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Deaf American Poetry
edited by John Lee Clark
Gallaudet University Press ($35)
by John Jacob
In Deaf American Poetry, John Lee Clark has assembled a fascinating mix of poets who share little in common beyond the fact that they are deaf. Included is Clark's well-written introduction, which was first published in Poetry, and an Editor's Note that describes his unique project: "this book is not an anthology by just anyone who has a hearing loss; rather, it is drawn from the work of culturally Deaf people who belong to the signing community.” This distinction is important, since it means that even the earliest poets featured here have had the ability to communicate with others who know the signs and symbols of ASL.
The introduction notes that "Deaf poets are often objects of amazement or dismissal, their work rarely judged for its merits beyond the content of their deafness"; indeed, few of the poets included in this anthology have strong publication credits until we encounter poets born after 1950, many of whom have degrees from teaching programs or creative writing workshops. Clark also quotes John Keats and his reference to unheard melodies, which are "sweeter," and concludes with the idea that "the little publicity that Deaf poets received continued to be more about the idea of the Deaf poet than the poetry at hand.”
Significantly, more than half of the thirty-seven contributors are women, and also included are African American poets who utilize elements of Ebonics to express themselves. The anthology begins with John R. Burnet, whose poem "Emma" (1920) is well known in the deaf community. It reads as a sort of Hiawatha to the deaf population, utilizing rhyming couplets and blank verse, as do most of the early poems in the volume. These poems do not deviate significantly from other American poetry except that their subjects most often are deaf people or others who would understand the deaf experience.
George M. Teegarden, who lived from 1852-1936, is the first poet represented to have graduated from Gallaudet University, the deaf-friendly school that funded the publication of the book. While Teegarden’s poetry is not exceptional, his contemporary J. Schuyler Long contributes the first poem that explores what tinnitus feels like, trying to involve readers not of the deaf community. “And I wish that I could tell them / Of the most delightful things / That I hear and see in silence.”
Some of the poets are also mute or semi-mute, as is Agatha Hanson, who discusses in her inclusion the “weaker tide of sound” that deaf poets experience. Howard L. Terry proposes that deaf people have heightened senses of touch and especially sight because of their deafness—an interesting position that many who are blind would agree with. His short poem “On My Deafness” concludes: “truth is in silence found.” Alice Jane McVan discusses the oppression that deaf people have experienced, and she is the first poet included to have made much use of free verse.
Felix Kowalewski is one of the few poets who treat negativity in their work, and Clark speculates that “his fixation on deafness as the cause of his sorrow and despair may have masked the true cause of his depression.” Regardless, his poetry is included because of his poem “Heart of Silence,” a word painting in which the narrator identifies himself with Victor Hugo's Quasimodo. The poem is beautiful: “A scurrying cloud / Obscures the sun for a moment—the edges are silver. / It passes on and the radiant orb / Bursts forth once more in an exultant splendor / Of sheer white light.”
Loy E. Golladay is one of several poets to write free verse about humorous or light subjects, and he is known as the first poet to be associated with the Deaf Pride movement. Robert F. Panara’s poetry takes up the cause, as in “On His Deafness,” which ends: “The raindrop’s pitter-patter on the eaves, / The lover’s sigh, the thrumming of guitar, / And, if I choose, the rustle of a star!” The Deaf Pride movement reached its peak in 1988 when students at Gallaudet protested the university’s decision to hire a hearing woman as president, a decision that was later rescinded. Curtis Robbins explains it in his poem “The Rally That Stood the World Still,” an interesting mix of politics and pride.
Other poets deal with issues of consequence, such as the simple act of having gone to school with hearing folk as opposed to other deaf students—a major theme for Raymond Luczak, who writes of the anxiety of fingerspelling in poems such as “Hummingbirds”:
My fingers were only
hummingbirds in a small cage
I sat up and freed
my deaf voice, my hearing hands
They fluttered under my chin,
in front of my chest, everywhere
Kristi Merriweather, who was born in 1971, writes in Ebonics, and Pamela Wright-Meinhardt, also born that year, writes a long pun on Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.”
Finally, the editor is included with a poem that could easily stand among the best for its excellence of expression: “My understanding has some weight, / so my feet will soon glissade / down to earth, to rest again / close to my hands / cuddling small wonders." This poem, like many others in this unique collection, should demonstrate once and for all that “disabled” poets have a place in American literary culture.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010