Book Review

Raymond Luczak is known as a playwright (Whispers of a Savage Sort), novelist (Men with Their Hands), essayist (Assembly Required ) and editor (Eyes of Desire), but in Mute, Luczak returns to the genre in which he first started – poetry. Anyone who has read any of Luczak's previous work has a pretty good idea of what to expect. For those new to his writing, it is probably fair to say that he is probably the most versatile representative in contemporary literature of the deaf gay experience.

Mute is an attractive, pocket-sized book that is divided into four parts, each with a quotation suggesting a focal point of that leads off the section. The first quarto, for example, cites Bob Dylan, "Experience teaches us that silence terrifies people the most," and, as expected, centers around issues of communication. Contrary to what the title of the book may suggest, the poems in this section are not about the difficulty of communication for deaf persons generally. As the title of the first poem, "How to Fall For a Deaf Man" informs the reader, these are all poems surrounding the difficulties on both sides of the aisle in establishing a sexual, if not a love, relationship with a man who is deaf. One of the most effective poems in this section is "Instructions to Hearing Persons Desiring a Deaf Man." Luczak uses the analogy of a deaf person as being a foreign country, one which requires a passport and is tired of curiosity-seeking tourists. He advises:

Let your hands be your new passport,
For he will then stamp it with approval.

A deaf man is always a foreign country.
He remains forever a language to learn.

In this section, Luczak also demonstrates his ability to use enlist traditional poet forms. Particularly interesting is "Repetitions" where Luczak effectively uses the villanelle form to create his sense of frustration in having to constant request others to repeat what they say.

Tired of asking, "What was that again?"
I turn silent in their smoky presence.
I sit in the bar and stare at those men.

I am alone on Saturday night. Again.
Drink is a bitter solace; I have no defense,
Tired of "Well, what did you say again?"

The first poem of the next section, "Buddies" signals a move from frustrations over lack of relationships to the issues with communication that come up within a relationship. If any group of poems in the book permit upbeat feelings, this is probably it. The narrator of the poems looks back over various relationships, remembering specifically what they have contributed to his life.

The third section of the book is introduced with Susan Sontag's words, "Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech"; the first poem is "The Elegist." It takes little imagination to recognize that these poems look back on relationships with men who have died. Each poem after the first has a subheading dedicated to a friend or lover. The silence of the first section, then, has become something much more here and the experience shared between the poet and the friends he is addressing have much greater sense of finality and transitoriness to them:

So many beautiful men shimmered, shirtless
Under that mirror ball , while Donna Summer sang.

The leitmotif of the final section of the book is a bit more cryptic. Perhaps choosing a quotation that is attributed to anonymous is intended to continue the sense of disconnectedness and lack of any real resolution to issues of the essential loneliness of the deaf gay life described elsewhere in the book. Luczak's poem "Vow" may very well stand in as a microcosm for the rest of the book

Take it from me-from those men in my life,
I've had to master the art of losing.
The pain of no one special seems a knife
when one is lost in a sea of cruising.
I should drown in their cool, objective looks
and surrender to their rituals of
writing in their little black books.
Somehow being like them seems such a rip-off.
The complain about lack of commitment
but they don't dare sign on the bottom line.
And then I'm always given chastisement
but they don't even call me. I should pine
for the meaning of still born romances,
but I won't. With me they've lost their chances.

"Vow" quite obviously invokes Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art." The sense in which the speaker in Bishop's poem is finally coming to grips with her own self-deception spills over into the final lines of Luczak's poem as well. As is the case with other poets who use the sonnet form as a sort of anti-sonnet, the fact that he has chosen this form at all also suggests that the poem's speaker does not quite believe himself. It also gives the piece something of the feel of a Robert Browning monologue, adding to the impression that the speaker and the poet are not one in the same, thus making it an even richer poem.

As much as anything Mute is a book about communication – or the possibility of it. Using print as a medium, Luczak tries to negotiate that terrain in which spoken language is not an option (or is, at best, a very poor one) and the written word will not suffice. Though the reader holds a printed book her hand, the poet instructs her:

Do not scribble furiously
on the pad , HOW DO YOU SAY THANK YOU?
Watch him say THANK YOU. Follow his hand

Indeed hands and eyes are everywhere in the book, and Luczak needs convince the reader that through the mental imagery he provides in setting scenes and situations, she needs to follow the hands with the eyes of imagination. One of the benefits of the brevity of Mute is that the reader can approach it naively on the first reading and then return to it focusing on the role of hands and eyes in the poems.

You videotaped my hands; words

or again

like language weaving
inside his hands

If, at a distance, hands rather than tongues initiate the conversation, then it is eyes rather than ears that receive it. In "Marenusco Eyes", the poet says:

Our eyes had taught us how to translate the seasons.
In exile we dreamed in that lost language.

Miracles did shimmer everywhere no matter the day.
One only had to know where to look.

If such lines might seem ready to lead the reader into realms of neoplatonism, never fear. This book never strays far from the embodied world and where the eyes – and hands – generally end up is on another man.

his fingers never ceasing to feel
my quivering body, his tongue smoothing my breaks
of impatience

The deaf gay world that Luczak portrays is not an attractive one. If relationships between deaf and gay men are difficult because of communication barriers, relationships among deaf men come across as transitory and, often, superficial. Luczak's details of deaf gay relationships rarely romanticize.

If there is a weakess in Mute, it may be that some poems that seem designed to elicit empathy for the speaker, instead, leave the reader with a feeling of adolescent-self-indulgence. One such poem, "Pitch", begins with two men sitting with a cup of tea and the narrator saying, "Desire caffeinated through out our veins." What starts off as a promising relationship from the speaker's point of view breaks down when his companion realizes that there is a communication issue and loses interest. The poem ends:

an empty chair, a tip of quarters on the table,
and a half-hearted promise to keep in touch,
and a day wasted wondering why I even bother.

No doubt every reader of the book has faced a wasted day now and then and the melodramatic final five words come off as unjustifiable sour grapes more likely to put a reader off than to earn any understanding or empathy.

Notwithstanding the occasional melodramatic voice or self-righteous line, Mute is a solid book and added to St. Michael's Fall and This Way to the Acorn

are helping Luczak to create a valuable body of poetry. Unlike poets whose major purpose in writing is to "express themselves," Luczak has constituency for whom he is speaking. Thus, his work is not muteat all. This is not to say that Luczak is a mouthpiece for either the Deaf or gay communities. His life and poetry is much too idiosyncratic for that. He does, however, give readers a pictures of a slice of society, the Deaf gay culture, that they are not likely to encounter in many other volumes of poetry. As this body of literature grows, Mute is likely to have an important place in it. Any reader who takes the trouble to invest a little time in the small volume is likely to come away from it with something new to think about. Mute is available from A Midsummer Night's Press.