POETIC COHESION IN AMERICAN SIGN LANGUAGE:Valli's "Snowflake" & Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight" par Alec Ormsby

PDF du texte paru dans Sign Language Studies, vol. 88, no Fall (1995), p. 227‑244.


The study of sign language was just coming of age when Aaron Cicourel, in a contribution to a volume of interdisciplinary essays on sign, remarked that: "the limitations of gestural sign systems, if such limitations exist, are inherent in the cultural de­ velopment of the deaf and not in the structure of sign languages" (Cicourel 1978). Since Cicourel's assessment, sustained inquiry bas further revealed the complexity and subtlety of ASL, and the results of this research have filtered from the academie commu­ nity (hearing and deaf) to the deaf community at large. The lin­ guistic validation of ASL bas bad an enormous impact on signers and led to significant changes in the way that the deaf communi­ ty behaves and regards itself. One such change is reflected in the growing interest in original poetic composition in ASL. The de­ velopment of a documented body of poetry in ASL within the last twenty years-and its corollary, the development of a frame­ work for poetic usage-bas borne out Cicourel' s assertion and has helped affirm the legitimacy of the deaf community and its language, both to those within the community and those outside it.


While poetic signing and research on ASL have each contin­ ued to burgeon, they have rarely crossed paths, leaving a curious shortage of literary or linguistic criticism on signed poetry. To my knowledge, only three people have written on the poetry and poetics of ASL: Klima and Bellugi include a chapter on what they term "art-sign" in The Signs of Language (1979); Clayton Valli bas written a short essay on rhyme (1990); and Jim Cohn published a poetic manifesta to launch the founding of a poetry society among the students ofNTID (1986). Valli and Klima and Bellugi offer convincing, if at times speculative, accounts of sorne of the structural features that differentiate..poetic ASL from conversational and other uses of the language. A complete ac­ count of the formai properties of poetic ASL awaits advance in the study of ASL prosody, but before proceeding with an analy­ sis of Clayton Valli's poem "Snowflalœ" (Valli 1989), I would like to summarize what seem to be the most significant structural features of poetic signing. First, ASL poetry exhibits a planned coïncidence of like phonemic features exceeding that in other uses of the language. Handshapes, movement paths, and loca­ tions are concentrated and repeated to achieve an effect analo­ gons to that of alliteration or rhyme in spoken language poetry. Also, Valli argues that ASL poets can impose a pattemed recur­ rence of non-manual features on a text, a deviee he calls rhyme, but which may be more appropriately thought of as a form of syntactic parallelism.


Poetic signing is further distinguished by a general balance and fluidity of the articulators. The poet divides signing duty be­ tween the two bands so that the dominant band does not out­ weigh the other, as it would in routine conversational signing. The flow of the signing is regulated so that it appears smooth and particularly graceful by comparison to the often choppy, staccato movements that result from the structural accidence characteris­ tic of spontaneous or casual usage. Poetic articulation is general­ ly slower and more fastidious than casual signing, marked at times by a deliberation that resembles citation-form signing more than conversational use.


ASL poets also intentionally violate conventional boundaries of signing space. Poetic expression regularly moves weil beyond the conversational signing zone described by Siple (1978), a de­ vice that quite literally stretches the boundaries of communica­ tion. One of the effects of extending the customary signing envelope is the reclamation of iconic aspects of signs that have bad their origin obscured during the process of linguistic regular­ ization. Klima and Bellugi (1979) provide examples of iconic re­ invention in poetic signing and rightly point out its purpose, a purpose also fulfilled, though not so ably, in the poetry of spoken languages: to reduce the transparency of language as a communi­ cative medium and present it instead as an expressive object of art. Klima and Bellugi note a second effect that works in con-junction with poetic violation of the signing space, and that is the poet's creation of an overall design or spatial metaphor. A text, for instance, that begins high above the head and moves succes­ sively downward to a point below the waist might convey a heaviness or exhaustion that complements its thematic structure.

