Book Review

There’s no point in beating about the bush: Deaf American Poetry edited by John Lee Clark and published by Gallaudet University Press, is an important, possibly historic, book. In the opening sentence of the book, Clark asserts “Deaf poetry is no oxymoron.” The anthology itself is what he offers up as proof for this claim. In a very Foucaultian sense, Deaf American Poetry lays out the parameters of the genre. These parameters are not merely chronological and spatial. Literary genres are defined as much by what they excluded as by what they include. In Clark’s words, Deaf poetry is not “poetry by anyone who has a hearing loss; rather, it is drawn from the work of culturally Deaf people who belong to the signing community.”

The layout of the book is deceptively simple. After an initial introduction by the editor, the poems in the book – culled from over three hundred books and periodicals - are arranged in chronological order by the poet’s year of birth, beginning in 1808 and ending in 1979. Each poet's work is accompanied by a biographical introduction that places the writer in his or her particular social context. As a result, the anthology is not merely a collection of writing by Deaf writers, but a history of the development of Deaf poetry as a genre and an overview of the larger history of Deaf culture in the United States for over 175 years.

Unlike many anthologies, Deaf American Poetry deserves to be read cover to cover. The first poet in the volume, John R. Burnett, opens his poem “Emma” (from 1835) with the lines:

The Deaf and Dumb! is there another word
By which more sad emotions can be so stirr’d.

Though not himself the subject of the poem, Burnett is clearly embarrassed by and apologetic to the hearing world for his deafness. His poems pander to pity. The deaf are “scarce human” and “captives suff’d but to gaze afar/ On that bright joyous world they must not share.” By the time the reader reaches the final poet in the book, Alison Aubrecht, the change in tone and attitude is clear even to the casual reader:

those are just some of the smaller lessons,
dear teacher
just some of the lighter bruises
the slighter scars
that I write of today

you put them there
hidden deep where no one could see

you taught me, teacher
to bruise back

The status of a deaf person is no longer seen as an individual problem to be borne in guilt. It is rather, a social construction for which society at large is responsible for perpetuating. It is something taught.

The journey between these two points raises a number of important issues, which are responded to in a variety of ways. The teleological thread that holds these responses together, though, is their contribution to the transition from an auditory to a signing culture, and, indirectly, their relationship to Gaullaudet University. The first seven poets in the anthology had a rather loose association with each other. The eighth writer in the lineup, George Teegarden, whom the editor concedes was a versifier rather than a poet, was the first to graduate from Gaullaudet and as Clark explains it, “That Gallaudet is the mecca of Deaf culture is evidenced by the fact that all of the following poets, with only a few exceptions have either studied or taught at Gaulladet.” This tradition might have started even earlier except that at least one poet, Alice Jennings, being a woman, was denied admission.

As with any explorers in new territory, these first pioneer deaf poets scarcely formed a unity; however, taken as a whole, they dealt with themes that reoccur throughout the book. Such topics as the dislike of pity (as in James Nack’s line, “I pity those who think they pity me”), the perception of music, feelings of alienation, and affinity with other groups on societies fringes are among the concerns of these early writers. While some of the issues may seem dated to the twenty-first century reader, they had great import at the time. One of the most interesting positions that deaf writers prior to the twentieth century felt compelled to defend was that signing people could actually pray. Jennings takes up this challenge in “A Prayer in Signs”:

But dare ye tell us that we do not pray –
   We who so truly “lift up hands in prayer,”
And by the speaking gesture mark the way,
   Our heart’s desire would take to reach him there,

As Jennings’ poem makes aware, signing was already a topic that was beginning to be introduced into poetry by deaf writers. It was not until nine writers beyond Jennings in Deaf American Poetry that we come to the first poet to devote most of his writing to Deaf issues. The poet was Loy E. Golladay. As Clark puts it, Golladay’s work “marks a significant turning point in Deaf American poetry.” Golladay was the first Deaf poet to try writing in ASL style, a style of written poetry that attempts to use the syntactic structure of American Sign Language. His “On Seeing a Poem Recited in Sign Language”, though written in conventional poetic form, is a strong argument for ASL poetry as a legitimate literary genre.

We watched the far off vision in your eyes,
Your lovely hands make paraphrase in air
Of shape and shade no artist can surprise
In paint or sculpture…

Golladay re-iterates this in even more developed fashion in “Silent Homage.”

The winged words fly from your fluttering hands;
And each who dwells in silence understands
How dawn, the rosy-fingered, burns the dark
From shadow worlds wherein the teeming brain
Lay, like a captive, in a dungeon cell.

