What Meets the Eye? The Deaf Perspective: eds. Lisa Kelly, Sophie Stone, Arachne Press
This first week of May has been Deaf Awareness Week and this past year has seen Deafness and the Deaf community attract a lot of positive media attention. What a good time to read and reflect on this collection of poems, short fiction and scripts by UK Deaf, deaf, and Hard of Hearing writers.
The winner of Strictly Come Dancing, profoundly deaf contestant Rose Ayling-Ellis, was seen on our screen, week after week, using BSL (British Sign Language) signs in Sign Supported English (SSE). Some of her performances incorporated the imagery of silence, dancing with no musical background. This captured the imaginations of her British audience and judges. However, as most Deaf and Hard of Hearing people will tell you, they don’t ever actually hear silence; Deafness creates all manner of perceptions of sound, as are reflected in many of the poems in this collection.
And in Hollywood, we saw Troy Kotsur become only the second Deaf person to be nominated for an Oscar. He won! The film CODA – an acronym for “Child of Deaf Adults” – saw deaf actors in deaf roles, getting the recognition that they deserve.
What Meets the Eye?, published in 2021, explores the theme of movement, as perceived by the Deaf. This is interpreted in many different ways, including mobility, stillness, being emotionally moved, movement within and after lockdown, being part of a political movement, and freedom of movement.
It's edited by Lisa Kelly, poet and co-editor of Magma 69, The Deaf Issue, and actor and writer Sophie Stone. The preface is by Deaf writer and award-winning poet Raymond Antrobus. He himself has recently published a new poetry collection, All the Names Given, which takes the reader on a journey, like reading a novel. Both collections consider the miscommunications that are experienced by the Deaf/deaf community, sound and silence, and movement, which by Antrobus is interpreted via travel. The writers in What Meets the Eye? have a much broader interpretation of movement.
There are over 50 contributions, by all British writers. Some of the pieces link to BSL videos produced by the authors and translators, making them accessible in both languages, English and BSL. This year also marks the legal recognition of BSL as an official language, after years of Deaf activism.
So many of the contributions met my eye, but to name just a few:
Mary-Jayne Russel de Clifford in ‘Label’, the movement throughout her life of being labelled as Deaf, Girlfriend, Graduated, Mother, Divorced, Vegan: “I am here/I reject your labels/Life moves and I with it.”
DL Williams, “MAPping a New Landscape”: the majority of profoundly deaf children, and some adults in the UK, now use cochlear implants to enable them to hear the sounds of speech and environmental sounds, through electrical impulses. Their implant speech processors need to be set with programmes, called MAPping. The MAPs are created using hearing tests which are done in an audiology clinic. “A new map is being drawn/with each new sound/another shade appears. / New countries/ entire new continents/ rise from the abyss/ … This territory of noise/ comfort levels/ and threshold limits/ denote the boundaries/ of acoustic tolerance … Here be monsters/ Beware of the cackling/crackling crisp packets …”
Lisa Kelly’s ‘A Map Towards Fluency’ describes something completely different, the handshapes needed to learn to use BSL signs, in her weekly signing class. It is beautifully observed and described with humour. Jean the teacher “as a child was forced to sit on her hands”.
Living life as an adult with a cochlear implant is very well described in prose in ‘Neutral’ by Sophie Woolley. This piece is set during lockdown. It uses different formats: plain text for Spoken English, BOLD for BSL, italics for actions. I loved this observation: “They’re both giving me the look that says ‘you’re wearing a facemask in a car with us?!’ There’s a disappointed air – like I’ve brought orange juice to a party instead of a bag of weed …”
This lengthy piece contrasts with the six-line poem of David Callin, ‘Coastal Walking for the Hard of Hearing.’ Pure simplicity, telling the experience and frustration felt by the majority of people with age-induced deafness. Hearing aids are helpful, but they do not restore hearing to normal, and are simply useless in some situations:
“The wind is a bully, in hearing aids/ making itself/ and nothing else heard. /So out they come/ and calm is restored/ the world reduced to a silent film.”
Many of the poems and prose in the collection, although written by Deaf and Hard of Hearing writers, do not allude to their hearing status or lack of sound. Movement is the theme explored. ‘Where is Syria’ by Hala Hashem, the rap ‘Pushing Boundaries’ by Clare-Louise English, and ‘In memory of our Father’ by Ayesha B Gavin, are all of special note.
In summary, a special read. So much explored. Well done Arachne Press.
Kathy Owston is a recently retired teacher of the Deaf of over 40 years. She has worked in the UK at Oak Lodge School for Profoundly Deaf pupils in Wandsworth, London, as an Advisory Teacher of the Deaf in Oxfordshire, in London and in West Sussex, and as an Implant Centre Teacher of the Deaf (ICToD) at St Thomas’ Hospital Auditory Implant Centre, London. Kathy has also worked with Deaf children as an educational audiologist in Harare, Zimbabwe, and more recently in Jinotega, Esteli and Leon in Nicaragua