The Heart of The Hydrogen Jukebox – ASL

Here’s something we’ve been meaning to post for some time now. 

The extraordinary development of Allen and ASLAmerican sign-language

From Miriam Nathan and Don Feigel’s remarkable documentary, “The Heart of The Hydrogen Jukebox“. 

The date is 1984. The location, the National Technical Institute for the Deaf  (NTID) in Rochester, New York, (a workshop entitled “Two Worlds, One Spirit” (with Allen in attendance), designed to address the topic of poetry and deafness). Patrick Graybill is the deaf poet-performer who shakes up the room and blows everybody’s minds. 

Jim Cohn describes it (a significant, breakthrough moment) in his definitive book, Sign Mind – Studies in American Sign Language Poetics, Graybill’s extraordinary “improvisational translation” of one of the most enduring images of Howl – “Hydrogen Jukebox”   

“He (Graybill) took an imaginary quarter out of his pants pocket and placed it on the make-believe jukebox he had outlined before him. Becoming the arm retrieved a record, and in its vertical position, brought it towards the center, turned it horizontal, and laid it on his other upturned hand, the turntable. With the platter on the table, and the axis for its spinning created by his middle fingers, down came the needle. A look of concern crossed his face, then fear, then terror as his body, his hands, convulsed wildly spinning; projecting the chaos of the machine out of control. The moment has hung eternal in my mind. The facing, outstretched palms – no longer rotating, but like heavy pistons – drew all the energy in the room to their last compression. Then, exploding outwards, with open-mouthed agony, mushroom clouds slashed through our collective brains.” 

AG: “Hydrogen Jukebox” – “What is a “Hydrogen Jukebox”? A Hydrogen Jukebox. Of course, that refers to a sound thing, the jukebox anyway…a jukebox is a record-machine, a mechanical record-machine, in the bars…  oh, the “Hydrogen”?  (that’s) the hydrogen bomb..The noise of the jukebox is apocalyptic…so the emergence of that kind of rock n roll, that kind of heavy noise, is almost like the beginning of the explosion of the end of the world. “Hydrogen Jukebox”…but it depend on…it’s a very abstract one…but there are two concrete things –  there’s a jukebox, and then there’s hydrogen. Hydrogen is real and a jukebox is real, and when you put them together it makes an unusual kind of jukebox… What I’m wondering is, once it is explained, does any kind of interesting sparkle come through with that combination? or does that go dead in translation? how would you translate it?

The incident made a lasting impression on many people in attendance. According to Cohn, Ginsberg talked fondly about it for years afterwards. Graybill himself was inspired to go further, not merely working from English to ASL, sign-for-word, but composing directly in sign language. Others began composing directly in sign language too, notably Peter Cook (soon to develop his work, alongside hearing collaborator, Kenny Lerner, in The Flying Words Project). Here‘s Cook in 1995 on PBS’s United States of Poetry. Here he is six years later, at UCSD (introduced by UCSD Literature Professor, Michael Davidson).  

In the Spring of 2012, Swarthmore College hosted Signing Hands Across The Water – An International Festival of Sign Language Poetry from the United Kingdom and the United States, utilizing BSL (British Sign Language) as well as ASL. The main event can be watched here and a selection of videos from the workshops may be viewed here 

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