This is quite a remarkable poem in its use of poetic convention to argue for a non-conventional form of poetry. Not only do the cleft alliterations of the first two lines invoke the caesura’s of Anglo-Saxon poetry, with their attendant associations of the sceop as story teller, but the allusions to “rosy-fingered” dawn pull us squarely back to the bardic-based tradition of Homer, specifically to the Odyssey. Just as Hermes, the winged messenger god, was sent to free Odysseus from the cave where he was being held captive by Calypso, the fingers of the signer and the ASL poet free poetry from the mind of the Deaf poet where it is being held captive by a tradition that insists on written text. Golladay’s references leap-frog back over the long English tradition of poetry as printed and private to cultures where it was a public translation, albeit an oral one. The ability to tie culturally disruptive emerging genres into the conventions of dominant ones is always a potential means of validation, and Golladay accomplishes it very successfully in these lines.

Golladay makes one other move that is important for Deaf poetry. Disability theorist David Mitchell contends that in order for a new genre – in Mitchell’s case Disability Literature – to be cohesive, it must be self-referential. In other words, writers within that genre must refer to and play off of each other’s work. This is what Golladay does in “Surely the Phoenix”. The poem is addressed to Golladay’s friend and fellow poet Felix Kowalewski. Kowalewski had written in “I Will Take My Dreams”:

I will seize my dreams on the top of the highest mountain;
And then, in despair, I will fling them down!
And I will see them fall, to burst in a thousand fragments…
I will lay me down at the edge of the abyss.
I will dream no more; and dreamless I shall die.

Golladay begins his own poem with an apostrophe to Kowalewski:

You who have hurled your dreams from the highest mountain;
You who have lain down dreamless to die.

He then goes on to rebut his friend’s position. More important for the discourse of Deaf poetry than Golladay’s actual position is the engagement in his work, of the work of other Deaf culture poets. In his appeal to Homer, on the one hand, and Kowalewski, on the other, he works both from inside and outside to legitimate the genre.

After Golladay and the movements of the sixties and early seventies, Deaf poetry in the United States began to blossom. The increasing awareness that ASL poetry was a genuine art form had a reciprocal effect upon written poetry about Deaf culture and concerns. Robert Panara put quotations marks around idioms in his written poetry that would have to be finger spelled if performed in ASL. Dorothy Miles, realizing that most signed poems were translated versions of a poem written to be read in print, began working on poems with both ASL and print in mind from their conception. Prior to Miles most written poetry from the Deaf community continued to follow traditional rhyme schemes and forms. With the work of Miles and Curtis Robbins, poets began discarding those forms in favor of free verse and more open poetry.

With the twenty-third poet in the anthology, Clayton Valli, Deaf American Poetry presents the first poet who composed totally in ASL. According to editor John Lee Clark, who also edited Clayton: At Tribute to Clayton Valli, Valli did not want to have his poetry translated into print. He felt that the beauty of his work be lost in translation. It was not until poet Raymond Luczak, working closely with Valli on a translation of his popular poem “Dandelions”, gained Valli’s approval and that his work became available to those who did not know ASL. Valli did much to work out a poetics of ASL and, through various media, to spread ASL poetry worldwide.

The works of E. Lynn Jacobowitz, Willy Conley and Peter Cook that follow Valli’s give further proof to the growing influence of ASL poetry on written poetry and also open something of a window to the reader who is not literate in ASL of the structure of ASL poetry. The work of these poets together with the Flying Words Project of Cook and Kenny Lerner make for some interesting reading and demonstrate some of the radical contributions of ASL poetry to poetry in general.

With the deserved exceptions of Loy Golladay and Curtis Robbins, most of the poets in Deaf American Poetry are not represented by large selections of their work. Beginning with Raymond Luczak, however, this situation changes for the last few poets in the book. This implies no criticism of Clark’s selection process. What it means, rather, is that Deaf American poetry has finally arrived at a point where the quality of writing deserves a larger representation. Literary theorist Robert Scholes has said that when a new genre appears, it is slow to be accepted and can sometimes be a little rough around the edges. Most slave narratives, historically valuable as the may be, cannot compare in literary quality to the work of Toni Morrison. Clark, of course, recognizes this. John Burnet’s work is no match for that of Luczak, Christopher John Heuer, Alison Aubrecht or Clark, himself, all of whom are represented by a larger selection of poems. One of the services that an anthology such as Deaf American Poetry can perform is to give a sampling of a writer’s work and then point readers in directions where they can pursue that writer’s work at greater length. The bibliography at the end of the book does provide some information for locating more work by Golladay, Luczak, Heur, and Clark. When work is published only in magazines or anthologies, however, this makes locating their work a bit more difficult. We are given a list of anthologies in which Robbins’ work appears, but as for Aubrecht we are only told that her work “appears widely.”

One of the interesting issues facing Deaf poetry, paralleling an issue that once faced American poetry generally, is how to incorporate signs representing the African American vernacular. As poet Kristi Merriweather points out, it makes no more sense to suppose that ASL represents the language of all Deaf than it does to assume that middle class feminists represent all women.

People tell me
what they think
they know
what a black deaf female is
People tell me
they know the deal
behind all deals
just a simple solution
mix in deaf culture,
add an equal amount of
black culture,
stir until smooth,
pronto, the black deaf culture,
I say
excuse my standard English, but
________ you

As mentioned above in the discussion of Golladay’s work, one means of making a new genre acceptable to mainstream literature is to build up associations between the two literatures. In addition to “Silent Homage”, there are several instances in Deaf American Poetry where poets do this. The first is Robert Panara’s “On His Deafness,” which resonates strongly with Milton’s “Sonnet XVI,” generally published as “On His Blindness”. Like Milton, Panara uses sonnet form. Though Milton finds resolution in God’s plan, while Panara finds understanding in the workings of “Fancy,” unstated reference connects the two.

A second instance of literary genealogy-building is Pamela Wright-Meinhardt’s “Silent Howl.” Anyone who does not make the association with Ginsberg’s “Howl” upon seeing the title will surely pick it up with the first line, “I have seen the best souls of my world sodomized by a scheming uniform system and left to struggle, vegetating, for a breath of life.” Interestingly (and despite the fact that she verbally bashes religion), Wright-Meinhardt substitutes “souls” for Ginsberg’s “minds”, but the poem follows the same sprawling litany structure that Ginsburg did, a form that Ginsburg appropriated from Whitman. In making use of this form herself, the poet is able to at once embrace two contradictory impulses: the connection with literary tradition and the recollection of the cultural context of a poem that ranted against material and cultural imperialism.

A rather different cultural reference but one that may resonate even more with the average reader is Katrina Miller and Damara Paris’ “How the Audist Stole ASL”, a parody of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Of course, the object of the poets’ satire is not Dr. Seuss but those who oppose ASL and insist upon oral training for the Deaf. Even the non-literary reader is likely to be seduced by the first lines:

Every Deafie
Liked ASL a lot

But the Audist
Who lived North of Gallaudet
Most certainly did NOT!

By the time a reader finishes the final poem, Deaf American Poetry has certainly made its case that Deaf poetry deserves a place in American literature, and the reader would do well to go back and reread Clark’s initial comments in his “Introduction.” The introduction focuses heavily on defending the validity of Deaf poetry, and this is understandable. One can certainly picture cultural gatekeepers like Harold Bloom or Ed Hirsch trying to exclude Deaf poetry from the poetic community. That having been said, however, Clark may expend a bit too much energy rebutting statements by poet Edward Hirsch about the auditory nature of poetry. Perhaps such a defense would have been necessary in the Victorian age, but it seems rather unnecessary in the twenty-first century. A poetic that insisted on the primacy of sound would eliminate the best known work of George Herbert and much of the work of the imagists – a rather indefensible position. Moreover, just as Clark has made room in his book for a variety of poetry, the genre of poetry itself is surely broad enough to encompass sound-based, sight-based and ASL forms.

With Deaf American Poetry, John Lee Clark seems to have caught a wave that is about to crest. Though a long time in coming – perhaps it could not have been written prior to the 21st century – it is has appeared at just the right time. Fortunately for the development of the genre, Gaulladet University Press is a natural conduit for the publication and dissemination of these works. It is fortunate for Clark that he has such a willing and able partner in getting his anthology out to the American public, and fortunate for Gaulladet that they have a talented editor and poet like Clark to do it. It is difficult to imagine a college or university that would want to be without this volume, or any school or town library that prides itself on diversity not making room for this book on its shelves. No doubt it is naïve to hope so, but perhaps if a publisher with the pull of Gaulladet University is able to get Deaf American Poetry onto the bookshelves of major book stores, we may see a time when the work of Deaf poets like Luczak and Golladay or disabilities poets like Jim Ferris and Sheila Black appear where it belongs, side by side with mainstream poets on the poetry shelves of book stores.