Book Review

In writing Helen Takes the Stage: The Helen Keller Poems, Kathi Wolfe takes on two major problems that might be labeled a political problem and an aesthetic problem. The political problem is how to extricate Keller from the aura of sainthood. The aesthetic challenge is how to give voice to Helen Keller, a woman who was blind and deaf.

In the very first poem of the book, "Q & A," Wolfe sets about showing how she will handle these problems. First, as a found poem constructed entirely from Keller's own words, "Q & A" lets the reader know that she will be accessing primary documents to create a voice for Keller, rather than relying on secondary hagiographic accounts. Second, Keller's flippant answers set the tone for the character of Keller that Wolfe wants to project:

What is your definition of a Bolshevik?
Any one whose opinion your particularly dislike.

What is the greatest obstacle to peace?
The human race.

Third, simply by using a found poem, Wolfe let's you know that she is open to experimentation. While Wolfe might have chosen to write in the more formal poetic styles that were employed in Keller's day, this would have imbued Keller with a much more conservative aura than Wolfe wants to project. Found poems are almost always a bit poetically suspect, and "Q & A" does not represent Wolfe's best work, but by placing it up front - and taking a risk herself - Wolfe lets the reader know what her agenda is.

The aesthetic challenge, as mentioned above, is how to give voice to Helen Keller, a woman who was blind and deaf. Of course, Wolfe could conceivably have opted out of the problem by writing in a third person, say the voice of a contemporary like Annie Sullivan or in Wolfe's own voice looking back in retrospect. Thankfully, she did not do this. However, in trying to put words into Keller's own voice, Wolfe faces the challenge of writing poetry in which she must eliminate sight and sound from the images she uses while still maintaining them as poetry. Given this situation, she has to rely on the remaining senses - taste, smell, touch, and kinesthetic. Her choices of free verse for most of the poetry is a natural one since auditory devices like rhyme and alliteration make little sense (though rhythm, especially that which derives from the body such as pulse, heartbeat or gain in walking would make sense).

One especially nice example of Wolfe's ability to pull in the non-visual senses comes in "She Loved Hot Dogs So Much," which begins:

Inhaling the seat, licking their salt,
was like kissing Peter on the night train

as if only their tangy passion mattered

and end with

...the salted happily-ever-after.
where kisses taste like mustard,

embraces char on the grill, and love,
like onions, makes the eyes water.

This emphasis on taste draws the reader into a world that both they and Keller could have experienced. The references to Peter as salty to the taste occur in several places throughout Helen Takes the Stage, and one suspects, comes from Wolfe's research of Keller's own writings. She had, among other resources, permission to reference Keller's writing at the Perkins Institute.

Other instances of Wolfe's skill in the non-visual, non-auditory senses are the first stanza of "Brush Strokes: Helen Greets a Friend":

I feel your face. Your mustache
dances with my fingers,
tickles their tips. Your skin, rough,
misshapen as a skewed moon crater,
smells like sun-drenched lavender.
An old woman now, that's as close
as I can get to the fragrance of romance.

and, more subtly, in "Ashes: Rome, 1946" (See Petra Kuppers discussion of the poem in this issue).

Despite the skill with which she pulls this off, Wolfe, in the voice of Helen asks why Helen or any writer with a physical limitation should be barred from writing about something that they cannot directly experience. She charges:

You say
I can't speak
Of sound
or write of light.
are off-limits to me...

What right
do I have to even talk
of color, you demand?

and rebuts the answer she knows she will hear:

No more right than you
to tell of Paris,
unless, like me
you've inhaled
the mingled scent
of cigarettes and hyacinth
drifting along the Seine.

Can you know
the Pyramids,
if you haven't felt
the rough-hewn,
ancient stone,
the scratchy lick
of a camel's tongue...

The question is an important one, and it is one that gets an answer that turns back upon Helen herself because if imagination invests a piece of writing with as much authority as actual experience, if simply being able imagine color puts Helen's writing on an equal footing with a sighted writer, then what gives Helen any more authority to write about being blind than the talented writer who can simply imagine it? Does a writer with a disability or an African American or a woman, have anything to contribute literature that talented able-bodied , white men could not say? We instinctively react with a resounding "YES", but Helen's answer leaves the door open for the opposite answer if imagination can substitute for experience. Of course, Wolfe is talking about much more here. She is asserting the relativity of knowledge, and it is such an assertion that underpins the rationale for claims of a disability literature. In the very act of writing Helen Takes the Stage, Wolfe affirms that view.

