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?
What is the greatest obstacle to peace?
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,
as if only their tangy passion mattered
and end with
...the salted happily-ever-after.
embraces char on the grill, and love,
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
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:
and rebuts the answer she knows she will hear:
No more right than you
Can you know
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,
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.
I've carved out the best life,
To explode that image of idol she boasts:
Did you know
Here I'm not on a pedestal,
I do not want
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
Blind, deaf and dumb, my ass!