A handsomely produced little poetry book (just 4 x 5.5” in trim, and with 64 pages) from Lawrence Schimel’s A Midsummer Night’s Press of New York, Mute by Minneapolis poet Raymond Luczak is a surprisingly full and balanced exploration of emotion. Mute is divided into four sections, each marked by an epigraph related to the “silence” suggested by the book’s title, including this evocative line from Susan Sontag: “Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech.” When a writer’s personal identity informs his writing, for some readers the sociological aspects may overshadow the artistry of it. The biographical note at the back of this book tells us that Luczak is a hearing-impaired gay poet, who has edited two anthologies of work described as deaf gay and lesbian readers. And yet, Mute is not simply a book about what it feels like to be deaf and gay. It is a meditation on time and loss, measuring the distance between what was and what could have been.
Vivid images punctuate the book, including descriptions of sign language. “Our language of hands flickering like Zippos” imagines the impression made by unselfconscious deaf men in a hipster bar in “Mannequins.” “My hands are not a thrift shop made for ransacking” refers to the cultural romanticizing of signing in “1989.” Luczak habitually lists details in terse sequences, as in “Pitch”:
I had explained the science of my hearing.
Partially broken nerve endings. Lipreading.
Speech therapy. Technological inadequacies.
This cataloging of experience enhances the sense of measuring out increments—of time, of stories, of perception. Time travel almost seems possible thanks to this method, as in “Wink,” which recalls a friendship that could have been more. Memory and anticipation adjust the flow of time in the sixth section of “1989,” recalling college days:
Third Avenue seems a century ago,
a country I’d visited far too quickly,
not knowing that my passport wouldn’t expire
anytime soon. I was so afraid of deportation.
Poems about relationships between hearing and hearing-impaired people dominate the first two sections of Mute. As its title suggests, “How to Fall for a Deaf Man” is didactic and hypothetical. “Covent Garden: Men’s Room, 1889” imagines a cross-class encounter in nineteenth-century England. Luczak complements his vivid imagery and imagination by writing successfully in form, such as the pantoum of “Repetitions” and the sestina of “In June.” The discipline and craft of Luczak’s poems balances their unabashed revelations of emotion, avoiding sentimentality.
Poems mourning the loss of mentors and friends dominate the last two sections of the book. “International Deaf Leather 2002” is a genuinely warm portrayal of a professor who went to leather bars. In different hands, this subject could have resulted in lukewarm camp, but Luczak gives his unconventional subjects their due. Aware of the pitfalls, he includes an ironic poem, “The Elegist,” criticizing our culture’s propensity to be maudlin.
Placement and order of the poems in Mute enhance their effectiveness. Early poems such as “Pitch” describe the communication gap between deaf and hearing communities. A similarly themed poem, “Orphans,” placed near the end of the book, has deeper resonance, informed by the emotional richness of the elegies that preceded it. The later poem “Vow” reads as a qualified rejection of the poet’s younger, ingratiating self, as presented in earlier poems. This call-and-response between poems within the collection enhances the sense of balance.
Occasionally in Mute the language is archaic, as in “Look not away from my eyes” in “Homily.” For every successful slant rhyme, such as “ones” and “once,” there is an obvious rhyme such as “flow and “glow,” both from “The Elegist.” But these are minor quibbles. Mute is a rare mix of formal discipline and classical balance with unabashed emotion and measured tribute.
James Cihlar is the author of Undoing (Little Pear Press), and his poems have appeared in Painted Bride Quarterly, Quercus, Bloom, Minnesota Monthly, Northeast, The James White Review, Briar Cliff Review, Verse Daily, Emprise Review, Newport Review, and in the anthologies Aunties (Ballantine), Regrets Only (Little Pear Press), and Nebraska Presence (Backwaters Press). The Books Review Editor for American Poetry Journal, he has also published reviews in the Minneapolis Star Tribune and on the poetry site Coldfront. The recipient of a Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowship for Poetry and a Glenna Luschei Award from Prairie Schooner, Cihlar lives in St. Paul.