Instruments of Unknowing: On John Lee Clark’s “How to Communicate” and JJJJJerome Ellis’s “Aster of Ceremonies”

Michael Weinstein reviews “How to Communicate” by John Lee Clark and “Aster of Ceremonies” by JJJJJerome Ellis.

Instruments of Unknowing: On John Lee Clark’s “How to Communicate” and JJJJJerome Ellis’s “Aster of Ceremonies”

Aster of Ceremonies by JJJJJerome Ellis. Milkweed Editions. 144 pages.How to Communicate by John Lee Clark. W. W. Norton. 112 pages.

“THE EXERCISE OF POWER,” writes Saidiya Hartman in her brilliant study of slavery’s archives, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (1997), is “inseparable from its display.” Critical theories of race, sexuality, and disability tend to converge on this point: normative categories of personhood—whiteness, heterosexuality, and able-bodiedness among them—depend, for their definition and the privileges it confers, upon the abjection of those who live beyond their bounds. As acknowledgment of the oppression and historical erasure of minority groups has grown in recent years, so has the desire, among a widening swath of Americans, for representations that break the archive’s silence to reveal the violences behind it.


These days, marginalized writers have considerable agency, and yet, this invitation to speak for oneself comes freighted not only with the unknowable legacies of subjugated ancestors but also with troubling questions. What language can one use to ensure that one’s account won’t replicate the objectifying logic of the archive? How can one avoid a (milder and more mediated) version of the fate Hartman finds in the performances of the enslaved, which “made the captive body the vehicle of the master’s power and truth”?


Despite the well-known motto of the international disability rights movement, “Nothing about us without us,” people with disabilities have long been denied the right to shape the discourses in which our identities get represented. Before it can say anything else, the literature of disabled experience finds that it must state explicitly, in Carrie Sandahl’s words, “[T]his body has a mouth.” We may find ourselves having to prove that we are articulate and picturesque enough to be the faces of our own empowerment. And as we attempt to redress centuries of misrepresentation—to rebuff the world’s pity and contest its disgust—we often must strike an oppositional posture that is both exhausting and beside the point. According to John Lee Clark, a DeafBlind poet, scholar, and activist, “Protest is a worthy, logical response” to an ableist culture, “but it can also be limiting. Instead of the full range of our realities and imaginations, we get drawn into arguments we did not choose for ourselves.”


We also get drawn away from modes of knowing and feeling that, while native to us, may be alien to an able-bodied audience’s idea of what counts as insight. To write from a disabled perspective is often to find ourselves constrained not only by the terms and topics of ableist debates but also by a sense, reinforced over years, that the made, shared world need not answer to our demands; the limits we contend with are impoverishing, and ours. Thus, “For most of my life,” JJJJJerome Ellis writes in their debut poetry collection, Aster of Ceremonies (2023), “my relationship to my stutter was rooted in shame, anger, and despair. I responded to these emotions by trying, and failing, to master my stutter through various means […] Failure has led me to a grove of unknowing.” Both Ellis and Clark, in his 2022 book How to Communicate, invite readers into that space of what Keats called “negative capability”: a suspension of habitual ways of being-in-the-world, and a reconfiguration of the senses to reveal unexpected richness and heft.


Significantly, the spaces of linguistic and imaginative possibility that Clark and Ellis open for us are far from empty. Both books construct counter-archives dense with ephemera and loud with a “clamor” (to borrow one of Clark’s titles) entirely apart from “normal” society’s conversations. Clark’s is an archive of the everyday, one that reclaims instances of seeming clumsiness or unawareness as, in fact, moments of greater sentience: “The scar here on my thumb is a gift / from a cracked bowl that begged to be broken.” In his ebullient inventory of perceptions, Clark resists the attempts of “interpreters” to grant him “access” to the status quo; his poems reject both the terms and the timescale of the hearing, sighted world. Hence, “On My Return from a Business Trip” begins with the line “Let go of my arm. I will not wait,” and ends with the rush of discovery:


Go away. Let me walk
with my bag rolling behind me in the sun.
Let me veer off here
onto the grass. No, I’m not lost.
Go away so I can find out
whether it’s indeed spring.


