The part of the story that is well known is that, at the age of twenty and freshly graduated from the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, Annie Sullivan traveled to Tuscumbia, Alabama to become the teacher to the blind wild child Helen Keller. Through persistence, patience, and tough love Sullivan finally broke through to where Keller connected words and objects and entered the realm of language. Inseparable until death, anticapitalist and antiwar Sullivan and self-identified socialist Keller worked tirelessly to raise awareness about the issues facing blind people. Yet, the image and legacy of Keller greatly overshadows that of her teacher. Despite Keller’s attempt to direct attention to Sullivan in her book, Teacher, Sullivan’s pre-Keller life remains largely shrouded.
To illuminate these early years, Denise Bergman offers Seeing Annie Sullivan, her poetic sketch of the teacher’s life. The story Bergman tells begins long before Sullivan met Keller and ends just after. The opening epigraph is a quotation from Sullivan herself:
Our earliest recollections of childhood are very similar to dreams—they are pictures, when we try to put them into words we must make connections and fill gaps. Time and place are lost but an image remains. The truth of a matter is not what I tell you about it, but what you divine in regard to it. (15)
What follows are the pictures put into the words of poetry, not so much meant to fill the gaps of a life but to provide flashes, glimpses of Sullivan’s little known early life. That Annie Sullivan was nearly blind only puts pressure on these pictures to tell more than there is to see, to draw from all five senses and create hybrid new ones—part sight, part taste, part sound, part feel, and part scent. It is a sensing of a life with gaps as in any memory, and Annie reminds us that “truth” or meaning is not to be found in the words themselves but somewhere between the words and how we understand them, what we “divine in regard to it.”
Bergman offers this first glimpse of her subject matter in the second poem of the collection entitled “Annie”:
She would be pretty—but for her eyes
clouded blue moons
behind tangles of long dark hair. (17)
In this first glimpse we are directed to see not Annie Sullivan but her clouded eyes—her disability, her lack of sight and therefore of beauty. This line is also the first phrase Annie remembers ever hearing as a child, expressed with no concern for the suffering she might experience due to the deadly combination of disability and poverty. A simple judgment: She “would be” pretty if only she had clear, functioning eyes. Perhaps she might also be accepted and loved instead of criticized when visiting with the neighbors.
Lack is a theme that winds through this book in the lack of clear vision, of food, of family, and of safety. She is a child in Feeding Hills, Massachusetts. The town name suggests abundance, but the reality for the Sullivans is nothing but lack—poverty, illness, death.
The landmarks of memory that orient us to Sullivan’s life emerge in each poem. These pages are not filled up with text. The margins are wide, and the poems are surrounded by emptiness. It’s as if a light has flashed on a detailed diorama that had previously been dark. In short pointed lines, we see deeply into the space, gather up the details, and “divine” much more of the story than is covered in each poem.
The life pictures begin in early childhood. In the first section, “Feeding Hills,” a poem “Night” illuminates men crossing the field to gamble at the Sullivan’s amidst the material evidence of suffering in her mother’s and brother’s crutches lined up against the wall. The chronology at the end of the book explains that, already, the Sullivan’s had lost two children and there were three more including Annie. Here neither mother nor son is well. The next lines take us more deeply into the reasons behind this family’s pain:
On the kitchen table
a bottle of hard cider spiked
with red pepper
tight in her father’s hand.
Thomas Sullivan only appears in these lines with his drink in hand. His desperation is revealed in the tightness of his grip. The next lines make the connection between the father’s full fist and the family’s lack:
The stove, that rattled apart
when her mother’s body
flew at it with force,
still in pieces,
the stovepipe that crushed
her legbone flat.
Annie’s mother is broken not simply by poverty but abuse and she is not the only victim. The poem “Icon” begins with a description of the “Golden Virgin” which
hangs on a nail above the bed,
watches the man beat his child,
listens to the girl’s screams
whip the air
and mouth to God’s ear,
Annie lacks protection in this house and not even the holy Virgin on the wall seems to care.
Annie is not completely blind as Bergman explains in the footnotes. Her vision was “blocked…‘as if a piece of cloth were covering the surface of the eye’” (98). The poem “White Mittens” shows how Annie must devour something in order to really see it, how close her way of seeing is to tasting—and how deprived both senses are. A neighborhood girl shows off her new mittens, which are “the most beautiful mittens Annie ever saw.”
Her eyes taste the white ovals,
savor the stitches
as if licking tiny sugar cubes,
halting, yet eager, lustful,
yet making it last.
