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I’ve kept my day job all these years just in case the poetry thing didn’t work out. Which it hasn’t, or it has, depending on your point of view. My day job is sign language interpreting, and it works out better some days than others, depending on the job, depending on the day, depending on the point of view of the person you happen to ask. If you ask me, I’ll tell you: I’m blessed. Blessed to have spent almost every day of the last four decades among Deaf and DeafBlind* people–at work and at play, at home and abroad–people who have taught me how to be with them, and how to be with myself. Which is probably why I sometimes write about them.
My other day job is teaching Braille. A side job, really, I do it mostly on the weekends. I’ve been intoxicated by Braille ever since I first learned it in my early twenties. Fresh out of college, armed with my degree in English lit, the only job I could find was flipping burgers and making sandwiches in a Cleveland Circle delicatessen. But I met a blind man–a Braille reader–who became a good friend. The Braille books and magazines in his apartment fascinated me–all those seemingly blank pages full of white goosebumps! I eventually signed up for a correspondence course in Braille transcription, which led to a job at the National Braille Press in Boston, which led me across the street one day to Northeastern University, where, on a lark, I signed up for a class in American Sign Language. And the rest is, well, history and a story–a clutch of stories and poems–that I’ve been writing and revising–and living–ever since.
This book brings together many of the poems, stories and essays I have written about my fascination with ASL and Braille and my enamourment of the people to whom ASL and Braille belong. There is a long unhappy tradition of poets and writers writing about Deaf people and blind people in ways that patronize, romanticize, pathologize, allegorize or otherwise misrepresent them. Needless to say, I do not wish to contribute to that tradition. And yet I know I’m not immune from doing so. I’m sure there are readers who will find something to object to in these pages, whether it be a trope here, a characterization there, or just the whole idea of another hearing and sighted writer who is, in effect, de-centering Deaf and DeafBlind people’s own experiences and voices by publishing a book about them that is written from a hearing-sighted person’s perspective. “Nothing about us without us,” is the way one sometimes hears it expressed these days. I understand that sentiment and completely agree with it. And while these poems and prose pieces have grown out of a lifetime of being with Deaf and DeafBlind people, it’s true that they were written without them. That is, they were written, as most creative writing is written, alone. Writing is a solitary pursuit, a benign little addiction that I indulge in most mornings before anyone else in the house is awake–just me and the cat, who tends to go back to sleep after he’s eaten and the writing starts cooking with gas. And while I have indeed shared many of the pieces in this book with Deaf and DeafBlind readers for their feedback and suggestions, I remain the only one to blame for them. The fault is ultimately all mine.
Much of the writing here takes the point of view of someone on the outside looking in. That’s because, in spite of everything, I remain an outsider in the Deaf and DeafBlind communities. An ally, yes, an honored guest, perhaps, but ultimately, inexorably, an outsider. Therefore my perspective is necessarily an outsider’s perspective: a sort of initiated audience member, hands clasped in admiration, empathy, praise.
I was going to call this book Cathedrals, but in the end there were too many good reasons not to. First of all, there is obviously the religious connotation of that word, and religion and all its practitioners have historically done quite a number on Deaf people. It’s true that the pioneers of Deaf education were almost all clerics, that the first schools for the Deaf were organized by clergy or friends of the clergy, and that the desire to “save the souls” of Deaf people was often what led these religionists to devote their lives to working with them. But there was (and still is) a great deal of paternalism, self-righteousness, condescension, abuse, audism, ignorance and oppression on a vast scale. Ask any Deaf graduate of the Boston School for the Deaf. Ask him about the nuns, about getting his hands whacked with a ruler every time they caught him signing. Ask the Deaf Jew who wasn’t bar-mitzvahed because the rabbi insisted he be able to read from the Torah orally, because the word of God must be spoken. Ask the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary why they emblazoned the biblical quote “And the deaf shall hear… and the blind shall see” on a floor-to-ceiling mural in the corridor of their Longwood facility. Then ask the anonymous graffiti artist who tagged that mural, who responded to it by scrawling on it diagonally in a thick black marker: DEAF POWER!!!
