How to Communicate

John Lee Clark
W. W. Norton & Company ($29.95)

by Stephanie Burt                          

If you’re a poet—and if you work hard and make attentive, patient discoveries—you can expand the range of what a poem can do by finding new forms, new sets of moves that your language can make. If you’ve had unusual experience—lived an unusual, lucky, or difficult life, say—you can expand the range of what a poem can show and say by building that experience into your poems. If there’s a group of people like you whose experience isn’t represented in poems—or if it’s not represented often, or particularly well—you can do important political work by representing it. And if you’ve got access to an unusual conjunction of languages, ways to use words and to make yourself understood—say, Thai and Croatian, or Spanish, Catalan, and Cantonese, or the special talk of the Parisian underworld—you might be able to expand the range of what poems can do by translating, adapting, or making truly new work in a target language using what you learned from your source.

John Lee Clark is all four kinds of poet at once. This first book of Clark’s own poems (he edited the anthology Deaf American Poetry, published by Gallaudet University Press in 2009) does not just reflect (whatever that means) his experience as a DeafBlind creator, moving in Deaf and DeafBlind cultures as well as in other literary circles. It also shows new forms, new ways to use English, as in Clark’s slateku, dependent on puns generated by the two-sided slate used in pre-electronic Braille. Clark’s work imports into English new kinds of intimacy, sarcasm, and communal defense, from American Sign Language and from the less common language Protactile, used (as the name implies) by DeafBlind people who communicate via touch.

These kinds of translation reflect Clark’s life in between languages. He considers how to frame his tactile, translated, uncommonly embodied and uncommonly mediated day-to-day so that people like me (nondisabled, non-Deaf) can dive in.  And I want to dive in. He’s writing at once for people like me and to bolster like-minded figures, and he’s funny, angry, inviting, tender, genuine: “I have been filmed and photographed for free,” he writes in a prose poem with pointers to John Clare. “It costs so much to smile…. I would that I were a dragonfly curled up between your finger and your thumb.”

That’s a Clark original. Here’s a sample translation, from the Protactile of Oscar Chacon: “At the base of your forearm, the lumberjack is surprised. Still standing! What’s going on? Rubbing chin.” And here are lines sliced from an elegy in monostichs for the DeafBlind creator Nicholas Saunderson (1682-1739): “He made a calculating machine with strings and pins and called it Palpable Arithmetic…. Go on feel what it says.” This caustically titled volume also covers the near-dissolution of a marriage, Clark’s life as a son and a father, and his early education—it’s got range. It’s got centuries of history. It’s got portraits, too: the teacher “Mrs. Schultz,” for example, who tried and failed to understand “the Clark boy,” and “The Politician,” whose signed faux pas puts John F. Kennedy’s famous jelly-doughnut remark in the shade (I won’t spoil the joke: read the book).

Is it okay to say, of a DeafBlind writer, that his work sounds like nothing else? Because, to this hearing reader, it’s true. Clark hasn’t just put his life into verse and prose poems; he’s felt and manipulated and explored and expanded what poetry in English—in print, to the ear, on the fingertip—can do. He’s got puns, euphonies, wordplays, cleverly arranged syllabics, as in those slateku: “Hollywood / Smoothly wraps / Hollywood / Soothingly warps.” And he’s also funny, sometimes exhausted, and more often exasperated in a way that you might recognize if anyone has ever called you “brave” for attempting to live your daily life: “Let go of my arm. I will not wait / until I’m the last person on the plane.” Or: “Can’t I pick my nose / without it being a miracle?”

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