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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.

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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 

I’ve been having a recurring dream, a dark one…

I’ve been having a recurring dream, a dark one. It’s been occurring for about two years. Unlike my customary dreams which are filled with clouds and undersea rocking horses this one is shockingly specific and intricate. Basically, a high school friend murders another kid and involves me in the cover up. This is successful and I live with the full knowledge that I’m complicit in a terrible crime. There are police and multiple narratives. My job is to caste doubt on the whereabouts of certain key players. (Other kids know about the crime and my job is to script them.) I do this effectively. The cops know I’m lying but can’t prove it. They know my friend has done the deed but can’t prove it. And of course the body of the murdered kid is never found.

It’s a trivial dream. Teen noir. A bad TV movie. I know. Each time I have it I wake feeling it must be real. The nightmare hangover lasts until I put on my slippers. Slowly it dawns that it’s just a dream. Yes I knew those people. No, we never killed anyone. My pal in the dream was in fact a sinister teenager. But not a killer. And then I realize that all I know for sure is that he never killed anyone in my presence. Nor did he talk about killing people. He was the kid who’d steal your parents’ valuables when he came over to play air hockey.

I grieve for who I once was. I had a very troubled adolescence. I regret my seed time as Robert Lowell might put it. And yes the dead kid in the dream is me. All the characters are me. Even the cops. When the dead kid’s mother appears she is also me. I tell myself this is a Freudian joke. I tell myself it’s time to let go over guilt because I was sad and destructive so long ago. But it doesn’t matter what I say. I live daily protesting that I’m good. I’m really a good man.

My teen self understood. Everyone is wearing a uniform. The adult in me wants to reassure him but can’t.

In this way my dream is about the social lie as defined by the poet Kenneth Rexroth who said:

“Since all society is organized in the interest of exploiting classes and since if men knew this they would cease to work and society would fall apart, it has always been necessary, at least since the urban revolutions, for societies to be governed ideologically by a system of fraud.”

I Insist Today is Eternal

In a meeting online with disabled friends, one of them autistic. He eats several pieces of paper during our session and I envy him. I really do. Just as I envy the crow who walks straight across the top of my fence, perfect, a hieroglyph in motion. There’s so much to desire.

Yes. There’s so much and so much. I love Whitman because he doesn’t covet things.

It’s not easy eating a sheet of paper.

**

I’m going to make a mistake old dog
Winter in your dreams
And god damned winter in mine

Hello dear birch
Here is the unambiguous sun
I insist today is eternal

**

I love Verdi more than any other…More than eating. I love the master’s quick hinges—three notes and you’re in another galaxy. No one does it so well. No one thinks faster than Joe Green.

**

Verdi’s childhood piano, now under glass at La Scala. You can see penciled letters on the keys where his father drew the notes. My wife described it to me, as I’m blind. And so there was the artifact with its original tenderness, and then my wife’s description, and I knew it was the same tenderness.

**

The dog who loves you turns up in your dreams. Last night she was a woman on a train who said her name was “Evensong” (I kid you not) and she was old and dignified.

**

It is almost certain the first makers of papyrus chewed the reeds and sometimes swallowed a mouthful in the process.

Slippery Slope Note

Thinking about America’s idiomatic “slippery slope” while walking on a slippery slope, thinking how the Cossacks exploited this by chasing innocent women and children downhill, and the slave owners, the storm troopers how they’ve always used the landscape to their advantage. Thinking and walking in a dark time. Apple Music can’t drive this out. Happy tunes can’t beat the cossacks.

**

Of arrows I prefer the invisible—I’ve a dozen in my torso, ten or more in my face—blind children carry them far into adulthood, no visible markings.

Mornings I roll a wheel
Also unseeable
East to West
North to South
In the privacy
Of my room

**

Eyes so wild he can’t flirt. But what if flirting is boring?

**

Now and then I have to whisper to myself as if the train station is a library.

**

Dear Mother, Or the History of the British Empire:

“Again I have failed. This time in the Punjab. Please send train tickets and a tin of biscuits with the Queen’s face on the lid.”

**

Oh the slippery slope. American version. The old joke: Why do they call the US a “melting pot?” Because the the rich bubble to the surface while the people at the bottom get burned.

Walking. Ice under foot.

Oldest Lingo

I am silent in the learned languages and speak under my breath
In the ones I’m still learning. How do I call you?
So much lost hope singing these pop tunes.

**

Old enough to see the forest isn’t a church.
There are however dropped hymnals which we call mushrooms.
Sometimes lake-blue through trees…

**

Two catbirds call in rain
Cup of coffee in hand
Dog pleased with himself
& books on a table
With accumulated
Natterings—Kierkegaard
Especially, all that desire
For a God
Of the mind
I think
There was no God
In his Danish shoes
No God
In the silver birches
& when he lit a fire
It was simply a fire
So much pressure
On the written word
Like a child’s game—
You know
The one where
Walking
Your footfalls must be perfect
Or someone dies

**

I’m an irreverent fellow. But I can’t laugh at the unbidden, constant sadnesses of happenstance people. This morning however It’s a Mardis Gras moment. I feel like throwing beads like the firemen in New Orleans. 

Heart flying but still attached
One makes up stories
With many animals
I find coins
In the grass—
Nunc dimittis
This blindness of mine
King of eyelashes

**

One night I talked with birches
Saying: “I’m not oppressed!”

There was an evening wind, branches rustled,
It seemed they answered me:
“We are incomplete also…”

**

I’m too childish for grief
As a boy I was
Harmed

So I’m a creature of the amygdala—
A a plough-man of sorts
With agoraphobia

I mean grief
Is for adults their losses
Stack neatly like sour cans

In fear daily I cry
Drop to my knees seeing
A dog’s pink mouth

Dangerous as A Sliver of the Moon

I come from several provincial cultures. I’m the small town kid, the blind kid, the one who spent time alone; who went to a rural high school; a tier two college. I belong to the provincially privileged as I see it now, able to think in the sunbeams and motes. I love artists from outlier places: Toni Morrison; William Faulkner; Jackson Pollock; Langston Hughes; Ella Fitzgerald; James Wright; D.H.Lawrence–the list is nearly endless.

Just so I’ve always admired this poem by James Wright:

“Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio”

In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.

All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.

Therefore,
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.

**

Certainly the poem is dated. It was written sometime around 1960. Martins Ferry, Ohio was then and still remains a deeply sectoral and impoverished place. (In fact, now that the coal and steel plants are gone, it is arguably worse.) Yet for all that, despite its dated racist language and its decidedly un-feminist depiction of housewives–what? We see alcoholism, despair, wantonness, the strippling boys, children of drunks growing suicidally beautiful and playing a violent sport that is really no sport at all.

I admire the poem for its keen edges; its refusal to play the American game of small town sentimentality–football is rendered here as terror.

I was in mind of it when watching the Trump mob storm the US Capitol last week. The Jugalos, Boogaloos, the Q-Anons are the provincial suicidal gallopers, desperate boys and their girls with digital devices on their wrists.

Didn’t it look like a football tailgate party for the fathers ashamed to go home?

Cheap little rhymes
A cheap little tune
Are sometimes as dangerous
As a sliver of the moon.

― Langston Hughes

Il Penseroso

Day is breaking and the moon has run away.
There’s a moon in my wrist a moon in my eye.

I wish I could call you but its time to pray.
Upriver everyone gets his say.

I’ve a moon in my wrist and eye.
I’m drawing with chalk a sun with rays.

Day is breaking and the moon has run away.
See how small the houses are today?

I wish I could call you but its time to pray.
Upriver everyone gets his say.

They’re loosening the nails down by the quay.
Day is breaking and the moon has run away.

And bring all Heav’n before mine eyes.
And may at last my weary age

Find out the peaceful hermitage,
Day is breaking…

Targeted Goodness in the Midst of a Shit Show

As a disability rights activist I’m troubled by the video of a policeman assisting a woman with a cane in the middle of last Wednesday’s mob attack on the US Capitol. Like so many iconic news images it produces multiple dizzying meanings. I can’t get the video out of my mind.

Two years ago Capitol Police were dreadfully efficient removing disabled protestors from the premises, zip tying them in their wheelchairs and trundling them out because they were peacefully protesting cuts to health care. Contrast a cop helping an elderly woman flee a seditious riot and you’ve got good old fashioned cognitive dissonance. But you don’t have to be a scholar of dignity studies to understand the very function of a mob is to sow absolute dissonance.

In the middle of an attack on American democracy there was a Boy Scout assisting an old lady as if nothing else was happening.

I’m not an investigative reporter. I don’t know the story behind this. I’ve no idea who the officer and the woman are. Perhaps the woman reminded the cop of his own mother; maybe she begged him for help saying “I have no idea how I got here.” (You know, playing the white privilege dementia card?)

Perhaps she said she needed a port a-potty? Maybe the cop just turned her around and started walking her down the stairs without asking her anything. I’ve been grabbed by strangers while walking blind. Was it as simple as that? The video suggests otherwise. They appear to be communicating. He seems to be reassuring her as he gently guides her.

So many signifiers, so little time! Perhaps he thought “she’s an old lady, therefore, she has to be innocent of hatred.” Maybe he thought “this is going to explode our of control in a few minutes, so like the Titanic, I’ll save the women and children first?” Maybe he was escorting her to safety and then he was going to flee the scene. Maybe he was just a good man in a bad moment, his goodness inspired by white sentimentality which overcame his sense of duty to defend the “people’s house.”

That cop was performing targeted goodness in the middle of a shit show. His empathy for an infirm protestor affects to affirm human dignity while all around him fascists and racists are attacking the institutions of liberty designed to guarantee dignity for all.

The thing I know for sure is that dignity for all was not on the menu.

Human meaning is in part created by the quality of our relationships. Democracy is designed to make it possible for everyone to have equal opportunity. Behind Trump’s mob is the assertion that only some should have human meaning. And so the video of tenderness is as ironic as Charles Foster Kane’s hall of mirrors.

Things I’ve learned this week…

Things I’ve learned this week…

  1. Human beings evolved hands in order to work with wood.
  2. James Atlas’ biography of Delmore Schwartz is tedious.

Time out.

Now I’m back.

Puccini loved duck hunting. The great tenor Enrico Caruso once joked that Puccini had eaten all the ducks in Italy.

  1. Speculation: football (American) is bad for the human neck. Therefore, according to the intelligent design crowd, football is ungodly.
  2. Speculation: I think god prefers basketball.

More things I’ve learned this week…

  1. If you punch Michelangelo in the nose you’re gonna get run out of town.
  2. It is a fact: there aren’t many ducks left in Italy.

Toward Economies of Living Questions, a Disability Perspective

If you’re a college professor and you want to get the attention of your students, especially on the first day of class, ask them to define a chair. (It doesn’t matter what the class is about, this works whether the subject is physics or post-modernism in literature.)

As philosophers will tell you, almost everything you say about “chair-ness” can be refuted. “It’s a piece of furniture for sitting.” So is a stool and a stool is not a chair. “It has a back.” So does a car seat and it’s not a chair.

The point is that good teaching requires contrarianism whether we’re talking about science or art. What’s wrong with what we’ve proposed? In the end we may conclude nothing is wrong but we will have engaged in rigorous thinking.

If all you want is confirmation bias—to imagine the world is precisely as you believe it to be, then a university education isn’t for you.

Trouble lies this way: professors who only know how to critique things may be themselves insufficiently contrarian, even as they think themselves, well, contrarian.

A few years back I heard an undergraduate announce that capitalism creates disability. It’s a compelling argument since the advent of the industrial revolution did in fact lead to the devaluation of disabled people. Unfit for life in the factories they were taken out of circulation if you will, assigned to asylums. Though this narrative is simplistic it’s not without merit.

No one taught this student to define a chair. Capitalism also produces amazing technologies that allow the disabled to thrive. (I’m blind and writing on a talking Mac computer.)

Capitalism has been horrible for all of us who hail from historically marginalized positions. In fact the marginalization is what makes colonialism and all forms of exploitation possible.

But defining a chair, one must ask, what about moral capitalism? Is capitalism static or does it evolve? If the latter is true then what’s your investment, your attraction, to believing that an economic system creates disability? As the writer Gore Vidal once said, politics is knowing who’s paying for your lunch. Who was the professor who taught the student in question that capitalism is the manufacturer of cripples?

What questions should we ask? I’m an admirer of Sarah Ahmed’s book “Living a Feminist Life” and here’s something I like:

“To live a feminist life is to make everything into something that is questionable. The question of how to live a feminist life is alive as a question as well as being a life question.”

What’s a chair? What’s a good life? What’s a moral life?

Questions are crucial. But here’s a question for disability culture: what can we make? It’s not easy to answer but the moral universe demands we ask it.

Back to the chair and what it is. The disabled remain unemployed in staggering numbers even as the technology which should allow them to work with dignity is now widely available.

New economies need to embrace living questions.