Surprise! Here’s a book review I wrote a couple months ago for a writing sample I needed for a job I didn’t get.
C’est la vie.
Deaf & Blind: A Guide for the Ones Outside
Paul Hostovsky’s fifteenth collection — and fifth from Main Street Rag — Deaf & Blind, is a rare find. With humor and humility, the Massachusetts author leads hearing and sighted readers through his life thus far as an American Sign Language interpreter and student, as well as the relative and friend of many Deaf and DeafBlind people, in the form of poems and stories.
When I first met Paul on Zoom — in true 2020 fashion — at a Poetry Society of New Hampshire meeting this summer, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had never heard of him, nor read any of his work, and in all honesty, I was a little concerned about being preached at with anti-ableism ideology (which is not to say that ableism is acceptable, because it’s not). Imagine my surprise, then, when I found myself riveted to his words, asking questions, and wanting more time with him when the hour-plus was up. I pre-ordered Deaf & Blind that night, then featured Paul in my monthly newsletter four days later.
The book arrived in late October, and I forced myself to savor it over the course of three days. Not having spent a significant amount of time around any Deaf people up in Alaska or at my universities in Minnesota and Japan, I am incredibly grateful to Paul for having shared his experiences with the world through his words, and that of his friends. From the despised “DINOSAUR-NOD” in “Deaf Date” to a debate (in poems and prose) with his Deaf friends on the origin of “420” (and some indulgence thereof), Paul’s stories are both entertaining and informative, as well as truly eye-opening. I particularly enjoyed “The Quiet Car” — in which a fellow commuter mistakes Paul for a Deaf person and, as he writes, “the joke is on hearing people” — and “Pinball Wizard,” in which the DeafBlind handyman Jon Lipsky takes center stage, awing and instructing us outsiders in the ways differently abled people go about their daily lives. In the latter piece, Paul does a beautiful job weaving DeafBlind history and philosophy through his telling of Jon’s role in his life, noting, “DeafBlind people are alive and well and living extraordinarily ordinary lives.”
While I question the effectiveness of several stories rendered in poems (which I think would be just as well, or perhaps better served in prose), there are a few whose form can be forgiven. I was struck by the one about The Allman Brothers concert, for example, which ends with a powerful statement made by a Deaf attendee: “we have a right to know.” It is these little observations, these little faux pas, that reveal so much about the hearing world and our assumptions, and in turn teach us to be more perceptive. “Deaf Bachelor Party” is another poem of Paul’s that is similarly chastening with its final image of the hearing observers thrusting their hands back in their pockets, “where they belong.”
I would be remiss if, before concluding this review, I did not acknowledge the elephant in the room, the Truth, which Paul addresses in his preface:
Much of the writing here takes the point of view of someone on the outside looking in. That’s because, in spite of everything, I remain an outsider in the Deaf and DeafBlind communities. An ally, yes, an honored guest, perhaps, but ultimately, inexorably, an outsider. Therefore my perspective is necessarily an outsider’s perspective: a sort of initiated audience member, hands clasped in admiration, empathy, praise.
Review text copyright © Jan. 2021, Caitlin M.S. Buxbaum.
Learn more about Paul Hostovsky and his work at paulhostovsky.com.