Another distinctive property of poetic signing is its strong ten­ dency toward the preservation of sign structure. Citation-form features of signs are not Hable to be jettisoned simply to ease ar­ ticulatory effort, as happens routinely in casual usage. Rules such as Padden and Perlmutter's "WEAK-DROP" (1987) occur less fre­ quently in poetry than in conversation, again because the poem is not just a conduit but a linguistic object as well, an object meant to demonstrate the aesthetic qualities of its material of fabrication in that material's most idealized and pure form.

In poetic ASL, features of signs are blended, both to enhance the overall grace of articulation (a characteristic cited above) and to create expressive new signs based on the concatenation of fea­ tures from two or more existing signs. The artful blending of signs that occurs in poetry might at first seem to contradict the previous assertion that poetic ASL respects the language in its most idealized state, with poets avoiding the articulatory short­ cuts of casual signing so that signs can be rendered as close to full citation form as possible. However, there remains a crucial difference: in casual ASL, signs are generally blended not for grace and possible semantic enrichment, but for convenience. Like the processes of co-articulation and assimilation that be­ come more prevalent with casual speech, the slurred character of casual sign serves the purpose of accelerating the flow of infor­ mation by conserving articulatory effort. The concatenation of signs in poetry, by contrast, is a form of linguistic play meant to enhance the expressive capability of the text.
Ail of the above aspects of poetic ASL contribute to an end that is definitive of poetry as a form: the training of attention ta­ ward the linguistic code itself (see Jakobson 1960). The repeti­tion of phonemic features (handshapes, movements, or locations) highlights the linguistic architecture of ASL and often excises se­ mantically extraneous transition movement. The artful blending of signs further reduces transitional movement, so that purely mechanical elements of the code do not distract the textual focus from meaningful elements. Poetic use of ASL also reduces the transparency of conversational signing by slowing it down-{je­ manding, in effect, that it be seen-and by moving signs outside the prescribed signing space, where the viewer does not expect to see them. In eschewing slang and preferring signs doser to cita­ tion than casual form, the poet presents the language at its "pur­ est," as an object for aesthetic contemplation. The aesthetic dimension of the text is reinforced by the poet's attempt to invest signs with iconographie overtones, reminding the audience that language not only conveys substance, but has it.

Poetry caUs attention to language in the same way that dance highlights and embellishes the mechanics of walking. ASL dem­ onstrates this relationship quite literally, in a way that has no ana­ log in spoken languages. While in conversational ASL the gaze of the interlocutors rests chiefly on each other's eyes, leaving the bands themselves largely to the peripheral field of vision (Siple 1978), in poetic ASL the poet tends to watch his or her own
bands, leading the audience to do the same and thereby setting poetic expression on display.
Ali of the deviees mentioned above are used by Clayton Valli in his poem "Snowflake," published on videotape in 1989 (Valli
1989). In the present essay, though, I want to focus on structural features of the text that lend it poetic cohesion on the discursive level: its narrative development, tone, thematic and argumenta­ tive interests, and use of imagery. The discussion involves an ex­ tended comparison between Valli's poem and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's famous "Frost at Midnight" (1798), which I use as a touchstone in the effort to demonstrate how the rhetoric of poetry articulates issues of human concem.

An English translation of "Snowflake" follows, and the text of Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight" is appended in full at the end of the essay. Rather than attempt a strict linguistic glossing of Val­ li's poem, which of course would not convey its finished poetic quality, I have used deviees like alliteration and syllable count to give the English version an appropriately poetic feel. Translation must distort an original text, but 1 hope 1 have remained faithful to the spirit of "Snowflake" and as true to its letter as is possible.

by Clayton Valli {1989)

There is a window. 1 gaze out:
The tree, full-crowned, loses its leaves; The slender grass waves, and withers. No color, nothing's everywhere-
AII is gray, clouds obscure the sun, And a heavy darkness descends.