Another good reason not to call this book Cathedrals is the fact that there already is a book of short stories called Cathedral (without the s) written by Raymond Carver, a poet and fiction writer I greatly admire. The title story of Carver’s collection is about a blind man who comes to visit. The narrator, who is rather oafish and a bit of a lush (Carver was a bit of a lush himself), describes the blind man in ways that sometimes poke fun at him. And yet the blind character remains believable, retains his integrity and his dignity throughout. At the end of the story, it takes a magical turn when the blind man offers to put his hand on the narrator’s hand to help guide him in the drawing of a cathedral, a sort of collaboration, something that neither of them could have done alone, but somehow, marvelously–magically–they are doing it together. This hand-on-hand image at the end of the story–the collaborative making of a cathedral–when I first read it, reminded me of Tactile ASL and DeafBlind people. But I doubt Carver ever met a DeafBlind person in his life, much less signed to one.
“Here’s the church and here’s the steeple.” That child’s rhyme, which hearing children recite and illustrate with their fingers (“Open the door and see all the people”) is, in a way, all this book is really saying: See all the people; all the people who talk with their hands; all the people who read with their hands. Signing is the most beautiful singing the world has ever seen. And it still gives me goosebumps to watch a blind person gracefully reading Braille with her fingertips as quickly as the sighted read with their eyes. ASL and Braille blow me away. They have always blown me away. The figurative cathedral, to me, is the communication: as complex, as elegant, as beautiful as any literal cathedral. It’s also the relationships. “God’s temple is a relationship,” says A Course in Miracles. It’s any relationship. It’s every relationship. And communication is communion.
Communication is sacrament. “Fine, but can we keep God out of it, please?” says the anonymous Deaf Power graffiti artist behind my eyes. OK then. How about this: Communication is the most important gift, the most important birthright, that we have in this world. And that’s something that I learned from Deaf and DeafBlind people. Because they are the ones who never take it for granted. They are the ones who most prize it, revel in it, share it, give it away freely and drink it up. Every drop is a cathedral. Exquisite, nourishing, towering in its beauty, accessibility, light.
* I capitalize Deaf and DeafBlind throughout this book to refer to those people for whom sign language or tactile sign language–as well as the attendant cultures and communities of people who use those languages–represents their primary experience and allegiance.
Paul Hostovsky is the author of ten books of poetry and five poetry chapbooks. He has won a Pushcart Prize, two Best of the Net awards, the Muriel Craft Bailey Award from Comstock Review, and the FutureCycle Poetry Book Prize. He is also a recipient of the John J. Murphey Memorial Award from the American Association of the DeafBlind: “For being a devoted friend and ambassador by promoting the interests and well-being of DeafBlind Americans.” He makes his living in Boston as a sign language interpreter and a Braille instructor. Website: paulhostovsky.com
This book is a wonder closet packed with heritage, anthropology, schoolhouse rhymes and sly jokes. I can think of no other work, and no other writer, that examines so personally the splendid, sometimes spooky art of sign language, particularly within the traffic of interpretation. Paul Hostovsky’s paradoxically courageous and vulnerable voice narrates a journey of self discovery housed in the form of a love letter to the cultures of the Deaf and the DeafBlind. These poems and stories brim with humor and sadness, wisdom and wisecracks, taking shortcuts into brilliance, left turns into something luminous. ~Frank Gallimore
Catholically good, witty writing that is deceptively simple… like diving into a clear pool to touch bottom only to realize it’s deeper than it looks. And if you know ASL, it’s a bonus because you’ll enjoy finding Hostovsky’s little sign language Easter eggs: the “finger-flicked how-awfuls,” the “hey-waves” and “dinosaur-nods,” the “bent-V astonishments.” ~Willy Conley
To read Paul Hostovsky… is to stumble upon something rare and wonderful. Hearing poets have been patronizing Deaf people and romanticizing silence since before the Elizabethan Age. In fact, [they] have indulged in sentimentality so often… that the English language itself poses an almost physical barrier against anyone attempting to write honestly about Deaf people and sign language. Hostovsky’s work is a study in shifting approaches; poems that are entertaining lessons (“Deaf Culture 101”), philosophical (“Poem in Sign Language”), personal (“Deaf Ex”) and portraits that are also parables (“Dracula’s Rat”). There is a wonderful honesty and freshness to his work.” ~John Lee Clark
All I ever really wanted
was to whistle with my fingers–
I knew I would never
be the one up on stage
blowing everybody away
with beauty, brilliance, virtuosity…
But to be the lightning
inside the thunderous applause,
to have the audacity
and the manual dexterity
to make a siren screeching
through a dark auditorium,
to be the killer hawk
in all that parroting, pattering rain,
to be, finally, the very best at praise–
now that was something
I thought that if I gave my life to
I might attain.
