Reviewed by Karen Christie
What Meets the Eye? is an anthology of primarily poetry by contemporary Deaf and Hard of Hearing writers living in the United Kingdom (UK). Collected are a bit more than 50 titles by almost as many writers.
The preface is by Deaf British-Jamaican poet Raymond Antrobus. Antrobus’ recent poetic works include the Ted Hughes award-winning collection, The Perseverance. In addressing overarching theme of movement in What Meets the Eye?, he suggests that Deaf poets need to remain “ever vigilant” in an ableist/sound-based world while learning how to discover and affirm their own rhythms.
The editors take on this vigilance by proclaiming that the anthology has a “political heart”–denouncing the lack of recognition of British Sign Language (BSL) in the UK. (As of this writing, a bill is moving through the government legislative bodies.) Works appearing in these pages were created originally in either BSL or written English. Additionally, the book has a QR code that links these English writings to online BSL signed performances. At present, a bit more than half of all the poems in the book are in BSL online with more being added even as I write this.
Thus, before even reading any of the poetry I’m sold on the book! I appreciate its naked goal to be a work of artivism, to challenge, to disrupt…to honor both languages. That said, I must clarify, although I am a fluent reader of English and American Sign Language (ASL)–and while I understand even British English terminology relatively well (bonnets, bloody and Boxing Day)–I have only a choppy understanding of BSL. (British Sign Language and American Sign Language are not, at all, mutually intelligible or even related. In addition to different signs, fingerspelled letters of the alphabet are completely different.) Still, one can SEE rhythms in the signed poetry. Repeated movements and repeated signs all create a sense of poetry akin to hearing a song’s melody sans the words. And having the printed English version in the book to follow along the BSL version, one begins to feel brain synapses making connections.
A favorite poem that appears here is “First as Body, Then as Metaphor” by Khando Langri. Its lines include
“Beloved: It’s not that I am unwilling to be seized by sound/everyday, I am undone by/it…
Listen: I am a conch shell. “
The poem moves from being undone to being. It moves from the perceived “realness” to elusiveness of sound. And as an auspicious instrument, the conch shell is the voice of Buddha, the fish, and perhaps, the poet.
DL Williams cleverly considers the theme of movement in her poem about sound as well. “MAPping a New Landscape” refers to mapping which programs a cochlear implant, a surgically imbedded hearing aid device. To DL Williams, the new maps being drawn are “boundaries of acoustic tolerance” and “territories of noise.” She warns, “here be monsters.” The world of sound for Deaf people contains monsters, indeed!
One of the few short prose pieces, “The Dice Players” by John Wilson, illustrates the impact of Georges de la Tours’ artwork on a viewer’s life. The young viewer, Nathaniel, identifies with one of the figures in the painting, a boy with a pearl earring. This identification emboldens Nathaniel, and he makes a drastic change in his life. Coming upon this painting later, “the years have gone by, and even though that boy hasn’t changed, Nathaniel has.” This time Nathaniel recognizes another, older figure in the painting whose wisdom he had previously overlooked. A new journey seems to lay ahead.
For several the poems, the language feels much richer in sign. My writing instructor, years ago, would always write in caps on the board, “SHOW, don’t TELL!” This richness may be due to language modality/my language bias, but it is difficult to TELL in sign without also SHOWING. It’s almost impossible to strip a verb of descriptive manner. Do hearing readers miss the intonation of a poem when reading? Do bilingual readers prefer a particular language version? For some Deaf folks, I think it is both of these together.
The poem “After Stagnation,” by Melanie Ashford, for example, feels much more successful as a signed poem. The English poem consists of short words and stanzas. It begins:
on the freedom.”
In the BSL poem, the signs in these lines are all performed as handshape rhymes (all having a closed fist or open hand) which communicates a real release of tension from fists closed to hands spreading open. Further, these lines concerning liberation following a blast are almost simultaneously expressed. I would describe what is seen as “two crossed shackled hands, the top handfist bursts open/freed, the bottom handfist bursts open/freed.” In addition, the performer’s facial expression shows the strain and relaxation of these movements. And, the movement of the hands being freed echoes the movement of the sign for freedom—an exploitation of the iconicity of the linguistic sign. To me, if poetry can be described as condensed language, the BSL version contains thicker meanings. And the beauty of this poem and the collection as a whole is that we have access to both versions.
It is important for me to know which poems were created originally in sign and which were created in English. While Deaf poets also create blended poetry with each of the languages affecting the final form, it feels important to me to know if the online performances are interpreted or original, particularly if the signer is not also the creator.
Missing from this anthology is information about the writers. In American Deaf culture such background anchors a person in the community and provides interconnections and affirmations of intersectionality. It took a bit of exploration of the online site, but biographical information of the writers is there. It still seems to me that this information, because it is not signed, should also appear in the book.
What Meets the Eye?: The Deaf Perspective shares an array of works, styles of writing, and expressions about how Deaf people move in the world, particularly the world of sound. It’s clear that within this collection there are multiple Deaf perspectives and diverse Deaf experiences. Its offer as an English publication as well as a BSL online publication is something I hope will become a model for Deaf poets and publishers.
Title: What Meets the Eye? The Deaf Perspective
Editors: Lisa Kelly and Sophie Stone
Publisher: Arachne Press
About the Reviewer
Karen Christie (name-sign “KC”) is a retired Assistant Professor of Deaf Cultural Studies and English from the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Presently, she works as the educational director for Deaf Refugee Advocacy in Rochester, NY. Her book reviews have appeared in Disability Studies Quarterly, ClercScar and Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education. She likes to read a lot!