From nowhere a white snowflake falls, Beautifully, and my heart beats.
A memory wells up, a vision
Of eyes, brown eyes l'li not forget
And a little boy looking up
As his father holds forth for friends. Proudly he appeals: 'Wait, watch this­ And turns then to the boy to ask,
With measured care, 'What is your name?"
The boy looks up, in deference,
And strains to speak: "Me llamo es ..." "Amazing!" declares the father, Continuing with his discourse.
Proudly he appeals: "Wait, watch this -
"Then, turning to his son he says, "Tell me now how old you are, boy." "Soy cinco anos" is stuttered.
"Such improvement! Just look at him!" Swoons the father contentedly.

Two sentences. Two sentences! Melting, the memory slowly sinks Again into my beating heart. lnspired, 1 survey the present:
Snow, white snow, now blankets the ground
And is piled against the tree trunk. The sun slips from behind the clouds
lts rays warm the earth. One snowflake
Falls, lands, and passes into snow.

Translated from ASL by Alec Ormsby''

I have divided the English translation into three stanzas, with stanza breaks placed at the two points where the·poet brings his bands to dramatic rest in front of his abdomen. In Valli's performance of the ASL text, the first and third stanzas are isochronous (at just over 20 seconds each), with the middle stanza almost ex­ actly twice this length (at just over 40 seconds). These breaks are further reinforced by their correspondence to obvions turning points in the poem's thematic development. Thematically, both "Snowflake" and "Frost at Midnight" follow a standard Roman­ tic tripartite pattern, one that bas been discussed at length by M. H. Abrams in his Natural Supernaturalism (Abrams 1971). "Snowflake" devotes one stanza to each of the three develop­ mental stages: the narrative begins with the speaker reflecting on the present, a reflection mediated through nature, which the poet depicts through images of the surrounding landscape; then, fall­ ing into reverie, the narrator recounts a scene from the past, a memory that proves less superficial than it might initially appear; finally, the poem returns to the present, with the narrator using the meditative interlude to reinterpret the landscape and, through it, his sense of self.

The titles chosen by Valli and Coleridge indicate the impor­ tance of the landscape in the poems, and both titles evoke the fa­ miliar connotations of the winter scenes in which the poetic action unfolds: darkness, dreariness, dormancy, discomfort, and the antithesis of life and regeneration. In "Frost at Midnight" the wintry scene in the opening stanza casts over the narrator a dis­ abling mood of isolation:

'Tis calm indeed!
so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness" (lines 8-10).

The setting of the first stanza in "Snowflake" posits the narra­ tor in a full, yet strangely null and, like that of "Frost at Mid­ night," insular winter environment. The narrator of Valli's poem is alone, enclosed, and although he gazes out on a landscape that hosts attractions-a tree, grass, clouds, and the sun; these are overwhelmed by a pervasive darkness (line 6) and spiritual entro­ py. The tree and grass enter dormancy (lines 2 and 3), and the light of the sun is thwarted (lines 5 and 6). In sum, negativity pre­ vails, to the extent that "nothing's everywhere" (line 4).

The degree of entropy in the first stanza of ''Snowflake" ex­ ceeds that in "Frost at Midnight," but both convey the same fun­ damental mood, and both develop into a second stanza in which the narrator responds to the situation at band by folding thought upon itself, resuscitating the memory of a painful episode from childhood. In "Frost at Midnight" the narrator's memory is of his loneliness as a young student sent to an urban boarding school, away from his family and the rural surroundings of his home. Closed in his room at school, the young narrator of the second stanza gazes into the fireplace, the grated "bars" (line 25) of which suggest the latent image of prison and reinforce the narra­ tor's troubling sense of isolation from stanza one.
In "Snowflake" the memory that opens the second stanza like­ wise concems a childhood feeling of separation, a separation that is emotional though not physical. As with "Frost at Midnight," the thematic link between the first and second stanzas in "Snow­ flake" is the narrator's sense of isolation; however, unlike the re­ membered child of Coleridge's poem, painfully cognizant of his loneliness at boarding school, the child in Valli's poem is por­ trayed as not fully aware of the barrier lying between him and those, such as his father, who are not deaf. By attending to the details of the memory and appreciating them in light of the phi­ losophy of oral-only education, the viewer of the poem begins to gather a picture of the unhappy relationship between the boy and his father. That the child, being raised in the oral method, bas no real grasp of what is happening in the recounted memory is clear­ ly evident in the ASL text from the way in which Valli sets up the pronouns that refer to the participants. These pronouns are in­ dexed by means of the body orientation of the poet: the father oc­ cupies the unmarked position of the poet (or performer) himself, and when he tums to speak to his friends (lines 12-13, 18-20, 24-25), Valli maintains an erect, upright posture, pivoting in an arc that extends from his left side around to a lesser angle on his right. This movement predicates an audience of friends gathered around him, at roughly his height, in a semi-circle shifted slightly to his left.

