Footnote to Arbor Vitae
We were going out one day and for some reason I ran back into the house to get something out of the attic. Having been burgled four times I had installed a burglar alarm and stretching out on the ladder to open the trapdoor I accidentally set it off. The internal siren, called a sound bomb, instantly liquified my entire world and I fell to the floor. Everyone was screaming except Florence who was six months old at the time. No reaction at all in fact. This was our first indication that she might be deaf.
We contacted a deaf woman, Wendy Murray, who over a period of two years taught our family to sign. Only later did we find out that sign language is prohibited in the deaf schools, parents being instructed not to as much as point at things in front of their child. This suppression of their natural language is based on the belief that a deaf child allowed to sign will never learn to speak. Steven Pinker, in The Language Instinct, describes the results of this policy, Oralism, as ‘dismal’.
The poem is in three sections. Section One focuses on the Irish experience. Here, deaf education offers a grim parallel to what Pearse called ‘the murder machine’, the systematic attempt of the English to obliterate the Irish language. The motif ‘I get up early in the morning …’ translates an Irish language pseudo-narrative of the sixties which used to be taught in all the various tenses to schoolchildren. Deaf children are not taught the Irish language. Intensive voice training from the age of three hardly leaves time for the three R’s. Politically, this was how deaf adults were excluded from teaching as one needed a qualification in Irish in order to enter University. Wendy told us of how as a child she returned to school after the summer holidays to find all the deaf staff gone, teachers, caretakers, cleaners, gardeners. The senior girls had been removed to another school. From then on she was punished for signing and told that it was a sin, her mentors vigorously signing the word "sin".
Günz, Mindel, Riss and Würm are the names of four ice ages. William’s Bon Chretien is a variety of pear.
No matter how good your hearing is there are things which you will not hear. In the stanza beginning 'Do or don’t judge a city by its size, …’the vertical acrostic spells deoxyribonucleic acid. This will of course be silent in any reading, particularly the way in which the syntax runs across line endings. (The content extemporises on some remarks made by Wittgenstein where he compares language to a city. Hearing educators have a history of refusing to recognise signing as a language possessing a grammar of its own.) Deafness has a strongly genetic character. Apart from the obvious matter of heredity, deaf children of deaf parents learn their natural language naturally, do not have to experience the oddity of being taught their native language, and so can acquire language before the latency period has passed. Deaf children of hearing parents are rarely so lucky. Here DNA is intended to represent something that extends beyond an individual life while also suggesting uniqueness, one’s personal secret. (Not all of one’s genes are manifested in one’s own physical makeup.) The earlier stanza ‘How much of us have they translated? …’ refers to the human genome project, an attempt to completely decipher this furtive language.
A recurrent motif is provided by the anagrams of the word chaos. This is partly a musical device, partly to represent the disarray of the institutions, despite their obsession with order. Instructions are given for working out all 120 anagrams, mirroring the way those in institutions are constantly told what to do.
The cave with its paintings described in the opening of section was discovered Vallon-Pont-d’Arc in the Ardèche region of France in the same year that I was writing the poem. These naturalistic images contrast with the digital prose quoted from the convention of Milan, held in 1800, where the decision was taken to abolish the use of signing in deaf education. Almost none of the delegates present were deaf. Since it took over a hundred years for this far reaching decision to affect Ireland, there is a play on the idea of being backward in the later stanza where time reverses. Of course, this is the way archaeologists on a dig perceive time as they sift through the various layers.
‘clause_tree(time):-!’ is a command in Prolog, a computer programming language. ‘dash dash dash/dot dash dot’ spell “Or” in Morse code. The later Morse snippet spells the word “And” the idea being that it is not oralism per se that is the problem, but the monolithic approach.
Sadly, the stanza on Bell is factual. The inventor of the telephone
switched from being an early champion of a form of sign language invented
by his father to an inflexible and powerful opponent.
‘Ay Ee …’ reminds us that deafness is not the complete absence of hearing, and is an example of what some deaf people may hear. (Consonants tend to operate at higher frequencies than vowels so that the latter if anything are more likely to be heard.) It’s also a distorted version of the nursery rhyme ‘Mary Mary, quite contrary’, a sideswipe at the nun who introduced oralism to Ireland. (Having banned signing, she later relented somewhat and published a sign dictionary. Typical of hearing educators, she ‘improved’ things, approximately half the dictionary composed of signs of her own invention. Her efforts were not joyfully received by the deaf community.) There is also the point that the intense regime of voice-training and lip reading tends to displace other possibilities. Thus many deaf people miss out on nursery rhymes and traditional children's games.
‘The negation of AND leads to all gates:…’ refers to a type of electronic switch, or gate, the NAND gate which logically is the negation of inclusion and from which all other types of switch can be built. The ‘primitive streak’ is the term for a formation occuring in embryos about the third week after conception. It marks a longitudinal axis of bilateral symmetry. The two gates mentioned are called the AND and OR gates.
