Book Review: Love and Kumquats: New and Selected Poems (Kathi Wolfe)
Reviewed by Emily K. Michael
The tempo of the cane's tapping protected
If you are searching for a quiet collection of subtle disability poems, Kathi Wolfe's 2019 book is not for you. Love and Kumquats: New and Selected Poems thunders with disability pride, social indignation, and sensual immersion. Fans of Wolfe's previous releases will adore this new book, as it draws extensively from earlier publications. Whereas Wolfe's previous collections often centered on a particular theme – such as the Uppity Blind Girl or Helen Keller – this new book allows Wolfe to showcase a wide range of voices, techniques, and subjects. But the overall pace of Love and Kumquats is measured by the tapping of a white cane. Blindness takes center stage.
This full-length collection is divided into four sections: The Uppity Blind Girl Poems, The Green Light, The Helen Keller Poems, and Love and Kumquats. Using the Uppity Blind Girl of her 2015 chapbook, Wolfe begins this first sectionin a theatrical spirit with "Uppity Writes on Tinseltown's Facebook Wall." This poem opens with invocation and resignation:
Gods of Milk Duds and Coca-Cola soaked endings, from which sighted
The speaker moves from resignation to pleading as she asks for the "Danish Audrey Hepburn wouldn't touch. / …the dress Katie Hepburn wouldn't wear." Wolfe will return to this theme as she deploys film references and icons throughout the collection, ending Love and Kumquats with "Showtime."
The Uppity poems continue with Wolfe's nod to fairy tales, romances, and other disabled writers. In "Blindista," Uppity grows into her blindness, defying the "dragon-lady voice" of her mother who insists that "Blind girls aren't princesses / they can't take care of long golden locks." At 15, Uppity wants to "inhale champagne, be tickled by the feathers / of a boa around my shoulders" and at 25, Uppity declares herself "Fred Astaire / dancing with my stick, putting on the Ritz." Uppity has entered a cinematic dreamscape of independent mobility, measured by the protective tempo of her white cane. She returns to the cane in "Object Waiting to be Dangerous," a tribute to Sheila Black. Uppity calls her cane a plowshare and a sword. This poem plays with rhyme and "Red Wheelbarrow" style, crying to be read aloud.
In her tribute to Stephen Kuusisto's Planet of the Blind, Uppity defines the parameters of blindness for various acquaintances. Displaying Wolfe's knack for sharp whimsical images, she says, "The sun tastes like red velvet cake, / your lover's voice is a cashmere cape." Uppity claims her blindness without relinquishing her desire for a life of glamor and adventure. In these poems, Wolfe dismantles the popular assumption that disabled people should be satisfied with unremarkable lives directed by others.
Wolfe moves into The Green Light with the poem "Atonement," which is the first of her 1950s vignettes. The poem follows Stan, a Jewish veterinary student, who has traded religious practices for hot dogs, dog tracks, and good stories. Confident in his American authenticity, Stan has left the house of an "Old Country God" for a lecture on rabies. Thinking of his pretty fiancee, Stan receives a nasty shock when "Professor X strolled / from the podium toward him, clamped the meat hooks / down, hard on his shoulders, and hissed 'Jewboy!'" This maneuver is perhaps more successful than Uppity's poems because Stan, trying to escape his religious and cultural heritage, is thrown backward with a word. We feel the sharp difference between Stan's 1950 and Uppity's 2015.
In "If I Have to Leave," Wolfe asks for a rich, meaningful life — this time, in the voice of a wife with diabetes. She returns to the short lines and internal rhymes of her tribute to Sheila Black, saying, "I want to smoke / the last crumpled cigarette / at the bottom / of my black purse / beside the rumpled ticket / to To Catch a Thief." She calls her husband "a Sinatra / in dog-eared robe / and slippers" and they are "scheming to get / my blood sugar right." The poem interweaves the glamorous Grace Kelly, Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, the Riviera with the domestic worn photos, Life Savers, and crying babies as the speaker outruns death. Wolfe performs syllable and sound echoes down the lines, enhancing the feeling of being chased.
The Helen Keller Poems are easily the most powerful section in Wolfe's collection. Wolfe begins with "Talking to Helen Keller," a poem of gratitude for the strong-willed Keller who sneaks hot dogs and liberates blind poets bound by injustice. In "Helen Takes the Stage," Wolfe speaks in Keller's voice: "Here I am, / a well-trained seal / between clowns / and singing dogs." Wolfe addresses the conflict between Keller's desires and Annie Sullivan's reservations and replaces the idealized saintly Keller with a lover of hot dogs and applause. Wolfe's Keller says, "With the knife of language / I've carved out the best life / an Icon can." In "Fingertips and Cigarettes: Helen at the Café," Wolfe portrays a Keller exhausted by unwanted heroism, and "She Loved Hot Dogs So Much" places Keller's famous preference for hot dogs alongside her short vibrant romance with Peter Fan — two sources of disapproval for Keller's friends and relatives. "Lunch at the Algonquin" is a painful experience for any disabled reader as Keller endures the cooing of starlets and socialites. Keller combats the shallow admiration with "vodka and caviar" and Wolfe brilliantly ends this polite luncheon with this line: "Helen burps."
The final section, Love and Kumquats, nods to the previous poems by revisiting the themes of romance, death, blindness, and family. This section contains what some might call "exercise poems" — to-do lists and tributes to parents — but Wolfe shows how a textbook exercise can create a meaningful artifact. A standout in this section is "Celestial Navigation," where Wolfe plots the work of blind poets as an epic aircraft ballet. She deftly lands the ethereal at the kitchen table as she ends the poem with these lines: "I soar over my coffee, hear / the echo of the Northern Lights in its cream."
Love and Kumquats ends on "Showtime," where Wolfe makes theater sublime — lifting the stage into the clouds. This is a refreshing and whimsical ending to a collection filled with characters craving more than the lives society measures out to them. Wolfe writes,
You'd think it would get old,
She urges the sun, "that diva, to take her mighty curtain call," and we are reminded of the Uppity Blind Girl who wants a feather boa and a film star's dress. Wolfe has inscribed Uppity's ambitions in the sky, contesting the critics who might assume that a blind poet does not know how to talk about color and shape.
Love and Kumquats is a collection that directly addresses disability, prejudice, and the general tidying-up society attempts with figures who flout the norm. Wolfe embraces blind experience from all angles, voicing the elementary schooler's vulnerabilities and growing up with Uppity's declarations. Newcomers to disability poetry may be overwhelmed by the presence of blindness in this collection, but Wolfe's devotees will recognize Love and Kumquats as an important contribution from a formidable blind writer.
Title: Love and Kumquats