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Sign Language Studies 6.3 (2006) 347-354

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Revolution in Poetic Sign Language

Analysing Sign Language Poetry by Rachel Sutton-Spence with Paddy Ladd and Gillian Rudd. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, 256 pp. Hardcover, $75, ISBN 1-40393-507-6)
"What makes a poem a poem, finally, is that it is unparaphrasable. There is no other way to say exactly this; it exists only in its own body of language, only in these words. I may try to explain it in other terms, but then some element of its life will always be missing."
—Doty, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon

Through typography and photography, Analysing Sign Language Poetry attempts to analyze a form of poetry characterized by its impermanence. To interpret this poetry, Rachel Sutton-Spence works primarily from video recordings of poetry recitals, from virtual rather actual verses. Black-and-white stills from these recordings are used throughout the book to illustrate different aspects of sign language poetry. The "talking hands" format of this footage has drawbacks in that the contrast between the usually static lower body and the dynamism of the poet's hands and arms, which forms part of the overall effect of any performance, is lost. These video stills are [End Page 347] supplemented by an appendix that contains versions of the sign language poems in written English, versions that Sutton-Spence emphasizes must be understood as translations. They are in another language, fixed upon the page, static. They cannot be understood as equivalent to this poetry in its performance, this poetry in motion, with its energy and kinesis. Sign language poetry is, by nature, fleeting. The poetry can be planned, and preparations can be made, but the poem itself emerges only through its performance and endures for the length of that presentation. The sign language poem is a kind of illocutionary speech. It does what it says. It is not produced and then recited; rather, its recitation effects its production. It is in its performance. The end of the presentation marks the disappearance of the poem, and this makes the poetry difficult to analyze. The poems that are discussed here no longer exist. Sutton-Spence works with the traces that persist of gestures that have long since vanished. The book is a work of memory.

Sutton-Spence's new book remembers past performances of poems and also contributes to the remembrance of the poets themselves. In particular, Analysing Sign Language Poetry focuses on the work of sign language poet Dorothy Miles. Miles was a political activist who fought with her hands to produce poetry that highlighted the injustices inflicted upon the Deaf community by a largely ignorant hearing world. Hers was a courageous voice. Miles, who committed suicide in 1993, was the foremost sign language poet of her generation. She composed poetry in both ASL and BSL. Sutton- Spence examines versions of Miles's work in both languages while also tracking the poet's development from early experiments with blended poems (which combine both English and ASL) to her later creations in pure sign language. Many of Miles's poems are concerned with Deaf politics—the tyranny of oralism and the trials of everyday existence in an unfair hearing world. Some of these works, like The Ugly Duckling and Walking down the Street, are discussed in the book. Miles is no longer here to recite these works, but Sutton-Spence's text provides them with an afterlife.

In a different context, that of a boxing match, A. J. Liebling wrote that the memory of any match will eventually become "an amalgam of what you thought you saw there, what you read in the papers you [End Page 348] saw, and what you saw in the films" (2004, 49). Sign language poems are similar. While the physical event is ephemeral, its remembrance is mutable and lasting. Through its images and interpretations, Analysing Sign Language Poetry is immensely valuable in its contribution to the recollection of Miles's oeuvre. Miles would perhaps be pleased to know that her verses are central to a work that argues...


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