Scene4 Magazine: Life Among The Heffalumps
Scene4 Magazine-inSight

November 2009

Life is an adventure or nothing at all

I love being a poet, but I gotta say, life for us poets isn't usually lyrical or epic.  We spend most of our time drinking coffee, hanging up on telemarketers, looking at the blank computer screen, hoping our muse will throw us a bone, eating chocolate, thinking about commas and endlessly revising line breaks. At least, that's the drill for me.

But, once in a great while, the poetry gods take us so far away from mundane  matters like punctuation, that being a poet is the most exciting thing in the world. That's what happened to me last month, when I got to attend the unveiling on October 7 of the statue of Helen Keller in the U.S. Capitol.

Each state has two statues in the Capitol. Helen Keller, who lived from 1880 to 1968, was born in Alabama.  Keller's statue replaced that of a Confederate era political leader Jabez Lamar Monroe Curry.  Knowing that Keller, a blind and deaf iconic figure, was way more famous than Curry, the Alabamian powers that be jumped at the chance to have Keller represent their state.

I got invited to the shindig because I've written a chapbook of poems in the voice of Keller ("Helen Takes the Stage: The Helen Keller Poems" published by Pudding House).  I wasn't puffed up about the invite.  A buddy with a disability group got me on the list of the hundreds of people who were invited.

Unless you've lived on another planet your whole life, you know the story of Helen Keller, from the play and movie "The Miracle Worker."  You know how Anne Sullivan Macy held seven-year-old Keller's hand under the pump, until the child understood that the cold wetness flowing under her fingers was called "water."

Unfortunately, for those of us who are blind, deaf or have another disability, that's all that many people know about Keller.  Now, "The Miracle Worker," is a compelling drama, and William Gibson was a good playwright.  He did a lot of research before he wrote the play, and had empathy for Anne Sullivan and Keller.  I heard him speak once during the annual Helen Keller Festival in Tuscumbia, Ala., Keller's birthplace.  "Did Keller ever get bored?" I asked Gibson.  "Yes," he said, explaining that people communicated with her by spelling what they wanted to say into her hands, using the deaf alphabet.  "If she got bored," Gibson said, "she'd just take her hand away and smile.  No would know she wasn't paying attention."

Every June (the month when Keller was born), the citizens of this small village put on a production of "The Miracle Worker."  It's the Passion Play Meets Fellini!  There's a parade, tourists gawk, and, I'm not making this up, small plastic pink and green reproductions of "the Pump" are sold.

Tuscumbia, a poor area, earns a good share of its annual income from the Keller Festival.  So I don't mind the pumps too much.  Except, that it's yet another example of the infantilization of Keller. By portraying her as she was in "The Miracle Worker," Keller never grows older than seven.  She lived to be 88 and was mentally alert and active until her last few years.

The scene at the U.S. Capitol, too, seemed to be out of a movie.  About 500 of us stood for the Star-Spangled Banner, listened to speeches from the top Congressional brass, and mingled at the base of the statue.  Guide dogs mixed with governors, policy wonks and members of the Alabama School for the Blind and Deaf Choir.

Keller graduated from Radcliffe College in 1904, wrote more than 10 books, performed in vaudeville, opposed racism, supported feminism, loved poetry, spoke out against the un-American Activities Committee and was an advocate on behalf of disabled people.

But, unless you know Keller's story, you won't know from seeing her statue that she lived to be an adult.  The bronze likeness of her is of her, as a child, standing under the pump.

This isn't to say that it wasn't awesome to be at the unveiling.  Nearly one in five Americans has a disability according to the United States Census Bureau. We've played a largely unrecognized role in the history of this country.  The men who guarded Abraham's Lincoln's body were disabled Union Veterans. During World War II, people with disabilities served the War effort on the Home Front.  So it felt great to view the statue of Keller.  She is the first person with a disability to be so honored.

The Rotunda of the Capitol is resplendent and huge. I loved watching politicians, who I'd wager rarely come face to face with those of us in wheelchairs and with canes, try to appear comfortable as they touched shoulders with us.  Not that I knew what to say when I'd run into a politico.  "Nice to see you, ma'am," the governor of Alabama said to me.  "Nice to see you, too, Governor," I said, trying to sound as if I always chatted with governors.

Not surprisingly, of those who spoke at the ceremony, Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives, (or her staff) actually got who Keller truly was.  "Most people know about Helen Keller as a child–full of curiosity and wonder at the world that was opened to her," Pelosi said, "Today, we recognize her as that child, but also as the woman she became:...a standard bearer for the great causes of her age and of ours."

Keller loved the arts.  She often went to the theater and loved poetry, particularly the poetry of Walt Whitman.  "Literature," she said, "is my utopia."

Yet, Keller loved justice more.  "My sympathies are with all who struggle for justice," she said.

To me, what's most inspiring about Keller isn't the story of her childhood, but her work for justice–her championship of anyone who is oppressed.

Sometimes people, much against my desire, pity me because I'm legally blind.  Keller knew that people with disabilities didn't want pity.  When I think about the soldiers returning home from Iraq, I'm reminded of what Keller said about soldiers wounded in World War II.  Disabled veterans "do not want to be treated as heros," she said, "They want to be able to live naturally and to be treated as human beings."

Keller was an early feminist.  When I read about yet another male politician or entertainment figure caught in a sex scandal, I think of what Keller said about women and men in her vaudeville act.  When asked if she thought women were the intellectual equals of men, Keller joked, "I think God made women foolish so that she might be a suitable companion to man."

Despite the qualms that some of us in the disability community have about the statue being of her as a child, Keller would have been thrilled to have been commemorated.  She'd have gotten a kick out of the hoopla of the statue unveiling ceremony—from Pelosi alluding to her {Keller's} radical pollitical views to all the little kids and service dogs milling about.  "She would have loved this impressive statue of herself," said Carl Augusto, president and CEO of the American Foundation for the Blind, said at the ceremony.

Humility is a virtue, Keller said.  "But I prefer not to use it unless absolutely necessary," she added.

You can see why I identity with Keller.

"Life is an adventure or nothing at all," Keller said.

Thank you, poetry gods, for taking me on this adventure to see her statue.        

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©2009 Kathi Wolfe
©2009 Publication Scene4 Magazine

kathiwolfe-crs-nw
Kathi Wolfe is a writer, poet and a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.
Her reviews and commentary have also appeared in an array of publications.

For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives

 

Scene4 Magazine - Arts and Media

November 2009

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