When the father addresses the boy, by con rast, sharply to his right and stoops down. The visual effect of this staging is to project the boy as peripheral to the action of the stanza, even though he is ostensibly its focal point. Moreover, from his vantage, the boy would be unable even to see the lips of his speaking father, to the extent that this might help him follow the discussion portrayed in the scene. With the exception of the two instances when the father tums specifically to address the boy (lines 14-15 and 21-22), he is shut off from ali means of par­ ticipation in the dialog. In both poems the sense of isolation, it turns out, arises from the inability to communicate, and resolu­ tion of the problem is moved toward in the final stanza of each poem, when the speaker circles back to observe the immediate natural world given the memory that bas just passed. For Coleridge's narrator the psychological transformation cornes from the solace of knowing that his infant will enjoy a relation­ ship with the natural world that the speaker himself was denied. The last stanza reconsiders the winter landscape by opening with a benediction in which the narrator blesses his child while at the same time consoling himself:

Therefore ali seasons shatl be sweet to thee, Whether the summer clothe the general earth With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch Of mossy apple tree, white the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon. (lines 65-74).

In contrast to the uneasy winter scene from the first stanza of "Frost at Midnight," this final stanza raises the sweetness of sum­ mer and envisions a winter equally so. The description of winter in the last five lines of the poem (lines 70-74) echoes the lan­ guage of the first stanza by referring again to the "secret ministry of frost" (lines 1 and 72) and by stressing once more the preter­ natural bush that prevails. The "solitude" (line 5), "calm" (line
8), "strange 1 And extreme silentness" (lines 9-10), and "Inaudi­ ble" activity (line 13) of winter in the beginning of the poem is recaptured in its end by the "silent icicles,1 Quietly shining to the quiet Moon" (lines 73-74). The silence of winter that disturbed the speaker in the first stanza does not bother him in the final one because he has assured himself that it will not adversely affect his child. The child's upbringing will afford him a relationship with nature that the speaker did not have. A key passage is found in the penultimate stanza, when the narrator, after reminiscing about his lonely, urban schooling, retums to the present to ad­ dress his sleeping child on the contrast in their education:

For 1 was reared ln the great city, pent 'mid cloisters dim,
And saw naught lovely but the sky and stars. But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds, Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible Of that eternal language, which thy God Utters, who from ali eternity doth teach
Himself in ali, and ali things in himself. (lines 51-62).

1 claimed above that the feeling of isolation that animates "Frost at Midnight" is, as with "Snowflake," attributable to the problem of frustrated communication. It is in the foregoing pas­ sage that Coleridge explicitly identifies nature as a conceit for this theme. He calls nature an "etemallanguage" (line 60), a lan­ guage from which the poem's narrator was isolated as a child, so that in his adulthood the winter remains "silent" and "inaudible." Communication is also frustrated between the speaker and his son, who is still a pre-lingual infant, a situation that interestingly parallels the language barrier separating the son from his father in "Snowflake." Although his imperfect hold on the language of his natural surroundings disheartens Coleridge's narrator, he is able to derive comfort from two sources. First, as 1 have pointed out, he is consoled by the knowledge that his child will be con­ versant in this language that he himself does not understand. Sec­ ond, the very poem becomes an act of consolation, a communicative surrogate through which the speaker manages to express his troubling inability to apprehend the language of na­ ture. "Frost at Midnight" in this way concretely tr.iumphs over its theme, the disabling fact of communicative isolation.