Poem in Sign Language
What does it mean
that the thumb of this poem
drags its pink nail
down over the closed
mouth of this poem?
Is it in pain?
Can it not speak?
Is this prosodic
this raised eyebrow
like a circumflex over
the I of this poem?
So far it only
It has a certain
but who can understand it?
Its face and its hands,
its tilted head,
its movement and invention,
its eye gaze (beautiful!),
the whole of its body
says it has passion,
but how will it persuade
with no voice?
The Day My Uncle Hank Sat Down to Lunch with Helen Keller in a Cafe in the Philippines
it was raining,
but raining so hard that he couldn’t
see what his hands were doing
in front of his own face. So he climbed
carefully down from the truss
of the cantilever bridge he was building
with the Army Corps of Engineers outside
Manila, and made his way into the city under
friends’ umbrellas twirling toward
the brothels. But Uncle Hank,
who was always more hungry than horny,
was headed for Fagayan’s for a bowl of beef stew.
Helen was building bridges, too, she told him–
“Bridges out of Braille dots”–visiting schools
for the blind all over Asia. She smiled archly
and turned to Polly Thomson sitting beside her
(Annie Sullivan dead 10 years already)
and asked her if the young American soldier
sharing their table in the crowded cafe
with its red-and-white checkered tablecloths,
sounds of Tagalog, Spanish, English mixed
with the clacking curtain of rain filling the doorway
was smiling at her Braille joke. Yes, he was,
but he couldn’t see what her hand was doing–
the fitfully pecking bird of Polly’s hand
fingerspelling into Helen’s palm–to make
the words, his words, almost as fast as he was saying them:
“How do you do that? That, with your hand, how
does she understand?” And so it happened
that my mother’s youngest brother, Henry Weiss,
who hadn’t written home in over six
months, learned the American Manual
Alphabet from its most famous reader
over beef stew, brown bread and beer
on a rainy day in Manila, and now had something
to write home about. Of course he’d heard
of Helen Keller–who hadn’t?–but here
she was, older, stouter, and drinking
a beer, and sitting across from him, holding
his hand now, molding it, arranging
his fingers and thumb into the shapes of the letters
one by one, teaching him her tactile
ABCs. And her hands were large and strong
for a woman’s hands, and she smelled good too.
And to see his eyes smiling when he told it
to my mother, whose eyes smiled telling it
to me years later, the way her generous
bosom swelled above the checkered tablecloth
as she leaned in close to Uncle Hank
and shaped and sculpted and praised his letters,
it aroused in him something he never quite
got over. And walking back to the barracks
in the pouring rain, gazing down at his right
hand still practicing the letters, feeding them
to his left, which he cupped like a nest under them,
he must have looked to anyone observing him
like a man bent over his own praying hands,
or a man wringing his hands for love, or maybe
a man who has just found something small
and glinting, and of great value on the way
to wherever it was he was going, and pausing
in the middle of the road now, he considers
this strange, new, marvelous light it casts
on his hands, on the road, on his whole life.