“Taste” is infused with even more meaning in the poem by that name. So steeped in poverty and lack, Annie’s hunger for life and all its tastes is never satiated. She gets only bits and teases of the sweetness of life—of “brown sugar syrup / with mustard” and “apple pie at the neighbor / girl’s house”:
roaming the fields,
taste a strawberry, with cream
Come here, little girl—
a festival of women
parasols and wide-brimmed
yellow hats, imagine
a party for a fruit. (23)
The poems continue, illuminating for us in five-dimensional sensory perception the pieces of Annie’s early life. Annie hears the “ear-piercing silence” of her mother’s death after months of the deafening sounds of sickness and dying. Annie’s father sends the children to relatives who ultimately send them “into the hungry belly” of “the great rumbling iron horse” on the rail to the poor house (29). From the footnotes we know that this is the poor house for immigrants, many of them Irish and Catholic like Annie. In an act of “unheard-of kindness” the superintendent bends the rules by letting brother and sister stay in the stench-filled corpse room so that they can be together. Jimmie ultimately dies, abandoning his sister to face the filth alone.
The one bright spot in this period is in the poem “Tomorrow” when Annie is given an operation to fix her eyes:
The light through the gauze is a simple white
bright yet quiet, midday, when the nurse
and Annie eat lunch in the kitchen, stir water
and squeeze lemon and all the sugar she wants.
Vision does not return but improves. More importantly is the feeling of safety and abundance. When she returns to the almshouse, we see the beginning of Annie’s concern for social injustice. In “Lunchtime” we are told that a girl named Sadie is routinely punished for complaining. She is dragged across the room and publicly raped by Beefy. The new Annie with slightly better eyesight takes action:
The women push away their plates
stampede to the corner
the youngest and first
to get there,
breaks a chairleg over Beefy’s head.
Even with this dramatic show of resistance, a poor, nearly blind girl in the almshouse is still powerless as we see:
He falls to the floor,
Sadie under him buried
and buried again, clutching
her newborn, the next day. (49)
Finally the governor hears of the horrible conditions in the poor house and investigators appear. Dying to be let out, Annie follows them as “a hungry dog, / Annie nips their suittails.” Later in “Tewskbury Almhouse Hearings” we see the full extent of this poorhouse horror as Annie hears the lawyer make his case:
I heard Ben Butler say it.
He took our bald rumor,
put numbers and words on what we knew.
in the shoestore window
tanned, cut, sewed and glued
could have been Tom or Beatrice,
Sadie’s baby or even Jimmie. (66)
Human skin trafficked as shoe leather and finally something is done about it.
The poorhouse is closed and Annie is sent to the School for the Blind where possibilities begin to open up. The poetry is lighter here with less punctuation and more frequent spacing between lines. In “Leaving Tewksbury” we see that “everything she ever had / in fourteen years is in her head.” The School for the Blind is clean and much better than the poorhouse but Annie is not accepted by those around her as “The Whisperings” make clear:
She’s Irish, she’s dirty, feel her hair
it’s tangled like a fisherman’s net
rolled high tide onto South Boston beach (60)
Having already experienced much worse, Annie endures and revels in the education. She graduates Valedictorian. These poems are no longer centered on lack but on the process of filling up, of learning to read and speak in signs. In the final sections of the book, “Train South” and “Tuscumbia” we get the glimpses of the more familiar part of Sullivan’s life that includes Helen Keller. It has been a long and painful journey for her and one that she kept secret from her student until the very final days of her life (13).
We see the struggle that is well known. But in the final poems of the book, we get the delicious taste of the breakthrough, when the wild Helen is tamed and is finally learning not only language but also the nuances of language. The final poem, “Next Set of Words,” begins:
I touch her forehead and spell t-h-i-n-k
propels know out to a sun
way beyond the scarred
sky concealed in her practical mind.
Later I add perhaps
concepts so open-ended
the degree of risk is daunting (92)
This is beautiful and triumphant poetry that captures the momentum of the breakthrough of both Keller and Sullivan from darkness into the light of perception and friendship. Sullivan is teacher and also protector. She wants to give Keller the magic of language, but not to overwhelm her with its power. The poem ends with these lines:
Expect she learns
and lifts the future from a pile of gray
and airless ash.
But without an adverb
like slowly, I want to warn her
move cautiously, speed
is the devil
fast the devil’s hand.
Possibly she runs right past me
past my expectations she runs.
Expectant teacher has given birth to student who excedes her expectations and develops her own for life and justice.
Bergman ends the book with a quotation from Sullivan that addresses the lack of her childhood and what it means to live abundantly.
What if my hunger is fed with all that seems most palatable, what if my enemies bite the dust…what if my house is full of friends and laughter…what if my garments of finest silk cling and flow—if the endless lives that touch me as I pass are cold and hungry and joyless. My spirit’s light goes out. I grope in the darkness. The world is a windowless dungeon. (95)
The point for Annie Sullivan is not about having things and delighting discerning taste buds. This is a world of lack—a “dungeon” without windows like the corpse room in the almshouse. Until this lack has been nourished and the people she passes on the street are warm, fed, and happy, her own hunger for a better world will not be satiated.