John Lee Clark: Self Portrait from a Deaf Blind Man

photo of John Lee Clark, a young-ish looking white man wearing a blue t-shirt

Debbie says:

We’ve written about John Lee Clark before here, and here. Clark is, to use his language, an actor in Protactile, . So I recognized his name when he showed up as the author of the featured poem on one of my favorite podcasts, Poetry Unbound.

Here’s the poem, Self Portrait (as posted on

On the morning of my forty-second birthday

The kneading of my broad swimmer’s back by my beloved is the first gift. I nuzzle my pillow and inhale. I sniff my glorious hands. They take their turn at the giving. She says I am a furnace. In the shower I dig into my bestubbled cheeks. I scrape each fingernail against the right bottom corner of my upper left lateral incisor. My marvelous mouth pats the harvested skin into a soft dab. It rests tasteless on my tongue until I step out. My comb tickles my lips with a bouquet of pandemic hair. I sample the bitter end of a Q-tip and am satisfied. The fennel toothpaste searches me and tries me and finds me lacking in a few places. For Jael still sleeping I am a squeeze at their ankle. For Armand I am a known engulfment from behind. For Azel I am a quip and a laugh on his chest. For loafed and purring Angel I am a massive swoon. For hungry Nib I am two legs to rub against back and forth and to loop around with the most eloquently insistent tail in the animal kingdom.
I wanted to share this with Body Impolitic because it is so very deeply embodied. Clark doesn’t put his deaf-blind life front and center (why would you center the things you don’t have?). Instead, he puts his life, his engaged, loving, relationship-filled morning, out for us to see in a way that shares his day with those of us who can hear and see. The sharing is so generous, because we can read it without noticing what (for us) might seem like a loss. Full sensory life, without visual or auditory accompaniment.
I recommend that everyone read more of Clark’s poetry and (if you can see), watch some of the Protactile videos: a glimpse into another way of being in the world.
Thanks to Padraig O’Tuama of Poetry Unbound for bringing this one to me. In his insightful reading of this poem, Padraig also decenters deaf-blindness in favor of the richness that is in the poem.


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