‘Constant whistling…’ refers to the experience of wearing hearing aids. Despite their manufacturers’ superlatives, hearing aids do not ‘replace’ hearing. The human ear has the property of recruitment, that is, it can pick out say one conversation from the welter of sound at a party. Hearing aids cannot do this, and amplify white noise disproportionately. Many deaf people operate well in one to one conversation but cannot deal with background noise at all.
‘Open one of those closed surfaces if you will…’: the acrostic ‘one one one one one’ is self-explanatory. The flock of birds is an example of a complex dynamic structure which does not require a centre or leader. No matter how many times you watch a flock land on a tree, you never see one of them fall off, yet no one is in charge.
The time reversal stanza is also acrostic, the initial letters spelling Adenosine Tri-Phosphate, my favourite molecule, crucial to transfers of energy in living cells. So the stanza concerns itself with power, history, creativity and the relativity of descriptions and theories. The idea of time is central in a context where the latency period for language acquisition is squandered. ‘If I had a hi-fi’ is a palindrome as well as a comment. ‘Richtlice/Hi sind Angle gehatene’ is from Aelric’s ‘Homily on St. Gregory the Great’ quoting said pope’s words on seeing Anglo-Saxon boys for sale as slaves in Rome. The text might be translated: “it is right to call them Angles” Gregory going on to say “for they have the beauty of angels.” The experience is said to have decided him to send missionaries to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. (The belief that they were in need of being saved runs through all of deaf history.) Drosophila, a fruit fly having unusually large chromosomes is a frequent, if unwilling, participant in genetics experiments. I might also remark here that genes can be thought of as a metaphor for the sheer persistence of language. ‘Fricative to voiceless stop’ is Grimm’s law in reverse. The law describes the phonetic shift of initial stops from their Indo-European to their Germanic values. ‘ekwal’ is the word for horse in the reconstruction of what scholar’s believe to be an early ancestor of a great many different languages, Proto-Indo-European.
‘Hard of hearing …’: given that the Deaf have suffered so much for their language it is no small irony that they live in a wash of terms coined by the Hearing. All these terms are used except for ‘non-lingual’. The end is deliberately ambiguous.
Section three introduces a concept that is peculiarly hard for the Hearing to understand: that one cannot hope to hold on to one’s own humanity while treating others as if they are poorly functioning machines. A critique of this deficit model of deafness must address the question of money. Professionals who make enormous profits from a technologically based approach may not be entirely disinterested.
‘But what they don’t know/is what what they do does’ is a quote from Michel Foucault. ‘vertical smoke/slight drift’ is one of the indications of velocity used in the Beaufort wind scale.
‘In a frightened horse…’ is taken from Darwin’s “Voyage of the Beagle”.
‘Amber, beads, cowries, drums’ have all been used as currency. ‘Beth Luis Níon’ the birch, rowan and ash respectively, are the names for the first three letters in Ogham, an ancient Irish alphabet of twenty letters all named after trees.
‘Clouds of yellow…’ the acrostic here, cholinesterase, is a blocker
of neurotransmitters. ‘a box without hinges, keys or lid’ is from one of
Tolkien’s riddles. ‘Icosahedral capsid’ refers to the structure of a virus.
‘what they caught they threw away and what th/ey didn’t catch they kept’
is a riddle which some fishermen are traditionally supposed to have set
for Homer. According to this he is said to have flung himself in the sea
in his frustration at not being able to solve this riddle. The stanza as
a unit plays with elements from the history of printing and reproduction.
‘Or a comic strip…’ The strip in question is “the Numbskulls”.
‘Ask why an oak supports many species…’ the answer: because it’s a native tree. One could think carefully before displacing species so well adapted to their ecosystem. Here the acrostic is acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter.
In Ireland, Oralism has led to fragmentation of the deaf community. We have Protestant signs, Catholic signs, men’s signs, women’s signs, old people’s signs, young people’s signs. Yet despite years of punishment, isolation and cultural vandalism the Deaf have kept their language alive. It has blossomed in the schoolyard if not the classroom, and on the trains to and from the residential schools and within the busy social life of the close-knit adult community. The Irish Deaf Society is run by the Deaf unlike the older National Association. The first deaf person to be fully qualified as a teacher has recently returned from the U.S., having had to go that far to gain entry into a college. The Deaf World Wide Web offers a window on international issues.
The example of Martha's Vineyard shows that a signing society in which
the Hearing are not handicapped by the loss of the considerable talents
of the Deaf is possible. And it is incomparably easier for a hearing person
to learn to sign than for many deaf people to learn to speak. Some day,
sooner rather than later, signing will be taught in every school as a valuable
part of everyone's basic education.