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John Lee Clark


Susannah Harrison, “Songs in the

Night by a Young Woman under Heavy

Afflictions,” didn’t touch him, but Morrison

Heady traveled by stage from Louisville

to touch Laura Bridgman, who

demanded that Helen Keller wash her hands. Helen

later touched many of us but didn’t let us

touch her back. Thankfully Laura also

touched Angeline Fuller, who

touched Clarence J. Selby, who

touched the whole world, first in Chicago

and then in Buffalo. Who shall we

choose for next in line? John Porter

Riley. We don’t know who

he may have touched. We know far more

about his white classmate, but we hope

that he touched Geraldine Lawhorn, perhaps

at an Ohio Home for the Aged and Infirm

Deaf Easter Dinner. Jerrie

touched too many to number. Robert J.

Smithdas, who was an elitist bully

hiding behind poems so beautiful they opened

checkbooks. May he tremble

in peace. Richard Kinney, who

joked that the armed forces wanted him. “The Army

wanted me to join the Navy, the Navy

wanted me to join the Marines, and the Marines

wanted me to join the Army.” But his hands

oozed nicotine. I instead claim Marjorie

McGuffin Wood, “Dots and Taps,” who

insisted she was no saint. She fought

until she touched every one of us

in Canada, including Mae Brown. But Mae

turned out to be Our Lady

of Untimely Death. So Marjorie kept on

touching until 1988. My father Lee

was then still in denial, so it was I who

later touched him, not him me.

Leslie Paul Peterson, whose

poems still tap my shoulders in autumn. Dear too

Melanie Ipo Kuu Bond, whom

Uncle Tim Cook called Momma Nature

because she was so down to earth. But she

called herself the Black Turtle Lady

because the race is not to the swift. It is to the

slow and sure, certain of who we are.


My grandfather spanked her. Half the time

she didn’t know why. He didn’t have the words

to tell her. After she got married and gave birth

to three children, he wanted to say something

to us. His hands creaked to life, building

stories about buildings. The sod hut

he was born in. The red barn on the farm.

The basement he put his family in while building

a house above their heads. The Ramsey Hospital

where he was foreman and where we would be born.

The Ramsey County Jail we always pointed out

on our way to visit Grandma and Grandpa.

The bird houses in their green garden.

It didn’t matter what kind of building

it was, as long as it was done with his hands.


A DeafBlind poet doesn’t like to read sitting up. A DeafBlind poet likes to read Braille magazines on the john. A DeafBlind poet is in the habit of composing nineteenth-​century letters and pressing Alt+S. A DeafBlind poet is a terrible student. A DeafBlind poet does a lot of groundbreaking research. A DeafBlind poet is always in demand. A DeafBlind poet has yet to be gainfully employed. A DeafBlind poet shares all his trade secrets with his children. A DeafBlind poet will not stop if police order him to. A DeafBlind poet used to like dogs but now prefers cats. A DeafBlind poet listens to his wife. A DeafBlind poet knits beautiful soft things for his dear friends. A DeafBlind poet doesn’t believe in “contributing to society.”

-from How To Communicate, selected by Spring 2024 Guest Editor, Sheila Black

Reprinted from How to Communicate by John Lee Clark. Copyright © 2022 by John Lee Clark. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.


By way of brief introduction, let me say this in a rush: I (John Lee Clark) am a DeafBlind poet, essayist, historian, translator, and an actor in the most thrilling development in DeafBlind history, the Protactile movement. Currently I’m a 2021-2023 Bush Leadership Fellow, a core member of Protactile Language Interpreting National Education Center, and a research consultant with the Reciprocity Lab at the University of Chicago.It has been my honor, recently, to be a member of the inaugural class of Disability Futures Fellows and the recipient of a National Magazine Award for my essay “Tactile Art” as well as the Frederick Bock Prize from my beloved Poetry magazine.More suggestive of the vibrations around me, though, are my neurodiverse habits and obsessions, my love of reading and rummaging around in abandoned archives, my feeling of fierce kinship with fellow DeafBlind people and Protactile accomplices, my occasional turns to knitting and other artmaking, my tendency to plunge into warm bodies of water.I am blessed to make my home in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota, with my brilliant partner, the ASL Deaf artist Adrean Clark; our three amazing roommates, a.k.a. our kids; and two feline collaborators.

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