Review: The Kiss of Walt Whitman Still on My Lips, by Raymond Luczak
Raymond Luczak’s new book, The Kiss of Walt Whitman Still on My Lips (Squares and Rebels, 2016) is a passionate, personal tribute to the great poet. The title comes from a quote by Oscar Wilde, who met with Whitman in 1882. According to Wilde, Whitman kissed him in parting. As Luczak says to Whitman, whom he addresses directly throughout this volume, “You left him enough of a kiss to brag.”
Luczak yearns to be in Wilde’s place, to receive a kiss from the poet. He interprets that kiss in several ways: As friendly, as erotic, and as paternal. In this he is evoking Whitman’s personae of comrade and lover, as well as acknowledging Whitman as a kind of father whose descendants—Luczak among them—are the poets who share his expansive view of life and expression: “You claimed once to have sired five children./ Only five? You’ve fathered generations after generations!”
Near the beginning of the book, Luczak refers obliquely to the idea of the kiss when he mentions lips in the context of lip reading. He notes that he was forbidden when he was young from using “the language of hands,” and that, “Until I learned Sign, I had to make do with watching/ the mystery and misery of lips masticating words.” He was barred from the physicality of signing, and therefore limited in his understanding of the world and himself. He did not fully have the language of the mind or body. As a “child” of Whitman, he understands that these must be one and the same. He says to Whitman, in a particularly perceptive line, “You knew how to celebrate America through your body.”
As Whitman did in Leaves of Grass and even more pointedly in "Calamus" and "Children of Adam," in The Kiss, Luczak is also celebrating the sexual love between men. His own love for Whitman is expressed in an erotic way, as if the famous poet is a lover with whom he wishes to become one. He imagines himself with Whitman, blending physically with him: “Walt, I dreamed of you and I together sleeping,/ beards commingling and bodies clinging,/ hands entwined and legs enmeshed,/twin plants woven together from the same pod.” In fact, there are photographs in the book, including close-ups of Whitman’s and Luczak’s beards, that “conflate” the two men.
Kiss is a kind of biography of Whitman, and, in part, an autobiography of Luczak himself, who is looking back on his life and that of the gay community. He refers to a failed love affair with a “gardener” that makes him feel that “I’ve been without water all season.” There is a longing expressed for his youth, for a vitality he attributes to Whitman even in his old age. For his part, however, Luczak laments, “Alone in my bed I am unable to strip down to the boy I used to be,” and, more directly, “How the hell can I compete with the body I have?” He is in need of revitalization, such as the “mouth-to-mouth resuscitation” he says that Whitman performed on nineteenth-century America.
Devastated by the losses from HIV/AIDS, the gay community, Luczak feels, has lost a certain spirit: “there’s no genteel bohemia left in Mannahatta./ Your specimen days of comradeship are gone.” His view of Whitman and his time is entirely romantic—in the lower case “r” sense that it is idealized and sentimental—and this lack of a balanced perspective can be seen as a weakness in the book. While Luczak is aware that Whitman had to hide his homosexuality to an extent (“You cloaked your unspeakable love in a language /that only others of your kind could translate.”) and the prejudice, legal penalties—and violence—gay men were (and are) subject to, he portrays Whitman’s era in a purely positive light. He contrasts it with contemporary life, which he finds lacking, despite a more open sexuality and the increasing acceptance of homosexuality by the “normative” culture. He begs Whitman, “Please rescue me from the sterility of America.” He notes that while Whitman would be surprised by today’s society, he would also embrace aspects of it. He imagines the poet, who loved to be photographed, taking a selfie!
Luczak echoes some of Whitman’s themes and even at times his language. As it was for Whitman, the capital “R” Romantic, nature is a consistent and unifying subject throughout. Luczak states he realized when young that “nature sang songs I could hear perfectly/without my hearing aids.” His poems veer from Whitman’s in form, however: they are more structured than Whitman’s. Whitman, often cited as one of the preeminent practitioners of free verse, wrote characteristically, although not consistently, at considerable length in long lines. As Luczak says, “You spoke in clangorous lines as long as trains.” Luczak does not follow this model, but reaches further back, writing each poem as an unrhymed version of nine-line Spencerian stanzas. This series of short poems reads somewhat like diary entries in which Luczak is commenting on, and relating to, each aspect of Whitman’s life.
At times Luczak gets tripped up by figurative language: “My lungs were robust like Vikings at sea/... when my first love left me, I needed an iron lung.” Occasionally, too, he falls back on clichés such as “killing with kindness” and “gossamer threads.” He is best when he speaks in a more contemporary way, rather than when he attempts Whitman’s ecstatic tone. For example, he talks of love as “mooning sweet ass.” And in a plea to the poet to infuse him with new life he says, “I’m so tired of all this crap, Walt. Hum me a lullaby./ Allow me to sleep beside you, your sure hand /stroking my back…”
Luczak concludes the book more hopefully, however, imagining, “One night a dream handsome and lonesome will slip/ beside me underneath the shivery sheets, /stitch his arms around me as you have.” With this renewed energy, he says, bestowed like a “kiss lingering on my lips,” he knows he will go on, in the spirit of Whitman, to “sample /here and there in the dark and the daylight /the mouths and bodies and hearts of men…” In this unique and valuable book, Luczak proves he has truly incorporated the spirit of the poet.