Book Review: Handbuzz and Other Voices (Karyn Lie-Nielsen)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

One of the joys of reviewing books is the discovery of something new. That goes for disability literature as it does for literature in general. Thanks to the work of poet-anthologists like John Lee Clark and Raymond Luczak, poetry by members of the Deaf community is becoming more widely known and available. Their work has not only brought the existence of ASL poetry to light for the general non-Deaf public, but Clark in particular has brought to bear how ASL might influence the writing of a poetry in his own work. Between the work of writers like Clark and writers unaware of Deaf culture lie a group of voices rarely heard from in poetry, writers known by the Deaf community as CODA or Children of Deaf Adults. Happily, such a voice has emerged with this year with Karyn Lie-Nielsen’s Handbuzz and Other Voices.

In the first stanza of the book’s title poem, Lie-Nielsen writes:

It is 1956.
The deaf are partying.
I’m the only one
here who hears
whose ears
aren’t stuck or broken.
I’m small and odd, ignored,
but not bored.

This reversal of the usual situation – where it is the hearing person who is at a disadvantage – provides Lie-Nielsen with a rather unique vantage point, one in which she comes to language with a perspective uncommon among hearing poets:

I’m learning to read speech unspoken,
the fanning and shaping of hands,
the squiggles on pages of faces and fingers
and hands.

Handbuzz is Lie-Nielsen’s first book of poetry and she wisely keeps it a slim one. While it is a book easy enough to read in one sitting, it feels complete, leading the reader from the poets birth into a non-hearing family to her own adult work as an ASL translator. Particularly interesting are the poems such as "Voice" and "How I Learned to Talk" (see the poetry section of this journal) in which Lie-Nielsen’s close observation of how vocal language emerges from the body that bring home to the reader the ultimately physical basis of language and the power of grounding poetry in the physical world. One of the virtues of Handbuzz is its accessibility to almost any interested reader. Take, for example, the opening lines of "The Deaf Woman Observes Her Hearing Daughter":

From pucker to grotesque grin
the girl moves her lips
showing her teeth and tongue,
a concentrated exercise of muscle
that plumps the blush of her cheeks.

There are no words in these lines that require a dictionary, yet nothing about them is cliché. They work not just on a visual level but on an even more basic physical level where the repetition of discordant sounds of p, g, and t add a palpable texture to the image. It is texture that she has gained from the early lessons in "Voice" where with hand on her mother she says "I touch her face, the bones hum/ like leaves in the row of maples." That close observation of the physicality of language carries through many of Lie-Nielsen’s poems.

With the possible exception of "The Stilt Walkers," which uses a two column format, Handbuzz does not rely on experimental form, on post-modern allusions, or access to academic insider understandings. Neither – despite its importance as a unique point of view about life among deaf adults – does it have an overt political agenda. In addition to close observation and deft use of common speech, she draws on metaphor as a means of getting her images across. At times as in "The Town of Emotional Transport" the metaphor is poem-length, most often these comparisons are two or three lines long. A particularly good example is "Sign Language Interpreter." In contrast to her role as a poet, as an ASL interpreter she says, "I’m someone else’s purple prose" and

"True or not I’m the messenger
gripping the handbook, an audio-visual
song and dance.

If there is any place where Handbuzz and Other Voices leaves one feeling a bit short-changed it is in not having more poetry that draws on Nielsen’s experience as an ASL interpreter, the unique implications of which are only hinted at in the collection’s one poem on the subject.

As a child with two deaf parents, in addition to the day to day observations from her unusual vantage point, Nielsen is also able to give a brief glimpse into the lives of deaf Americans prior to any disability rights movement. The opening poem of the book, "Demeter and Persephone in Odessa, Mississippi, 1918-22" chronicles the birth of her mother via midwife after being abandoned to poverty by her own father and her placement in a school for the deaf "miles and miles from home." The poet’s father represents quite a different experience marking the onset of a deaf life. In "Hank Williams and My Father" the poet says:

When haints swarmed the scrub in the barefoot hills of Ozarks
one blew its swamp breath directly into my father’s fevered childhood sleep
and within days he became a deaf boy

Unlike her mother, the poet’s father had the dim recollection of sound. As an adult, her father also does not appear stand out as isolated from the working class community, where he is a leather worker at the International Shoe Company. Drawing upon her skill in specific description, Lie-Nielsen captures the feel of her father’s co-workers in "Meeting My Father at Lunch" :

And then the workers
pour out like cattle kicking dust.
Men in stained tee-shirts pull cigarette packs
from rolled sleeves, drag combs through greasy hair.
And women practice lipstick and chatter,
their heads wrapped in faded cotton scarves
smelling of smoke and hairspray.

Handbuzz and Other Voicesis truly one of those books that whets the appetite for more. Satisfying as poetry in its own right, it provides a view of the Deaf community and the bodily nature of language acquisition that readers rarely encountered. At the same time, it leaves us wondering how much more Lie-Nielsen has to tell us. Surely, there is another book coming.

Title: Handbuzz and Other Voices
Author: Karyn Lie-Nielsen
Publisher: Damfino Press
Publication Date: 2015


Michael Northen is the editor of Wordgathering and an editor with Jennifer Bartlett and Sheila Black of the anthology Beauty is a Verb: the New Poetry of Disability. He is also an editor of the upcoming anthology of disabiity short fiction, The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked (Cinco Puntos Press).