Born and raised in the New York City area, Joel Ross served for 21 years in the CIA, earning the State Department Superior Honor Award, National Intelligence Meritorious Award, Studies in Intelligence Award, and the five-time bestowment of the CIA Exceptional Performance Award. Also holding an MA in English Literature from San Francisco State University, he has taught high school English in California and Australia, as well as college writing courses. His recently published book, Phases of the Moon, recounts some of his incredible tales about surviving a terrorist massacre in the Middle East and climbing Mt. Sinai with Greek monks, among many others. Here — in his characteristically dry and witty, yet sensitive, style — he provides insight into his poem “Face Contention.”
“Through my personal experience raising three boys with autism, I believe this poem has effectively captured an interpretation of the world through their eyes and senses. My eldest son, who has Asperger’s syndrome, expressed that it describes how he often feels and sees the world.
-Judith Birch Watts
by Joel Ross
They tell me there was a face
I saw no face
They tell me there was an emotion hanging in the air above me
Perhaps like a wisp of cloud
I saw no emotion
I did see a doorknob
It was shiny and reflected light like a thousand suns that are needles
I think I hear a sound
But maybe I do not
It is no matter
Why do they want me in their world?
It is enough to contend with my own
Why must I struggle in theirs as well
I think I hear a sound.
It smells like those flowers by the pond
Where animals glide by
Unhindered by questions
Is there a face hovering above me that I do not see?
Is there an emotion singing like those bells that twinkle like stars in that sky they call night?
I know I hear a sound
Joel Talks About His Poem…
“I work with a number of adults who exhibit various degrees of Asperger’s syndrome,” says Joel. “brilliant people, good people.” However, the difficulties they face when they interact with others, particularly those who do not know them well, can result in some uncomfortable situations, as well as some humorous ones.
A couple of young, slightly inebriated women approached the two middle-aged men…
“Once when I was with two of these colleagues at a bar, instead of drinking beer and discussing politics or sports with the rest of us, they had pulled out a laptop and were reviewing their latest project, which consisted of advanced charts and diagrams of foreign language analysis. A couple of young, slightly inebriated women approached the two middle-aged men and said to them flirtatiously: ‘Wow, are you guys smart or something?’ Without hesitation, one of my friends looked up from his work and responded, ‘Yes, we are incredibly smart.’ After a brief, awkward, silent pause, the two women slinked away. With the question honestly answered, the two men returned to their work.
“I also have a few friends who are parents of children with autism. It is a wonder to me how patient my friends are, and it’s equally discouraging to see how much stress they have to endure — not just from their children, but from school authorities and others who do not understand the ramifications of autism or how to deal effectively with the issue.
“I wrote this poem in an attempt to capture the view from the autistic child, who is often caught in a confusing world of sensory information and pressure from others to conform to his or her own interpretation of that world. I showed it to a friend who has three sons with autism, and she shared it with one of the boys; he responded with two thumbs up. When she asked him for more details, he’d already lost interest and left the room. But his two thumbs were more than enough for me.”