The first director of the Perkins Institute for the Blind, Samuel Gridley Howe, was praised for his purported advancements in blind students’ education. But DeafBlind poet John Lee Clark’s poem “Oralism” presents a different historical record: emphasizing the abuse blind students suffered under Howe, who demanded that young pupils cover their “malignant eyes” with ribbons and “forget [their] words.” Referring to the 19th-century letter board for blind writers—which allowed students to draft manuscripts by hand so that they would be legible to sighted readers—Clark says of Howe: “He made us write letters we could not feel.”
This poetic critique echoes one made by Clark in an essay published in McSweeney’s in the fall of 2022 that departed from disability studies scholars’ and activists’ emphasis on access. Access is usually, he tells us, a one-directional enterprise focused on inclusion: let’s let them (disabled folks) have what we (abled folks) have. Clark instead takes his cue from DeafBlind architect Robert Sirvage who says, let’s no longer ask “How do we make it more accessible?” but ask instead, “What feels beautiful?” While “Oralism” foregrounds the normalizing demands Howe places on Deaf pupils, Clark imagines a more diffuse language, one that embraces disabled people’s collective experiences. Rather than replicate seeing and hearing people’s worlds, Clark explains: “We would do well to abandon the pretense that it’s possible to reproduce base things in realms other than those that gave birth to them. Instead, we can leave those things well alone where they belong, or, moved by possibilities, we can transgress, translate, and transform them. We can give foreign things new purposes, which may be slightly or extremely different from their original intent.” Clark’s challenge is answered, in part, by his first full-length collection, How to Communicate. Like other poetry books, How to Communicate has a hard cover, a spine, and pages of printed verse. (It’s also, I should note, available as an e-book, which presumably allows text to be manipulated into alternative formats). The presentation is unsurprising, standard; it’s how the world typically encounters books. But as a DeafBlind poet who doesn’t read print, Clark finds himself in a tricky position: he’s written a book that he can’t read.
It’s certainly happened before, the most famous example being Helen Keller’s bestselling memoir The Story of My Life (1903). When I introduce students to this book, I often ask them who Keller was writing for. While searching for evidence, one of us will come across the page of Braille interpolated shortly after the title page.1 It might suggest that the book caters to blind readers, but the Braille is not Braille. Instead, publishers have inserted a facsimile: a two-dimensional, photographic reproduction. Braille has been converted from its original tactile form into a visual one.
Unlike his predecessor, Clark recognizes the irony of a DeafBlind poet producing a printed book (his “Author’s Note,” for instance, laments Unified English Braille’s attempt to “represent … print more faithfully”). Lily Margeson, a student in one of my courses last semester, took an interest in Clark’s poems and explained, after reading them, that Clark is interested in the how of communication, not the what. In other words, the collection is less about a message’s content than about how that message moves between the bodies who make and receive it. The outline of four magenta-colored hands overlaps with the title, rendered—along with Clark’s full name—in yellow lettering atop a solid blue background. The hands grasp, hold, and caress one another, forming an entangled cluster. While sighted readers see this image, they likely do not understand its significance in communicating meaning. Mudding the word “communicate,” overlapping hands persist in their tactile signification and highlight the insufficiency of language that is merely printed—language that is seen but not felt.
The poems in How to Communicate are too sprawling for the book itself; their ever-growing hands press beyond the edges of pages and up through the spine. Clark’s collection questions how those excluded from spoken conversation devise new avenues for transmission. The collection positions the disabled body not as foreclosing possibilities for communication but as prompting its mediation in new and semi-accessible forms. Clark rebukes writerly and readerly assumptions that the five senses know best, insisting that when he “veer[s] off here / onto the grass,” he isn’t “lost” but instead wants to be left alone so he “can find out whether it’s indeed spring.”
To my knowledge, How to Communicate is the only contemporary poetry collection written by a DeafBlind poet to be published by a mainstream press. Clark anticipates the average sighted and hearing reader’s reaction to his work: “Wait, a DeafBlind person got a book of poetry published…? No way.”
Clark prepares readers for “disappointment.” Rather than draw a tragic or triumphant account of his world (one of the few forms of representation that disabled people are awarded), Clark crafts verses that shuttle between recounting mundane, everyday tasks (purchasing snacks at a gas station, knitting a sock) and the extraordinary standards to which disabled people (never allowed to be “nobody”) are subjected. In “Three Squared Cinquains,” he dismisses “The Reporter [Who] Is in Awe / of a DeafBlind man who cooks without burning himself!” This awe is the result, Clark suspects, of many narratives attached to Keller, America’s disability icon, who made the smallest of accomplishments seem deserving of celebration. Clark protests: “Can’t I pick my nose / without it being a miracle?”
Clark’s collection positions the disabled body not as foreclosing possibilities for communication but as prompting its mediation in new and semi-accessible forms.
In his prose-poem “A DeafBlind Poet,” Clark oscillates between attributes applicable specifically to poets who can’t see or hear and those that might apply to anyone, poet or not. For example, “A DeafBlind poet likes to read Braille magazines on the john,” Clark claims, alluding to the ways some readers might peruse materials—either through sight or touch—in the bathroom. By slipping between both disabled people and nondisabled people’s expectations, the poem grows rife with contradictions: “A DeafBlind poet is a terrible student” but also, as expressed just a line later, “does a lot of groundbreaking research.” Rigid educational systems prohibit DeafBlind students’ success, their inaccessible procedures and practices awarding those who can see and hear. The consequences of these exclusions grow more dire as the poem proceeds: “A DeafBlind poet will not stop if police order him to,” suggesting the potential violence done to nonhearing bodies when those in authority imagine “how to communicate” through sound alone. By the poem’s end, we understand why “[a] DeafBlind poet doesn’t believe in ‘contributing to society’” when nondisabled voices determine what constitutes such a “contribution” to begin with.
How, Clark probes, can we dismiss the DeafBlind poet’s “contributions” after witnessing the many ways he “listens to his wife,” “shares all his trade secrets with his children,” and “knits soft things for his dear friends”?
Clark establishes a genealogy of disabled writers that begins with early 19th-century DeafBlind poet Laura Bridgman and stretches to Clark himself, all champions of “felt” linguistic opportunities, refusing—in their touches across time—to adhere to the expectations of seeing readers. These real and imagined relationships among known and unknown figures are not without contestations. Clark’s collection reveals the ways the disability community struggles with its differences as they juggle their wishes alongside the expectations thrust upon them by those on the outside “looking” in. In “Line of Descent,” 19th-century DeafBlind writer Morrison Heady writes,
traveled by stage from Louisville
to touch Laura Bridgman, who
demanded that Helen Keller wash her hands.
In response, Helen “later touched many of us but didn’t let us / touch her back.” Here, what the late disability studies scholar Tobin Siebers calls “the ideology of ability” intervenes.2 Bridgman and Keller maintain the hearing and seeing world’s preference for bodily distance (what Clark has elsewhere called “distantism”) where there might otherwise be closeness established through touch. Clark uses his “budding fingertips” to trace out a different future. His poems make things messy with dirty hands rubbing against dirty hands, and sticky palms tapping sticky palms. Clark renders untidy the stories that we’ve thought to be well-ordered and clean.
In taking issue with early historical figures who denied disabled people the opportunity to communicate on their own terms, “Oralism” rebukes Howe’s and others’ framing of “the blind” as entertainers tasked with “do[ing] needlework with our tongues in front of smelly crowds.” Wielding the pronouns “our” and “we,” Clark places himself alongside his blind ancestors who, when robbed of self-expression, persist in making meaning: “[Howe] swore that we would never cease making this awful racket” with “bigger and bigger vibrations,” and “we” held true. Clark’s poems replicate and extend this noise, which haunts the graves of educators—both past and present—who violently enforced standards of communication without consulting the very communicators such enforcement harms the most.
Clark finds enemies but also comrades in the past. In “At the Holiday Gas Station,” he encounters another DeafBlind writer, William Amos Miller, “born in 1872.” In addition to broom making, Miller (born in Liverpool but raised in New York) was known for his sci-fi novel The Sovereign Guide: A Tale of Eden (1898) in which a main character “journeyed to the center of Earth” and “the Earth also journeyed / To the center of [his] mind.”
The speaker’s initial meeting with Miller is less about their mutual investments in writing than confusion over the contents of a candy box. Mike and Ikes prove unfamiliar to the 19th-century man, who has never tasted anything like the heavily processed, artificial sweets of the 1940s. Miller wants an apple instead. Rather than speak, the two men communicate through touch. They meet with the speaker’s “fingers walking across [Miller’s] back.” “You’re tactile too,” the speaker learns, to which Miller replies by “smil[ing] on [the speaker’s] arm.” When they decide to leave the station, realizing that “[Miller’s] money nowadays is no money,” leaving the apple behind, they encounter an intersection, and the speaker cautions Miller that “[they] have to wait / For help.” Miller, from a different time and different place, suggests an alternative: “I said we said we see / With our hands,” an idea also suggested by the entwined hands of Clark’s cover image. Help comes not from able-bodied good doers but from disabled folks helping each other. Reaching across centuries, Clark models a crip solidarity premised on innovation.
As a reader, Clark is unable to access contemporary poetry because, by virtue of appearing in print, it’s inaccessible to him. He is forced to peruse Project Gutenberg, which contains works in the public domain where plain text can easily be translated to the rubber strips on his Braille display and accessed through his fingers. In the section of his collection entitled “The Fruit Eat I,” he confronts “ableism and distantism” in 19th-century poems available online. Here, Clark slyly turns Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s, Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s, and Julia Ward Howe’s words against them, “forcing problematic poems by famous and less known poets to tell a different story.”
