Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Helen Reconstructed

David Mitchell, one of the toughest-minded critics emerging from the Disability Studies movement, has chastised poets and writers of life narrative who focus on their personal experiences and do not foster a sense of solidarity with others who identify as disabled. In particular, Mitchell believes that in their literary works, writers need to reference the cultural contributions of other writers and artists with disabilities. One example of such cultural cross-referencing is Noria Jablonski’s short story, “One of Us” in which she alludes to Todd Browing’s Freaks, Eng and Chang, Violet and Daisy Hilton, and Alice Dumant Dreger’s book of the same title.

In the genre of poetry, there is the work of Michelle Burke and Kathi Wolfe, both of whom base a collection of poetry on Helen Keller. If there is a literary ancestor for disability literature, it is Keller. Both embraced and reviled by writers within the DS movement, Keller is the Phillis Wheatley of disability literature.

Burke and Wolfe come to focus on Keller from different directions and with different motivations. Wolfe, who is visually impaired, has had Keller held up to her as a model since early childhood – a model whom Wolfe rejects:

I don’t want to be
goody-two shoes Helen.
I want to baptize
my new sneakers in the mud

It was not until doing graduate work and being introduced to the socialist leanings of Keller, that Wolfe changed her perspective. As Wolfe sees it, “Helen Keller Keller is the most famous person with a disability in history, and how people perceive Helen impacts how they perceive all of us with disabilities.”

Burke came to an interest in Keller later in her life. A social worker and political activist she returned to OSU for a graduate seminar in “Gender and Disability.” Already interested in poetry, Georgina Kleege’s Blind Rage motivated her to write poetry about Helen Keller. An issue Burke faced as a sighted person that Kleege and Wolfe did not was the validity of her attempt to understand Keller. She tried to view Keller through various voices – first, second, and third person – finding eventually, she finds that she must address Keller, through the eyes of a woman of the twenty-first century, with all of the knowledge that entails.

Both writers make extensive use of the facts and documents of Keller’s life. One of Wolfe’s poems is actually a “found poem” from among of Keller’s writings. The creativity used in deconstructing and re-imaging Keller’s life is evident in both and, while at times, they cover some of the same territory – such as Keller’s aborted engagement- each has poet has her own distinctive style. Wolfe’s poetry tends more towards the didactic and concerns itself with social questions. At the same time, she implicitly establishes a more personal relationship with Keller.

Burke, on the other hand, is more tuned to the artistic demands of the poem and the philosophical questions that art and beauty surface. In “Phallogocentrism,” for example, she begins:

They cling to the walls as the crowds rush by.
Marginalia – the woman, the cripple,
the hooded, the desired.

Then conflating the figures of Helen of Troy and Keller, looks at the way that men have co-opted the concept of beauty, ending with the words,

…the backward
glance. The come-hither stare. How we love
the Venus de Milo, all that broken beauty.

Whatever their differences in styles, both Burke and Wolfe answer Mitchell’s criticism.


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