Reviewed by Karen Christie
Willy Conley is a kind of renaissance man—playwright, photographer, professor, actor, short story writer, and poet. Further, he creates poetry with the voice of a father, uncle, brother, son, grandson, romantic partner, and observer of Deaf and Hearing people and their ways of being. In this poetry collection, in particular, he is a Deaf man, a navigator of the “world of white waters.”
This world is one in which water images all its forms flow throughout the works: steam, rain, waterfalls, brooks, marshes, seas, and ice. There are downpours, waves, and ripples as well as tears and baptisms.
When his grandfather desperately works to keep his ailing wife alive, the poet writes in “The water falls”:
There is hope
It is in the hereafter
Just as water runs over the falls.
Collected here are poems he created that appeared in several classic anthologies of Deaf poetry over the years. Notable are a number of poems composed to follow the syntax of American Sign Language. This results in a unique rhythm as evidenced by these lines from “Salt in the Basement”:
Many many small small
White rock rock
Small white rock rock
The rhythm is not simply a result of repeating nouns—in addition to pluralization in ASL, there is an expression of quantity, adjectives, and sign production (“for-for” has a repeated movement, but it basically means What’s it for? Why? What is the purpose?).
In the poem, “Galvantic Skin Response” (which is a type of hearing test), there’s a new rhythm of mostly verbs:
Tape tape tape
Connect connect connect
Twist twist twist
Fast up and down, up and down
Up and down
Rip rip rip
All the verb repetitions become a commentary on the control of Deaf bodies as the person being tested is completely passive.
Some poetry anthologies and collections include the year a poem was completed or published. In some ways, I wish this collection followed that practice to help contextualize the poems—particularly for younger readers.
“The Ivoryton Inn,” for example, describes a time when naïve Deaf actors were taught to be mere puppets of Hearing actors. The natural talents of these “fabricated deaf actors” were like the “noble tusks” of elephants sawed off by poachers.
While the poet describes instances of bullying, shame, and fraught relationships with Hearing powerful others, he returns to hope in “Universal Drum”:
In Deaf culture, a drum
is the one musical instrument
That reaches the heart
Of a deaf person.
Drums are universal…
our hands reach out
to both deaf and hearing worlds.
Here, drums function as connection, transcending communication barriers and blasting the binary separation between Deaf and Hearing worlds.
Willy Conley’s poems blast barriers as well—they are instruments which can reach the hearts of both Deaf and Hearing readers.
Title: The World of White Water
Author: Willy Conley
Publisher: Kelsay Books
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.