When I got home from the DeafBlind convention, I couldn’t stop touching people. It was a week of haptics, tactile sign language and fingerspelling, touching and being touched, and it just naturally continued flowing right out of me, so that I found myself patting the hand of the policeman as he leaned into my car window and gave me the speeding violation: Thank you, officer. And I couldn’t help stroking the arm of the bank representative at the local branch when I stopped in to make a payment on my home equity loan: Principle only, please. And later, in line at the grocery store, I brushed a piece of lint off the sweater of the woman in front of me, squeezing her shoulder reassuringly. When she turned around, startled by my touch, I touched her again, on the elbow, to apologize. Which only made it worse.
People are touchy about being touched. They don’t like it. They misconstrue it. They take it as an advance: a pass or a flirtation; an aggression or an invasion. But not so with DeafBlind people. For DeafBlind people touch is everything. It’s communication and information. It’s intonation. It’s affirmation, feedback, backchanneling. It’s connection and community. It’s practically sacrament. And it’s as natural and necessary as breathing. All week I had brushed up against and been brushed up against, gently bumping, gingerly jostling, signing and spelling into hands, printing on palms, scratching and tapping, sketching and mapping on backs, shoulders, knees, interpreting and chit-chatting as my fingers and hands remained in almost constant contact with the fingers and hands and bodies of others. The DeafBlind world is a warm, inviting, tactile world, a world of almost constant physical contact. And already I missed it terribly.
In fact, I seemed to be going through a kind of withdrawal. I felt separated, isolated, untouchable in a world of untouchables. I felt like there was too much space between me and the world, too much space between people and things, too much space between people and people. I felt depressed. I began to self-medicate: I started touching myself. Not in a sexual way, but a platonic way, a DeafBlind way. My hands looked for each other; they touched each other and themselves, folding, tenting, twiddling, weaving, praying. And I touched my face–my temple, forehead, cheeks, nose, philtrum, lips, chin. My neck, head, crown, shoulders, arms, wrists, thighs, knees. I touched myself and I thought of my DeafBlind friends at the convention, whom I longed to see again, whom I longed to touch again. But the next convention wasn’t for another two years.
Especially I missed Adriana. Her slender, beautiful hands, the weightlessness of them as they rested on mine, listening. It wasn’t romantic; it was semantic. Her nimble fingers, her fluent signing, her virtuosic receptive skills. It was all about language. I was seduced by the voluptuousness of tactile sign language. She was my DeafBlind delegate from New York, and I was her SSP (support service provider). All week I guided her, assisted her, interpreted for her, clued her in and helped her out by touching her constantly, but only on her hands, occasionally on her back, or her arm, or the little atoll of her knee. “Those are the only permissible places,” the ProTactile instructor told us during the short training session for interpreters and SSPs the first day of the convention. “To tell the DeafBlind person that someone is laughing, you can spell HA-HA in her hands, of course, but if her hands are occupied, for whatever reason, then you can indicate it like this on her arm, on her back, or if you’re seated, on her knee.” Then he did a sort of double flex-and-scratch with all five fingers in the air, by way of illustration. “Nothing above the knee, though. And never on the head, or stomach, or chest. Or, it goes without saying, on the butt, or other private places. Unless, of course, invited to, in the privacy of your dorm rooms.” There were some giggles from the SSPs.
I have to say, a part of me hoped I’d be invited to. And sometimes it seemed like I was on the verge of being invited to. But the invitation never came. And in a way I’m glad it didn’t. Because it wasn’t about sex. It was so not about sex. And between you and me, if we’re honest, some of us–maybe a lot of us–never quite grow wholly comfortable doing it, now do we? I mean, doesn’t it feel a little like the blind signing their names on the signature line? I mean, don’t we often need a hand to guide our hand to where they say the ultimate expression of who we are ought to be? And then, when it’s done, isn’t it almost as though our lovers take back the pen, and the paper, eyeing the sad mark that is ours, a little doubtfully, a little ruefully, wondering what in the world the world would make of such a squiggly, illegible thing?