|Disability Studies Quarterly
Fall 2004, Volume 24, No. 4
Copyright 2004 by the Society
for Disability Studies
BOOK & FILM REVIEWS
Jones, Judy Yaeger and Jane E. Vallier, Eds. Sweet Bells Jangled: Laura Redden Searing, A Deaf Poet Restored. Washington, DC: Gallaudet UP, 2003. ISBN 1-56368-138-2, 6 x 9 softcover, 224 pages, references, $29.95
Reviewed by Rita Rich, Ohio State University
Sweet Bells Jangled is a collection of poetry by Laura Redden Searing, the Deaf poet who shaped the American literary landscape during the Civil War. Also known as Laura C. Redden in the Deaf community, Searing published more than 600 poems in her lifetime, most under the pen name Howard Glyndon. As the editors emphasize, Searing's double identity was well-known throughout her literary career, and she counted Abraham Lincoln, Samuel Clemens, Angie Fuller Fisher, Celia Thaxter, and Alexander Graham Bell among her admiring readers and professional correspondents.
As part of the Gallaudet Classics in Deaf Studies Series, Sweet Bells Jangled is subtitled A Deaf Poet Restored, and the timing is perfect to reintroduce the war poet to American political, literary, and cultural life. The volume contains 82 selected poems, some that address themes of war, gender, and disability in ways that shed an odd light on America's current state of affairs.
"In Time of War" describes the same dread of daily headlines that we have come to expect when we read the newspaper:
The 'Extras' fall like rain upon a drought,
Many of Searing's war poems express relational intimacy, addressing a fallen soldier as "my darling...my hero love" in "Left on the Battle-Field" (p. 39) and building narratives around women who struggle to reconcile battle victories with their own losses.
While her Civil War poems and reportage brought her the most fame, Searing continued writing poetry for six decades until her death in 1923. For editors Jones and Vallier, the project of restoration centers around the title poem, "Sweet Bells Jangled," which they reclaim with a modern understanding of women's epic poetry. Vallier writes, "The poem tells the story of a journey that allows the traveler to bring home tales of conquest and defeat that lead her to a changed definition of self." (p. 24) With emotional virtuosity and formal breadth, the poem transmutes girlhood into womanhood, using a strong, subjective narrative style to articulate the conflicts between the young woman's literary ambitions and romantic yearnings.
In her mid-thirties, Searing wrote "Corinna Confesses," which depicts a fiercely independent woman negotiating romantic commitments with her lover. The opening lines, "To think that my eyes could draw your eyes down for a moment, / From their lifting and straining up toward the opulent heights--" capture an erotic moment of visual communication that leads to a parting of ways (p. 187). I couldn't help but think of the Deaf poet Dorothy Miles writing "To the Men I Love" and "Substitution" a century later.
Of particular interest to disability scholars is Searing's short story "The Realm of Singing" (originally published as "Down Low"), which is included in this volume. "The Realm of Singing" is an autobiographical, allegorical piece about a bird who "had a defect in her wings." Flying is too painful, but the bird hops onto a branch and begins singing because "she knew very well that the law of the land was that no bird who could not sing beautifully should be allowed to dwell within its limits." (p. 206) Searing troubles the characteristics that define the normalcy of bird-ness. The bird takes enormous pleasure in singing, so she is devastated to realize that "when people found out about [her wings] they did not value her singing as much as they had done before." (p. 208) Like Searing, the bird figures out how to earn a living through self-expression, and how to respond when others doubt her skill.
By rewriting her deafness as a broken wing, Searing breaks out of individualized, isolated impairment to find a way to express what Simi Linton (1998) calls "the social and political circumstances that have forged us as a group." (p. 4) The bird decides to sing to an audience of "the sick, the sad, the maimed, the feeble" who appreciate her songs with "tears of mingled sadness and gladness." (p. 212) This not-so-simple allegory can be interpreted as a critical examination of what it's like to live and work as a disabled artist, writer, or performer.
To contextualize Searing's life, Jones and Vallier introduce the collection with two biographical essays. While these prefatory materials do a fine job at celebrating and historicizing Searing's life, they also inadvertently demonstrate some of the problems that arise when "restoring" a poet. Jones' essay risks overromanticizing Searing's independent lifestyle, and I wondered why Vallier's version, which represents the literary critic's interests, repeats parts of Searing's life story. Furthermore, both editors posit that Searing's deafness was a pivotal factor in her development as a poet, but they circle inconclusively around this hypothesis, valorizing Searing's "devastating crucible" (p. 25) and sentimentalizing her "life of literary potential." (p. 2) The issue that remains even more pressing is the need for more critical work that secures a place for Deaf women poets in the literary canon.
Linton, S. (1998). Claiming Disability. New York: NYU Press.
Disability Studies Quarterly (DSQ) is the journal of the Society for Disability Studies (SDS). It is a multidisciplinary and international journal of interest to social scientists, scholars in the humanities and arts, disability rights advocates, and others concerned with the issues of people with disabilities. It represents the full range of methods, epistemologies, perspectives, and content that the field of disability studies embraces. DSQ is committed to developing theoretical and practical knowledge about disability and to promoting the full and equal participation of persons with disabilities in society. (ISSN: 1041-5718; eISSN: 2159-8371)