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Breath & Shadow

Winter 2023 - Vol. 20, Issue 1

"How To Communicate: A Book Review"

written by

Denise Noe

How To Communicate by John Lee Clark

Reviewed by Denise Noe

The title of John Lee Clark’s recently released book of poetry encapsulates in a pithy manner something central to the experience of the DeafBlind: How to Communicate.

Few are better equipped to address How to Communicate among the DeafBlind than John Lee Clark. A second generation DeafBlind person, he was born in 1978 with Usher syndrome into a family whose primary mode of communication was American Sign Language (ASL). Thus, ASL is his native language; he learned to read English at the age of 12. As is common among people with Usher syndrome, Clark was born with profound hearing loss and lost his vision in his teen years. He is an accomplished author and poet. A chapbook of his poems, Suddenly Slow, was published in 2008. Where I Stand: On the Signing Community and My DeafBlind Experience is a collection of his essays that came out in 2014. He has edited anthologies and has had work included in them. Clark is also a major figure in the development of Protactile.

Protactile is a means of communication by which signs are made directly onto another person’s body. Traditionally, one of the main ways of communicating with DeafBlind persons was hand-over-hand signing or fingerspelling. Protactile shares this, but uses not only hands but wrists, elbows, arms, upper backs; when communicators are seated, knees and thighs are also used. Other people known for their work in Protactile are Jelica Nuccio and Heather Holmes. When Nuccio became head of the DeafBlind Service Center in Seattle, Oregon, she advocated for direct communication between DeafBlind people through touch. She currently runs a business called Tactile Communications. Heather Holmes is co-director of Protactile Language Interpreting (PLI). Both Nuccio and Holmes are mentioned by Clark in How to Communicate.

How To Communicate is divided into sections according to sub-theme and/or means of expression. The first section is entitled “Slateku.” Slateku is a poetic form Clark invented. “A poem that is written or could have been written with the classic braille slate and stylus,” he explains. The section begins with a description of braille that is followed by a lengthy poem. That poem starts with a pithy poetic observation about an everyday item: “The brown paper bag/Is almost the greatest invention in the world/The brown paper bag with handles/Is.” The poem includes a sharp to a question a DeafBlind person might be asked: “What is the point of travel/For a DeafBlind person/Other than the food the people the shops/And all that.”

The section entitled “Pointing the Needle” features poems searching for meaning in the specifics of the DeafBlind experience. “On My Return from A Business Trip” expresses the exasperation many handicapped people feel when offered assistance inappropriate for their specific situation: “Go away. I never asked for assistance./What? I don’t want that wheelchair./I’m fine. Let me walk/Let me feel the spring/Of my fiberglass off the walls.” The section finds poetry in everyday experiences of trees and knitting, marriage and museum visits.  However, these poems are far from standard greeting card verse. “Trees” is not the expected paean but states, “when a leafy finger/pokes my eye, I squint” and continues: “a limb/that knocks my head because I didn’t duck?/That turns my heart into a chainsaw.”

“The Fruit Eat I” is a section made up of poetic “erasures.” Erasure poetry, also called blackout poetry, is a process by which a poet takes an existing poem and “erases” words from that poem, creating a fresh poem from the leftover words. Clark states in a section preface that he “addresses ableism and distantism” in his erasures. “Distantism” is a word Clark coined for “the privileging of the distance senses of hearing and vision.” Clark makes a telling point about his choices for erasures, almost all of which are poems “a century or older.” The reason is not that more modern poems are free of either ableism or distantism but because “little contemporary poetry is available in braille.”

Among the poets from whom Clark creates erasures are Henry Wadsworth, Longfellow,  Edwin Arlington Robinson, Currer Bell/Charlotte Bronte, and Julia Ward Howe. One of the most powerful erasure poems is “The Rebuttal,” an erasure of Lydia Huntley Sigourney’s poem called “On Seeing the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Girl, Sitting for Her Portrait.” The short erasure starts, “Guide, passion, catch what/Hath no speech” and ends “Philosophy fails to/Sway this future child.” Clark’s erasure of Julia Ward Howe’s “The Prisoner of Hope” is entitled “The Mission” and the beginning states:“The patient struggle free/In slow volcanic fire.” The phrase “slow volcanic fire” beautifully encapsulates a sense of passionate struggle that is frustratingly thwarted.

