Thank You Jeffrey Brown of PBS News Hour

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Stephen Kuusisto to appear on PBS News Hour

Image: Logo of PBS News Hour

Tonight the PBS NewsHour will air a segment about my new book Have Dog, Will TravelThe piece features an interview with Jeffrey Brown whose reporting on literature and poetry is well known to book lovers across the nation. Jeffrey is also a poet whose first collection The News is available from Copper Canyon Press. In our time together we talked about poetry, civil rights, disability culture, dogs for the blind, the field of disability studies, and the power of literature to bring people together around social justice movements. And yes, there’s a lovely dog, Caitlyn, a sweetie pie yellow Labrador from Guiding Eyes for the Blind.

The program airs locally, in Syracuse at 7 PM. Check your local listings.

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Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available:
Amazon
Prairie Lights
Grammercy Books
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

Why Trump’s White House Can’t Say the Word “Disability” in this Crisis

No one can tell you how to live with fear. Those pretending to know are frauds. We live inch by inch and blind or sighted we’re in the dark.

As for me I’m fearful not of fate but of the social constructions of physical difference. In this time of pandemic we’re seeing how people of color, the disabled, the elderly, indigenous people, queer and trans folks, impoverished women and children are variously indexed and denied access to essential health care. They always were. But now whether they live or die is under the spotlight. Health care workers and doctors are called upon to make snap judgements about whose life is worth saving. The history of disability suggests we’re not on the list.

So I am afraid. I’ve spent the better part of my adult life arguing in print and on the lecture circuit that disabled lives are lives worth living. But I’m no match for Neo-liberal medicine with its “hospitalists” who crunch numbers to determine which lives have potential value. That was happening before the pandemic and now the unseen hand of the economy is in even fuller play.

Yesterday Donald Trump told the nation “there will be deaths, lots of death” as if he was describing a surplus of zucchini at the state fair, his words offered with no empathy or evident concern. I remembered how he once said he didn’t need to put Braille signs in Trump Tower because no blind people would ever live there. The “deaths” that Trump doesn’t care about are precisely “those people” who he judges won’t be living in his building. I’m not on the list.

In all the fatuous, inane, self-congratulatory hours of lying to come from this White House you’ve not heard the word disability once. Disability is a true word. They won’t speak it.

All Souls Converge Upon a Hapless Mote….

I’ve met some famous people in my time but I won’t tell you who they are. Who cares? In truth it’s the dead people in dreams one should be concerned with.

Admission one: I’ve never had a dream about Sigmund Freud. Nor Carl Jung (who I like better). I did however once have a dream featuring William Butler Yeats. Just for the record, Yeats was sinister.

A few nights ago I had a dream with John Lennon in it. He was chatty and said that The Beatles gave him a kind of moral compass in his adolescence. I told him I never had one when I was young. Poof. Dream over.

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I’ve never liked the poetry of John Berryman but I do like this:

“All souls converge upon a hopeless mote
tonight, as though
the throngs of souls in hopeless pain rise up
to say they cannot care, to say they abide
whatever is to come.
My air is flung with souls which will not stop
and among them hangs a soul that has not died
and refuses to come home.”

― John Berryman, The Dream Songs

I like the conflation of Dante, Whitman, “the great chain of being” with just a dash of Buddha.

Now that’s a dream.

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The best book on Shakespeare and dream is by Marjorie Garber. Shakespeare took the chaos of dreams and made them drastically sensible. Like Mark Twain I think Shakespeare wrote in bed.

The Shoes of Nostalgia…

Long ago when I was young enough to think the arc of history bends towards justice I thought suede shoes were stylish—not the Chet Atkins variety, but the “Hush Puppy” kind, the beige ones. I was 13 and those were some good shoes. I say so without nostalgia. I’m not Googling 1968 Hush Puppies. The shoes of nostalgia will fuck you up.

Of the Hush Puppies I recall after you wore them for a day or two they tended to stink. I remember my father saying: “Your shoes smell like dead rats.” “How do you know what dead rats smell like?” I asked him. “I was in WWII,” he said.

I tried washing the shoes with dish soap and a rag. This ruined the suede and made them smell like the beauty parlor where my mother went for her “permanents” which were sinister since she was a drug addict and lacquered hair meant there’d be a burning sofa in the near future.

Yep. The Shoes of Nostalgia will disintegrate your meditative salon. Meanwhile I “did” just Google the phrase “”shoes of nostalgia”and found: “nostalgia big in sneaker world” or something like that.

BTW I could never get my father to talk about the war. He fought in the Pacific. There were lots of rats.

Bicycle Thoughts

I’ve been riding my stationary bike–not a Peloton, a Schwinn–and reading with my screen reader on the iPad while sweating copiously. Thoughts come unbidden and interrupt my reading. Endorphins cancel steady narratives much of the time and this is good.
I tend to read the driest stuff when working out, just so I can be fully miserable. I was reading David Hume when suddenly I was back in childhood sitting beside the first fireplace I remember. We had a pair of iron soldiers as andirons–“Hessians” my father said. And I used to get as close as I could to watch them in the midst of the fire. Being legally blind I had to get very close. Some adult, probably my Finnish grandmother, told me those Hessians were in Hell. Just a thought on my bike. My version of a workout video. Then back to David Hume.

“Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible beauty; and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others. To seek the real beauty, or real deformity, is as fruitless an enquiry, as to pretend to ascertain the real sweet or real bitter.”

Pump pump on the going nowhere bike.

Notebook: Show Us Your Elephant….

George Orwell is to animal writing as Newton is to the cultivation of apples. Neither man had a dog. George shot an elephant. There’s no evidence regarding Newton’s experience with elephants. The first elephant in England arrived in 1255 and was housed in the Tower of London by King Henry III. It is altogether possible Newton actually saw an elephant. In 1696 Newton was appointed Warden of the Royal Mint which was, you guessed it, housed in the Tower of London. Just coins. No pachyderms. He is known to have interviewed criminals and dabbled in alchemy while in the tower. There is no record of Newton conversing with the rooks.

Did Orwell talk to birds? Only on train trips I think. All writers must speculate. Here’s Orwell from “1984”—“For whom, for what, was that bird singing? No mate, no rival was watching it. What made it sit at the edge of the lonely wood and pour its music into nothingness?”

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Last night I remembered these lines of Newton’s: “Trials are medicines which our gracious and wise Physician prescribes because we need them; and he proportions the frequency and weight of them to what the case requires. Let us trust his skill and thank him for his prescription.”

That misfortune can, even today be read as divine beneficence is so quant and melancholic. As I said once to an overheated Christian: “if Jesus could cure the blind, why didn’t he get rid of blindness altogether?”

Well if God made gravity he must also have made plagues. This is what happens when you live in the Tower of London. A good plague is certainly a privileged idea.

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“England’s first and most surprising elephant was given to Henry III in 1255 by his cousin King Louis IX of France: “… a beast most strange and wonderful to the English people, sith most seldome or never any of that kind had been seene in England before that time”. The elephant’s large ears in the familiar drawing by Matthew Paris show that this was an African elephant not a more docile Indian elephant. Paris observed: “that this was the only elephant ever seen in England, or even in the countries on this side of the Alps; wherefore the people flocked together to see the novel sight”. Like other many other royal animals it was housed in the menagerie at the Tower of London, which lasted from about 1204 to 1831 when, on the orders of the Duke of Wellington, the animals were transferred to the newly founded Garden of the Zoological Society, i.e. the London Zoo.”

Aha! It is therefore possible that Newton “did” see an an elephant. Unless he didn’t get out as much as we imagine.

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“Elephants are susceptible to some diseases spread by mosquitoes and to some inflictions that affect humans, such as intestinal colic, nettle rash, pneumonia, constipation, and even the common cold.”

https://seaworld.org/animals/all-about/elephants/longevity/

Dear Newton, trials are not medicines.