His poem “The Rebuttal” is worth a close read. He describes it as “an erasure of Lydia Huntley Sigourney’s ‘On Seeing the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Girl, Sitting for her Portrait.’” Influenced by her work as a teacher at Hartford’s first school for deaf children, Sigourney’s collection Poems (1834) featured several pieces about Deaf subjects.3 “On Seeing” accounts for the moment she saw DeafBlind student Julia Brace attending a festival. The poem’s title alludes to its reliance on “sight”: a seeing observer, perhaps Sigourney herself, describes her experience “seeing” a nameless disabled subject being painted in a medium dependent upon the working eye. The poem begins questioning what the artist might capture when conveying a purportedly empty subject with “no eye,” “[n]o ear,” and “[n]o speech.” But these assumptions are misguided, Sigourney explains: “For still the undying soul may teach / Without a glance, a tone, a sigh.”4 The poem reframes the DeafBlind subject as a mysterious, godlike figure harboring a “locked and guarded mind,” which requires only the success of the artist’s pencil to translate its unintelligibility to a sighted and inquiring onlooker.
Straddling the role of writer and reader, Clark emerges as editor, carefully excising Sigourney’s dependence on sight. “[T]his future child” remains the poem’s subject, but both the “seeing” speaker and “seeing” portrait artist are left behind. “Feeling” (rather than “seeing”) emerges as the new artist: “Feeling,” Clark writes,
Heart and wildering language
Still without speech to
“The Rebuttal” paints a “future” in which disability, unswayed by divine philosophies, is preserved.
The “Rebuttal” appears twice in How to Communicate: first as a printed poem and then as a printed version of the poem’s presentation in ProTactile language, a language of touch. Clark refers to the ProTactile version of “The Rebuttal” as “not a translation … but rather a parallel poem.” Clark’s moves his rewriting of Sigourney’s poem off the page and onto flesh, where meaning slides between and across bodies. Developed in Seattle in 2007 by educators aj granda and Jelicia Nuccio, ProTactile amplifies the agencies afforded by touch, enabling DeafBlind people to communicate with one another independent of sighted interpreters.
In the video footage, Clark is positioned “in the classic ProTactile three-way formation”; Nuccio is seated to his right and Heather Holmes to his left. Both are deemed the poem’s recipients; unlike in Sigourney’s poem, the audience—named rather than assumed—mirrors the poem’s subject: both Holmes and Nuccio are DeafBlind.
As the poem progresses, the group’s knees and hands touch, giving rise to a magnetizing choreography of pumping, pushing, pulling, hooking, tugging, pressing, wrapping, and spreading. The performance rebukes what Clark calls “distance-information readers.” Sigourney’s poem is imbued with the space Clark collapses—the space demanded by vision, the space between the presumably able-bodied speaker and painter and the disabled subject. Unmediated by Sigourney’s distant gaze, this representation—in centering touch—offers “direct experience.” What is being rebutted, then, are the norms of language that is seen with eyes or heard with ears.
To return to the book itself (the one readers hold in their hands), we might question Clark’s motivation in publishing a printed poetry book with a large trade press like Norton. Once again, I ask: Who is this book for? Everyone and no one, he might reply. To extend Clark’s poem “A DeafBlind poet,” a DeafBlind poet shares knowledge on their own terms. A DeafBlind poet allows nondisabled and disabled readers to get some of the story but not all of it. Clark recognizes that disabled people’s lack of access to certain information can be a good thing: “It can be a benefit when we have less access to the mainstream because it means they have less access to us.” In publishing a printed book with a widely circulating press, Clark might seem to privilege sighted communication, but he also extends their—that is, the nondisabled reader’s—disappointment, prompting their consideration of new modes of telling through “[f]ingers [which] only / [a]sk.” For example, he offers translated versions of ASL and ProTactile poems but leaves their originals behind. To give readers only half the story is to leave hands transgressing what’s possible and searching for more “direct experience[s].”
In a 2014 conversation with other disabled poets in Poetry Magazine, Clark describes the shift from catering to a “reading public” to “want[ing] [his] own community to be [his] audience.”
Emphasizing collaboration, Clark’s collection brims with the pronoun “our.” He models the DeafBlind-led ProTactile revolution whereby a hand doesn’t read or write alone; instead, “our hands” communicate in tandem. Taking a cue from 20th-century Black poet Gwendolyn Brooks, who privileged the preposition “to,” Clark pledges to stop writing poems about disability for nondisabled people. He explains that Brooks didn’t write for, by, or about Black communities but to them. It’s not that Clark’s poetry excludes nondisabled “outsiders”; he explains, they’ll “still “get” some of it. … Our poems will still communicate our world,” but their center of gravity will be different. He says, “I’d love to see more disability poetry written to us.”