Book Review

Those who are familiar with Raymond Luczak's work in a variety of genres Whispers of a Savage Sort (plays), Mute (poetry), Men with Their Hands (novel) and Assembly Required (memoir) have come to recognize him as a powerful in the Deaf and gay communities. As a result, anyone picking up Luczak's most recent book This Way to the Acorns: Poems (The Tenth Anniversary Edition) is going to wonder if there aren't two different writers with the same name. To those readers one piece of advice: Read the book's "Afterword" first.

One need not be a literary scholar to recognize the importance of context in understanding what This Way to the Acorns is, what it is not, and why this is important to Luczak's place as a figure in disabilities literature. The "Afterward," which is present in the 2012 Tenth Anniversary edition of the book but was not available in the original, gives that context.

This Way to the Acorns was born as a sort of Adam's rib to Luczak's debut book of poetry St. Michael's Fall. The latter book's title refers to the church Luczak attended as a child and which was demolished in 1986. Luczak remarks: "The landmark had cast a deep shadow over my childhood. It was through the Church that I saw the barely existent line between piety and hypocrisy…and I leaned to feel guilty and ashamed of myself." In 1990 when he had gathered together much of what would become St. Michael's Fall, Luczak took part in a workshop given by Marilyn Hacker on formal poetry. The workshop had a profound effect upon him in that it got him to recognize the unmusicality of his own writing and to realize that "Even though the narrative was about a deaf boy growing up deaf…it still needed an ear."

The narrative intent of Luczak book also brought him to another realization. Many of the poems in his projected book not only did not contribute to the narrative but actually got in the way. He pulled these poems, mostly nature poems, aside. When St. Michael's Fall was published in 1996, those poems were absent. While not as edgy as Kenny Fries' Anesthesia published the same year or as deeply philosophical as Tom Andrews Hemophiliac's Motorcycle, which appeared just two years before, St. Michael's Fall is a book that deserves a great deal of credit for making its writers deafness an integral part of his poetry when most writers with disabilities still kept their conditions hidden.

Several years later when Deaf poet and editor of The Tactile Mind, John Lee Clark asked Luczak if he had any poems that might be published as a book, Luczak assembled his unused nature poems into This Way to the Acorns, and in 2002, through collaboration with Clark, the poems were published.

This Way to the Acorns is arranged as traditionally as an Elizabethan garden – a section for each of the four seasons with twelve poems. The first thing that the reader familiar with Luczak's other work realizes is the complete lack of direct reference to his deafness. As Luczak reminds us, though, "Even though the poems in this book never talk about my deafness, they were very much informed by how I navigated the world across the street."

One is reminded of the words of the late Laura Hershey describing her writing, "my simple, seemly straightforward, first-person sentences conceal the truth of the help I need in order to carry out my daily actions. I say, 'I went to the bookstore and looked through a dozen books and finally bought this book of poetry by Adrienne Rich' – (not, 'Carmen drove me to the bookstore, and held a dozen books up for me to look at, turned pages for me and then put them back…')"

Thus while "At Grandma's House" in Acorns Luczak describes the quintessential American family:

Tumbling out of the station wagon, we ran
first around the weeping willow tree
standing guard on the corner of Greenbush
and Coolidge. We giggled when its bead curtains
of tiny reedy leaves flapped with the wind,
exposing our hands clamping on giggles
to Dad waving wildly, beckoning us again
into her house where her molasses
cookies from the oven and milk awaited us.

the reader needs to remember that at the same time in his life he is saying in St. Michael's Fall:

Later I took to riding into
town and seeking Gramps on his bench. I parked my
bike beside where he sat, and talked for some time.
We fingerspelled to
each other as passersby shook their heads at
us, deaf people:

Luczak observes that if his first collection had been a series of snapshots that added up to a narrative, in Acorns he was a much better photographer. Indeed, as one would expect, this verbal photography manifests itself in his nature poems, as in "The beetle's black back was smooth as pistachios; his antennae stood like strands of string." More interesting and more successful in achieving his goal of recording life gone by, however, are the poems that capture experiences with his family:

Roll up the windows tight now,
Dad said one Sunday afternoon.
The heat inside our station wagon stagnated
as he drove cautiously past
the yellow gateposts into the dump.
We felt almost dizzy from the stench
and pointed to the discarded
junk we could have.
Mom shook her head no every time.

One of the more surprising revelations of the collection is the degree to which Luczak as child who often felt on the outside, both because of his deafness and because he was unsure of his own sexuality, could manifest cruelty himself. This is particularly striking in the disturbing conclusion of "The Ant":

                              I held
my head away from my magnifying glass
and aimed my laser ray at him.
He skittered furiously away and around
but I matched his every movement
with my glass. He thrashed with rage,
his blacknesses now a wisp of smoke.
His antennae stopped twitching at last.
I held my hand over him and waited
for my eyes to adjust to the shadow
hanging over him. He was now
an ashy crumb. Death had never seemed
so simple or easy, or so fine.

Another poem "The Caterpillar Queen" expresses a similar theme and one has to wonder if Luczak is posing the question of whether the Hobbesian view of man is actually the correct one.

The influence of Hacker's workshop, especially Luczak's debt to Dacey and Jauss' Strong Measures is in evidence throughout the book. "The Tree," for example, is a pantoum, "Sunflower Seeds" and "A Burial" sestinas, and "Shards" is written in couplets. Though, as mentioned above, disability is present only in the shadows of Acorns, it does raise the question of what kinds of inherited forms might be useful in disability poetry. This is a question that poet Dara McLaughlin grappled with in her iconoclastic A Map of This World and that Jim Ferris has theorized about both through his poetry and his more theoretical essays. Which poets from mainstream tradition does disability poetry claim? Luczak does that in only one poem, "Mr. Kichak's Plum Tree" which gives a nod to William Carlos Williams. Just as importantly, however, he does dedicate "Fireflies" to John Lee Clark. Such recognition and referencing of another poet whose work incorporates a disabilities perspective is important to the forging of a disability literature.

One of the particular fears of some contemporary poets with disabilities is that if they write specifically about their experiences they will be labeled niche writer and somehow equated with their particular disability rather than being recognized as "a real poet." The results are books from which all trace of physical impairment vanish. Certainly, no one can accuse Raymond Luczak of backing away from identification with either the LGBT community or his life as a deaf man. Nevertheless, if he had to prove that he could do it, This Way to the Acorns could serve as that proof. It is available through Handtype Press.