Some books force you to check your place on the strata of privilege. While you believe yourself a progressive thinker these books reinforce the realization that there are frustrations you will never know from your White, male, heterosexual vantage. There are rages you are not entitled to. You choose these books because alternative viewpoints can be so easily quieted against the conditioning of official histories. Privilege is a disease of forgetting. You need constant reminders about who writes our histories and the stories they censor. Raymond Luczak’s The Kiss of Walt Whitman Still on My Lips is one of these books.

It is a poem—epic in scope if not in form—broken into five parts with a nearly metronomic nine lines of verse per page. Desire catalyzes the Luczak of the narrative—he lusts after his male gardener and establishes two visual themes that root the work throughout: Nature and the male body. Long beards entwine like nerve endings. The gardener is an older man and more robust than the poet. It is through these physical facts that Luczak conjures Whitman.

Walt Whitman is chiseled into American iconography. Like Twain and Lincoln, his celebrity coincided with the photograph. Black and white images of the bearded “Bard of Democracy” abound. He was a teacher, a nurse to wounded Union soldiers during the Civil War, and his words helped shape the romantic and patriotic identity of our nation. Due to the classic film Dead Poet’s Society, Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” has become cultural shorthand for standing up to corruption and oppression. The many images of Whitman throughout his life serve as a history of his unruly whiskers, making him appear more claimable by the “Duck Dynasty” crowd than the more groomed hipster elite. As an icon, Whitman has been endowed with the heteronormative masculinity implicit with capital “A” Americanism. He was also a gay man.

Due to the frustration of his unrequited desire, Luczak begins a conversation with Whitman. Instead of reverence for the paragon of American letters, the tone is more of fury and exasperation. Whitman was a great celebrity, America’s first male celebrity centerfold due to his predilection for the camera, yet he chose a strategy of passing as his notoriety grew.

You exulted in exclamations of sex.
Yet you cloaked your unspeakable love in a language
that only others of your kind could translate.

Each edition of Leaves of Grass was self-censored, the coding dampened to reach a wider audience. In the autobiographical passages, Luczak reveals his own penchant for passing and the emotional toll it cost him. The progress of human rights for the LGBTQ community is a phenomenon of our recent memory and one that faces constant backlash. Instead of open love, fairly anonymous sexual interactions seemed safe in the shadows. Cruising was a legacy older than Walt Whitman and the 19th century, but one bequeathed to Luczak and the 20th century. Desire masked emotional need. Satiation quieted thoughts of love. A time when such a love would not be a crime was the stuff of fantasy. Anonymity offered succor until AIDS.

Alone in the asylum I stared, trying not to vomit
when far too many patients lined up,
the purple splotches tattooing their stick arms
reaching out for God, Allah, Zeus – anyone!

This is a disdainful moment in queer and American history. The Reagan administration was slow to act on what it termed “the gay plague.” People were dying, but treated as subhuman by media and officialdom, victims of an “aberrant lifestyle.” There were no shadows left to hide. Luczak savages Whitman here.

The great poet figured out how to be famous and remembered. It is impossible to know how great a visionary Whitman was, but he laid the groundwork for canonization and became a caricature on the walls of big booksellers everywhere. Luczak wishes Whitman had used his status to champion his own kind. What would the reaction to the AIDS epidemic have been like if this unapologetically great American had been equally unapologetic of his truth?

We credit Ellen DeGeneres for coming out and the transformation of Caitlyn Jenner as watershed moments in the struggle for LGBTQ rights. Both were media moments that made it impossible for anyone to say that they didn’t know a gay or transperson. Would such moments have felt so necessary and courageous if Walt Whitman had penned a similar event in the 19th century is the question Luczak wants answered. The more personal version of the question Luczak ponders is whom would he be if he did not have to hide for decades.

If Whitman was outed, the natural fear is he would be transformed from icon to footnote. The kiss of the title supposes a different possibility. It occurred between Oscar Wilde and Whitman, a May/December pairing when the Irish poet visited America. Wilde would later be jailed for his sexual orientation, but his literary star has never lost its luster. He has proved impossible to erase. Why, then, wouldn’t Whitman prove equally prodigious?

This might have been a different review before the election of Trump and his appointed elderly White male horde. Their intent, stated and implied, is to dismantle decades of social progress that people like Raymond Luczak have fought for, protested for and made the subject of their art. Luczak is a gay man and The Kiss of Walt Whitman Still on My Lips is his attestation that American history is and always will be queer history. The book itself comes no bigger than a collection of pocket prayers or a manifesto, and it’s full of comparable power.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Skin: A History of Nudity in Movies

There is no consistent throughline other than that of nebulous nudity. …