David Wright (1920-1994) became deaf at the age of seven as a result of scarlet fever. I find this quietly controlled poem about his condition very moving: clearly he was one of those who, in the words of one of his contemporaries, ‘heard because they were condemned to silence/And learned to see because they had no light’.
By the Effigy of St Cecilia
Having peculiar reverence for this creature
Of the numinous imagination, I am come
To visit her church and stand before the altar
Where her image, hewn in pathetic stone,
Exhibits the handiwork of her executioner.
There are the axemarks. Outside, in the courtyard,
In shabby habit, an Italian nun
Came up and spoke: I had to answer, ‘Sordo’.
She said she was a teacher of deaf children
And had experience of my disorder.
And I have had experience of her order,
Interpenetrating chords and marshalled sound;
Often I loved to listen to the organ’s
Harmonious and concordant interpretation
Of what is due to us from the creation.
But it was taken from me in my childhood
And those graduated pipes turned into stone.
Now, having travelled a long way through silence,
Within the church in Trastevere I stand
A pilgrim to the patron saint of music
And am abashed by the presence of this nun
Beside the embodiment of that legendary
Virgin whose music and whose martyrdom
Is special to this place: by her reality.
She is a reminder of practical kindness,
The care it takes to draw speech from the dumb
Or pierce with sense the carapace of deafness;
And so, of the plain humility of the ethos
That constructed, also, this elaborate room
To pray for bread in; they are not contradictory.