Featured

Thank You Jeffrey Brown of PBS News Hour

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.

*****************************************************

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 

Dream Party

Dream Party

I invite friends over but it turns out they’re not friends at all but just blow up dolls from the office. I want to jump out the window and go looking for one, tilting my blind face this way and that. Of course I wonder if God has this problem. I think sensible paranoia is exhausting and doctors don’t understand it. If a thing comes true they say it’s a coincidence. I was terribly awake in the dream and I needed to find a job. Certainly I was more optimistic than I’d ever been before. I was tired though. “Please, whatever you do, be judicious,” said an inflatable pal who drifted a bit in the way of all balloon men.

Thinking of Robert Lowell, End of Winter

Thinking of Robert Lowell, End of Winter

Illness was topographical:
A specific psychiatrist
Seeing the lanyard
I wore as a necklace asked
Was it a fetish—unable to see
The accoutrement of latch key children—

For we must follow his map
And trace its marl.
This was the house
of the mad, 1970, poor
Broken clay lacking will.
They quietly brought the earth
And spooned it into
Each and every
One of us.

A Modest Vow After Years (Thoughts on Poetry)

When I was a student at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop Donald Justice, esteemed poet and teacher threw a literary magazine in the trash in front of a roomful of aspiring poets saying: “This is devoted to the “long poem”—I hate long poems…” Imagine Jussi Bjorling singing a third of an opera. Think of Eliot stopping the “Wasteland” on page one. Eliot would have ended with Mrs. Equitone.

The lesson I took on that fair day in Iowa City is that taste is sometimes a jailer’s key. You better watch out. There are instructive moral possibilities that arise when poets resist their own habits of mind. Here I return to Mrs. Equitone. Think of Eliot stopping the “Wasteland” on page one. The poem would end here:

Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.

One must be so careful these days. Eliot’s picture is of soothsayers and spiritual mediums. Talking to the dead became big business after the First World War. There were laws against it. It was all a bit like Prohibition. Think of seance speakeasies and you’ve got the picture. If you’re planning to see Mrs. Equitone the psychic you best not put your horoscope in the mail as you’ll be arrested for fraud.

As a portrait of a dreadful post-war sub-culture the lines above are superb. And loaded. Mrs. Equitone is part horse part gramophone. Yes, let’s call up our private dead.

If Eliot had stopped the “Wasteland” just there we’d have an occluded short poem without the strickened and collectivized nature of ruin that comes with war.

Ah but the poem, on page two:    

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying: “Stetson!
“You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
“Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
“Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
“Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
“Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!
“You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable—mon frère!”

Sing the opera to the end and it’s about something extensively dramatic. The first world war is over and its survivors are collectively afflicted and trying rather desperately to rejoin the workaday world which won’t—can’t—sustain them. This is far better stuff than “one must be so careful these days…”

Why am I bothering with this, just now, early, over coffee, the day not yet a day?

I shall not be trapped by my own taste. As I grow older the industrious and developing soul can still stretch. I suppose this is a vow.

Slow Music

1.

Mornings with my dog for company
I’m happy—the world so close—
And though I can’t say
What this means
I carry it
A slumbering green picture.

2.

There are hidden instruments
In the hedgerow
Which are not birds.
Shadow scales.
But enough.
We pass an army
Of empty houses.

3.

Even short poems must give you the opera entire.
Judas’ money went to the paupers’ graves.
Les Troyens breaks my heart even as I smile.
Walking near a lake with lilies, late autumn.
I look up when branches swing.
The ears do all the work and drift away.

Notebook, September 10, 2021

Breathing Space

I sat in the corner, not in the cradle
That’s how it was

Birds flew North or South
Funny to think on it

The sea the moon
Whispering

Still it’s beautiful tuning this piano
As now I’m old

And what is poetry?

**

We’re all of us two children
Then four adults

Look over there:
The factories brooding

**

No blank space anywhere here

**

Humming a tune
Drinking morning coffee

Thinking: dreams are not the same as plans

**

This I can promise–
I don’t want to turn back
Where I came from

**

The poet Anselm Hollo
Had the best laugh I’ve ever heard
It was a deep “let’s change the architecture” affair

**

Transtromer:

The samurai looks insignificant beside his armor
Of black dragon scales

**

I think everyone should do their own version of the “Egyptian Book of the Dead”–

Yes Pharaoh so sweet
With his honey packed ears
Eyelashes
Dusted with assassin bugs
Insects dressed as ash
Laying in wait
For anything that moves
Well it’s safe
The king never starves
But neither
Is he rescued…

**

Haavikko: “And yet we must have a word with happiness”

Kuusisto: “If happiness talks back give me a call…”

**

Lucky the horse with butterflies on his mane

**

I’ve always liked off stage instruments
The hidden ones

Notebook, September 9, 2021

As Haavikko said: “it takes a whole man
To listen to the wind.”
He was a post-war Finnish old boy.
He left out the women.
In my experience women hear the wind perfectly.
A pregnant women hears the wind
For two people.

**

I’ve been having tremendous dreams.
Autumn is coming and the nights are cool.
The fruit trees outside my windows
Are fragrant at night.
Each night I start a new life.

