A Human Lyric: James Cihlar on Julie Enszer’s Handmade Love

Handmade Love, Julie R. Enszer, A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2010

Handmade Love by Julie R. Enszer is an unabashed, irreverent, authentic hymn to feminism, the body, and queer culture.
The opening poem, “When We Were Feminists,” sets the stage for the following poems that cover both coming out and living out. This first poem records the aging of a generation formerly known for its youth, measuring idealism versus reality. Avoiding the twin temptations of mocking her earlier naiveté and mourning her adult compromises, Enszer instead provides a where-are-they-now candid snapshot, showing the once famous movement now happily existing outside the limelight, in the throes of family and work, even as they honor their origins. An obsession with books—reading, loaning, glossing, organizing, and displaying books—was a hallmark of the era, and a repeated image in Handmade Love:

When we were feminists . . .
          we planned to have clean house with walls of orderly books. . . .

Because we lived in small spaces; because our relationships
          were without demonstrated endurance.

Now equality in a relationship is piled in the corner next to a
          stack of books all covered
With a thick layer of dust. . . .

Divided into two numbered sections, this slim volume shifts from self to others between parts I. and II. Throughout, the voice is candid, funny, and direct—inspiring trust from the start.

In observing the flipsides of classicist attitudes regarding homosexuality, “You Are Not Like Them” marks changes in cultural attitudes, of a sort. In the past, the poet’s mother wished her daughter different from the “filthy lesbians” who do mannish tasks like mowing lawns; today a gay, urban friend urges that she is different from “all the homos living in the suburbs.”
In complement to the sweetness of poems knitting childhood memory to adult domesticity, including the title poem, many other poems celebrate desire, attraction, and romance in lesbian relationships in language admirable for its matter-of-factness. “First Kiss” describes burgeoning teenage awareness of sexuality in terms recognizable to all. “Conceptual Sex” is a funny, punning poem that plays with the childhood confusion spurred by adult euphemisms. Poems such as “Morning Pant,” “Jade Ring,” “In My Fantasy Single Life,” and others unapologetically and unpretentiously praise sex, befitting the title, Body Language, of this series published by A Midsummer Night’s Press.

Earthy and grounded, the poet also comments on popular culture without risking camp. “Seeing Annie Leibovitz’s A Photographer’s Life 1990-2006” attempts to mediate the poet’s disappointment in Susan Sontag’s closeted relationship with the photographer, richly evoking the knot of emotions involved with asserting identity in any given place and time. “When Grace Got Married” supplies perhaps more substance than this lightweight sitcom deserves by comparing a fictive Platonic friendship with a real one. Several of the later poems in the book dedicated to friends are elegiac and beautiful, including “Couplets for Jeff,” “unofficially, Detroit’s gay mayor.” Many of these poems supply wish-fulfillment endings for their lives, as Enszer uses poetry to mediate the world for her own understanding as well as for posterity. Tributes are paid to iconic figures such as Elizabeth Bishop and Georgia O’Keefe, in humorous and authentic poems that allow Enszer to laugh at herself.

Although containing some political poems, such as one protesting restrictions on gay marriage, Handmade Love more frequently offers frank, everyday observations on lesbian lives. These poems embrace human shortcomings along with our ideals, including the closing poem, “Making Love After Many Years.” Lyrical, human, and down-to-earth, this book is a portrait of life and community too often misrepresented and distorted by commercial media, making it a refreshing addition to any reader’s list.

An Inescapable Speech: James Cihlar reviews Mute by Raymond Luczak

Mute, Raymond Luczak, A Midsummer Night’s Press

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.