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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 

Hints of Thumbnail Purgatory

I was happiest as a child alone in the woods, light suffused, everything quiet. Somewhere far off the town held a parade. I was alone in my green cave, darker than morning, trees donning sorrow hats as the sun faded. And the birds quiet. Hint of a coming rain.

It’s the “hints” that most interest me. Door-mouse scratch; footfalls from a distance; daydreaming on a carpet.  

A question arrives from the proverbial interested stranger: “what do you do in your cave of making now you’re a grown man?”

I make things up. Here’s a one act play featuring Aunt and uncle Benevolence. It takes place in the United States. I’m calling it Thumbnail Purgatory:

Purgatory, from purge: “an abrupt or violent removal of a group of people from an organization or place.”

Purgatory, in Roman Catholic doctrine: “a place or state of suffering inhabited by the souls of sinners who are expiating their sins before going to heaven.”

“Well that’s it,” said Aunt Benevolence, “the good times are over. It’s time to send the lame and the halt straight back to the dirty boulevard.”

Uncle Benevolence wasn’t so sure. He scratched his purple wen. “I don’t believe, my dear, that there IS a dirty boulevard anymore. It’s been replaced by a heated, closed to traffic, “promenade” with decent shopping.”

“Well,” said Auntie, “we’re going to have to send them somewhere. Once there’s no Medicaid to speak of, and no health insurance for the knock kneed elders and the scoliatics, etc..”

“Well I hear North Dakota is empty,” Uncle said. “It’s mostly empty, anyway.”

“How will we get them there on the cheap?”

“Everyone knows boxcars are cheap.”

They sat for a time side by side in silence.

“It was easier on the old days to just take care of people,” Auntie said after a little while.

“Yes,” said Uncle, “but they’ve gone Pagan now. You know, Horace and shit. The best days are the first to go.”

“When did they forget Jesus?” Auntie asked.

“In America?” Uncle asked.

“Yeah,” Auntie said, “you know, Christian’s bundle, noblesse oblige, shit, even just a minimal sense of national regard for appearances…”

“It was never a Christian nation,” Uncle said. “And the Devil loves a vacuum.”

Blindness, an Abandoned Stove and Crickets

Blindness, an Abandoned Stove and Crickets

I knew, listening with everything I had that crickets would materialize within me. They were my first talking books. My first Caruso. Later I’d discover Lorca, his line: the little boy went looking for his voice/the king of the crickets had it…

Yes. The cricket king. A little boy with his thick spectacles. The proscenium arch of the old stove among birches.

The Yearning

I went to New York City owing to either a yearning or an itch. Perhaps they’re the same though the former sounds like Romantic poetry and the latter doesn’t. In any event I wanted to go somewhere with my guide dog Caitlyn. In my guide dog using life I’ve been a vigorous walker in cities around the world. It felt like time to get back into the world after a year and a half at home.

There’s a song by Lou Reed which has the refrain: “it takes a bus load of faith to get by.” I’ve always liked Lou’s employment of “faith” which he offers with irony to be sure. A bus load of faith is a crowd’s worth of faith—we’ll get where we need to go without mishap and we’ll manage it because we all have the proper thoughts. That bus stays on the road with our collective magic. Faith is hard work.

I think this is why I like to take off and go places by myself. Or with just my dog for company. I feel the skin of my faith grow tighter. I step into the unfamiliar, alert to the mysteries of being alive and the sheer improbability of having a consciousness. I walk down Fifth Avenue and feel how provisionally alive I am and how lucky. And I often don’t know precisely where I’m going.

Walking around New York I thought of John Donne. It’s a hard life. Call faith what you will. Advance the flight.

My tender age in sorrow did beginne
      And still with sicknesses and shame.
            Thou didst so punish sinne,
                  That I became
                        Most thinne.
                        With thee
                  Let me combine,
            And feel thy victorie:
         For, if I imp my wing on thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.

Dog and Man Return to the City

I decided to come to New York City after 16 months of COVID isolation. I live in Syracuse, New York five hours west by train. I needed a “return to the world” guide dog journey. My current guide is a yellow Labrador named Caitlyn and she too has been stuck at home. We came here: a solo team testing the waters.

It’s hard to relate the precise feelings that lead to my decision but I felt if I didn’t do this I’d never get out of my house. Then there was my concern about Caitlyn’s skills. Would she be rusty after only taking meager walks around my suburban neighborhood for 16 months? Would I be inattentive and therefore not a good guide dog handler? Frankly it seemed safer to stay home.

So I made myself buy a train ticket and then, just to make the city visit a bit more challenging, I bought a reserved seat to see the New York Mets play baseball at their home stadium in Queens. I’d have to take the subway from 42nd Street to Willets Point.

Pre-pandemic I was routinely out and about and these things would be second nature to me. Now they felt daunting and even somewhat frightening. The pull of my couch was fierce.

I was betting the pull of my guide dog would be better than the couch.

