Protactile Poetry

Edited by John Lee Clarke
A West Branch Wired Exclusive

One of the outcomes I expect from the enterprise of translating American Sign Language poetry into English is that it would disappoint many readers. Hearing people who don’t know any ASL have long celebrated ASL poetry as “amazing” and “beautiful.” They can watch performances, mesmerized, and project anything onto the hands moving through the air. It is appropriate, then, that Patrick Graybill’s series of ASL haiku “Memories” is sad and speaks of one of the greatest but as yet widely unknown crimes against humanity—oralism.

Oscar Chacon’s “The Lumberjack Story” and Rhonda Voight-Campbell’s “Solace” are some of the first works of Protactile literature to be composed, let alone be translated. Unlike “Memories,” which allows a straightforward translation to be adequate, these two pieces require added creative approaches. For “The Lumberjack Story,” I decided to let some of the phonological features of Protactile jut into the translation, as with “Give me your hand…” Protactile is spoken by using the receiver’s body as “contact space” where speech occurs the most.

For “Solace,” Voight-Campbell performed it to me and a friend at the same time. In Protactile, conversations are typically between two people or among three people. In the latter, speakers must “split” their message into two clones, so to give the two listeners the same message. As she performed her poem, I was aware not only of receiving the poem myself but also of the other person receiving the poem along with me. I felt that it would lend the translation a special vibration to represent this duality.

—John Lee Clark

John Lee Clark is a DeafBlind poet, essayist, translator, and educator based in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Memories (ASL Haiku)

All those Sundays
on the long road
toward the red-bricked chimney
at the Kansas School for the Deaf.
The cheap paint they used: a yellow
that pained my eye, a blue
that made me grimace, and a sickly green
that made me gag.
Oh no, not speech class again!
My singing hands seized,
stripped, whipped, and shoved
into thick mittens.
Grumpy Miss Kilcoyne
waddling past
as we nudged each other, pointing:
“Bulldog on the leash!”
Translated from the American Sign Language by John Lee Clark

Patrick Graybill is a distinguished Deaf actor, storyteller, and poet based in Rochester, New York.

The Lumberjack Story

So the lumberjack has a hat like that, with a button right on top of your head. And they have suspenders over your shoulders going down to here at your belt. Nice! Give me your hand like this. Good. So they have this axe, solid wood going up your forearm, and the metal part tapers off like your fingers. Sharp! And they have this device clipped onto your belt here. I will explain later what it’s for.

On this particular day the lumberjack sweeps their cane across your leg. Foliage brushes past your arms. Give me your forearm, fingers spread. So their cane goes up against your forearm. They feel it all around and slap the trunk approvingly. They unshoulder the axe and make three crisp cuts on your forearm. Good. Their cane goes up your upper arm, away from the tree.

Remember the device on your belt here? Well, they press it and it makes a noise. Your forearm falls down. That’s perfect! They come back down your upper arm and feel the fallen tree all over. Whoo!

The lumberjack goes bushwhacking again across your leg. More leaves and branches pass by. Give me your forearm, fingers spread. So their cane snakes down your upper arm and encounters your forearm. They feel around the trunk. Impressive! Three crisp knocks with the axe. They go snaking back up your upper arm. They press the device and it makes a noise.

They return to your forearm. What is the tree doing there, still standing? Scratching head. Oh yes! They hurry back up your upper arm, turn around, and take the device off your belt here. Give me your hand. So they aim this at the tree and press it. Its screen shows a hand spelling the word TIMBER. Give me your forearm, fingers spread. It shakes, wobbles, and falls, bouncing off the ground twice. The lumberjack returns to inspect your fallen forearm. Whoo!

The lumberjack is back on your leg, forging ahead in the forest. Give me your forearm. Snaking their way down your upper arm, they bump into your forearm. Immediately, they know this one is special. They caress the trunk and their heart leaps like your heart is leaping here. They almost swoon. Unshouldering the axe, they give your forearm the three most loving taps. Tap. Tap. Tap.

They go back up your upper arm, turn around, and press the device on your belt here. It makes a noise. They run down but find the tree still standing. They scurry back up, turn around, and take the device off your belt. Give me your hand. So they aim it and press it. TIMBER.

At the base of your forearm, the lumberjack is surprised. Still standing! What’s going on? Rubbing chin. Could it be? Could it really be? Only one way to find out.

The lumberjack starts climbing up your forearm. They reach your leafy hand. They straddle your thumb and put out their hand into the mass of leaves to spell TIMBER.

Your hand convulses in recognition. Your forearm shakes and wobbles. It begins to swoon. The lumberjack stays nested in your hand until the mighty trunk nears the ground. They leap out and land on your leg as your forearm crashes and bounces off the ground. Whoo!

Translated from the Protactile by John Lee Clark

Patrick Graybill is a distinguished Deaf actor, storyteller, and poet based in Rochester, New York.


The wind. The wind
is throttling. Is throttling
your slender. Your slender
arm swaying. Arm swaying
back and. Back and
forth in. Forth in
agony holding. Agony holding
on until. On until
warmth comes. Warmth comes
to climb. To climb
and caress. And caress
your calm. Your calm
all the. All the
way up. Way up
to your. To your
budding fingertips. Budding fingertips
Translated from the Protactile by John Lee Clark

Rhonda Voight-Cambpell is a DeafBlind instructor at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf–Rochester Institute of Technology.