Reviews, Vol. 3.2, June 2009
Gallaudet University Press, 2009
ISBN-10: 1-56368-413-6; ISBN-13: 978-1-56368-413-5
Paperback, 280 pp., $35
Review by Cynthia Reeser
Under all speech that is good for anything there lies a silence that is better.
The exciting new anthology of Deaf American poets edited by John Lee Clark, Deaf American Poetry: An Anthology, contributes a poetics that fills a void in contemporary poetry appreciation—that of the verse of culturally Deaf American poets. As the accomplished poet and editor John Lee Clark points out in the Editor’s Note, the culturally Deaf are considered to be those who identify themselves with the Deaf community. “Collectively,” Clark writes, “the poems tell the story of the signing community’s development and how Deaf people struggled against oppressive forces to discover more about themselves and to celebrate who they are.” Indeed, the nearly 300-page volume provides a comprehensive history which is revealed in the biographies of the Deaf poets within. Their accomplishments, as well as the writing that is informed by the adversities they faced and continue to face, are a flagship contribution to American poetry as a whole.
It can be argued that poetry is partially about intent and should transcend its medium—both in the way that it is appreciated and in how it is received and interpreted. Contributing to this idea is the provocative statement by Clark in the book’s introduction, which asserts that, “Breaking the most ground are the Deaf poets who do not write. After all, writing is not native to Deaf culture as is signing. They make poetry out of handfuls of air; their lexicon is cinematic, giving rise to a new poetics.” Clark’s point is underscored by the poets, some of whom are included in this volume, whose writing stems primarily from American Sign Language (ASL). When such work is interpreted, or translated, it is done so and should be read with the understanding that, in this case, the written word is a somewhat inferior incarnation of the original, more expressive version.
Beginning with the poet John R. Burnet (1808-1874) and ending with Alison L. Aubrecht (b. 1979), a history is traversed whose beginnings exhibit a Deaf poetry whose origins “pander to a hearing audience” but whose development over the centuries has been increasingly informed by awareness, pride and the heightened sensibility of Deaf culture as valid and deserving of recognition. While Burnet’s poem “Emma” depicts the Deaf as caged, suffering creatures, the poet James Nack (b. 1809) concluded in a poem written later in his career, “I pity those who think they pity me.” The notion of the hearing that the Deaf are poor souls in need of sympathy is a commonly-addressed theme in Deaf poetry.
Another recurring topic is the idea of musicality. Over any sort of audible music, the importance of the visual is stressed, which is often the source and essence of beauty. James Nack’s poem, from which the quote above is excerpted, is in fact titled, “The Music of Beauty.” Deaf poets, especially those writing within the Romantic period, experienced the discovery of a music that transcended anything that could be heard with the ears. Nack rightfully turns the concept of such music, as interpreted by the hearing, on its head. His poem goes on to illustrate the loveliness contained in the harmony of beauty in the woman he adores. Mary Toles Peet, a contemporary of Nack and Burnet, writes in her “Thoughts on Music,” “the music of my inward ear / Brings joy far more intense.” J. Schuyler Long’s poem, “I Wish That I Could Tell,” illustrates this point clearly:
And I wish that I could tell them
Of the music that I see
In the buds of spring unfolding;
And the moving melody
In the motion all about us,
In the birds and in the flowers
In the happy eyes of children
As they look their love in ours.
Rex Lowman’s poem, “Beethoven,” celebrates a similar idea, as does, notably, “On His Deafness” by Robert F. Panara.
A discussion on political implications is necessarily included as a discourse that surfaces, in some form, in every poet’s biography. The prejudice and oppression of oralism, which discourages the use of signing to encourage speech and lip reading, along with audism, which most often refers to the assumption of superiority by the hearing, detract from the lives of the Deaf and from their culture. Poets run the gamut from angry and embittered to activist-oriented to satisfied and at peace—in other words, just as with the world of the hearing. However, unlike the hearing, many of whom have suffered wounds with tangible scars, the scars of the Deaf are troublingly less visible; Christopher John Heuer writes in his powerful poem, “Visible Scars,” that, unlike a victim of slavery whose received lashes are evidenced by scars and broken skin, he has no visible proof:
I reached for my ears but could not pull them off.
I felt in my ears but nothing was there.
I wished for scars like hers.
I wished to stand up and scream Look!
Look, look, look!
I wanted proof to show her, I wanted
centuries of songs to the Lord.
Poets like Earl Sollenberger and Felix Kowalewski internalized a sense of prejudice, which was increasingly felt in the Deaf community and eventually led to the Deaf Pride movement. Clark notes in the Kowalewski biography that, “If audism acts in the same way racism does, then what W. E. B. Du Bois and James Baldwin say applies: The real danger lies not in the white man hating the black man but in the black man hating himself.” More recently, poets such as Linwood Smith (1943-1982) have made significant contributions to Black Deaf culture, which is continued by contemporary poets such as Abiola Haroun and Kristi Merriweather.
Some of the most powerful, evocative poetry is being written by contemporary poets. Raymond Luczak’s “Learning to Speak, Part I” evokes Allen Ginsberg with his line that refers to signing as “hands howling volumes.” In turn, Pamela Wright-Meinhardt writes in the indignant and inspired “Silent Howl,”
I have seen strong-willed individuals crumble in desperation, flailing in frustration, crying out in a fight against helplessness, and straining against steely chains, clinging to stubbornly optimistic desires against constant oppression and ignorance, and
I have seen denials repeatedly Uncle Tom-ed, the wishfully daring becoming fodder for pinching, parroting crabs retrogressingly destroying courage with silence, but
I have seen a degree of intensity unparalleled and lovely, and explosion of unity and tenacious respect; quick perseverance and worldwide pride; an ironclad embrace on a way of life; a passionate loyalty, unmatched, unequalled, unwavering, and loved.
The later poets in the anthology are especially interesting to examine because they inform current Deaf culture—and the poetics it contributes to—of its future. John Lee Clark, the editor of this volume, is one of those poets. Born in 1978, Clark has been published in The Deaf-Blind American, McSweeney’s, and notably, Poetry, among others. The recipient of numerous grants and poetry awards, he is the editor of an anthology on the Deaf poet Clayton Valli and the author of the poetry collection, Suddenly Slow. A communications director, he also happens to be DeafBlind.
Clark’s remarkable volume proves a vital resource, not only for Deaf poetry, but clearly for American poetry as well. The poets whose verse he includes in the anthology are nearly all connected with Gallaudet University, the University for the Deaf and the publisher of the anthology. Clark’s selection of poets is outstanding not only for the quality of its selections, but for the historical and cultural lineage it circumscribes within its biographies. From formalists to free-verse writers to ASL poets and performers, each selection is evidence, as Clark writes in the Introduction, that “sound is mere medium, not source.”