The book’s iconoclastic archive likewise dethrones several figures long praised as teachers of, and advocates for, the Deaf and blind. In Clark’s account, Samuel Gridley Howe, the first director of the Perkins School for the Blind and an early leader in DeafBlind education, appears in a much less flattering light: “He tied [ribbons] around our heads to cover what he called our malignant eyes. Next he made us forget our words. He made us write letters we could not feel.” How to Communicate enshrines instead a new pantheon of DeafBlind ancestors, like Laura Bridgman (1829–89), who began as Howe’s student at Perkins and became an instructor in her own right, and Étienne de Fay (1669–1747), France’s first Deaf teacher of the Deaf. “His Christian name got buried … and would not be rediscovered for another one hundred and fifty years” after de Fay’s death, Clark writes, “[b]ut his real name never left our hands.”


Clark’s archive, like his collection of essays, embodies an argument: a poetics rooted in DeafBlind sensibility must reject the normative ideal of access, which privileges “distantism” over touch and insists on disabled folks’ “nonreciprocal assimilation, with its two possible outcomes: death by fitting in or death by failing to fit in.” The only alternative is a whole new language—in Clark’s case, the language of touch, known as Protactile, that has been revolutionizing DeafBlind communication over the past decade. Many of the poems in How to Communicate are reimaginings of problematic and ableist poems about Deaf and blind people from earlier eras; in one section of the book, Clark offers translations in English of poems originally composed in Protactile or American Sign Language. To the extent that DeafBlind readers can access this print book, they may recognize even Clark’s original poems as translations of experiences whose true mode of expression is touch—“invitation[s],” as Clark says, “to inhabit the performer while he performs the poem.” “The point,” he goes on to state, “is in the performance, not the text.”


But a question remains for How to Communicate, as the first book by a DeafBlind poet to be published by a mainstream press: how to invite audiences into a non-audist, non-ocularcentric way of being? First, non-DeafBlind readers must be made to understand that—like the Braille slate that Clark takes as the basis for his inventive “slateku” poems—our sensory assumptions are merely a frame that enables certain modes of expression while constraining others. We must realize that, as disability scholar Michael Davidson states, “Our inability to imagine alternate configurations of sensation stems from ingrained attitudes about what constitutes perception.” Secondly—and more challengingly—non-DeafBlind readers need to be taught, through immersion, how it feels to traverse this unfamiliar linguistic terrain. As its title, reminiscent of an instruction manual, suggests, How to Communicate is unabashedly didactic; the last line of the book is “We are ready to teach the world.”


The speaker of Ellis’s Aster of Ceremonies likewise takes up a mantle of almost priestly authority, in a reversal of the historical subjugation of Black and disabled people consigned to “fugitive speech.” Influenced by the “Black Baptist and Pentecostal cadences” of their grandfather, a reverend with “a storefront church in Brooklyn,” Ellis seeks to “embrace that […] interweaving of speech and music” in a text that is equal parts hymnal and script for performance, complete with sheet music that occupies the last third of the book. At times, the earnestness of these rituals crosses into the realm of near self-parody: “The ceremony can begin as early as when I decide to go to Shake Shack; I’ll be there in about thirty minutes. I’ve already begun this process of washing myself, changing my garment, preparing to undergo once again the Liturgy of the Name.” But in its more minimalist moments, Ellis makes everyday language break into what feels like real-life revelation. Here is the entirety of “Prayer to My Stutter #2”:


You restore
a living
shoreline
between word
and silence


Aster of Ceremonies grows from the idea that silence—literalized in Ellis’s glottal block, and exemplified by the voicelessness of the enslaved people whom Ellis finds named in archival advertisements—can be an instrument of communion. The majority of Aster takes the form of a “Benediction,” set to sheet music, which intersperses blessings to the “Ancestors” named in fugitive slave ads with direct addresses to the native plant species they might have encountered during their flight. Flowers have appeared as figures of continuity, whether of violence or of delight, in several recent books by Black poets, such as Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (2015) and Jericho Brown’s The Tradition (2019). Ellis’s work builds upon this legacy, praising “Plants” (capitalized throughout the book) as profoundly separate from the sphere of human affairs, but also treating them as figures for “persons denied the capacity to claim normative personhood,” in Fred Moten’s phrase. Silent but not silenced, plants come to embody an ideal to which persons—always singular, never perennial—can only aspire.


