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Sign Language Studies 6.3 (2006) 342-346

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Disregarding Poetic Transidentity

Analysing Sign Language Poetry by Rachel Sutton-Spence with Paddy Ladd and Gillian Rudd. (New York/Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, 256 pp. Hardcover, $75, ISBN 1C40393-507-6)

One of the signs of the post-9/11 period is that there is little actual forward thinking about poetry. This is, as Rachel Sutton- Spence reveals in Analysing Sign Language Poetry, as dismal a fact for the revolutionary medium of sign language poetry as it is for poetry in general.

Sutton-Spence is a lecturer in Deaf Studies at the Centre for Deaf Studies at the University of Bristol, where she researches and teaches sign language linguistics and the social context of sign languages. This background would seem to give her an ideal perspective from which to draw important conclusions on the relationship between social constructions of deafness and the "series of linguistic signals" through which "we know that something is a poem" in sign language.

Sutton-Spence's study of sign language prosody, or the principles of poetic metric and spatial patterning, does have its relevance. There are those within the Deaf and hearing communities alike who have long recognized the need for a thorough meta-analysis of sign language poetics. One can say that such an analysis should be of the utmost significance to anyone concerned with the diverse schools [End Page 342] and movements found in twentieth-century poetic experimentation in the United States.

Analysing Sign Language Poetry deals with this same period of experimentation. Specifically, this work arises from the emergence of sign language as the primary medium for poetic expression among the Deaf literati, a major transition from colonized English-oriented, print-based Deaf poetic enterprise. This shift in Western Deaf culture corresponds with a period of social and political opposition to "official" English language oppression of Deaf Americans. Sutton-Spence argues that sign language poetry has played a central role in this transition.

The author possesses a wealth of knowledge with which to contribute to the growing body of prose, recognizing the traditions that make up the Deaf poetics canon. In addition to her linguistics background, she is an authority on the subject of the British and American Sign Language poet Dorothy Miles (1931–1993). Miles, the author wrote in an online biographical sketch (European Cultural Heritage Online 2003), affected the "development of the concept of sign language poetry within the Deaf Community" in a way that makes her central to its heritage. Analysing Sign Language Poetry undertakes to explain the significance of that statement.

Dorothy Miles was provocative in her person and her poetry. She was both ambiguous and multiple enough so that various groups have created different histories with correspondingly particular modes, methods, or goals around her. She was of mixed linguacultural heritage. She wrote poems in English and had status as a deaf poet. Beyond Deaf culture, she is held in esteem by the disability movement.

Dorothy Miles reinvented her identity several times over the course of her life. Her identity was formed, negotiated, confirmed, and challenged by the varied export and import of her sign language and written poetry among the communities she engaged and from which she gained varying degrees of membership as one of their own. She lived long enough to participate in the radicalization of American Sign Language.

She lived with and made poetry through episodes of clinical depression and mania. Finally, she took the drastic measure of throwing herself out of her second-story apartment window to her death. [End Page 343] Through a more detached lens, Sutton-Spence sees in Dorothy Miles a poet whose work provides a symbol for postmodernist Deaf culture.

Dorothy Miles, notes Sutton-Spence, "was in the unique position to develop a clear understanding of sign poetry principles." Those principles are founded on the idea that the proof of poetry is in its relation to the language of the street, the language ordinary people use. Miles expressed it like this: "To look at spoken poetry, first look at spoken language. To look at signed poetry...


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