DSQ > Summer 2008, Volume 28, No.3

Bravery, when referring to disability, makes as many of us cringe as does the word inspiration. Inspirational, when pinned against inspired or inspiring, is a far lesser quality, isn't it? It calls up softened tones, religious themes, and light verse — greeting-card-ization of a word. But to say a poet's work is inspired is something else entirely. Can we say her project is brave? Perhaps moxie is more fitting. Or gutsy, or daring, or bold. Not plucky. Kathi Wolfe's project is indeed daring, and her portrayal of Helen Keller throughout the twenty-one dramatic monologues in her voice oozes moxie.

Helen Takes the Stage begins with a found poem from Keller's vaudeville act, and then moves chronologically, in a way, through sense impressions and events in Keller's life, building to the death of Keller's teacher and companion, Annie Sullivan. After several moving elegies for Annie, the focus aptly turns to religion and World War II, another form of elegy. But the book is not set up only as a chronology. Bookended with desire, the book ultimately privileges a sensual life over a life dominated by sight and sound.

Wolfe's chapbook inhabits a multifaceted Helen Keller in ways that have gone ignored in mainstream characterizations. In these pages Keller is intelligent, sensual, religious, compassionate, bitingly witty; she grieves, she refuses to be pigeonholed. For instance, in "Lunch at the Algonquin," the only poem narrated by a third-person speaker, Keller imagines a witty comeback to the question, "do you really know how to eat?" but instead addresses the false sainthood imposed by a passing starlet with a burp, confirmation of her humanity and disdain.

This project's degree of singular focus on one very important public figure might in other hands be considered appropriation: how dare anyone speak for her, no matter how well researched? One of Kathi Wolfe's solutions is to continually acknowledge that this book is indeed a construction; many poems' titles are decidedly third person, reminding the reader that this book is about a version of Helen, and does not profess to embody her fully. In Wolfe's capable hands, the varied textures of the speaker's/ Keller's impressions and the development of a distinct voice contribute to a short collection of poems that refract and intensify the feeling of spectacle that each of us has encountered in our bodies, disabled or female or both. This speaks to the vividness of Wolfe's tactile imagery: through the poet's body we feel what she imagines Keller felt and what she herself feels and what we feel — a chain of physicality that leans less towards identification and more towards empathy and companionship.

While infrequently the voice of Keller seems to function as biographical exposition, as in the poem "Helen Tells a Story: The Bollinger Baby, Chicago, 1915," the majority of poems maintain a voice that is consistent and tonally robust. In "If I Drove Drunk" the voice is infused with sonic resonance, wit and energy:

In a Braille parking lot,

I'd jump-start the dots,

stop by Oz, take Dorothy

to Kansas, and sweet-talk

Auntie Em into giving me

a shot of Scotch. How's

that for a Helen Keller trick?

Another example of this voice's wit and moxie can be found in the poem "Creed:"

I believe in dreams, though I won't

tell mine if you won't tell yours

at breakfast. Our slumber

world, even if the gods drop by,

is boring before coffee.

Wolfe's constructed voice of Keller reveals a complex woman, to say the least. This complexity is made manifest in her consciousness of her own one-woman display and her relationship to performance. While "the heat from the gaze/ of strangers almost burns my hands," in one poem, in another Keller acknowledges her relation to vaudeville fame in one line: "I crave applause." Wolfe's Keller, like many of us, desires attention but as much on her terms as it can be. Her own spectatorship of the world is tactile, intimate, and imaginative. Performance ultimately transcends the viewer-viewed relationship through sensation, particularly in the poem, "Dancing with Martha Graham," a whirling celebration of sensual fullness.

Helen Takes the Stage is feminist, historical, physical, and indeed a brave undertaking. I can't help but imagine how this chapbook might fit as a through line with other poems in a longer book, the associational energy generated by the friction between the two. I look forward to reading more of what Wolfe has to offer in the future.

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