WITHOUT SOUND. Even in its early, tentative stages, the
signing poetry emerging as an aspect of the "culture of the deaf"
challenges some of our cherished preconceptions about poetry and its
relation to human speech. ASL or Ameslan (American Sign Language)
represents, literally, a poetry without sound and, for its practitioners,
a poetry without access to that experience of sound as voice that we've
so often taken as the bedrock of all poetics and all language.
In the real world of the deaf, then, language exists as a kind of writing
in space and as a primary form of communication without reference to
any more primary form of language for its validation. It is in
this sense a realization of the ideogrammatic vision of a Fenollosa
-- "a splendid flash of concrete poetry" -- but an ideogrammatic
language truly in motion
and, like oral poetry, truly inseparable from its realization in performance.
(Ethnopoetic analogues -- for those who would care to check them out
-- include Hindu and Tantric mudras, Plains Indian and Australian Aborigine
sign languages, and Ejagham [southeastern Nigerian] "action writing":
a history of human gesture languages that would enrich our sense of
poetry and language, should we set our minds to it.)
An early and seminal account of ASL
poetry, "Poetry without Sound" by Edward S. Klima and Ursula
Bellugi, appeared in Jerome & Diane Rothenberg"s Symposium
of the Whole: A Range of Discourse Toward an Ethnopoetics (1983), currently out-of-print. Michael Davidson"s
"Hearing Things" and Dirksen Bauman"s "Redesigning
Literature," presented here, are both scheduled to appear in the
long awaited Signing the Body Poetic: Essays in American Sign Language
from The University of California Press.