"Frost at Midnight" is the linguistic product of a creative mind using memory to chart its position in the surrounding world. While this sense of position is insecure at the outset of the poem
-nature bas "vexed" and "disturbed" (lines 8 and 9) the speak­
er's mind; by the last stanza the speaker's tone is resolute, and he voices none of his earlier frustrations. The silence of winter re­ mains, but the poet bas answered its silence with the poem to es­ tablish a comforting certainty of self and mind.
Appearing in the final line, the moon functions as a landscape symbol that conveys the speaker's reevaluated sense of self. Coleridge has personified the moon (with an upper-case "M") to drive home its emblematic identity with the standard Romantic symbol for the human imagination, the moon figures preeminent­ ly at the end of the poem, both as a literary symbol and as a word typeset on the page. First, as a symbol, the moon holds a com­ manding position in the sky, representative of the narrator's ulti­ mate mental ascendancy over his surroundings. Second, "Moon" is the actual and proverbial last word of "Frost at Midnight," a synthesis of poetic signifier and signified: "Moon" is a word rep­ resenting an abject, the moon, which in the poem symbolizes a concept, the narrator's imagination, which is locked in a struggle with the very issue of what words are, of how language, mean­ ing, and the ability to communicate are definitive of selfhood. That the narrator should have the last word in the poem, and in a symbolic sense be that last word, signais a thematic triumph, a validation, against self-doubt, of the ability to communicate.

The memory that Valli inserts into "Snowflake" propels the thematic evolution of his poem along lines similar to that of "Frost at Midnight." The last stanza of "Snowflake" retums, as does "Frost at Midnight," to the immediate natural world that the narrator described at the poem's outset. Again, following the flashback, the narrator's surroundings undergo a consonant trans­ formation, indicating, metaphorically, a successful resolution to the poem's thematic crux. In the first stanza, as I have pointed out above, the description of the scenery is negative, emphasiz­ ing Joss (line 2), decay (line 3), drab emptiness (line 4), and op­ pressive darkness (line 6). In the final stanza, on the other band, the inspired speaker surveys the landscape once more (lines 29ff)and describes it in positive tenns: the snow is redundantly "white" (line 30), suggesting its superior brilliance and purity; it carpets the ground and is piled abundantly against the tree (lines 30 and 31), imparting a sense of plenitude that contradicts the
earlier assertion of nothingness (line 4); and the sun retums from behind the clouds, bringing with it both light and warmth (lines32 and 33).

The relationship between the landscape in "Snowflake" and the narrator's reverie centers not only on the theme of isolation, but also on the human capacity for perceiving and communicat­ ing change. The memory recounted in the second stanza, in which communication is frustrated by the boy's deafness, stands in contrast to the deaf poet's ability reflect on and versify the epi­ sode. The alteration in the landscape from the first to the final stanza likewise testifies to the human faculty to observe and record change, and, as in "Frost at Midnight," it makes a ready conceit for the power of the imagination. Even within the narra­ tive context of the poem, what occurs îs as much an imaginative reevaluation of the landscape as a physical transformation of it.