Aster is a proudly discontinuous book. The disjunctures between speech and music, and the destabilizing effect that these repetitions and breakages create, are part of the point. If this is a counter-archive of “Black dysfluency [as] a form of ancestral wisdom,” it is one in which, as in How to Communicate, we are constantly made aware of the frame that enables this speech—whether that be the literal mouth, tongue, and teeth, or the book’s apparatus of prefatory text and footnotes. And it raises the question: what kind of wisdom does poetic ritual offer, and to whom? If we follow Ellis’s lead when they write, “I choose to risk the Stutter, to step into the Clearing. My impediment will be my Dwelling,” what does this new space demand of us? Can skillful music transcend the fact that neither the Plants nor the Ancestors can speak back?


Both Ellis’s and Clark’s counter-archives expose the ethical and representational issues that arise when one attempts to translate disabled experience into language. They recast issues of social and political representation as questions of form. (How many ways can you script a stutter’s cadence? How to convey in print an exchange that transpires in touch?) In staging their “performances” for mainstream audiences, both authors seem aware of the need to strike a balance between visibility and spectacle. And yet, by positioning their speakers as mediums, priests, or teachers, they sometimes risk putting the poet in the very position of exceptionalism that Clark protests when he writes, “Can’t I pick my nose / without it being a miracle?”


In poring over these annals of alternative presence, able-bodied readers may be chastened, even enlightened, by the revelation of how much of the sensory world they have not yet learned to access. On the other hand, one may end up feeling like a witness to an epiphany they cannot replicate, however precise the poet’s instructions. As art historian T. J. Clark has written of Cubism, many artworks “have the look of” a language without “add[ing] up to a language-game” that others can join in; and many a writer’s “procedures, habits, styles, performances […] are not sharable. Anyone can acquire the habits [but] nobody will ever discover what the habits are for.” To what extent, these books prompt us to ask, can poems encode alternative forms of sensation and co-presence in which uninitiated readers could truly participate?


A new language, and a new model of relationality that goes with it, may seem a lot to demand of poems. But consider that the most radical art seldom asks for less. At their most ambitious, both Clark’s and Ellis’s projects seek to constitute disabled self-knowledge—indeed, self-sovereignty—through the performance of it. We might understand their books as examples of what anthropologist Clifford Geertz, in a different context, calls “metaphysical theatre: theatre designed to express a view of the ultimate nature of reality and, at the same time, to shape the existing conditions of life to be consonant with that reality; that is, theatre to present an ontology and, by presenting it, to make it happen.” In our culture, as critics like Tobin Siebers and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson have shown, people with disabilities are relentlessly individualized, medicalized, and metaphorized, in ways that distort our experiences and constrain our political efficacy. Ellis and Clark dare to outline pedagogies—ceremonies—that contest this “distantist,” isolating logic, turning acts of shared attention into occasions for insight and praise.


For Geertz, the ceremonials of the so-called “theatre state” revealed the extent to which the state itself was a “socially constructed gloss, a collective representation.” And while able-bodied, neurotypical environments have scant incentive to be shaped by the insights disability affords, that is the dream underpinning Clark’s and Ellis’s projects: to invite readers into the radical openness of the disabled body/mind, enabling representations that redress an ongoing history of objectification and erasure. Accompanied by the “book as a musical instrument of unknowing,” as Ellis puts it, what new worlds might we create together?

LARB Contributor

Michael M. Weinstein is a poet and essayist who writes about disability, queer, and trans representation, and the intersection of visual and print cultures across the 20th century. His writing appears in venues such as The Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review, Conjunctions, Boston Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and The New Yorker. His first book of poems, Saint Consequence, is forthcoming from Alice James Books in 2025. He teaches at Earlham College in Indiana.

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