Echo (A Deaf Sequence)
Each month we feature a guest post from a contributor to Poetry’s current issue. Raymond Antrobus’s poem “Echo” appears in the March 2017 issue. Previous posts in this series can be found on the Editors’ Blog.
“Echo” is a five-poem sequence first published in the March issue of Poetry. Initially, I was attempting to write each poem as a separate sonnet, leaning on the idea that sonnets are intimate “little sounds,” but they felt stiff in my mouth, even if they looked good on the page. I couldn’t sing them in my voice, so I wrote them out plainly, keeping the ideas but fleshing out the bones. I carved my own shape and rhythm after hearing the Mexican-British poet and Carcanet publisher Michael Schmidt say, “If a poem has an interesting idea, it should make an interesting noise.” I took this as a kind of permission to make my own noise.
The interesting idea came off the back of visiting Gaudí’s church in Barcelona. If you listen to the audio guide, you will be led to parts of the church where you are directed to stand under the rather unorthodox shaped roof and shout/sing. You’re then instructed to listen to how that sound moves and to identify it as something divine, to experience sound the way an angel would. The fact I could only experience this sound artificially (with hearing aids) made me wonder if my experience was less divine. I pondered this for a few years before finding a way to write what has become “Echo.” I thought about Rilke, whose Duino Elegies open on a kind of pleading: “Who, if I cried out would hear me among the hierarchy of angels.” I also thought of Philip Larkin’s poem “Church Going,” where the church is described as a “tense, musty, unignorable silence.” Both Rilke and Larkin enter a kind of “serious house on a serious earth” and challenge/question the assumed authority of the space. Rilke, who wrote highly-charged lyric, and Larkin, in his highly-charged first-person narrative, both accomplish in verse what a powerful digital hearing aid accomplishes in sound—everything it picks up has glistening clarity.
One of the surprises for me in writing these poems is that they became elegies for my father, who passed away recently. When you lose a parent you find yourself reevaluating who you are. My father was a Jamaican man who loved music. It is music I inherited from him, in boxes of cassette tapes and vinyls, and it is playing these sounds that bring him back to me now, recording Talk Over dubs in his council flat in Hackney, East London. There’s a particular tape I found marked “Louise Bennett” (better known as Miss Lou) who was a Jamaican poet and storyteller. My dad had recorded her reciting poems on the radio, including Colonization In Reverse.
Wat a joyful news, miss Mattie,
I feel like me heart gwine burs
Jamaica people colonizin
Englan in Reverse
By de hundred, by de tousan
From country and from town,
By de ship-load, by de plane load
Jamaica is Englan boun.
Miss Lou is the voice of my father’s Jamaica, speaking from it and to it from England. He would have recorded these poems before he had taken me to Jamaica himself, but this was his way of introducing me to the island. The tone of the poem is humorous, but knowing the racism my dad suffered on English streets and in factories (he was a mechanic), I think this poem must have been cathartic for him. It also communicated a joy he wanted to share with his British Jamaican son.
On the other side of the tape it was marked “Raymond Speaking” and it was my voice trying to speak as mentioned in the third part of “Echo.” The fact he brought poetry to me through sound and voice impacted me powerfully. My parents didn’t get along in the end, but they both respected poetry. My mum is a wide reader and filled my childhood bookshelves with poets from Michael Rosen and Jean Binta Breeze to Adrian Mitchell and Linton Kwesi Johnson. These are all poets who were renowned for the way they spoke poems, the way they made them sound out loud.
II. A Language We Both Know
Most of my school life played out in Special Educational Needs units. From six years old it was assumed I was dyslexic and introverted. It wasn’t until the phone rang while I was sitting in my mum’s kitchen one day that she realized I was totally oblivious to the shrill, high-pitched sound. This changed the pathology on my school reports from “slowness” to “deafness.” It’s our first seven years of life that are vital for our language acquirement, most of which comes from what we pick up through hearing.
Without my Deafness diagnosed there were holes in my relationship with sound. When Special Educational Needs teachers assessed me in class, I would strain to hear everything (even with hearing aids), feeling my intellect was being questioned; the pressure quickly hurt my brain. By the second lesson I’d be trying not to fall asleep. (Once it was noted my dad was Jamaican, school councilors raised the question whether I was smoking weed.)
Despite the anxiety of school I kept a journal and wrote in notebooks, which is how I subconsciously preserved and built my love of and confidence in language. What followed was years of speech therapy, audiology clinics and five years in Blanche Nevile Deaf School (with most lessons taking place in the hearing school next door with support teachers). In both hearing and Deaf spaces I was defensive about my ability to communicate. I began learning British Sign Language but the hearing students began teasing me when they saw me speaking it; on the other side of the wall some deaf students mocked my lack of BSL fluency, calling me a “baby signer.”
I began wearing hats over my hearing aids or sneaking them out of my ears in class. Looking back this was when I most needed the nurturing of a Deaf identity, one that wasn’t medical, but philosophical, one that embraced my natural love of language and valued Deafness as a way of being.
So why have I turned to poetry to publicly explore this? Because poems are careful things—if done well, every sound and word has something to carry. My poems are Deaf poems because they are defiant in how they take up space on the page, not searching for loss, but for something gained.
I think that what my parents respected about poetry was its ability to communicate the otherwise unsayable; becoming a poet is my attempt to achieve a power equal to digital hearing aids.
Listen to Raymond Antrobus read “Echo” on the weekly Poetry Magazine Podcast.