Compassion, Michigan: The Ironwood Stories (Raymond Luczak)

Reviewed by Diane R. Wiener

One of the most prolific writers and editors of his generation, Raymond Luczak’s latest collection of stories does not disappoint. As many people in the world today discuss the meanings, import, and relevance of intersectional identities and politics—and, especially as we consider the fact that experiences of marginalization and disenfranchisement can co-exist with privilege, in some cases—disability literature and the arts offer a broad range of readers and engagers many and varied opportunities to address our individualized and collective ways forward. Luczak’s Compassion, Michigan: The Ironwood Stories is an understated tour de force, in these and other respects.

A tale may begin with a Carson McCullers-style injury, or even a Truman Capote-esque disappointment, and, by the story’s end, the protagonist’s queerness, disablement, and family dynamics have coalesced into learnings and transformation, inasmuch as their affective inner landscapes may have unraveled—at least at first.

A good story must of course sustain one’s attention; surely, if a story is too polemical, there is a risk of losing one’s audience. In these stories, as with his other work, Luczak engages astutely with an unwavering CripLit sensibility, throughout, while readers who are not necessarily interested in disability poetics (let alone attuned to them) are offered a nuanced and subtle education.

There are many lines among these stories’ inter-weavings that are as specific as they are unforgettable; these lines are often also full of surprises. Playfulness co-mingles with reserve and risk, as well, as if teasing elders are passing down cherished and complicated familial histories. Nearly everyone—even the outsiders, usually—gets the in-jokes, on the back porch, after dinner.

These are stories crafted by a poet, to be sure. One of my favorite examples—full of realism and metaphor, simultaneously—is in “Yoopers”: “I feel as if my bangs will catch fire as I lean down and lift the sheet of pasties out of the oven” (69), says the narrator, young Molly, who tells the reader these thoughts in private, rather than via the ongoing dialogue with her grandmother in the kitchen. The character is relatable; we come to know her.

In “The Ways of Men,” we are treated to the detail and specificity of this elegant line: “The miners, exiting the gates, had on their faces and forearms a fine dusting of rust, which I later realized came from iron ore” (146). In this book, ore is far more than a central part of the region’s and town’s political economy; it is a character. In “Molly,” the mineshaft and ore reappear in all of their imperiled splendor. Shortly after describing a cart so dangerously full of ore, a rail could jam or a support beam might be knocked out of alignment, the narrator says, “Anything can happen, including death” (151).

The textural, vivid elements of these stories and their commitments to landscape and mood are accentuated by strong human portraits, including linguistic and stylistic conventions that are unique to each person portrayed. One character says “Anyhoo”; another giggles. The book is certainly not without its sadness and heartbreak, as it has all of these themes, aplenty. Loneliness, questioning one’s values, facing decisions about self-respect, and shame are all major themes, as much as the tales are often full of humor, even joy.

There is a warm intimacy in these stories, paralleled by grief of different kinds. There are examples of grief that seem unremitting; other illustrations of grief are transient. This nuanced accompaniment—of intimacy with grief—is direct, and not nostalgic. In “Molly,” the reader is faced squarely with the narrator’s reckoning: “I hadn’t realized how easy it was to delude myself” (154). “I really liked the straightness of his teeth and his warm brown eyes,” says the narrator in “My Same Old, Same Old” (62). “When I died of a stroke six years later, I broke free of my catatonic body and found myself facing a tall and bearded man,” we read in “Beginnings” (167-168).

A consistent reflection on the past from the perspective of the present is part of how and why these varied tales work. They are, in many senses, fictionalized versions of a recorded oral history—both of the town and its people—focused, oftentimes, on the juxtaposition between Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, The City (mostly, Detroit), and temporal transformations that necessarily influence economy, hope, and survival. This orientation occurs at the “macro” and “micro” scales (as I have attempted to underscore) as well as at all human and spatial geographies in between.

Returning to “The Ways of Men,” I want to comment on my assertion that these are stories written by a fine poet. The first and last lines of this story, as with others, leave the reader with much to contemplate, emotionally. When a story’s first and last lines are poems, something profound has the potential to happen for a reader, who might be drawn in at the outset and left to pause upon exiting. This story begins with “My parents died in a hotel fire when I was very young” (135) and ends with “No one questions the fact that I’m a man. I’ve perfected the timbre of my true voice, and that’s enough for me” (150). These two lines, in-and-of-themselves, are surely curiosity-producing, making one wonder what happens in the spaces in-between. (I’m aiming to avoid spoilers, so I encourage readers to find out!)

Title: Compassion, Michigan: The Ironwood Stories
Author: Raymond Luczak
Publisher: Modern History Press
Date: 2020

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About the Reviewer

Diane R. Wiener became Editor-in-Chief of Wordgathering in January 2020. A poet since the age of seven, her first full-length poetry collection, The Golem Verses, was published in 2018 by Nine Mile Press. Her poetry chapbook, Flashes & Specks, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. Diane’s poems also appear in Nine Mile MagazineWordgatheringTammyQueerlyThe South Carolina Review, and elsewhere; her poetry is forthcoming in the anthology, Welcome to the Resistance: Poetry as Protest (Stockton University Press). Diane’s creative nonfiction appears in Stone CanoeMollyhouse, and The Abstract Elephant Magazine; her flash fiction appears and is forthcoming in Ordinary Madness. After serving as Guest Editor for Nine Mile Literary Magazine’s Fall 2019 Special Double Issue on Neurodivergent, Disability, Deaf, Mad, and Crip poetics, Diane was appointed as the magazine’s Assistant Editor. The Founding Director of the Syracuse University Disability Cultural Center (2011-2018), Diane now serves as a Research Professor and as the Associate Director of Interdisciplinary Programs and Outreach at the Burton Blatt Institute (Syracuse University College of Law); she also teaches in the Renée Crown University Honors program. Diane has published widely on disability, pedagogy, and empowerment, among other subjects. She is a proud Neuroqueer, Mad, Crip, Gender Nonconforming, Jewish Pantheist Nerd (etc.). Diane blogged for the Huffington Post between May 2016 and January 2018. You can visit Diane online at: