PINK GYMNASTIC TONGUES: NON-DISABLED WRITERS WRITING ABOUT DISABILITY
"Wannabe DeafBlind." That's what a friend of mine calls me half-jokingly. I'm hearing and sighted, but through a series of unheard-of and unlooked-for and unquestionably blessed circumstances, I learned to read Braille tactilely and to sign fluently in my early twenties, and for the rest of my life I have spent most of my waking (and sleeping) hours with people who are either Deaf or blind or DeafBlind. Which is probably why I sometimes write about them.
There is a long unhappy tradition of able-bodied poets and writers writing about disabled people in ways that exploit, oppress, idealize, allegorize or otherwise misrepresent them. Needless to say, I do not wish to contribute to that tradition. And yet it's important to recognize that I am not immune from doing so. None of us is. But in this essay I would like to take a look at the work of a few hearing/sighted/able-bodied poets and writers who have arguably avoided that trap, eschewed the tendency to stereotype or misappropriate, and have written about disability in ways that I find interesting or fresh or beautiful or poignant, and to examine just how they did it.
But before I do that, I need to confess something to you: I am, I suppose you could say, somewhat enamoured of the, well, perhaps the word is trappings of disability. And what is one to make of a non-disabled person who exults in the trappings of disability? For example, I wear a braille watch. I keep braille magazines in the car and in my backpack and on the nightstand. I have a white cane in the closet that belonged to a DeafBlind friend of mine, now deceased–I don't use the cane, but I sometimes like to take it out and hold it in my hand, tap or sweep the floor with it, then put it back in the closet. And how weird is that? I have a Helen Keller memorial quarter, and a braille medallion hanging on my keychain that says "Read For Fun.". Also, I inherited the wheelchair that my late Aunt Hannah used after her amputation and I sometimes like to sit in it while watching TV, or roll around in it through the house. And what about ASL, come to think of it, and all the hearing people like me who have learned it "as an elective?" By some accounts, there are more hearing people who know sign language now than Deaf people. And isn't there something a little distasteful, even suspect, about us hearing folks learning (appropriating?) the language of Deaf people and, some of us, making very comfortable salaries as interpreters for the Deaf while the Deaf and DeafBlind folks we're interpreting for–many of them–most of them–are unemployed or underemployed and struggling to get by?
The point being: much as I like to think that my own writing–as well as my work and relationships with disabled people–comes from this pure place of love, alliance, curiosity, fellowship… still, I sometimes can't help second-guessing myself all these years later. I'm honestly not sure what my motives were back at the beginning, or even, sometimes, what they are today. Maybe that's the subject for another essay, another poem, which may or may not ever get written. But I needed to put it out there, here at the beginning. So really, the only claim I'm making is that the work which follows pleases me. I like it. Simple as that. And I hope you will like it, too, and go on to read more works by these authors. But a few readers may find some of the work presented here (and/or me) objectionable, or suspect, or exploitive in certain subtle or not-so-subtle ways that I'm not seeing. I don't know. I only know what I like, and much of the time I don't even rightly know why. But I'll take a stab at explaining why I've chosen these particular poems and excerpts from prose works to share with you, and what it is about them that strikes me as being successful.
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This first poem, by Ellen Bryant Voigt, is actually part of a longer sequence called "Variations: Two Trees." The excerpted section below is perhaps the single most poignant evocation I have ever read of the long sad history of oral education that has been foisted on deaf children worldwide for centuries. It totally blew me away the first time I read it years ago, and it continues to do so, both for its remarkable compression, and also for the power of its imagery and metaphor:
When the deaf child came to school they tied his hands.
I don't know if Voigt has any connection to Deaf people, but I knew I wanted to include this poem here because the memory of it has stayed with me ever since first reading it years ago. But I didn't have a copy of it on hand and I couldn't remember the title. What I did remember was those "pink gymnastic tongues," so I googled "Ellen Bryant Voigt pink gymnastic tongues" and the poem came up. I thought that was pretty cool. But anyway, I think these lines distill beautifully and in such a compressed way what so many Deaf adults, who are of a certain age or older, have expressed about their school experience and frustrations in the classroom where sign language was forbidden (a punishable offense) and the emphasis was on speech, often to the exclusion of all other subjects. And of course those last three words in the poem, "perhaps a weapon," are brilliant for the way they hint at the anger that so many Deaf people still carry around inside of them because of the (let's call it what it is!) crime that passed for Deaf Education for so many years.
