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By Peter Cook and Kenny Lerner


Need, desperate need, eagle-taloned need
is a pumping drill. The oil sloshes
to the brim. The lid slams and it’s a tanker
spewing smoke. It burps and hisses
into a truck. It barrels through highways. It pours
down underground. It’s a gas pump and a car
and a stopping and a refilling and a continuing.
It pulls over at the side of a tall tree.
It chops and strips and grinds and pounds
until dead fish float downstream
and our need is a single sheet of paper
sliding into a typewriter. It folds and licks
and places three stamps and sends on beating wings
to a door opening somewhere. A man reads it and fastens
his chin strap, carrying a rifle as bodies
fall and things go up in flames. It finds him
and the coffin lid closes. As soon as it stakes
a cross in salute, the crush comes again
to squeeze the soil for more. O need,
desperate need, eagle-taloned need, why
do we need you so much?

Translator's Note

Although it is Peter Cook whom we see performing “Need” in ASL while Kenny Lerner, off screen, voices a word here and a phrase there in English, both of them created the poem together. They share equal credit on all Flying Words Project texts. What Kenny voices for the benefit of those who don’t speak ASL is not a translation but rather audio captions. They always create the ASL poem first, before mulling over what aids to offer to hearing audiences. Their goal is to clue in English listeners without feeding their ears so much that their eyes are closed to the ASL performance.

I translated the poem without knowing what English words were used to complement the poem; it wasn’t until I’d finished the third or fourth draft of the translation that I read the transcript. It was interesting to see where my translation and the transcript met, even sharing the exact same words. More illuminating, though, is how all three—the original, the skeleton audio text, and my translation—differ in emphasis. The original emphasizes the sheer force and physicality of the “need,” while the audio text brings into relief, more than either the original or my translation do, an environmental subset.

Readers may enjoy knowing that “Need” is one of the best-loved ASL poems. In his entry on ASL poetry for “The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics,” Christopher Krentz included it on a very short list of examples of seminal ASL poetry. Peter Cook and Kenny Lerner wrote the poem in 2008 and had in mind the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other things. “We are disillusioned,” they stated at its performance, “after seven years of fake liberalism and war.”

Added: Tuesday, May 5, 2015  /  Translated from the American Sign Language by John Lee Clark. Used with permission. John Lee Clark is a finalist for the 2015 Split This Rock Freedom Flow Award for Poetry and Activism. His latest book is Where I Stand: On the Signing Community and My DeafBlind Experience (Handtype Press, 2014). He is currently a Braille instructor and lives in Hopkins, Minnesota, with his wife, the artist and author Adrean Clark, and their three sons.
Peter Cook and Kenny Lerner

Flying Words Project was launched in 1986 after Jim Cohn, a Beat poet, suggested that Peter Cook team up with Kenny Lerner, who, Cohn said, was a brilliant interpreter. Lerner would later say, “I don’t understand why Jim said that; I have never worked as an interpreter before.” Nevertheless, the two quickly created what is surely one of the most successful and long-lasting artistic collaborations outside of music and dance. They have performed in many countries, and prestigious venues they’ve been featured in include Harvard, the Whitney Museum, the Kennedy Center, “United States of Poetry” on PBS, and the International Poetry Festival in Rotterdam. Currently, Peter Cook is on the faculty of Columbia College’s Department of ASL-English Interpretation and Kenny Lerner teaches history at Rochester Institute of Technology.

Other poems by this author