Regrets, I’ve Had a Few….

There’s nothing like quarantine to develop a good dose of personal regret. When one is home there’s plenty of time to remember mistakes both large and small. Of course remembering is one thing, the regrets are another. Speaking for myself there aren’t enough anti-depressants to address the regrets. If you have time for regret you have have too much time—I know it. But then we’re back to the quarantine.

Years ago I heard the poet Robert Bly tell a lecture hall filled with admirers that Americans are too damned happy, that they need to embrace sorrow more, that this is where liberation lies. So here’s a regret: I’m sorry I believed this. I spent my entire twenties and thirties thinking that being profoundly sad was the key to being artistic and original. I also regret not understanding that sorrow is a very poor teacher since it thrives only on its own stories. I’m sorry I didn’t know sooner that sorrow is a dullard.

I’m sorry for insulting people when I drank too much. Sorry for not listening better to people whose opinions were obviously inconvenient to my fatuous and childlike insistence that I was smarter than almost everyone. (As a disabled young man I had to believe this. How else to swim upstream? I know. But I still regret my green egoism.)

If you’re trapped in your sorrows you can’t understand the pain of others. In fact other people are an inconvenience, they’re competitors in what we in disability culture like to call “the oppression Olympics”—yes, you’re in a bad way, but I’ve got it so much worse. Or, you’ve got it better than me—you’re deaf, you can drive a car.”

Kierkegaard said: “I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations — one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it — you will regret both.”

He was right. Regret has no judgment and nuance. The hard thing is recognizing life is filled with choices and they all lead to doubts, private rumination, and varieties of melancholy. Sometimes I say to friends “it’s a high gravity world” because sorrows are universal.

There are not many good jokes about regret but I like this one:

A famous professor of surgery died and went to heaven. At the pearly gate he was asked by the gatekeeper:’ Have you ever committed a sin you truly regret?” Yes,’ the professor answered.’ When I was a young candidate at the hospital of Saint Lucas, we played soccer against at team from the Community Hospital, and I scored a goal, which was off-side. But the referee did not se it so, and the goal won us the match. I regret that now.” Well,’ said the gatekeeper.’ That is a very minor sin. You may enter.” Thank you very much, Saint Peter,’ the professor answered.’ Im am not Saint Peter,’ said the gatekeeper.’ He is having his lunch-break. I am Saint Lucas.’

I don’t like pieties. But I don’t think Americans are too damned happy. This is a nation pushed by overwork and insufficient pay. The quarantine is brutal. I regret I’ve time for regret. And then I don’t.

Notebook in the Rain Featuring Cabbages and Poems

Wallace Stevens’ blackbird is a real bird until it enters the mind. Once there it becomes human nature. A neat trick.

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What if I told you about the first window, the first one you ever saw? Would you trust me then?

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Spent his life climbing in and out of cars when all I wanted to do was sit beside a well.

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I love the word lucent perhaps because I’m blind. Don’t care so much about the damned flying buttresses.

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Help help help. Rain in my shoes.

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A good conversation yesterday with a first rate poet who still thinks poems make positive things happen in the world. He was happy so I didn’t say “well, cabbages do so also.” If I’m being scrupulous and nuanced I’ll admit even the finest cabbage will not linger in the mind like a poem. And then, voila! Ruth Stone’s superb poem “The Cabbage” sprang to mind!

You have rented an apartment.
You come to this enclosure with physical relief,
your heavy body climbing the stairs in the dark,
the hall bulb burned out, the landlord
of Greek extraction and possibly a fatalist.
In the apartment leaning against one wall,
your daughter’s painting of a large frilled cabbage
against a dark sky with pinpoints of stars.
The eager vegetable, opening itself
as if to eat the air, or speak in cabbage
language of the meanings within meanings;
while the points of stars hide their massive
violence in the dark upper half of the painting.
You can live with this.

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Now the phrase “you can live with this” is central to poetry. Like Horace the poem says Seize the day, trusting little in the future. They do in fact mean the same thing.