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Now here's a poem by Frank Gallimore that treats of a similar subject in a no less powerful, lyrical way, but from a different angle:
Frank is a CODA (Child Of Deaf Adults), an interpreter, a poet, an artist, and I think he told me once that he had studied with Ellen Bryant Voigt (see above), though he said he'd never seen those "pink gymnastic tongues" until I sent him her poem. Anyway, Frank's poem is interesting on many levels. It's not uncommon for CODAs to be subjected to speech therapy too, when they're young, if sign language is the language used at home and they're not getting much exposure to spoken language. But autobiography aside, there's so much to talk about here: I love how these twenty lines, beginning and ending with a question, are somehow able to bring it all together: deaf children, deaf parents, hearing children of deaf parents, and all of their combined voices, along with the voice of the speech therapist, the "pathologist," and the "cumbersome repetitions," the "metronome's tut-tut," (marvelous conceit for the general disapproval of all things Deaf), "the tune he sang that changed nothing," and the deaf kids stomping on the floor to get each other's attention (comme d'habitude in Deaf culture) and hooting each other's names. And then there are the names of the phonemes: aspirates, plosives, liquids, solids. And the word "ukulele" itself, the exotic sound of it, how it comprises all those different vowel sounds, the foreignness of it, but also the absurdity of it: the speech pathologist in walrus mustache and Bermuda shirt playing his ukulele, and disapproving.
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And here is a poem by Barbara Crooker from her chapbook Ordinary Life, which contains several poems about her autistic son, David. Unlike some of the other poems in her collection, this poem does not mention him or his disability by name:
Some readers may wince at the image of the stone, the vehicle here for the extended metaphor in this poem, thinking perhaps it's saying that having a disabled child is a burden. But I don't think it's saying that. It IS saying the stone is heavy, difficult, but it's saying so much more than that. Those pressed flowers in the dictionary, for example, are a remarkable image, how the weight of the stone has made those who love the stone beautiful, transparent, saving them, keeping them through time. And keeping them in the dictionary, of all books, which of course is where the family lives, but where the stone cannot live, because it does not talk, it can only "sing songs in its own strange language, syllables of schist…" Schist is an interesting word (I had to look it up in the dictionary myself), a one-syllable lump of many consonants surrounding a single vowel, as in the word "strengths." But in "schist" the vowel is "i", like the first person I of the stone in the center of the family cluster. I'm not saying the poet intended that connotation, but I'll bet you anything she delighted in the choice of that word "schist" (a minimal pair with "schism") and sensed the possibilities there, the many layers in that layered stone.
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Next I'd like to share an excerpt from the novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. I loved this book, which is in the voice of a boy named Christopher, whom we come to realize, after a few pages, is an exceptionally intelligent and gifted boy with some sort of developmental disability that I don't think is ever actually named in the book. In the author's bio at the end of the book, though, it says that "as a young man, Mark Haddon worked with autistic individuals." The novel is in Christopher's voice because, as he tells us, he is the one who is writing this book. The following excerpt is from chapter 29, which is actually the 8th chapter, but because Christopher has chosen to number his chapters using only the prime numbers–because he likes the prime numbers and can recite them for you in order all the way up to 7,057–the eighth chapter is chapter 29:
29. I find people confusing.
This gives you a sense of Christopher's way of thinking about people and things, and also a taste of his voluble cogitations and calculations throughout the book, which are often so different from how we see things and yet, marvelously, are made perfectly understandable to us through his honest, delightfully ingenuous telling. I had heard that autistic children often have no comprehension of body language or facial expression, and that they may also struggle to understand figurative language, but I'd never heard it explained the way Christopher explains it. Bleakly funny, heartbreaking, and very smart, this book will not only make you laugh out loud and break your heart, it will solve a murder mystery in the process, as well as some very difficult problems in advanced algebra.
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Here is a poem by Mark Halliday, a whacky, funny, ultra-talkie poet whose work I love both for its accessibility and its refreshing and alarming honesty. Though the poem's opening lines mention illness specifically, it could just as easily be talking about disability in general:
What I love about this poem is the mix of humor, desperation, and fear, really this kinetic fear running throughout, reporting, denying, reassuring, stumbling over itself in the telling of it and trying to talk itself out of itself. Of course we're all familiar with the "us versus them" mentality, that fear-infused way of thinking about disability, or any sort of difference really, and also the oft-repeated assertion that the able-bodied are only temporarily so. But in this poem I can hear my own unconscious bias and rationalizing, and I can't help laughing at it. But I also can't help recognizing it, copping to it, facing and entering it.
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This next poem, which is by Claudia Emerson, is not about disability per se, but I'm including it here because it's a white writer writing about race in a way that I think is so subtle and powerful, so compressed and effective that it makes me want to emulate it in my own writing:
Elevator Operator, Danville, Virginia, 1964
There must be a name for this device–I don't know what it is–of naming a thing by not naming it; by naming its opposite. We know she's black only because we are told that the passengers are "all white." It's the only reference to race in the poem, and it's brilliant for its understatedness. We often struggle, I think, with how and when to identify a certain disability in our writing, whether it's the disability of the writer herself or some other person or character in the poem or story. That "all white" image, obviously from the point of view of the black elevator operator–because white people do not think of themselves as being white except in relation to those who are not white (just as hearing people and sighted people do not think of themselves as "hearing" and "sighted" and often don't even know the words) is startlingly effective in its simplicity. And there are other things here that remind me of disability. For example, the lines "only children saw her until/ most learned not to…" is a poignant commentary on the innocence and openness of children to any sort of difference in the world, until they are taught to look away from what they were once genuinely curious about. And those "unseen steel/ cables controlling all of them in endless,/ storied looping" is a metaphor for the invisible power and control that society has over us, boxing us in, pigeonholing us with its obstinate status quo and intransigent myths. Finally, at the end of the poem, we have that dial above the elevator door, that "eclipsed compass" and its needle
sweeping east to west to east by the northern
I have to say, when I read that final couplet for the first time, it comprised for me all six hundred pages of Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, which I had just finished reading a few days before encountering this poem.
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This next piece is excerpted from T.C. Boyle's novel Talk Talk, which is a smart, fast-paced, exuberant, suspenseful and often humorous tale about identity theft, among other things. The protagonist, Dana Halter, as it happens, is Deaf. Iverson is the interpreter who shows up after Dana has been arrested for crimes that were committed in her name by the hacker who has stolen her identity:
Iverson took his time. His signing was rigid and inelegant but comprehensible
for all that, and she focused her whole being on him as he explained the charges
against her. There are multiple outstanding warrants, he began, in Marin County,
Tulare and L.A. Counties–and out of state too, in Nevada. Reno and Stateline.
Okay, so I really liked this book; it was the first novel I'd read by T.C. Boyle, and I liked it so much that I went on to read most of his other twenty-some-odd novels and collected short stories. I feel I ought to say at this point that my friend John Lee Clark (who has published in these pages) hated this book. I think the way he put it was something like, "it's just another story by a hearing guy about a hearing guy falling in love with a deaf girl." True, Dana's boyfriend Bridger is hearing. I seem to remember John objecting to the name Bridger, too, as if there were some sort of hokey symbolism intended there. I don't think there was. But I'm biased, I admit it, and maybe blind to the many choices here which John found so annoying. He did confess, however, to not having actually finished the book; he gave up on it after a few chapters, I think. That's fine, I usually give a book 50 pages and if it hasn't won me over by then, I tend to give up, too. But I think there's much to like here and I make no apologies for liking it. Take the interpreter, Iverson, with his "rigid and inelegant signing." Elsewhere in the chapter, Boyle describes the same interpreter as "juggling his hands." It's only we nterpreters who "juggle our hands," our faces full of constipated concentration as if keeping it all in the air requires a colossal act of single-mindedness, holding our breath for fear it will all come crashing down. Deaf people don't juggle their hands; they make signing look effortless, and they make it effortless to watch their signing. And they sometimes comment that watching an interpreter requires a lot of effort on their part to "translate" in their own heads what the interpreter is signing, i.e., the interpretation requires interpreting. Boyle gets at this, I think, in his depiction of Iverson, and he also gets at the undisguised judgmentalism and downright contempt that many hearing "professionals" who work in the field of "deafness" exhibit in their interactions with Deaf people.
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In this next excerpt from Joanne Greenberg's In This Sign, we have a similar scene–a Deaf person caught up in the criminal justice system and a judgmental interpreter hired by that system to translate:
A man in a heavy coat came around the corner and toward them. Abel began
to raise his hand just a little for Janice, to tell her that this was his boss, Mr. Webendorf.
There was another man with him–a thin man, very clean and dressed tightly,
a stranger–but before Abel could get up and give his greetings, Mr. Webendorf
nodded and went away into the courtroom and the stranger was left standing in front
Is there a touch of sentimentality or wistful imagining here? Perhaps. The book was written fifty years ago; I first read it in the early ‘80s, shortly after taking my first sign language class. But its depiction of the interpreter's demeanor and signing, again, rings true: "…quick, educated, a little ugly with impatience." And that bit about the light in the last paragraph is more than just a superfluous poignancy or poetic flourish. Light is important in this book, as it obviously is for Deaf people, and Abel, in a later chapter, wonders aloud if light makes a sound:
Once he had asked her about the light… he had asked her if the sunlight made a sound. Wind did; that you couldn't see. Did sun? Did it hit the nailheads of the floor with a sound and warm over the bricks of the building next door with some other, gentler sound?… I hear things in my head, things I think must be sounds. I always thought I heard that sound, the sun on things, on different things. And there's nothing, none at all?
This, too, rings true for me, as I have had conversations with Deaf people about the things that make sound and the things that don't, as well as the things that I can hear versus the things that I can't. Sometimes my Deaf friends were surprised to learn which was which. And sometimes I was surprised to learn what their assumptions had been. This is not to say that Deaf people spend a lot of time discussing sound or the vagaries of hearing–they don't–but this phenomenon is something I recognize and have wondered about myself, and have laughed about with Deaf people, and I think Greenberg captures it nicely here. Twenty years later, she wrote another book, Of Such Small Differences, which is told from the point of view of a DeafBlind man. I remember meeting Greenberg at a convention of the American Association of the DeafBlind, which she was attending while doing research for the book. I read it when it came out, and while I don't really remember it all that well, I do recall objecting to certain things that struck me at the time as being inaccurate or far-fetched, based on my experiences with DeafBlind people. Nevertheless, parts of it were interesting, as I recall, and I think it was, if nothing else, an ambitious feat of imagination on her part.
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We are nearing the end of this little essay, which is turning out to be much longer than I had intended. I have two more poems to share with you. I must say, I thought long and hard (no pun intended) about whether or not to include this next poem, "Erections" by Erin Belieu. I also thought long and hard about how to introduce it, what to say about it before sharing it with you, and what to say about it, if anything, after you've read it. The poem, which I love (and which Belieu says was inspired by an equally sexual and quite beautiful poem by Stephen Dunn, "The Routine Things Around the House"), actually has nothing to do with disability. It does, however, contain a single very memorable metaphor, about three-quarters of the way down the poem, that has stayed with me for twenty years, ever since I first read the poem in 1996. I'm sure you'll notice it when you get there. Let's leave it at that for now, and pick up our discussion on the other side of the poem:
Come on, admit it, a good erection, the way it "squares off with the weight/ of gravity, single-minded,/ exposed as the blind/ in traffic" is a very memorable image. Now some people may be offended by it. In fact, I'm quite sure that some people ARE offended by it. Whether those people are blind or sighted, I'm not so sure. Belieu herself states:
It is interesting to me that of all the poems in my book, "Erections" is by far the one that elicits the most comment. I don't think I understood exactly how flamboyant the subject matter would prove to be. Recently, I was asked to not read the poem at a local, big chain bookstore reading (no names, please. But I think you might guess anyway…). I was told that the subject matter might upset the many ‘children and blue-collar workers' who frequent the shop. The moral I take from this is also apparent--support your local independent bookstores.
Whether or not you find it offensive, and whether or not it has anything to do with the lives of blind people, you have to admit that, visually, that particular simile is really stunning. In fact, I would go so far as to say (apropos of the poem's title, I would like to drop an f-bomb here) it's fucking brilliant.
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And finally, rereading these pages, I can't help thinking of my college professor Mr. Rodewald, from whom I never earned higher than a C+ on any of the papers I wrote for him in my English lit classes. He wrote, in one of his comments on my papers, that my writing was belletristic. A word I did not know and thus had to look up. So don't feel bad if you have to look it up, too. Here, I'll save you the trouble: it basically means flowery, lots of fluff, lightweight, short on substance and scope. Yes, Mr. Rodewald, I'm afraid it's true. And I'm sure you would also say it's bad form to include one of my own poems here at the end of my little belletristic essay, slipping it in now without any sort of explanation or qualification or caveat or preamble. But that's exactly what I'm going to do:
The Long Poem