A Prose Villanelle

Every five words, Julie quizzes me. She’ll spell a word with her fingers, slowly, then expect me to reproduce the sign I have learned for it. I can discern the individual letters of the alphabet but cannot remember the shapes my hands have already formed. When I slow the session down with my stuttering sign language, I place my hands on top of Julie’s, quelling the repetitive lesson of her motions. More I sign to her. Show me. I know these words and few others. She furrows her eyebrows. She does not understand. “Just speak your language,” I say out loud.

Julie is teaching me sign language so I will be able to converse with my daughter, Meredith, when she grows old enough to learn it herself. I have friends with hearing children older than Meredith who tell me their kids are just beginning to talk. I don’t say anything to them, but Meredith can already communicate. When she smacks her hand on her highchair for more food or slaps the refrigerator door for her teething ring, she talks. Our communication is crude but comforting. Meredith demands. I fulfill. We speak. We understand one another.

When Julie shows me a vocabulary word, I decide whether or not to remember it. I am not a fast learner, so I keep only what I think I will use in the next few years. Yesterday she showed me the sign for wine, and I ignored it. I figured Meredith and I would not talk about wine until she’s into her teens. But later that evening, I started to worry. Meredith could ask me about communion, and I would not be able to respond. That’s the thing about learning my daughter’s language—I can never anticipate what Meredith will want to discuss.

Julie stutters. The first time I met her, when she came to my house for our lesson, I had to wait patiently while she explained that she was the sign language tutor I had requested from the local college. I knew who she was right away; Julie’s professor had described her to me. When she spoke, Julie expelled her words so haltingly they sounded foreign. Still, I waited patiently for her to finish. I was uncomfortable, aware of my facial expression trying to be pleasant and not condescending or bored. I didn’t know whether I should interrupt or if she was the type who didn’t want special treatment.

I’ve never asked Julie about her stuttering, but I assume that’s why she studies sign language. There are times before or after our sessions when she stutters so badly she has to modify her sentences to speak easier syllables. She’ll start telling me about art history class, how she loves the way the Impressionists captured a few fleeting moments of time. But she’ll get stuck on a word like “branch” or “leaves” as she’s describing how the foliage is disconnected from the trees and instead clip her thought, say something like, “well, they paint fast” instead of what she wants to convey. But when she signs, her hands move swiftly, as fast as her thoughts, and Julie relaxes, released by speech.

I often slow our sessions down. My fingers tense; my wrists lock. My mind and body bar me from true fluency. More I sign to Julie. Show me. I don’t understand the words, but I want to see Julie speak long thoughts, unobstructed by her stuttering or my staccato attempts at signing. “Just speak your language,” I say out loud. “It’s so beautiful. Only you.”

Sometimes I can follow the meaning of Julie’s signs even though I haven’t learned them yet. In her motions rivers flow, the sun rises over the horizon, and flowers bloom out of the earth. Her gestures are pictures, are poetry. A form of interpretive dance. I love these moments, when Julie’s speech is both personal and shared, the way it has to be to communicate.

I watch Julie closely and sometimes see signs that rhyme. Words like “street” and “river” that trace a path out from the body but with fingers poised differently. Or “tempt,” “poor,” and “punish” that gesture from the left elbow. Julie slowly repeats them until my hands and arms mime the shapes. I think how sign language connects words as spoken English might not. How words like “tempt” and “punish” and “poor” become part of a poetic convention unavailable to them through voice. A composition of acoustic gestures, of rhymed bends and sways and taps.

Before I repeat the vocabulary word Julie shows me, I decide if I should remember it. I am not a fast learner, so I have to construct a strategic language, only what Meredith and I may need to say in the next few years. Yesterday, Julie showed me the sign for equator. I ignored it. That night I mouthed “equator” in front of a mirror. My lips rounded and retracted in a distinctive way that Meredith could learn to read. I will have to speak slowly, but my mouth will give Meredith a word for that imaginary line dividing the world. But then I worried. If I didn’t know the sign, I wouldn’t recognize it as a word Meredith might speak to me.

Sign language is not the first language I’ve studied. I took French for years. My first teacher, in high school, was a chic Parisian woman who wore Hèrmes scarves. She liked me, wrapped me as tightly with her attention as her guttural “R’s” and “très biens” did. Her fluency and ease hypnotized me. Sometimes her voice turned singsong as she explained the beauty and technicalities of the French accent in a sentence about rain: Il va pleuvoir. Il va pleuvoir. From my desk, I mouthed the same words and at home tried to sing them in the same chirping voice that would deem me proficient.

