Exploring Trauma and Deaf Identity in Country of Glass by Sarah Katz
Reviewed by Jules Nymo
Country of Glass, a debut poetry collection from Sarah Katz, delivers a new exciting and somewhat uncanny observation on life and what we are to do with our existence among war, family trauma, the dynamics of relationships between people, and occasionally some fairy tale sensation. Katz’s ways with sharp detail and rhetorical questions that address a lot of existentialist stress I fret about frequently become a comfortable reassuring read despite its occasional heavy big questions and personal tragedies.
The first poem, “The Hidden Country 1,” packs a quiet pondering sense that sets off the tone for the rest of the collection with an omniscient narrator that couldn’t get the grasp of the “stillness,” as Katz writes, between two wooly animals that met under the night stars. The soft tone is present in nearly all the poems, but not all are tender. In some poems, the tranquility of Katz’s voice coexists with the serious subjects that prompt us, the readers, to think deeper about some big questions and how we connect with each other and ourselves.
Like Katz, I am a Deaf person who faces obstacles that are only in place because of the hearing people who have no means of understanding me or using the different methods in order to communicate effectively with me and other Deaf people in the world. Including a glimpse of the Deafhood (because it’s impossible to portray everything about the Deaf culture and the world we live in), Sarah Katz brilliantly articulated those struggles we Deaf people face in regard to communication in a piece titled, “They Fall Apart,” which emphasizes the confusion of lipreading, of trying to form words out of voice, of submitting yourself to the mainstream model of communication: the spoken language of English. In another poem, Katz takes up a perspective of a hearing person, reinforcing the repeat pattern that Deaf people experience in their encounter with hearing people who find it astounding that we are capable of driving, of doing things as anyone would.
For instance, this hearing person in “Portrait of my Deaf Body” asks “how do you do it? How do you live?” to which the Deaf narrator—presumed to be Katz herself as a Deaf woman—replies: “I dress undress piss sometimes I eat,” reminding the readers, especially the hearing ones, that to be Deaf is not a godly inspiration, something to find astounding. It reminds us that disabled people are human too.
What thrills me the most about this collection is its gorgeous multilayered morbidity and trauma—a subject I connect with the most. One of my absolute favorites was “Dream of Exile,” a poem about a group of people who are trying to bury themselves to escape the wrath of someone. It is absurdly fascinating despite having no context of why those people are trying to unalive themselves. A lot of poems in this book are like that, providing different narratives that offer various purposes. Some of them are meaningful and some others are not, although still offer something simply to ponder about. This poem was one of them, entertaining brief works that had little significance; nonetheless, it was truly something. In this poem, the narrator realized they didn’t want to bury themself when they discover others were stealing their jewelry. It encourages us to think about our priorities before the inevitable end.
In several other poems, Katz reminisces about the memory of her father and his bleeding brain injury, exploring the terror that comes with injuries and hospital visits. Not only that, Katz powerfully captures the sensation of waiting, the anticipation of the results that are announced in hospitals—reminding us why the hospital is a woven blanket filled with bright colors that are stained with dark spots. It isn’t always happy. Not often are writers capable of capturing the tenderness of something that is terrifying to think about, but Katz masters this ability with a sentence like, “As our father’s brain bleeds, we hunt for gifts in the hospital shop,” magnifying the contrast deeply in a simple manner that made it much more incredible to think about.
Deafness and trauma can be associated with each other not in a way you might think. It isn’t bad to be Deaf, but it can be traumatic to experience discrimination and miscommunication in a constantly undereducated hearing world. However Sarah Katz explores those things separately, if we look closer, we can see the interconnections between some of the traumatic events and Katz’s Deaf identity. Alienation is a theme that can be found in this collection, in which Katz asks us to observe. To be Deaf in the Deaf world is an exciting thing to experience, but to be Deaf in a hearing world can be lonely and depressing. Such as the case of the hospitals. Imagine waiting to find out the result of your father’s brain injury with no access to communication? Imagine the doctors who assume everyone is hearing announcing the results and then leaving the room because they thought you were a default, a hearing person like them. Not like me, like Katz, like all living Deaf people.
Katz inflates this alienation in “Haze,” another favorite work of mine, with the silence that a young girl holds in her room staring at the stuffed dolls who she “couldn’t be sure whether or not they are real” because she is unable to talk with her mother who is going through a lot. This poem made me think about the trauma in terms of its parallel to the Deafness and how it might reflect a common experience in Deaf children with families who don’t sign and are not Deaf. This little girl has no idea what problems are stirring in her family life, or what is happening beyond her quiet, stuffed animals-filled room because she is Deaf and to communicate with your hearing parents who don’t sign is a difficult weight to bear. These incredibly well-written poems definitely hit home with themes such as trauma and deaf identity, manipulating us to constructively think more about what we think and how we live in this fleeting life filled with the beautiful flowers that come with thorns.
This book in other words is the suspension between the rise and fall on an incredibly tall roller coaster ride. It has slow parts, intensely fast parts, and all the in-between, cutting through the sky, absorbing everything before you realize your twenty-five seconds ride is over. You exhale out the whirlwind of the adventure in the pause of the motion; similarly, you receive this experience with Country of Glass, a remarkable summer read.
Title: Country of Glass
Author: Sarah Katz
Publisher: Gallaudet University Press
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About the Reviewer
Jules Nymo (they/them) is a Deaf non-binary fiction writer and artist. Nymo sold over fifty paintings at a local art gallery in high school before studying English and Psychology as an undergraduate student at Gallaudet University. Formerly a writer for Buff and Blue newspaper and the Director of Student Media under the Student Body Government administration of 2019-2020, Nymo currently writes fiction, makes art, and creates social media content on Tiktok which feature some of their Deaf and queer identities. Their short story, “Bright Blue Sky,” won second place in the MacDougall writing contest and a poetry collection, Life Death Gender and Other Poems, was published by Gallaudet University Press.