**

Checklist so far:

Amtrak: excellent.
Guide dog: relaxed.
Man: drank coffee and read.

Arrival at Moynihan Train Hall: no one to advise me where to go. Wandered about with dog and suitcase. Found myself on the corner of 33rd Street and 8th Avenue. No taxis. Called for an Uber. I was on the wrong side of the building for Uber. The driver drove several blocks out of his way to find me. Score one for human kindness. I felt proud of “us” man and dog. The Madison Square Garden-Penn Station neighborhood is the opposite of my couch. Jackhammers; blaring horns; migraine sunlight; throngs pushing; people colliding like lobsters in a trap. Fabulous! New York! And there we were!

**

The hotel is on East 47th Street and Third Avenue. The room is small and it’s filled with pointy objects. Hilton calls is a “boutique” hotel. It’s a well dressed formerly shabby joint and not much really but heck, the check in peeps were really friendly and they told me something I needed to know: you don’t need a Metrocard to ride the subways anymore! You just point at the turnstile with your iPhone and voila! (Yes. It works.) Soon New York will be as advanced as Helsinki!

**

Caitlyn remembers everything. She stops on a dime at every curb. She looks and guides with precision. On the 7 train to the Bronx she curled up under the seat. (One always worries about what’s under those seats.) Post-Covid the subway smells better.

At the Mets stadium, Citi-Field we had a few kerfuffles. Before you enter the ballpark you’re greeted by a team of frontline handlers who as far as I understand it are the folks who make sure you’ve got your COVID vaccination card and a ticket. The woman who met me said I couldn’ come in with my guide dog. Then she got into a minor argument with another guy who said it wasn’t a problem. Then a Mets ticket taker came up and wanted to know if it was a “real” guide dog. It was kind of shitty. But of course that’s what being back in the world is partly about: being treated like shit if you’re disabled. So I just said, c’mon man, you’re the Mets, act like you’re major league.

Once inside the stadium they couldn’t have been more helpful and kind.

**

So we’d made it to the park. We were in ADA seating behind third base. We were actually doing the big world thing. And there was a crowd and they were happy and people did the “wave” and there was lots of cheering and I had a hotdog and I gave Caitlyn some kibble from my pocket and I shared my bottled water with her and we didn’t care if “we ever get back” as the song goes. If you haven’t been to the Mets ballpark you should go. It’s beautiful.

**

The train back to Manhattan was a snap.
Went to a restaurant adjacent to my hotel and the waiter didn’t want to let us in because he’d apparently never seen a guide dog in his life. The owner appeared and let us in and was solicitous. Yep. Disabled and back in the world.

**

With any luck going home tomorrow will be easy. I’m a little concerned about finding my train.
The usual blind person traveling alone predicament. I remind myself I know the drill. And my dog does too.

On Being Furniture

Once at a poetry reading where I was seated in the front row a woman jumped over my guide dog who was lying obediently at my feet. She didn’t ask if this was OK. When I objected she said the man next to me had signaled to her this was fine. Dissed twice. You should never jump over a guide dog. It’s disrespectful to the dog and her handler. Ableism has many facets but one of them is the assumption the disabled don’t need to be communicated with; that we’re furniture of a kind.

**

Not long ago at a famous arts colony I heard a notable writer say that henceforth the famous arts colony would no longer be blind and poor when it comes to appreciating outlier forms of art. He said it twice during a formal speech.

And there I was with my guide dog. I’ve spent the last thirty years writing six books which argue that blindness is a rich way of knowing.

I was insulted and remain so. Yet this is business as usual.
I share with my black and LGBTQT brothers and sisters and androgynes and all my foreign friends a capacity to make narrow people nervous.

**

Yes, I’m a scary armoire, a big totemic Victorian freestanding closet, something from the 1963 film “The Haunting” and just now starting to be ok with it.

A Good LIfe: Thinking of Yeats

So they ask you to think about first place, that is, the first influence of locale on your life. If you’ve a gift for early memories you may find sorrow in the exercise. Yeats remembered it this way:

“I am sitting on the ground looking at a mastless toy boat with the paint rubbed and scratched, and I say to myself in great melancholy, ‘It is further away than it used to be’, and while I am saying it I am looking at a long scratch in the stern, for it is especially the scratch which is further away. Then one day at dinner my great-uncle, William Middleton, says, ‘We should not make light of the troubles of children. They are worse than ours, because we can see the end of our trouble and they can never see any end’, and I feel grateful, for I know that I am very unhappy and have often said to myself, ‘When you grow up, never talk as grown-up people do of the happiness of childhood’.”

There are three kinds of sorrows in this passage: already the boy sees the toy is eluding his grasp; the damaged toy is eluding him; The uncle says the sorrows are commensurate with youth itself—which will mean a great deal (an agon) for the imagination—the child’s and the man’s.

What to do about this?

