Book Review: The Kiss of Walt Whitman is Still on My Lips (Raymond Luczak)
Reviewed by Travis Chi Wing Lau
During Oscar Wilde's 1895 sodomy trial for gross indecency, Charles Gill, Wilde's schoolmate and prosecutor of the case, asked him "what is the love that dare not speak its name?" This was a direct reference to Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde's lover, who famously coined the phrase in his poem, "Two Loves," which after the trial became a historical euphemism for homosexuality. "Homosexuality" too was an identificatory term born in the nineteenth century as a product of the increasing specialization of the sciences and the advent of sexology that aimed to understand the origin and nature of sexual desire. What does it mean now, over 100 years after Wilde's persecution and almost 50 years after the removal of homosexuality from the DSM, that this "crime-free love" has a name and dares to be spoken about with such frankness? (37)
Raymond Luczak's The Kiss of Walt Whitman Still On My Lips grounds itself in a line from Wilde's letter to George Cecil after a meeting with Walt Whitman in 1882. As both the title of the volume and its central epigraph, the "kiss" that lingers on Wilde's lips becomes the means by which Luczak can explore the resonances and dissonances between our queer present and Whitman and Wilde's historical pasts. Luczak's work is a powerful act of memory: one that remembers and celebrates an often forgotten queer history "absorbed in the bloodstream," and one that remembers through fleshly scenes Luczak's own erotic attachments, particularly to a hearing gardener (27). Luczak's "Song of Myself" is not of one self but of many selves: it is an intimate series of transhistorical intercourses with former partners, "the rumble of calamus" across time in which he finds "comradeship" with his queer forebears (8, 18).
Luczak's most valuable intervention in his representation of queer history is his foregrounding of his own disability. For Luczak, the process of coming into his own sexuality is imbricated with his experience of " learning to speak from feeling the vibrations / in my speech therapist's throat, and mine too" (10). His queerness is shaped by his deafness just as his deafness is shaped by his queerness. Both aspects of his identity involve a sensual corporeality and accumulation of bodily knowledge through scenes of intimate contact – of "beards commingling," of "hands entwined and legs enmeshed," of eyes "speak[ing] the language of lust" (12, 18). Yet it is this same embodiedness that renders Luczak vulnerable to the experiences of discrimination and rejection from both fellow gay men and heteronormative society at large. He asks powerfully in Part IV "Who'd want to sleep with this scarred creature?" (66) As readers, we are forced to consider what kinds of scarring to which Luczak refers: the literal marks upon his "body naked full of landmines," the loss of his hearing due to illness, the greater history of suffering and loss that queer and disabled people have long endured and continue to endure (66). As LGBT lives become increasingly accepted into a hypersexualized, hypertechnologized mainstream, Luczak questions what kinds of bodies are deemed worthy of desire, recognition, and life.
Like AIDS poets Thom Gunn and Paul Monette before him, Luczak powerfully rejects the cultural amnesia in which "No one writes about the dead anymore" (44). Calling for an escape from the "sterility of America, " Luczak employs vivid scenes of cruising, masturbation, and erotic dreams to meditate on queer and disabled precarity in the face of both the law and of the AIDS epidemic, where "These dying men became a circus of experiments, / one toxic drug trial after another" (48, 86). The exploitation and fragility of the body marks the intersection between the respective histories of queer and disabled people: the bodies in Luczak's work are represented as not only capable of desiring but also of crumbling, dissolving, and dying. Just as Luczak's poem is a celebration of bodily pleasure in its many forms, it is also a reminder of our shared limitations and vulnerabilities and a memorial for those whom we have lost.
"America's changed a lot since you left," writes Luczak in one of his many nostalgic addresses to Whitman beyond the grave (39). By the poem's conclusion, Luczak seems ultimately ambivalent about an America that at once appears more open and connected than ever before yet also has become "a nation of amateur centerfolds" (33). Is this what Whitman envisioned in the Calamus poems? Perhaps Luczak's most provocative move as a poet is to question the present by looking to the past, to entreat his readers to be " "looking for their own Walt Whitmans" (92). While we too often operate under simplistic narratives of progress and equality, Luczak dares to, as Heather Love puts it, feel backwards.
Title: The Kiss of Walt Whitman is Still on My Lips
Editor’s Note: The numbers after quotation in this review indicate the page number on which it appears in the book.