Toward a Queer/Blind Poetics: Kathi Wolfe’s Love and Kumquats

Kathi Wolfe. Love and Kumquats: New and Selected Poems. Baltimore, MD: BrickHouse Books Inc., 2019. Reviewed by Preston Taylor Stone, originally published in the South Carolina Review (52.2 – Spring 2020)

Kathi Wolfe writes in SCR 51.2, “Poetry emerges not only from the body (our physical, sensory, emotional, loving, sexy, dying bodies) but out of the body politic (the intersection of our culture, politics and social attitudes)” (169). It is no small measure to create a body of work that is born from the body, represents the body, and burgeons the body. Wolfe’s Love and Kumquats does so. The collection offers political commentary on events spanning from the Charleston, SC Emmanuel AME church massacre to Yom Kippur. In each poem, Wolfe renegotiates the relationship between the body-as-a-form, the form of the poem, and the body politic. Readers should expect perspective that is wholly personal and political, confident and intellectual, and without apology queer and disabled.

In the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies 5.2, Christina Scheuer writes

By creating an aesthetic object that bridges the gap between the sayable and the unsayable, disability poetry can be circulated among groups of people, not only forging new communities of poets and critics, but also extending or changing the terms of the conversations that people are having about disability, the body, aesthetic theory, accessibility, and communication (159).

To read Wolfe’s queer/blind poetry, then, is to inhabit a positionality of communication and accessibility that is radically abundant. Or, as Wolfe puts it in “Self-Portrait During Total-Eclipse,” “looking up / locking eyes / with the blindness / god covorting” (21).

“Watch me roll my sightless eyes!” begins her poem “Blindista,” in the characteristic tone of Wolfe’s character Uppity Blind Girl, the confident and boisterous seer of Wolfe’s more confident poetry. To see does not mean to have sight, Wolfe reasons in her work. She creates, recreates, and refuses to accept the construction of the scopocentric world. In its place, Wolfe constructs her own.

One might wonder how to queer blind poetics or how to blind queer poetics. Wolfe does both. In “Blindista,” for example, she refocuses the queer eye/‘I’, which at the start laments being effeminized as a child, into blind perception when she writes (in the voice of Uppity), “I want to inhale / champagne, be tickled by the feathers / of a boa around my shoulders, and swim / in the silk tresses flowing down my back (18).” The queer ‘I’/eye here sees what it feels, sight cut from the text/body while sensuality remains. The queer subject is imbued with blindness that is not void of sensuality, since sensuality is not scopocentric for Wolfe’s poetry. In “Blindista,” the sensuality is alternatively sensorial: “inhale / champagne” “swim / in the silk.”

In the third section of the collection, from her first book The Helen Keller Poems, she continuously readjusts (and queers) hegemonic figures of history. “J. Edgar Hoover Curses Helen” juxtaposes queer(ish) and disabled heroes Keller and Emma Goldman with the title’s queer FBI founder; “Frank O’Hara Speaks of Helen Keller” conjoins Keller’s and O’Hara’s lives with one another; and in the final stanza of “Talking to Helen,” the speaker imagines a sensual fantasy that begins with eating sausage and includes “brushing up against” Helen Keller’s fingers, which then untie the knots of injustice. “Dancing with Martha Graham” (50) includes the lines “you hold me so close your sweat becomes mine” and “my silk dress melts into your organza gown.” Thus, the queering of blind poetics is akin to adjoining bodies, histories, births, and deaths. The speaker of the Hoover poem ends with “if only you’d been thrown in the river and drowned;” The speaker of the O’Hara poem: “And, I remember, / Helen, that you and I were born on the same day, under / the same sign of the zodiac!” And in “Talking to Helen,” the subjects ‘I’ and ‘you’ of lines like “I can’t inhale mustard without hearing your voice. Or / sip wine without brushing up against your fingers become” become “us” in “injustice ties us up.”

This ad/conjoining of bodies, histories, births, and deaths is not just a queering of blind poetics but an argument Wolfe is staging about spatiality. The fourth and largest section of poetry after which the collection is named, “Love and Kumquats,” begins with the poem “To Do List.” The poem begins with what we might consider normative elements of a to-do list: making coffee and sorting socks. However, the remainder of the poem pairs these normative elements with things like “Walk / around the universe / and back. / Meet and greet / the human condition. / Pack picnic lunch / for your ghost.” Hence, the surreal exists amid (and does not replace) the real. The vehicle for these staged magical realist encounters are wordplays: paradoxes, oxymorons, ironies, abstractions, and, in the above example, specters. The queering of blind poetics, then, renegotiates spatiality in a way that, I would argue, is not necessarily always about form but is certainly consumed with notions of navigating and inhabiting space within the poem. For example, in the poem “Lying Here in These Fierce Pajamas” (57), Wolfe writes, “I want to dance with you / in our Cole Porter world / where anything goes except disaster / and the common currency is laughter.” Using wor(l)dplay here between Cole Porter, dancing, and Anything Goes, the poem implies what Ernst Bloch would call a ‘utopian impulse.’ Fredric Jameson will later propose that the practice of utopia “attempts to project new spatial totalities” (Archaeologies of the Future, 3). This poem not only plays with the word but originates a new world. This is the job of poets, Wolfe contends, writing in a column for Scene4:

Poets aren’t legislators.  Yet, poetry, often poem by poem, can change hearts and minds.  Line by line, stanza by stanza, it can make us thirsty for justice. Metaphor by metaphor, rhyme by rhyme, poetry can make us not only envision but work for social change (“Getting Uppity,” January 2014).

Elaine Scarry in The Body in Pain writes that since the feeling of pain is without referential object and the imagination is only its referential object without experiential feeling, imagination is the object of pain and pain the experience of imagination. The plays that Wolfe stages with pain in this volume are sparse, but they are telling. “Dancing in the Dark” and “Ruins” stand out as examples here. The former, about the Three Blind Mice, begins lighthearted but quickly turns to the traumatic process of losing one’s vision: “The last image fading from their retinas: shadows / of hungry cats. The slice of that knife! Cutting off their tails. Almost / beheading their souls” (67). The latter poem, “Ruins,” calls this “burning, darkening” process “a dying queen” (65). There is no shortage of imagination in Wolfe’s work, which mixes these tragedies amid comedic and romantic poems like “Love and Kumquats” (63), “Searching” (72), and God’s Horoscope” (73-74).

Throughout the entire collection, nearly every poem, is a knack Wolfe has for allusion, which “Breaking Up with Myself” calls “name-dropping” (59). This is to Wolfe’s credit that she can find ways to weave together histories, mythologies, and poetics. From Wolfe’s queer/blind speakers and audiences come an inarguably impeccable talent worth feeling.

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