Deep in the night and half awake I hear apple branches sway in a light breeze. What a good life. I think of William Shakespeare toasting his actors in the Anchor pub where I too have toasted others. What a good life. I get up early and walk in a gentle rain. Laugh. Thinking of Hegel. “Only one man ever understood me, and he didn’t understand me.” A good life. And how good my shoes feel. Hegel: “History is not the soil in which happiness grows. The periods of happiness in it are the blank pages of history.” A good life. Cold water in a coffee cup.

Of course Hegel thought you could write history. Yeats understands its already slipped away.

I’m one of the only readers I know who thinks of Yeats as a pragmatist.

A small poem from one of my notebooks:

Orphan

Morning. The maples heavy with rain—
And before life has begun one thinks,
How a human mind starts up
Cold, still dark.

I wonder
Who taught me
About life after life?

A Grass Roots Question

Some days social media feels like the playgrounds of youth. I used to get beat up out there. Sometimes the abuse was merely verbal.

**

I was a disabled kid in a “normal” public school long before the ADA. I knew about “trolling” before it had a name. Facebook and Twitter offer bullies playgrounds where they can name call anyone because the adults are smoking Lucky Strikes behind the bleachers.

**

Happy the man or woman or trans person or non-binary or cripple or queer person who sees the playground for what it is: a mausoleum with toys.

**

It’s easy but dangerous to confuse social facts with social ideas. Disability for instance is a societal arrangement driven by medicine. When physically arrested humans can’t be cured they become an idea—one might say an idee fix.

**

I’m asked all the time if there’s a better term for disability and my response is to say the disabled should be called “citizens” for this marks the problem with the confusion named above.

**

All physical differences are merely notional. Turn this on its head (so to speak) and you discover the steepness of disability is no more credible than other notorious social ideas—childhood comes to mind—before the Enlightenment children were nonexistent.

**

One is forced to ask why there’s so little imagination going around—the idee fix is one great big muscle of confusion. Part of the problem is that in much of the world childhood is believed to be a matter of prospect. The child is a unit of probable production and so probability enters the idee fix—disability is presumed to be devoid of growth. its chilling when you see it.

What can we do about the broad confusion of disability and insignificance? This is a grass roots question.

Thinking of James Tate’s Last Poems

Like Christmas carols at a funeral, so much cheer
And your father in the open casket singing along

Because the next stop is a holly jolly hole in the earth–
“Just what I’ve always wanted, you shouldn’t have!”

Burl Ives cranked up so loud it scares neighboring cattle
But still the-about-to-be-dead love it why its just TV.

They know Heaven is the original dull composition
Hardly more interesting than Gregorian chant.

Cacophony of child like pluckings!
Hand out the banjos! Throw off your shoes!

Who knows “Big Rock Candy Mountain”?
This dying idio-rhythmic heart is stormy green.

Lullaby of Birdland

Notebook: Lullaby of Birdland

Nothing new can be said about grief
Best to converse with walls
In a low gibberish

Then up and put Erroll Garner on hi-fi
Scratchy old record
Excellent staircase

Piano cold drink

**

Automatic writing
What you do at home is who you are abroad

Summer was short
We retraced our steps
Beside sweet grass
A black river took it away
We stopped walking
Prayed for the trees still green

–Niilo Rauhala, translated from the Finnish by SK

Immanence and impermanence–my brothers. I think hard about you. Two crickets outside my window. Water falls on my wrist bone; I’ve life inside a life.

Sometimes I talk to myself.
Other times I say nothing,
Drink tea from a glass,
Move books from one table to another.

**

Poor poet, has to write, trees turning green
Leaves like yellow smoke
Nostalgia in the very eyes
Doesn’t matter, he or she poet
Wistful dizzy wants to wrap the old arms
Around a certain oak
My friend, I’ll be back…

**

I kid you not, I kid you not…

**

After reading Wallace Stevens
Its time for a palette cleanser…

**

The ardent period of life
Just now.

**

Dear mother, if I could conjure you
I’d take you fishing again
Sink the rowboat again
Sit in the shallows with you again
Laughing as perch we’d caught
Swam away….

**

A game I play picturing business men
As birds—whippoorwills, grackles,
Magpies eating everything…

**

An old shell am I, O Lady of Zephyrium…

The Professors

The Professors

Triflers beware! The professors are here:
Punctilious, mindful, on the move,

They’ll flush you out, invest your reveries,
Or close your brown studies. It’s you they’ve watched

Woolgathering, or nonchalant, improvident- tant pis!
Micawbers, slackers, skimmers, here’s your match,

The professors have arrived: the robed Savonarolas!
Leap in the dark, grope or guess, send up a trial balloon,

Rummage, ransack, winnow or appraise–
Inquisitors will grill you: mooncalf, booby, lout, buffoon.

It’s time for gumption, prudence, brains and mother wit:
A bluestocking’s wrangle, a sine qua non;

Alas, poor duffers, bookless, smattering, you invent
A limerick, an Irish muddle, clearly heretic.

O the professors are here: praise Mentor!
They swoop through the long schoolroom,

Vertiginous, oracular, confirmatory, O rodomontade!