Sign Language Interpreter

Jun 19, 2020

Today’s poem is “Sign Language Interpreter" by Karyn Lie-Nielsen. Her chapbook, Handbuzz and Other Poems, features poems that center on her experiences growing up within a Deaf community.

She writes, “Both of my parents were deaf, so my first language was American Sign Language, or ASL. More often than not, when I was a child I was the interpreter that my mother and father called upon for all manner of professional interviews and conversations with doctors, lawyers, teachers… Sign Language is… purely visual…there is no written equivalent.  It's a language that must be seen in order to work..Maybe you can't read it, or listen to it, but of all the languages in the world, Sign Language is one that physically embodies communication.  Whatever someone might say in…any spoken language, the exact same message can be conveyed in the physical signed space of American Sign Language.”

Sign Language Interpreter 
By Karyn Lie-Nielsen 

I’m someone else’s purple prose.
My hands are paper notes, names
and numbers unfold themselves.

I’m the embossed card pulled from
Mercury’s vest. A quick scribble 
rumples my fingers. Yet winging in 

the swan of good news, I’m all arms and elbows. 
I’m also flat-palmed, low erasing, 
“forget that part…mistake…no.”

True or not, I’m the messenger
gripping the handbook, an audio-visual 
song and dance. Information shakes

the skewed squares, my shoulders. 
Like a ghost, I’m excused for making voice
while someone else is talking.

I’m talking while someone else makes voice.
I’m a beacon, a bell, a major announcement.
“You’re under arrest.” A sad confession. “I don’t know.”

I’m the microphone inside the surgeon’s skull.
I’m a neon sign with running letters.
I imitate bravado like it’s calligraphy.

I am calligraphy. The writing on the wall.
I give you what you’ve been waiting for.
The diagnosis. The verdict. The fond reply. 

I catch your eye, a message printed in purple 
trails an airplane in the silent sky.

Poem copyright © 2015 Karyn Lie-Nielsen. Reprinted from Handbuzz and Other Voices, Damfins Press, 2015, by permission of Karyn Lie-Nielsen.