**

You can say whatever you like about time.
Seeing his wristwatch Transtromer
Said he could detect
Time’s imprisoned insect.
I like this.
Since I’m blind
My watch talks.
I hear the immortal
King of wind
Straining to free himself.

**

I write poems when sad:
An office–
Heart’s labor.
Some days my skull
Cries for it’s grave.
Each tree a feasible coffin.

**

Late September
Birds chafing against our landscape

**

It’s possible
I might be walking
With the last gods of summer
Behind me like stray dogs…

Morning notebook, September 8, 2021

I am windward of the souls in last night’s dream.
I wish at least one would knock at the window.
Morning rain, apples falling in grass.

**

If you can drag yourself to believe
God’s eyes are “on” this morning
Great things are coming
Water falls on my wrist
As I wash a cup

**

The snake
Wiser than Adam

Knows which road to take
What to eat, who to trust

**

I am a blind star gazer. Sometimes, looking up I think I see lights. Sometimes I suppose I’m imagining them. In any case, this is the condition of the first sighted beings on earth.

I take this feeling with me into the house.
Clutching a spoon I’m the first spoon man.
Yes I’ve made it at home.

Sure. Tell me to go to hell. You’ve got big things on your mind.

Here I am with dust mote eyes and imaginary stars.

**

So it comes down to this
Grandmother’s soup
Thistles, pepper, water
From the well.

**

Do you see the luxury
Of the ailment
That is no ailment?

**

So I go around in the bucket of my skull,
Free will, predestination, foot odors, love life regrets,
Scraps of poems flaring like match heads…

**

Eleanor Rigby, a dirge in eighth notes.
Brilliant.

**

I love the term, “the ethics of impertinence.”

**

Early boyhood…

I’d put the needle on a fast spinning disc
To hear something uncanny: arias and folk songs
Sung by dead people.
The wind up mechanism with its crank…

**

The hieroglyphs representing humans
Or animals were left incomplete
Or drawn mutilated,
Most likely to prevent them
Causing any harm to the dead pharaoh.

**

Watch out!
We’ve gaffed the night mateys!

**

Bach:

His hands opened
And released harmonic birds.

**

I used to love a turtle who lived under the boathouse.

**

Outside I stand on a hill

The breeze presses me forward
There are no words for the green

The slope, the breeze, the man
The epitaph of naming

The envoy wish
For private graffiti.

**

By the time I was twelve I had a pretty good grasp that Caruso could sing my crippled seasickness, that the arias were little chocolates one minute and dark, packed clouds the next. Think of “e lucevan le stelle” from the third act of “Tosca”—a flawless sweep from pure love to entire despair which occurs in two verses and takes about four minutes.

**

So I dreamt last night I was writing a poem
Tangled branches were in it, sunlight fell in shafts…

The souls going about their business…

Morning Notes, Sept 7, 2021

Before I knew you…a silly phrase…

**

Poetry matters. It’s the keel of our losses and our hope. It allows us to sail.

**

And silly to write such a thing–midday, late summer clouds coming on. But this is the hour when I was happiest as a child–alone in the woods, light suffused, everything quiet. Somewhere far off the town had a parade. I was in my cave, green, darker than morning. The trees donned sorrow hats as the sun faded. And the birds quiet. Hint of a coming rain.

**

Wild flowers
Queen Anne’s Lace
Standard butter cups
Mantle thoughts of dying
I’m in here…

**

I know I’m hopelessly local
Homely, undisguised
Laughing

What else is there
High in branches?

**

In his excellent memoir “Interesting Times” the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm says of the Welsh, circa 1960: “For most of the mountain people the Welsh language was chiefly a Noah’s Ark in which they could survive the flood as a community. They did not so much want to convert and converse: people looked down on visiting South Walians with their ‘school Welsh’. Unlike Noah, they did not expect the flood to end.”

**

Blind childhood:

Hydra I took you under my ribs, my darling who licked the words from stones.

Hydra, innocent, my speechlessness.

**

He supposes he should be more ironic about fealty and Romantic sadness, but finds he cannot.

**

Electric bulbs hang by threads.
Once my mother lived here—
Brockton, Massachussetts
Year of big ammunition,
WW I her father building bombs
For Uncle Sam—kids
Playing in dynamite
How it was…

**

Please, for the love of God, go out today and cultivate wonder.

**

You’d think I’ve a plan
But its not true
In the dark move fast

The Blind Know Where the Umbrellas Are

“Eilis noticed a number of black umbrellas resting against the hallstand.”

In Colm Toibin’s novel “Brooklyn” one finds the sentence above in the middle of a scene. Ellis has been summoned to meet Mrs. Kelly who wants to offer her a job–though the offer is strikingly unfriendly. Ellis sees the black umbrellas.

Once upon a time, long ago, when I was interviewing for a creative writing faculty job at The Ohio State University a noted fiction writer asked me how I could write about the world if I can’t see. It was a hostile question and likely illegal but I said without skipping a beat that all nouns are images and no one who uses nouns fails to create a picture. The man would go on to be trouble for me as after I was hired he proved to be an outright ableist.

What I didn’t say is the blind know where the umbrellas are.
We know what kind of rain is falling before stepping out.
Many of us can read in the dark and are expert listeners.