The next three years, my teacher was a young guy with an Italian last name and no hint of a French accent. He spoke Midwestern French with clear syllables and a slight twang. He also had little patience. He followed his questions with two possible answers, one of which he intentionally stressed. Oui ou non. Non ou oui. The second answer was always the correct one. I never wanted the answers, though. I wanted to speak French, wanted the language to transform me, my words to straddle two worlds. But I could never speak French fast enough to be fluent. I stumbled over irregular verbs, forgot the gender of nouns.

More I sign to Julie when I slow the session down with my stuttering sign language. Show me. I know these words and few others. She furrows her eyebrows. She does not understand that I want to see continuous motion, fluid articulations of speech. That I want to see how my daughter’s hands and arms and face will one day sculpt her thoughts. “Just speak your language,” I say out loud. My voice sounds hollow and unnatural but also comforting. Julie can hear; she understands me and starts signing.

My French improved somewhat in college, and when I was a senior, I taught drills to first-year students using a technique called the Rassias method. The students sat in desks fanned around me, and I faced them on my knees, at eye level. When I asked a question, I snapped my fingers then quickly pointed to and looked at a student. I had to be fast and random when I chose students. Snap-point-look. I spent hours perfecting the motions, hours learning the drills so I could fling questions effortlessly. If the students answered correctly, I commended them. I could convey “good” 11 different ways with words like “bon,” “très bien,” “oui c’est ça,” and, for especially impressive answers, “fantastique.” I had memorized them. I figured that was something at least, to be fluent with my encouragement.

During these sessions, I could not speak English. My professor sometimes hid outside, making sure I spoke only French. If spoken words could not convey my meaning, I had to be creative. I could pantomime, display props, sketch on the board. I couldn’t draw very well though, nor could I act out convincing charades. My teacher fired me when she heard me say “fear” out loud. Avoir peur. I just couldn’t get the students to understand “having fear,” the way the French phrase it, as opposed to “being afraid.” Julie showed me the sign. With her hands close together, she moved them down and away from her body as if warding off something frightening. The sign was unmistakable, especially with Julie’s expression. She exuded fear.

Julie crams vocabulary words into our sessions and later produces long lists of the terms I should know. I read the words, say them out loud, fingerspell them. But that’s all I can do; I’m not a fast learner. And regardless of what words I choose to remember, I will never anticipate what Meredith and I will need to say to one another in the coming years. I think about Meredith and me having to fingerspell all of our sentences to each other, or me slowly forming words on my lips if Meredith learns to lip-read. Either way, I can already feel the strain of our language, of disrupted words and sentences.

I often ask Julie to show me rhyming words, and she grabs my hands lightly and forms them for me. Group, company, team. Dance, stand, kneel. I repeat these back to her, and she smiles at me, claps her hands the way hearing people do to offer praise. When she leaves, I show the rhymes to my daughter even though she doesn’t understand yet. I repeat the same few words again and again, my hands creating a halting form of poetry. In those brief moments, with Meredith’s attention fixed on my hands as they turn and sway and form hollows in the air, I am fluent.

Despite her deafness, Meredith is fluent with noise. She rattles the screen on the patio door, stomps her feet, claps her hands. She can make wonderful chaotic sounds, my daughter. I think of it as sound poetry. Art. If she were a painter, I imagine she’d be a Cubist. She beats together her blocks and my cookware lids with such abandon that I think, keep talking.

When I slow the session down with my stuttering sign language, I wave my hands in front of my body, designate cut with a slashing motion across my neck. Julie furrows her eyebrows. She does not understand, just as Meredith may not understand me as she grows older. More I sign. Show me. I know these words and with them I can inspire unfettered imaginings. That’s something at least. “Just speak your language,” I say out loud. My voice sings a resonant refrain. “It’s so beautiful. Only you.”

I am not a fast learner, so when Julie shows me signs, I keep only what I think I will use in the next few years. She has shown me four words for praise, and I’ve remembered all of them: “good,” “wonderful,” “very good,” and applause the way the deaf convey it, silently. They are liberating, these words. An emotion I can share in the space between our hands and arms and bodies. I use these signs and Julie understands me. I commend. She resumes. We speak.

Villanelle: A 19-line poem consisting of five tercets and a final quatrain on two rhymes, with the first and third lines of the first tercet repeated alternately as a refrain closing the succeeding stanzas and joined as the final couplet of the quatrain.

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