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American Annals of the Deaf

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Moon on the Meadow: Collected Poems

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My parents made sure there were plenty of novels around the house, and an old set of Encyclopaedia Britannica volumes. My dear Aunt Carole supplied me with all manner of books, frilly bathing suits, my first typewriter and steady encouragement. My parents and my aunt were my early critics and fed my brain in earnest.

My first short story was published during the eighth grade, in the school newspaper. It was completely fictitious, about a neighbor boy (I had changed his name, I wrote) who had been bitten by a poisonous snake in our backyard, which ran down to a creek. He manages to make it to the side door of the house, where he rings the bell and then knocks feebly as his life slowly ebbs away. My mother is at home, baking a pie in the kitchen. Because she is deaf, she cannot hear his pleas for help. He dies on the porch; the neighbors blame my mother and have her arrested. The judge realizes the death is not her fault and she is exonerated.

Why did I write such a thing? The faculty, students, and administrators of St. William’s School all thought it had been a true story. They believed it was real because of the description, the detail, and my manipulation of scene, language, and image in such a way that the story seemed quite plausible. When my parents read it, they just about died. I think I was trying to evoke sympathy, community understanding, some sort of compassion for the circumstances of many deaf people. Combined in this story was a mild sense of outrage at how frequently the hearing community exhibits prejudicial behavior toward deaf people. I am also ashamed to admit that I benefited, for several months, from the waves of sympathy exhibited by those who thought the snake story was true.

Also in the eighth grade, I wrote my first haiku, in English class. Its content led to a concern that, because I was being raised by deaf parents, I was inordinately depressed. I was forced to go into counseling, with a school psychologist who watered his artificial plants. Here’s the poem:

Planes zoom overhead
and all in Danang lie dead.
The silent bomb falls.
My observations of those whose good intentions nonetheless further false and stereotypical thinking about the abilities of deaf people sometimes also appear as themes in my work. I wrote a scathing poem about this psychologist. It is still on the wall in my office and cannot be repeated here. Sometimes CODAs are treated by behavioral, medical, and school personnel as if we are science experiments just waiting to burst into flames.

Then there was the time my mother was in Hudson’s, at the candy counter, trying to buy some assorted chocolates for a Christmas box to send to some relatives. The salesperson immediately assumed that my mother was mentally challenged, and simply turned away, refusing to engage her in any fashion, disappearing though the curtained doorway that led to the back room. Or the time when a drugstore clerk called the police after thinking that my mother had stolen an item that had simply fallen into her shopping basket and that she had not set on the cashier’s counter to pay for. This sense of outrage still informs some of my poetry. Watching some of the discrimination my parents endured and feeling their frustration are forces that occasionally find their voice in my work. My mother once told me that when her parents had company, she would be put in a closet, released only after the last guest had departed. Some of those experiences have made their way into my poems, as have some of my memories of life in our own family, like the Christmas parties at the deaf club.

And then there is a great deal of experience, expressed in some of my poetry, as my parents’ interpreter. I was making phone calls to doctors’ offices and other agencies as early as age four. If I missed an important call in the middle of the night while sleeping, I was usually punished. Nonetheless, my overall feeling is one of gratitude for and celebration of being a quasi-member of two cultures, even as that identity was often one of confusing and overlapping allegiances. Some of this identity conflict also appears in my life and, therefore, my work. I am actually a little more comfortable in the deaf community than in the hearing world, and yet I love music, and I love sounds like the scraping of figure skates on ice or the grinding noise made by truckers as they are downshifting. I love to say favorite words out loud, slowly, like “amalgamated” or “Palomino.” Even when my hearing siblings and I get together, we often use sign language rather than speech. I attach sounds to motion, as when wheat stalks are rustled by the breeze. When I speak, I often stumble over words and their pronunciations, preferring to make myself understood by signing.

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