Carl Tomlinson reviews The House of the Interpreter by Lisa Kelly (Carcanet, 2023)
The Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (AG Bell) was founded in 1908. A hundred years later it stated that it no longer “advocates against learning [American Sign Language] as part of a child’s overall development if that is what the child’s parents desire”. During its first 100 years AG Bell had, according to Wikipedia, “a long history of staunch opposition to any positive depictions of the use of sign language.” This objection, we learn from Lisa Kelly’s intricate and taut poem ‘Researches in Electric Telephony – A Coupling’ stemmed from Bell’s father’s experiments in “a system of pictorial symbols … to teach the deaf and dumb … to speak”. The poem responds to, and refutes line by line, Bell Jr’s own words in a form that Kelly attributes to Karen McCarthy Woolf. It’s a powerful, thought-provoking piece which speaks for the voiceless and argues that “the Deaf could teach us Sign Language”. It also contains some elegant rhymes which undercut Bell and have us rooting for the poet and her people.
It’s a poem that does its own thing, unabashedly, but also invites the reader to go off and do a bit of their own thing, and their own thinking. I ended up wondering what Bell would make of the fact that people don’t just speak into his invention any more, and what Kelly makes of the fact that so much of the communication on modern telephones is pictorial. This is part of what Kelly does most successfully throughout The House of the Interpreter, her second collection.
The opening poem ‘Sign Language Of Home’ is a gift to anyone who, like me, has studied language for most of their life. When I was a child my family hosted a French guest for a few weeks. Upon her arrival I babbled my rehearsed welcome, and dived for cover. Kelly is a native Danish speaker who has become deaf in her right ear. There’s an artful, but not arch, off-key break at the end of the first line which signals that the reader is going to have to put in an effort to understand some of this writing. Form and content in close harmony. Kelly quickly restores the sense at the start of the second line. This is what happens when we concentrate hard on a non-native English speaker, or listen to a foreign language we are yet to master. Kelly goes on to embody the awkwardness and the effort involved in these situations. (Tegnsprog is the Danish word for sign language.)
A basic beginning in tegnsprog makes my right hand dive for shelter
under the welcoming curve of my left
This is an elegant set-up for some very fluent writing. How’s this for a soundscape :
In the House of the Interpreter, there is an ur-telephone,
an early telephone, made by an ‘experimenter’.
(from ‘The House of the Interpreter’)
Other gifts lie elsewhere. It’s important that fortunate middle-aged white guys like me be reminded (in ‘Blackbird and Beethoven’) that there are still men entitled – and stupid – enough to do something like question a person’s deafness “because she looked / round when he entered her dressing room” so that we can keep trying hard not to be that person.
A specular poem is an effective way to think about our two hands, and two ears. ‘Parallel Movement of the Hands’ is a poem that sends the reader away wanting to think more about what’s going on. Like most of the poems in the first section it’s one I’m happy to keep re-reading. And ‘Darning Mushroom’ is fun. We need more fun in poetry.
The best poems in this collection are characterised by a genuine curiosity which the reader wants to share, and satisfy
There are some false notes. ‘A Diptych is not a Dick Pic’ starts strongly but doesn’t quite earn its-ear catching, giggle-inducing title. And does any collection need two Abecedaria? Let alone two separated by only 8 of its 80-odd pages. Of the pair, ‘Alternate Reality’ (a mediation on shrooms) works best as a timely reminder that the Roman alphabet, and by extension any system of representation, is pretty arbitrary. Its mate ‘Mycelium Abcedarian’ struggles to be more than an extract from an index of fungi, which doesn’t actually contain any species beginning with X.
How much you enjoy this book may depend on three things. Firstly, on how much you like mushrooms. Kelly sets a high bar for the book’s middle section, ‘Oval Window’. She says (in the PBS 2023 Summer Bulletin), “The dangers of monolingualism and monocultures, and their links to fascism find their objective correlative in [this section] through which fungi and mushrooms signal their magic; diversity; and potential.” There are some strong poems in this section. Some I’ve already mentioned. ‘Cup Fungi on the Red List’ does indeed combine magic and potential, with well-paced repetitions of its invitation to “[c]onsider” the fanciful and the pharmaceutical. Over the piece, though, I’m not sure how many readers will find that this section manifests Kelly’s manifesto for it.
Secondly, on how much you like form. Kelly appears to be a fan, as am I. Occasionally – even for this reader – form is at the expense of the content. So, while ‘Amanita Muscaria’ is a fine writhing sonnet and ‘In Search of Cowbane Rest’ glides through the Norfolk Broads in a pantoum, ‘Mushroom’ seems to be corseted in its sestina.
Ultimately, how much you enjoy this book may depend on how much you enjoy having to head beyond a poem to get the most out of it. It’s a fine line. No-one likes a tricksy writer who can only be tricksy, and whose work requires pages of footnotes. To be clear, I don’t think Kelly does this. Equally its disingenuous to pretend that most of us don’t have a search engine at our fingertips (Bell, again). If a poem gifts us a search term, that’s all right by me. The best poems in this collection are characterised by a genuine curiosity which the reader wants to share, and satisfy.
Carl Tomlinson lives on a smallholding in Oxfordshire. He works as a business coach and virtual finance director. His work been published online, in anthologies, and in Orbis, South, The Hope Valley Journal and The Alchemy Spoon. His debut pamphlet Changing Places was published in 2021 by Fair Acre Press.