Helen Takes the Stage: The Helen Keller Poems
by Kathi Wolfe, © 2008. Pudding House Publications, 29 pgs.
A Review by Mary F. Morris
It was two years ago that I met Kathi Wolfe in Washington, DC. At the time, this vibrant woman revealed she was working on a series of poems about and in the voice of Helen Keller. I remember her great enthusiasm, that intensity when a writer is in the middle of discovery and work, astonished. Much like a scientist who is on to something extensive and revealing. So when asked to review this book it was with great curiosity and immense pleasure in reading its beauty and originality.
Wolfe received a grant from the Puffin Foundation to write Helen Takes the Stage and importantly, she was granted access to the Keller archives where extensive research was done at the Perkins School for the Blind. Some of the work was written as a poetry resident at The Vermont Studio Center.
Who doesn't know the story of Helen Keller, the deaf and blind child trapped in her own universe without access to communication and understanding of the outside world? Who can forget Ann Bancroft teaching Helen, Patti Duke, to sign and speak her first word, "water?'" We know the dedication of the teacher and her student, the success story of a young woman, believed helpless, who was brilliant, becomes educated and transformed into a successful icon.
In this book, we go deeper, much deeper than the biography. Each page/ poem is a personal vignette of Helen, the human being, from the very beginning:
Q&A: Palace Theatre, a found poem from Helen Keller's vaudeville show
What is the greatest human affliction?
Can you feel moonshine?
No, but I can smell it.
…What is the greatest obstacle to universal peace?
The human race.
What is the slowest thing in the world?
…Do you desire your sight more than anything else in the world?
No! I would rather walk with a friend in the dark
Than walk alone in the light
Kathi Wolfe possesses intense knowledge of the sightless world, in other words, she has a sharper vision in territory that we do not. She is brilliant. She listens, she feels. She translates for us a keener language inaccessible to the world of the seeing blind.
Here is Helen as individual. Wolfe paints masterly with words, brilliant canvasses of poetry, witty and graceful, tight and sensuous.
Some of these poems burn with the difficulty of being "different," handicapped and famous, on exhibit, but always with the humanness of Helen, as in:
Fingertips and Cigarettes: Helen at the Café
I never wanted to be a hero.
The heat from the gaze
of strangers almost burns my hands.
They call me wonder woman, then say
they'd rather be dead than live like me.
I'd like to blow smoke rings around
their pity. If only they could
have seem me hung over this morning
or hugging the softness of mink coats
at Saks Fifth Avenue this afternoon.
"Get the espresso," my fingertips
plead. "I must be awake."
Many poems in this collection refer to Helen's teacher, Anne Sullivan Macy: "Annie is Buried: November 3, 1936, National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.", "After Annie: Aboard the S.S. Deutschland, November1936," and others, giving us great insights and language in their relationship.
Interspersed, are historical and politically charged pieces, such as: "The Sun is Warm: Nagasaki, 1948" and the hysterical, tragically funny,
J. Edgar Hoover Curses Helen
Don't think we can't see the red flag
flying outside your study window
or imagine my G-men don't know
you're pals with Emma Goldman.
She told every café society Bolshevik
you sent her birthday greetings last year.
…Blind, deaf and dumb, my ass!
You're dumb like an un-American fox.
You can't dupe us with those Braille dots.
We know about your slate and stylus
Moscow connection. The commies love
your deaf alphabet.
Wolfe is right on, but never forgets sensuality and intimacy. She ignites us.
You Never Even Touched My Dress
nor I the hem of your skirt
in the crowded railway station
so many years ago
…Yet, the plum-soaked,
you gave me
as you hurried
to catch your train
will stick to my skin forever.
This book is everything.
Mary F. Morris is a poet living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She publishes widely and is the winner of the 2007 Rita Dove Award. Contact info: Water400@aol.com.