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  • The Heart of the Hydrogen Jukebox
  • Rachel Sutton-Spence
The Heart of the Hydrogen Jukebox, DVD, produced and directed by Miriam Nathan Lerner and Don Feigel (2009, Rochester Institute of Technology, ISBN 978-0-9749979-7-1). Running time: 1:58:45.

A reviewer thinking about a new publication faces the same questions as a student of poetry thinking about a poem: "What is it?" "What is it for?" and "Who is it for?" Thinking about The Heart of the Hydrogen Jukebox, which is about poetry (although it is also about more than that) brings these questions even more sharply into focus, and the answers can be just as surprising and multilayered.

What Is It?

At the most factual level, it is a collection of interviews, reminiscences, commentaries, and performances by American poets and interpreters who were involved in the ASL poetry movement of the 1980s in Rochester, New York. The reason for the title of the DVD becomes clear in chapter 10, when Allen Ginsberg explains the idea of a "hydrogen jukebox" (from his poem "Howl") at a seminar in February 1984. Patrick Graybill, then a fledgling deaf poet in the audience, asks, "Why did you pick that word, hydrogen?" and Ginsberg replies, "Oh, the hydrogen bomb. The noise of the jukebox is apocalyptic, so the emergence of that kind of rock and roll and that kind of heavy noise is almost like the beginning of the explosion of the end of the world."

If the conditions are right, the hydrogen bomb creates enormous energy from very little mass. At NTID in Rochester, New York, the conditions were exactly right when people and events came together [End Page 464] as the "perfect storm" to position that place and that moment at the very heart of the ASL poetry hydrogen jukebox.

The DVD is divided into 17 chapters. In chapter 1, the introduction, a glorious stream of unattributed, unremarked-upon, and highly diverse poetic images is presented like a buffet table spread with desserts of every kind. Next, poets explore definitions of poetry and the place of sign language poetry in relation to written and spoken poetry. Each of the next ten chapters focuses on a different poet, with archive footage of their comments on experiences relating to their poetry and examples of their work. The list of deaf poets reads like a pantheon of the great and the good of ASL poetry: Robert Panara, Bernard Bragg, Dorothy Miles, Patrick Graybill, Ella Mae Lentz, Clayton Valli, Peter Cook, and Debbie Rennie. Other chapters focus on Jim Cohn and Allen Ginsberg, and one deals with several of the interpreters who provided access to the ASL poetry performances for hearing people, as well as the inimitable Kenny Lerner, who, perhaps more than anyone else, was a "bridge" in the "Bridge of" (see chapter 14). Together they build a story of the background circumstances, the sequence of events, and the hard work, perseverance, genius, chemistry, and love of language that culminated in the "golden age" of ASL poetry in the mid-1980s. The final chapters tell of the developments that came out of that time, bringing us down from the high of the ASL literature conference of 1991 and on to the time when all the poets went their own ways and "that special moment in Rochester history was over" (in Kenny Lerner's words).

But The Heart of the Hydrogen Jukebox is more than just that.

Interestingly, the cover on the box teases us by resolutely refusing to say what its makers think it is. The three quotations that make up the jacket blurb suggest what it might be. Harlan Lane states that it is a selection of poems and interviews. Former beat poet David Cope sees it as a historic poetics document and a gift from Deaf poets; "a compendium of the variety of performance and literary styles of individual poets" (and certainly the diversity of styles is striking). Paddy Ladd says it is "beautifully crafted." All of these statements are true, all are significant elements of the DVD, and all are clearly what struck these three writers most forcibly. For Harlan Lane, it was both entertaining and educating...


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