How to Communicate: Poems (John Lee Clark)

Reviewed by Diane R. Wiener

Poet, writer, commentator, educator, and activist John Lee Clark has long been widely regarded as a foundational creative presence and communicative leader on the CripLit scene in general and within DeafBlind cultural communities in particular. In his stunning, freeing, and riveting debut poetry collection, the reader immediately encounters the bold and vivid juxtaposition of Clark’s aesthetics and politics. More than merely being a “both/and” simultaneity, however, Clark’s poesis and advocacy are mutually constitutive.

Regardless of self-identifications and group memberships (or the absence of either or both), readers going inside these poems are wise to abandon assumptions, instead welcoming a new convergence of approaches, forms, and meanings that are wildly peppered while sweepingly holistic. Drawing upon themes that are whimsical, mature, vivacious, and domestic, Clark sculpts, combines, and layers, creating constellatory poems that are entirely his own. The book’s dedication reads, in centered text:

Dear Smiling with Two Dots
Dear Soft Smile
Dear Two Solid Thumps
Dear Two Quick Brushes

Readers are introduced here to four beings (also, possibly, to people? personae? personifications?). We meet forms with expressions who / that are known to the author; they are his beloveds. We are swept up immediately into tactile and tactical words, into words-shapes-feels, and, later, into further translations–including from or based in American Sign Language and the touch-based language Protactile. And because these four sets of words, these beings, more than just implying or presenting modes of address, are dear to and for Clark, they might be or become beloved to the readers, as well. He is, it seems, addressing these felt shapes, too, these Dear language formations that exceed what is possible with or via simple utterances, limiting sounds, visually truncated images.

Interpretive glowings are not idealized, though, in this bodymind’s heart-work, this all-new poetry of Clark’s. In his “Author’s Note,” Clark makes plain, in contrast, that he seeks a hoped-for “return” to a time before “Ugly English Braille.” He advocates for a locus of meanings, “typographical conventions,” and engagement that understandably and rightly centers “Braille-first co-language.”

“US Braille,” Clark tells us, “as it is still colloquially called,” not long ago employed a set of conventions that were elegant, “intuitive,” and expedient. Symmetry, as he explains, once assisted with the conveyance of “textual features” like parentheses, for example, and “one specific dot” indicated with clarity an accent’s presence within words. When rendered, these “typographical conventions” were therefore aesthetically pleasing while useful. Something troubling happened in 2016, as readers unfamiliar with this history soon learn, and this shift turned Braille’s elegance toward (even into?) increased confusion and, arguably, increased inaccessibility.

Using humorous while assertive phrasing, Clark asks directly yet rhetorically, “What happened?” He continues, answering his readers while nuancing his subject positionality: “Well, a group of well-meaning educators pushed for the universal adoption of Unified English Braille, a code that supposedly represents print more faithfully, as if it was Braille’s job or possible for it to do so.” (p. 11)

This story is yet another instructive, infuriating example of “well-meaning” people (specifically, educators) disrupting and undermining insiders’ cultures (specifically, the cultural experience and expertise of Blind and DeafBlind people and their communication preferences, needs, and requirements). Put differently, this contextual tale is an ableist one; it tells of a legacy of outsiders inserting themselves into a cultural landscape of which they were and are not a part. It is yet another true story of outsiders attempting to make (and, then, in some respects succeeding in making) the insiders become the outsiders within “their” own communities.

Clark tells us, “I have endeavored to shape my text in such a way as to minimize the impact of Ugly English Braille. Avoiding italics, parentheses, and accented letters all help it read more smoothly. Where publication names and book titles are concerned, I have followed the styles used by The New York Times.” (p. 11)

In the six sections that follow, Clark keeps his promise; he honors the aspirations that he outlines in his “Author’s Note.” Clark has set the stage for readers to perceive with discernment, sometimes “smoothly”; to consider and often to lead with “shape”; to think about what it means to be “push[ed]”; and to ask, candidly, what poetry does and doesn’t do about all of these matters. Even more intriguing, Clark shows us how poetry [does], not just what [it does]. I am reminded of John Ciardi’s aptly titled How Does a Poem Mean? And, as I place the italics and brackets and quotation marks (etc.) in-to this paragraph and elsewhere, I admit that I feel a little queasy.

What and how does it mean to write flowing, ecstatic, forthright, and sensual poetry? Ask John Lee Clark. (And read this book.) Encountering “I Would That I Were,” I stopped on a dime when I was greeted by the closing line: “I would that I were a dragonfly curled up between your finger and thumb.” This poem starts with death, rails against bureaucracy, critiques exploitation, and somehow lands a tiny plane in one’s soul.

“The Gift,” one of several erasure poems, begins: “O brain, poet thou, I have the voice. My hand. Shame I’ve still to art. Art in our hand, true carnage. How well my heads, chasing me, tarnish jewels! They’re my own name.” “The Gift” is “an erasure of Norah Pembroke’s ‘Erin’s Address to the Hon. Thomas D’Arcy McGee.’” (p. 44) The “I” in this work is seemingly communicating with its own “brain,” staking claims. The “voice,” as the protagonist poet tells their brain (as if in an ode), is “my hand.” As “true carnage” arises from this “Art in our hand,” what of the “chasing” of the self, and what of the “heads,” in which the brain is (brains are) perhaps finding residence?

Thinking, it seems, or something which is connected with heads and brains, is disruptive to “jewels,” as they are changed, even “tarnish[ed].” More than an invocation of purity, however, this lush piece concludes by offering a commandment and caution to feel: “The touch wilt bless.” Wilt’s double meaning, of both an archaic will and an implication of weakness or limpness, is a sensory experience. The poem is ironic as well, perhaps, in its possible evocation or invocation of theology, as in: “what wilt thou have me to do?” This particular question arises in Acts 9:6 in the Christian Bible, describing Saul’s interactions with Jesus during the period of the former’s conversion while on the road to Damascus–including Saul’s episodic, temporary blindness.

Clark shares references to cubism, provides us with haiku and cinquains, offers descriptions of Protactile poems that are thereafter included, and invites us to converse with DeafBlind children from the past and present. Some of the haiku are ASL haiku turned into text. Before the first section, “Slateku,” commences, Clark shares a vivid and practical discussion on how Braille slates work. More than just explaining, though, he makes this explanation a kind of poem.

Clark describes how “writing two things at the same time” happens “often” and is something of which one is “aware,” as he notes, “because the dots you are making stand up on the other side mean something else where you are pressing them down. It is not unlike painting the figure of the letter ‘b’ inside a shop window for it to say the letter ‘d’ to the outside” (p. 15) He goes on to discuss the differences between Braille and print, noting how Braille is “full of characters, contractions, and words that are the opposite of each other,” then providing some examples.

Palindromes are discussed. Braille characters can at times be at once backward and forward and up and down, as Clark explains. Palimpsests are implied. So are ghosts, which also appear hither and yon in the work, both tactile and spirited. And, as Clark notes at the end of his introduction to Braille slates, “To write ‘so you have it’ is also to write the ghost of ‘which and just it.’” (p. 14)

The second section, “Pointing the Needle,” includes a dozen poems on DeafBlind experiences. Ableism and othering are addressed squarely while fluidly in the third section, “The Fruit Eat I.” Section IV, “Who You,” is comprised largely of autobiographical works. The aforementioned translated pieces are in Section V, helpfully called “Translations.” And Section VI, the titular “How to Communicate,” is ebullience in prose poetry. There is nothing like any of these poems that has yet existed in this space-time continuum. These poems are all kinds of transfigurations.

Title: How to Communicate: Poems
Author: John Lee Clark
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Year: 2023

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About the Reviewer

Diane R. Wiener (she/they) became Editor-in-Chief of Wordgathering in January 2020. The author of The Golem Verses (Nine Mile Press, 2018), Flashes & Specks (Finishing Line Press, 2021), and The Golem Returns (swallow::tale press, 2022), Diane’s poems also appear in Nine Mile Magazine, Wordgathering, Tammy, Queerly, The South Carolina ReviewWelcome to the Resistance: Poetry as ProtestDiagrams Sketched on the Wind, Jason’s Connection, the Kalonopia Collective’s 2021 Disability Pride Anthology, and elsewhere. She has poetry forthcoming in eMerge. Diane’s creative nonfiction appears in Stone CanoeMollyhouse, The Abstract Elephant Magazine, Pop the Culture Pill, and eMerge. Her flash fiction appears in Ordinary Madness; short fiction is published in A Coup of Owls. Diane served as Nine Mile Literary Magazine’s Assistant Editor after being Guest Editor for the Fall 2019 Special Double Issue on Neurodivergent, Disability, Deaf, Mad, and Crip poetics. She has published widely on Disability, education, accessibility, equity, and empowerment, among other subjects. A proud Neuroqueer, Mad, Crip, Genderqueer and Enby, Ashkenazi Jewish Hylozoist Nerd, Diane is honored to serve in the nonprofit sector–including as a Zoeglossia Board member. You can visit Diane online at: