Young Armless Man in the Barbecue Restaurant

Author

Koestenbaum, Phyllis

Genre

Poetry

Overview

Brooklyn-born poet Phyllis Koestenbaum is senior scholar at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at Stanford University.  "Admission of Failure" appeared in a collection of Koestenbaum's prose poems in 2001.  In it the narrator, a middle-aged wife and mother, responds in a strong and perhaps startling way to the young man seated at an adjoining restaurant table. This poem raises provocative questions about difference, disability, and the nature of empathy.  What enables empathy?  What stands in its way?

Full Text*

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Source

Doris Day and Kitschy Melodies by Phyllis Koestenbaum.  Questa Press Poetry Series, 2001.

Type

Reading - Short Enough to Read Aloud.

Themes

Ability and DisabilityDiversity and DifferenceExclusion and BelongingLove and Compassion

Big Questions

What assumptions do we make about people who are disabled or able-bodied?How do we recognize sameness but acknowledge difference(s)?How do we respond to strangers?What does empathy look like?What prevents us from being compassionate?

Sample Discussion Questions

  1. What sort of place is Andy's Barbecue Restaurant? What details strike you about the narrator's description of the restaurant and the people in it?
  2. How does the narrator know that the young man "lost his arm recently"? Is this important?
  3. What is the difference between the narrator's assertion "I would even exchange places with him if I could" to the sentence that immediately follows it, "I want to exchange places...."?
  4. How did you respond to the narrator's desire to trade places with the young man and to her imagining of what this exchange would be like?
  5. Does her exercise of imagination amount to empathy?
  6. Why does she include the part about her own son, also a young man, a "good boy"?
  7. The poem is in the present tense, even though the narrator reveals at the end that at least two years have gone by since the incident it describes. Would the poem affect you differently if it were told in the past tense?
  8. Why does the narrator conclude by saying that she has "worked on this paragraph for more than two years"?
  9. Do you identify with anyone in this narrative? If so, who and why?
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