John Quicke

Keller in Hollywood

In 1918 Helen Keller accepted an offer to make a film of her life at the Brunton Studio, Hollywood.

"The unconscious cruelty of our commercial society" – Helen Keller

On the set, the appearance
of naturalness for her unnatural.
A flushed director tapped and spelled
in her hand. Her childhood in the can,
after that the legend – encounters
with the greats like Twain and Bell,
then draped on rocks yearning absurdly
for Odysseus who burnt out
the Cyclops’ eye, then wrestling
with dark Ignorance.

She’d agreed the title,
Deliverance, of the torn world
from its agony, but not the eclipse
of politics by myth and romance,
not her robing as the Mother of Sorrows
so “grace” would rub off on the masses
as she walked amongst them,
the extras throat and nostrils sprayed
to ward off ’flu, while they acted
crazy with religious fervour.

The reviews were good.
Hacks noted “strong men moved to tears,
children spellbound, mothers torn
with emotion” on reading sub-titles
“Thanks wizard teacher. I’m not dumb now.”
But on the first night there’d been a row
- a full house in the rain
at the strike bound theatre and not a sign
of her or teacher, who were acting
in solidarity with Equity.

And in the aftermath, questions, gossip.
Papers dug up ‘facts.’
A sexual life forbidden by her mother,
the dark barrier between them;
a teacher with a chequered history,
who refused to judge her fellow inmates
in the almshouse, their fears of fondlings,
resort to blades, threats to slice flesh
even as they still seemed desperately
to need male bodies;

a teacher, apparently, with an oddball
husband, a radical who prompted people
with the pen, and loved to discuss
his works at length with Helen
who was said to be “confused
and led astray” but whose nerve
outlasted his. Strong enough
in her own agency to take on the charities,
rich sponsors, business links,
their attempts to dumb her down;

and to support the Wobblies,
Lenin and the socialist cause,
her books thrown on Nazi bonfires,
a file opened by the FBI,
so she was forced to hide her red light
under a bushel. Too saintly to be called
un-American, too ‘commie’ to be uncensored,
nothing could divert her from her message
that blindness was the bitter harvest
of infidelity, the main cause: cruel commerce.

John Quicke © 2017