The bearing of imagination and perspective on nature is rhe­ torically embedded in the poem's first stanza through a stock po­ etic metaphor that equates enclosure with the human mind. The vehicle of this metaphor can be any enclosure-a pen, a prison, a room, an arbor-and its tenor is the mind, with the ground for comparison being the encasernent of the brain within the skull. The metaphor is often further embellished, as it is in "Snow­ flake," with a window or peephole that represents vision, both in physical and figurative senses: as the eyes, through which visual stimuli are conducted to the brain, and as the perspective, or out­ look, that the mind bas on the world beyond the self. The first line of "Snowflake" introduces this window, through which the narrator observes the world from an implicit enclosure, presum­ ably a room in a bouse. The metaphor emphasizes the importance of what the narrator sees and interprets as the world outside. It presents the poem's landscape as a mental construct, which, as the audience knows, beyond the internai context of the poem, it is-the trees, grass, and sun here are ali words . C?n a videotape. Given this realization, a thematic coherence emerges in "Snow-flake": the poem is not just a pleasant account of a landscape and an incidental memory, it conveys how a poet's mind has come to negotiate the complications of ontology, language, and self-ex­ presston.

The memory sequence in the second stanza lays out the prob­lem confronted by Valli's narrator: he is deaf, raised by a hearing father under oral-only education. The presentation of the scene makes clear the frustration and communicative isolation that the narrator, looking back, has experienced. I have already shown how the theme of isolation is brought out through the pronoun structure in this stanza, and 1 will add here that Valli emphasizes the linguistic rift by shifting languages. In my translation 1 repre­ sent this shift with a change from English to grammatically im­ perfect Spanish where the original text changes from ASL to halting signed English, Valli's substitute, in the context of the poem, for spoken English.

While signed English has no aesthetic value for the ASL com­munity (Battison 1974), Valli employs it here under special cir­ cumstances to advance the narrative of the poem. The child's signed English answers to his father's questions are articulated with considerable strain, which Valli conveys through rigid, hesi­ tant execution. The purpose of this manner of articulation is to indicate how foreign and difficult spoken English is for the boy. When, in the third stanza, the poem retums to the present, the narrator passes sarcastic comment on the achievement just re­ counted (line 26): "Two sentences. Two sentences!" The com­ ment pertains both to the amount of energy the boy has invested for such meager retums and to the unbounded effusiveness of his father's pride, which in its course has reduced his son to an ab­ ject for public display.

In the third stanza, as discussed above, the landscape is rein­ terpreted as a positive force. brimming with light, abundance, and warmth. The sun appears, performing the same symbolic of­ fice as the moon at the conclusion of ..Frost at Midnight." It stands for the poet's creative imagination, which has tumed a painful memory, a memory of communicative isolation and frus­ tration, into the ultimate act of linguistic expression, a poem. The resolution is more powerful in "Snowflake" than in "Frost at Midnight" because of the linguistic circumstances that attend Valli's authorship: he is actually validating the possibility of po­ etry in a language, ASL, that was, within his own lifetime, con­ sidered unfit for the human mind and deserving of extermination.

Two significant facets of "Snowflake" reinforce the poem'scohesion around the central thematic development 1 have dis­ cussed so far. The first is the motif of vision that Valli emphasiz­ es throughout. Vision is important from the first line, in which the narrator is presented gazing through a window at the inhospi­ table winter. In stanza two, "vision" and "memory" (line 9) effect a play on signs in ASL, a play that captures the same double sense as the English word "vision": literally, the ability to see with the eyes; figuratively, a vivid recollection or a prophecy. The sign Valli chooses for MEMORY uses two opposed C bands positioned about half a foot apart slightly in front of and higher than the forehead (the "hubble," as it were, that appears above a cartoon character to surround its caption)

The different meanings of "vision-'memory,' 'prophecy,' and 'sight'-coalesce in line 9, because Valli bas moved the fea­ ture specifications for MEMORY to a second location in a way that draws attention to the phonemic structure of the sign: first, the "hubble" occupies the position out from and above the forehead, where it signifies MEMORY; the left band then preserves its loca­ tion, shape, and orientation; while the right band breaks to exe­ cute severa} other signs-EYES, NEVER, FORGET, EYES­ BROWN-after which it resumes the C handshape and meets the left band at eye level to convey a sign different from MEMORY in location feature only, "vision," a "recollection" (note that the se­ quence of these signs bas changed in translation); finally, the left band again perseveres while the right band executes BOY, after which it rejoins the left band to surround the eyes tightly, sug­ gesting a pair of field glasses. In this last position, coupled with a pronominal shift of the body, the sign refers literally to "sight" and designates the boy's act of looking up at his father in line 11. Valli emphasizes this looking upward to indicate the boy's defer­ ence and trust (which tum out, disconcertingly, to have been mis­ placed) and at the same time to underscore with irony that the child cannat hear the questions being directed -at him (lines 15 and 22), that he inhabits a world of vision and must see them in­stead.

Vision plays a key role in the poem because visuallanguage is in fact its medium and its subject, even though signing is never mentioned or used within the context of the narrative. The motif thus unifies the poem thematically and linguistically, with Valli's own artistic "visionu having wrought the text, a hopeful exem­ plum for the germination of literature in visuallanguage.

The image of the sun that appears in the final stanza is the sec­ond feature of the poem cementing the intricate relationship of the poet, his artistic vision, and the visuallanguage of his poem. Like the moon in "Frost at Midnight," the sun in "Snowflake" represents the creative imagination, and it appears from behind the clouds in the final stanza to preside, like Coleridge's moon, over the completion of the poem. Structurally, SUN resonates with MEMORY and VISION from Valli's second stanza: the sign SUN is, effectively, MEMORY made with one band instead of two. The final appearance of the sun is thus prefigured in the passage discussed above (lines 8-10), where a single band of MEMORY preserves its linguistic structure while the other band continues to sign. The preserved C band develops cohesion between the MEM­ ORY from which the poem is manufactured and the emblem for the creative intelligence that bas manufactured it. In this way Valli manipulates the linguistic structure of the poem to forge a self-reflective commentary on his relationship to the act of com­ position and the language through which this act is fulfilled.

To conclude this analysis 1 would like to look at a second symbol Valli uses to distill the thematic and linguistic coherence of the poem. The snowflake, for which the poem is titled, appears at the first stanza break (line 7) and heralds a developmental piv­ ot in the narrative. The bleak and monotonous landscape is bro­ ken by the flake's fall-"From nowhere a white snowflake falls, 1 Beautifully, and my heart beats" (lines 7-8); and the memory introduced in the next line, becomes identified with the snow­
flake on that account (note that later the MEMORY MELTs in line27).

Reappearing in the last lines of the third stanza, the snow­ flake escorts the poem to closure: "The sun slips from behind the clouds -/ Its rays warm the earth. One snowflake 1 Falls, lands,and passes into snow" (lines 32-34). Emphasized here is the con­ cept of synthesis, of the single snowflake, with its traditional connotation of individuality, being assimilated into a unified bank of snow. The snowflake represents a single memory, a Joycean epiphany, the memory from stanza two that forms the centerpiece of the poem, and the bank of snow is the totality of experience that defines the narrator as a person. The passing of the snowflake into snow parallels the lyric process, by which the poet assimilates a distressing incident from his past to his psyche to create a stronger and more complete sense of self, a fully inte­ grated consciousness. Valli's two key symbols are rhetorical complements because it is the sun (line 32), poetic imagination, that empowers the act of fusion by melting the snowflake into snow.

The rift between narrator and landscape is finally healed-no longer is nature portrayed as alien and forbidding, and no longer does the image of enclosure from stanza one separate the narrator from the natural world. The memory that bas disturbed the narra­ tor's sense of self and occasioned the poem is amalgamated back into his heart (lines 27-28), like a snowflake passing into snow, and the emotional crux on which the poem tums is thereby re­ solved. Like Coleridge in "Frost at Midnight," Valli uses the lyr­ ic process to affirm the relationship that language negotiates between self and other. For the narrator of "Snowflake," the memory of this linguistic incident from childhood becomes an antidote to communicative isolation, and its cathartic effect is represented through the almost magical transformation of the landscape from stanza one to stanza three. At the same time, the poem renegotiates the non-fiction world of the poet. In using ASL to compose "Snowflake," Valli has fulfilled an alternative existence for the boy in the poem, an existence that changes and enriches the identity of the deaf community by affrrming the lit­ erary status of its language.

Frost at Midnight

The Frost performs its secret ministry, Unhelped by any wind. The owlet's cry
Came loud-and hark, again! loud as before,
The inmates of my cottage, ali at rest, Have left me to that solitude, which suits Abstruser musings: save that at my side My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.
'Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness. Sea, hill, and wood, This populous village! Sea, and hill, and wood, With ali the numberless goings-on of life, Inaudible as dreams! the thin blue flame
Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not; Only that film, which fluttered on the grate, Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing. Methinks its motion in this hush of nature Gives it dim sympathies with me who live, Making it a companionable form,
Whose puny ftaps and freaks the idling Spirit
By Its own moods interprets, everywhere
Echo or mirror seeking of itself, And makes a toy of Thought.

But 0! how oft, How oft, at school, with most believing mind, Presageful, have I gazed upon the bars,
To watch that fluttering stranger! and as oft
With unclosed lids, already had I dreamt
Of my sweet birthplace, and the old church tower,
Whose belis, the poor man's only music, rang From mom to evening, ali the hot Fair-day, So sweetly, that they stirred and haunted me With a wild pleasure, falling on mine ear
Most like articulate sounds of things to come! So gazed I, till the soothing things, I dreamt,
Lulied me to sleep, and sleep prolonged my dreams! And so I brooded ali the following morn,
Awed by the stem preceptor's face, mine eye Fixed with mock study on my swimming book: Save if the door half opened, and I snatched
A basty glanee, and still my heart leaped up For still I hoped to see the stranger's face Townsman, or aunt, or sister more beloved
My playmate when we both were clothed alike!

Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side, Whose gentle breathings, beard in this deep calm, Fill up the interspersed vacancies
And momentary pauses of the thought! My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,
And think that thou shalt leam far other lore,
And in far other scenes! For I was reared
In the great city, pent 'mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars. But thou my babel shalt wander like a breeze By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds, Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that etemallanguage, which thy God Utters, who from etemity doth teach Himself in ali, and ali things in himself. Great universal Teacher! he shall mold Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.

Therefore ail seasons shall be sweet to thee Whether the summer clothes the general earth With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch Of mossy apple tree, while the night thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret rninistry of frost Shall bang them up in silent icicles, Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.''


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Romantic Literature. NY. Norton. Battison, R.
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1978 Sociolinguistic aspects of the use of sign language. ln
Sign Language of the Deaf, Schlesinger & Namir eds.
NY. Academie Press. 271-313.
Cohn, J.
1986 The new deaf poetics: Visible poetry, Sign Language
Studies 52, 263-277. Jakobson, R
1960 Linguistics & poetics. ln Style in Language, Sebeok ed.
MIT Press Cambridge, MA: MIT Pres. 350-377. Klima, E. & U. Bellugi
1979 The Signs of Language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Uni­
versity Press. Padden, C. & D. Perlmutter
1987 American Sign Language & the architecture of phono­
logical theory, Natura/ Language & Linguistic Theory 5,
Siple, P.
1978 Visual constraints for sign language communication,
Sign Language Studies 19, 97-112.
1990 The nature of the line in ASL poetry. ln Sign Language Research 1987: Fourth International Symposium on Sign Language Research, Edmondson & Karlsson eds. Hamburg: Signum Verlag. 171-182.
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(videotape, Poetry in Motion series). Burtonsville, MD: Sign Media, lnc.

Alec Ormsby has studied ASL at Stanford and at San Francisco Community Collage. He has been the director of the American­ lrish Historical Society in New York City, and as a recent recipient of the Ph.D. degree in English from Stanford is, like many in his cohort, seeking a position. His address: 502 South 4th Street, Redlands, CA 92373

Poetic Cohesion in ASL, Ormsby