While the aesthetic challenges that the book addresses may not be immediately obvious to some readers, the political problem is right up front. Wolfe wants to bring Keller down from her pedestal. Wolfe makes this clear in the book's title poem. Based upon a real appearance that Keller made in a vaudeville show, the poem begins:

Here I am,
a well trained seal
between clowns
and singing dogs.

The stage on which Helen is placed, of course, is really nothing more than an updated version of the nineteenth century freak show. Being an "icon" has not changed that. As disability studies theorists, and feminists before them, have pointed out, to put someone on a pedestal is to dismiss them from participation in communal discourse just as surely as marginalization out of negative attitudes is.

Helen asserts:

I've carved out the best life,
an icon can.
But, being an idol
is as difficult
as getting a drink during Prohibition.

To explode that image of idol she boasts:

Did you know
that Mark Twain taught
me to play pool and spit tobacco.

The next poem "On the Subway " provides a counterpoint to the title poem. Helen is allowed to go off stage. Amidst the everyday mayhem of a subway ride (men with sour breaths breathing on her, babies crawling on her dress), she is neither an icon nor a curiosity. She is allowed an ordinary life:

Here I'm not on a pedestal,
just a dame on the Broadway local.

These lines are not just Keller's, but echo the voices of many people with disabilities who would love to be able to leave the stage, whether it is the gaze of the public or the scrutiny of the medical establishment, and just become part of that subway crowd. One of the great strengths of Helen Takes the Stage is its unabashed materialism. Such an approach is almost a practical necessity if the book is to prove a counterweight to the mounds of so-called inspirational disability writing that leave the solutions of life's problems (and those of the disabled) to God. In one of the book's pivotal statements Wolfe has Keller say,

I do not want
peace that passes understanding; I want
understanding that brings peace. As a socialist, Keller does not want to just leave the problems of earth to heaven:

I believe
in God. He loves us all, but is no fool.
The heavenly city isn't a stupid pearl
and sapphire affair. It's a down to earth

Wolfe uses several techniques to bring this sense of materialism to the book. To begin with, she literally searched Keller's material writings and incorporates Keller's own words, which she sets off in italics, throughout the book. This technique really has a dual function. It serves to convince the reader that this is the "real" Helen Keller and not merely Wolfe's ungrounded projection, and the visual presence of the italics function as a unifying feature throughout the book, letting the reader have the feeling of a consistent voice.

Second, Wolfe follows the lead of other disability poets like Ferris and Fries in maintaining that disability poetry must be grounded in the body. As discussed above, her poetry searches for ways to interpret the material world when modes of perception such as sight and hearing have been cut off. Added to this is Wolfe's insistence on portraying the worldly side of Helen. Titles such as "What I Want in a Man," "Fingertips and Cigarettes," and "If I Drove Drunk" drive this point home. Indeed, the constant references to liquor and sex, and her penchant for outrageous language make Keller seem more akin to Mae West than St. Theresa.

Like many avowedly political poets, Wolfe wrestles with the problem of maintaining a balance between poem and polemic. In Helen Keller Takes the Stage Wolfe generally succeeds. Occasionally, however, she does not, as in "J. Edgar Hoover Curses Helen". While the title itself is intriguing enough, the language, in the voice of Hoover, is just too over the top to be convincing.

You marched with pinkos
on the picket line. Those lard-ass
punks demanded 12 hour workdays, said
it was their God-Given right to eat lunch.

Blind, deaf and dumb, my ass!
You're dumb like an un-American Fox.
You can't dupe us with those Braille dots.

Keller's involvement with labor unions and worker's rights is surely an interesting topic, but using this approach to try educate the reader about the facts of Keller's life, simply does not work. Instead, the reader wants to say, "Okay, we get the picture. Keller was on Hoover's shit list." Contrary to what the poet may intend, Keller's real humanity comes across not in the places where contrarian polemics pose as poems, but in the more subtle stanzas like the one from "Brush Strokes" cited above. It is in these lines that Keller really comes down from her pedestal. Much more could and, no doubt, should be said about Helen Keller Takes the Stage than the limited space in this review allows. It is a gutsy book that proves a real antidote to the idealistic images of Helen Keller on which most people were raised. It appears on The Montserrat Review's "Best Summer Reading" list along with the work of poets like Mark Doty and Linda Paston, and because of its contribution to the field of disability probably deserves to be. Certainly, anyone one seriously interested in disability poetry should make it part of their collection. Helen Takes the Stage: The Helen Keller Poems is available through Puddinghouse Press.