To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Uncollected Poems (3): "The Silent Language," with a note on poetry & signing

for Joe Castronovo

two fingers,
nearly touch

matching the pulse inside
the skull
a figure “8” explodes

over the temples,
gentle movements of the mind
of words in air

in silence:
do I learn to speak you?
can you hear

the way the lines weave,
moving from the touch

to vanish
as sounds do
writing frees itself

from object-
at last



The dedication to Joe Castronovo goes back to the first associations I had with ASL (American Sign Language) and the possibilities of a poetry-without-sound. Led there by Ursula Bellugi and Ed Klima, following my arrival in San Diego, I made an attempt (circa 1976/1977) to work out an experimental approach to a total translation from ASL, collaborating with the deaf poet Joe Castronovo, who was himself a native signer. But circumstances got in the way & we never followed through on it, although since then I've come on the work of performance poets composing in ASL & have been delighted to see how much further it could go. The premature death of Joe Castronovo several years ago was a true loss to those of us who sensed the promise that his early work had set in motion.

In our book, Symposium of the Whole: A Range of Discourse Toward an Ethnopoetics (1983), Diane Rothenberg and I reproduced an early and seminal account of ASL poetry, "Poetry without Sound" by Klima and Bellugi. Since then I also found important stimulation in essays by Michael Davidson and Dirksen Bauman, but the definitive current work in this area is Signing the Body Poetic: Essays in American Sign Language from The University of California Press, now readily available. My introduction to the Bellugi-Klima essay follows, as a statement of how this poetry radically altered my own inclination toward a phonocentric approach to a poetics.

POETRY 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 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.)

[The Michael Davidson and Dirksen Bauman essays mentioned above appear in the Ubuweb ethnopoetics site:, while Symposium of the Whole, including the Bellugi-Klima essay, is currently out of print.]

1 comment:

William Michaelian said...

Indeed, it can be said that sound depends on silence for its existence and meaning. Silence is certainly at the heart of poetry, and is its guiding impulse — the silence between words, between lines, between thoughts; the silence that arises between alert, receptive human beings.

The larger the silence, the greater the music.

Poetry revels in sound, but does not require sound for its existence.

Does dance require movement?


With so many of us talking at once,
I wonder how there can be silence at all.
Or is silence the sum total of sound,
An infinite roar, a vessel rimmed with stars?