Reviewed by Kate Champlin
Each of Sargent’s poems is dotted with facts of daily life for Deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals. These include speech teaching, the need to choose between conversation and holding swing chains or utensils, and linguistic separation from most of the family. The poems suggest that Sargent and her sister were the only members of the family who became fluent in a signed language. (Since the sisters grew up in both Europe and the United States, this language may not have been ASL.) As I read the poems, I was struck by how rarely I see disabled experience centered in literature or art. These poems were a rare treat.
Nevertheless, Sargent’s poems will become best known for their vivid imagery and for the emotion that they evoke. The most emotionally-intensive passages are those that speak about the author’s twin sister – Renée Nicole – from whom the author was long separated. Verses about this separation make the longing almost visceral:
I slip away to my mirror in the bedroom
to see her nut-brown eyes gazing back at me.
I press my palm against the cool glass,
just to touch her hand again
Sargent uses the same evocative imagery to convey the experience of being close to someone who does not use the majority culture’s dominant (spoken) language. It is unfortunately common for Deaf children to feel cut off from hearing family members who never learn their child’s language. The final stanza of “Her Voice” uniquely captures Renée Nicole’s experiences and the author’s identification with her twin:
The ten tiny fingers she must have clenched
that would one day be
differed eloquently from the vibrations in her throat
that assuredly joined in chorus with mine
to fill that stuffy, damp and narrow room.
“Her Voice” challenges the idea of a normal body and the link that mainstream cultures tend to draw between disability and inferior embodiment. Here, Sargent notes that her parents considered signed languages foreign because:
they had four ears that weren’t broken,
they had four ears
that were broken.
While questioning which bodies should be labelled broken and which should not, Sargent adds:
I have one [ear] broken and one not,
but I didn’t know which one was which
until 23 minutes ago
when I considered it.
Sargent never tells us whether her deaf or her hearing ear is the one that is healthy or “right.” Instead, after reversing traditional hierarchies of embodied experience, Sargent dismisses the entire subject as irrelevant, moving immediately to another stanza about her sister’s birth and future. In short, Sargent both reverses traditional notions of disability as damage and turns them into nonsense, a move that encourages readers to imagine a world entirely without ableism.
These poems question ableism, wow readers with stunning imagery, and place emotion at the center of personal experience.
Title: Seeing Voices: Poetry in Motion
Author: Kelly Sargent
Publisher: Kelsay Books
About the Reviewer
Kate Champlin (she/her) is a late-deafened adult and a graduate of Ball State University (Indiana). She currently works as a writing tutor and as a contract worker for BK International Education Consultancy, a company whose aim is to normalize the success of underserved students.