respect. I’m not going to pull any of you up on it individually. It’s actually not my place. I hope you see it here and, if I’ve managed to explain myself, maybe you’ll think about it. Not just for Jacob’s sake, but for his Dad’s, and his Mum’s, and his brothers’ too.

It hurts. That’s just the way it is.


There’s a petition here if you’re the petition-inclined type.


The Almond Tree

All the way to the hospital
The lights were green as peppermints.
Trees of black iron broke into leaf
ahead of me, as if
I were the lucky prince
in an enchanted wood
summoning summer with my whistle,
banishing winter with a nod.

Swung by the road from bend to bend,
I was aware that blood was running
down through the delta of my wrist
and under arches
of bright bone. Centuries,
continents it had crossed;
from an undisclosed beginning
spiralling to an unmapped end.

Crossing (at sixty) Magdalen Bridge
Let it be a son, a son, said
the man in the driving mirror,
Let it be a son. The tower
held up its hand: the college
bells shook their blessings on his head.

I parked in an almond’s
shadow blossom, for the tree
was waving, waving at me
upstairs with a child’s hands.

the spinal stair
and at the top
a bone-white corridor
the blood tide swung
me swung me to a room
whose walls shuddered
with the shuddering womb.
Under the sheet
wave after wave, wave
after wave beat
on the bone coast,
bringing ashore – whom?
minted, my bright farthing!
Coined by our love, stamped
With our images, how you
Enrich us! Both
you make one. Welcome
to your white sheet,
my best poem.

At seven-thirty
the visitors’ bell
scissored the calm
of the corridors.
The doctor walked with
to the slicing doors.
His hand is upon my arm,
his voice – I have to tell
you – set another bell
beating in my head:
your son is a mongol
the doctor said.

How easily the word went in –
clean as a bullet
leaving no mark on the skin,
stopping the heart within it.

This was my first death.
The ‘I ‘ ascending on a slow
Last thermal breath
studied the man below

as a pilot treading air might
the buckled shell of his plane –
boot, glove and helmet
feeling no pain

from the snapped wires’ radiant ends.
Looking down from a thousand feet
I held four walls in the lens
of an eye; wall, window, the street

a torrent of windscreens, my own
car under its almond tree,
and the almond waving me down.
I wrestled against gravity,

but light was melting and the gulf
cracked open. Unfamiliar
the body of my late self
I carried to the car.

The hospital – its heavy freight
lashed down ship-shape ward over ward –
steamed into night with some on board
soon to be lost if the desperate

charts were known. Others would come
altered to land or find the land
altered. At their voyage’s end
some would be added to, some

diminished. In a numbered cot
my son sailed from me; never to come
ashore into my kingdom
speaking my language. Better not

look that way. The almond tree
was beautiful in labour. Blood-
dark, quickening, bud after bud
split, flower after flower shook free.

On the darkening wind a pale
face floated. Out of reach. Only when
the buds, all the buds were broken
would the tree be in full sail.

In labour the tree was becoming
itself. I, too, rooted in earth
and ringed by darkness, from the death
of myself saw myself blossoming,

wrenched from the caul of my thirty
years’ growing, fathered by my son,
unkindly in a kind season
by love shattered and set free.

Thanks to Iwona Duma for sending me the link to this poem by Jon Stallworthy. It’s incredibly moving and very much of its time. It’s so very layered that I can’t seem to stay too long. But hopefully I’ll visit it often.