I have been horribly remiss in keeping up with my posts but here I am now at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, and I have been thinking some more about poetry, at last, while in this extraordinarily empowering intellectual atmosphere.
Here are some thoughts that came to me while I was at a joint presentation by Josey Foo and Leah Stein about their book A Lily Lilies given at Swarthmore College on 3rd October. A Lily Lilies combines written poems (by Josey Foo) and notes on dance that go with the poems (by Leah Stein). Josey said that a person of words needs a dancer in front of them. A person of spoken words very possibly does; a person of signed words can go some way to being the dancer as well, and I think that is what we see a lot of in signed poetry.
Josey sees her poems as movement poems that use space. They use space of three types: communal space, individual space and internal space. It is the inter-relation of these, she says, that allows audiences of these dance-poems to feel either that they are watching someone else or that they are watching themselves. Give me a while to get my head around this and I think I will be able to say a lot about these types of space in the signed poems that we have in our anthology, but that is for another day.
For now I want to focus on the similarity between the ways that Navajo and BSL distinguish (or don’t distinguish) nouns and verbs, and the implications this has for thinking about things that ‘do’ and things that ‘be’. Josey Foo has worked for the Navajo nation for the last 11 years and her collection reflects her knowledge of the Navajo language. The title poem is called ‘A Lily Lilies’ because, in the Gerard Manley Hopkins sense, what a lily does is what a lily is – it lilies. Of course, that made me think of all the instances in BSL when that is exactly the case, and also of the lines in As Kingfishers catch Fire ‘What I do is me: For that I came’ (where my dragonflies come from).
Josey explained that in Navajo one doesn’t sensibly say ‘the sun shines’ because it just is ‘shine’. We aren’t talking about a thing that does something but rather an action/state that just is. Put another way, the sun is the shine. She offered the view that ‘eyes’ are a verb in Navajo. If you know BSL that doesn’t seem at all strange and we have much the same thing in most of the ‘looking’ verb signs. When we have the object so closely intertwined with the action performed by the object in BSL we often can’t separate them. We can’t tell ‘eyes’ from ‘looking’ or ‘looking’ from ‘eyes’; in the normal run of events we won’t separate ‘the sun’ from ‘shining’ or ‘shining’ from ‘the sun’. All those so-called ‘nouns’ we see as derived from references to objects acting or human interaction with them could be verbs. The same is true for ‘adjectives’ – I suspect it is primarily in our English-speaking imaginations that there are separate signs HIGHLIGHT-WRITTEN-RULES, LAW and LEGAL or BE-SPREAD-OVER-A-LARGE-AREA, NATION and NATIONAL or POUR-FROM-TEST-TUBES, CHEMISTRY and CHEMICAL. Indeed, Dan Slobin has argued that languages like English might force us to separate them, so that we cannot even see that it is meaningless to separate them in a language like BSL.
When students in my introduction to sign linguistics classes start to think about the relationship between referents and their signs we look at a sign like BRIGHT in relation to a bright light and come to see that it makes as much sense to talk about a sun, sunshine, a sun shining or brightness or just plain bright for the sign we make.
One difference between BSL and Navajo poetry was that Josey was focusing on things that appear to exist independently of us. When she goes inside at dusk, the darkness outside and the horizon cut by her clothes line continue to exist, even though she no longer sees them. The lily will continue to lily, and the swallow will continue to swallow (that is, to be a swallow or to do being a swallow) whether or not we are there. In BSL poetry, we know they are still there even when we can’t see them, of course, but the language is happiest showing things as we see them (or once saw them) and as they are part of our world. Sure, they exist independently of us, but we know them best through our interaction with them. For this reason what we do with our eyes in signs can make a difference to their meaning (which is Christian Cuxac’s really good point). If we mean to refer to the object (referred to by a noun in English) our eyes are not involved in the meaning of the sign; if we refer to an action whose meaning is related to the human interaction with an object, the eyes will be involved.
But, as Gerard Manley Hopkins also added, ‘I say more’. When the signer becomes the object through role-shift, the noun and verb take on a whole new relationship to the eyes as, once again, the noun and verb become inseparable – you only know what something is because of what it does and you can only interpret its actions by knowing what it is.
This harks back to something Paul Scott taught me. He tried to explain to me how signers could take on the role of inanimate entities to show how they communicate. I was being very dense. I could see how inanimate objects embodied by the signer could sign with any parts that might map on to body parts (an aeroplane can sign with its wings and a tree can sign with its branches) and I could see that they might communicate only by facial expression and head and eye movement if they didn’t have suitable body parts to be recruited for signing (neither an apple nor a spoon has anything protruding that could be a match for hands) but there was something else I couldn’t get, no matter how carefully he explained it. In desperation he grabbed an old envelope and drew on the back for me.
The speech bubble allows the character to sign using their ‘hands’; in the thought bubble the character is able to show its thoughts through facial expression and head and eye movement; and in that empty space where there is neither speech nor thought bubble the entity communicates by being present as what it is. I finally understood that embodiment allows all referents to communicate by just being.
In Paul’s poem Too Busy to Hug the mountain does being a mountain, in his poem Tree, the young tree does being a tree. A lily lilies and Paul’s mountain mountains and his tree trees.