“Who You” consists of poems trying to make sense of Clark’s life as a DeafBlind person, as a poet, as a husband, as a person. The poems are rich in cheeky observations, taking even the most banal of experiences and creating poetry from them. “It Is Necessary” recalls childhood incidents: “We made fun of the hearing bus driver who was a big woman with a mustache always eating out of a giant lunchbox.” The poem “Mrs. Shcultz” is told from the viewpoint of a teacher of Deaf children. It tells of how Mrs. Schultz assigned the class to craft penguins out of construction paper and give the art works to their parents. It appears one of the children was the author since the poem informs us that the children “carried off their penguins” when class was dismissed “but the Clark boy came up and gave the penguin” to the instructor. Years later, that construction paper penguin is still on that teacher’s desk because “every time I look at it I know why I am a teacher of the Deaf.”

The fifth section of the book consists of translations of poems from other poets that were originally formed from either ASL or Protactile. He also includes one Clark himself originated in Protactile. “The Moonlight,” a poem by Noah Buchholz originally in ASL, tells us the moon’s “light/touched the pane and spread/over the floor,” an arresting description of moonlight. Twice in the poem Buchholz repeats a sentence pointing out the centrality of hands to the Deaf: “The girls/climbed out of their beds/and gathered in the glow/where their hands came alive.”

Clark includes a description of how he recited a poem in Protactile to Heather Holmes and Jelica Nuccio, in a “three-way formation” with “right knees pressed against each other” while “left knees rest against the next person’s flank.”  The description draws the reader into the “tactile’ sense of a language expressed in touch as the “pumping force now pulls up along their arms. Back and forth, my hands pump their hearts and tug press against their arms, up, up, up. . . . my vibrating hands roar back down their necks, across their chests, and down their arms to their hands on my knee.” Later: “My vibrating hands clasp their hands, and all six hands are lifted up, vibrating, high above our heads. A pause, the vibrating ceases. I slowly bring all six hands back down to my knee. A pause. The poem is finished.”

The final section of the book has the same title as the book itself, “How to Communicate.” It resembles “Who You” in attempting to address Clark’s life as a DeafBlind person who is a poet who is a DeafBlind poet who is also an individual named John Lee Clark. Like the section, like the book, the last poem is entitled “How to Communicate.” It was co-written with Jelica Nuccio. It ends the book on a strong note: “We take another breath. A gathering. We are ready to teach the world.”

How To Communicate was called “a masterpiece” by poet and scholar Kaveh Akbar. Author of Deaf Republic Ilya Kaminsky applauded the book as “both inimitable and available to anyone.” Writer Carl Phillips observes that it is both “manifesto” and invitation.”

This piece is another positive review for How to Communicate. Each piece in this book is thoroughly polished, displaying the poet’s appreciation and understanding of language and imagery. Perhaps even more importantly, each poem in this volume comes together with every other to create a book that functions beautifully as a whole. While DeafBlind people will undoubtedly have a special appreciation for How to Communicate, everyone can benefit from reading it . . . and re-reading it and re-reading it. As is so often true of poetry, the poems in How to Communicate benefit from being gone over and savored, re-read multiple times and relished.

John Lee Clark knows how to communicate and this book proves it.

Denise Noe is a severely disabled and struggling writer. Her ebook of literary criticism on Joyce Carol Oates, "Obsessions & Exorcisms in the Work of Joyce Carol Oates," was complimented by Oates herself. Noe's collections of true crime stories include "The Bloodied and the Broken," "Justice Gone Haywire," and "I Spy, You Spy, They Spy." She has a self-published ebook on amazon entitled "Voices from the Inside: Letters from Famous Prisoners" that includes reproductions of letters from notorious murderers including Charles Manson.

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