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 PoetryFoundation.org):
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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Laurie and Debbie say:
Vibeke Venema, writing for the BBC, profiles Carlotta, the pseudonym of a superb German artist who has prosopagnosia, or face-blindness. Carlotta’s face-blindness is intense, and one of the faces she cannot recognize is her own.
If she catches sight of herself in a mirror, Carlotta will think, “the woman looking at me is in my nightie and in my flat, so it must be me”. She will also recognize her hair – it’s what happens underneath those grey curls that’s a mystery.
Her face-blindness made her childhood and young adult years very difficult, as detailed in the article. We aren’t surprised that she became intensely curious about her own face.
Carlotta says it was a “revelation” for her when she read in a book once that you could draw self-portraits by touching your face.
“The face is a hilly landscape that I travel with my finger and transform into a two-dimensional drawing. It’s not that easy, because I can’t see what I am doing,” she says.
Although she is making visual representations of her face, she can draw in the dark, because light isn’t her medium: instead, she traces her face with one hand and reproduces the results with the other.
Many blind people, of course, use their fingers to learn other people’s faces. As we wrote about here recently, DeafBlind people are developing Protactile, a language based on touch. So Carlotta’s work is not only valuable on its own, it also represents a range of human adaptation, as well as the endlessly resilient nature of art–which will find a way to express itself across an amazing range of neurodiverse abilities. Unfortunately, the fabulous quality of her art goes unmentioned in much of the publicity about her work. Laurie is particularly impressed. You can see more of her beautiful work, other than the self-portraits, here.
Since [learning that she could touch her face to make a self-portrait], she has done little else, working on them so furiously, that sometimes she tears through the paper with her tools – she usually creates monotypes, a type of etching, and scratches on paper with knitting needles.
“Art was definitely cathartic for me – without it, I wouldn’t be where I am now,” she says. “In making art, and also at times in destroying it, I was able to deal with a lot of the emotion and the difficulties I experienced in my childhood, and now I’m not carrying them around with me any more.
Venema provides an account of neuroscientist Valentin Riedl, who has studied Carlotta and made a documentary film about her: Lost in Face, and then returns to Carlotta for last words:
“My art is an inner necessity for me,” she says. “I can’t help but make art, to feel my portraits and put them on paper again and again, and to keep going in search of my face, of what will escape my memory in the next second.
“I see it and I don’t remember it, I reach for it and the next moment it disappears – it is an ongoing process that can never end.”
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