Leaving Jacques Lacan

One has questions of course. It starts when you’re just old enough to despise Jacques Lacan. Blind kid, I was—“we don’t need no stinking mirrors…” And forget audio identification, no one born human in the last 30,000 years has imagined s(h)e’s a bird, even in infancy, for even a babe knows they’re too beautiful to be emulated though we try, lord knows, and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest our very language comes from our attempts to mimic birdsong and I’ve no problem with this, in fact I like the idea and favor it. But I was never nor have I ever been disposed to the Lacanian fix of proto-ego formation wherein one’s troubled by all that is and isn’t me. How do I know this? Because I didn’t look in a mirror in gloomy or ecstatic revery as a child. I had a toy monkey instead. And I talked to that monkey. And I said things like:

“Monkey, do you like ice cream cones?”

“Monkey, how do you do?”

You see? I was already beyond the mirror period. And Lacan goes on and on as if he’s speaking for all children in all eras, the mistake of Freud and his followers. Some of us are just wilderness children. It helps to have been impaired where the eyes were concerned, but you don’t have to be a blind child to abjure or skip or kick the can of the “mirror stage” and I’ve been thinking about this rather much for I have a rag bag piñata kind of sensibility—there’s all kinds of starstuff and goo gaws and goo gabs inside me (yes, Whitman, as well as you too…) and even as a wee bairn I never met a looking glass I gave a diddly damn about. I didn’t think I was the monkey. Didn’t think he felt the way I did. How old was I you ask? Three. I was three. We lived near the harbor in Helsinki. I wasn’t overly concerned about the self.

Lacan would say I just don’t remember. He would have to say that for his idea about human development and the elaboration of psychological determination rests on the infantile mirror. I see myself. I see that which is not me. I will be clobbered into language.

Silly. Last gasp of enlightenment. If there’s anything about trans humanism I like it’s this: your head is connected below the cellular level to the pine tree. And as Basho said: “The pine tree! Another thing that will never be my friend!”

One has questions of course. Why should I be friends with Lacan?

Longer Poems, Mrs. Equitone, Please…

Manon Lescaut. Nice. Great aria for the tenor straight off. Love those kinds of operas where the male lead has to sing his lungs out in the first twenty minutes. Aida is the same. Many a tenor has fallen in the opening acts. Which puts me in mind of poetry, how this isn’t a problem for poets. When you fail you do so privately. The man from Porlock comes to the door and Kubla Khan is never finished and maybe a handful of your moist and ironical friends think this is amusing—they tell you to publish it “as is” because why not? Can you imagine Jussi Bjorling singing a third of an aria then stopping, saying: “Well that’s damn good, you know?” No you can’t imagine this. There’s an expectation, a contract, whether it’s opera or a string quartet. You’re going to get the whole enchilada. There’s no man from Porlock in Puccini! Unless of course you want to argue for tuberculosis. You can always kill off your heroine with bacilli. But at least it’s part of the plot and all the cash paying customers know it.

When I was a student at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop Donald Justice, esteemed poet-teacher threw a literary magazine in the trash in front of a room full of aspiring poets saying: “This is the latest issue of Seneca Review devoted to the “long poem”—I hate long poems…” Imagine Jussi Bjorling singing a third of an aria. Think of Eliot stopping the “Wasteland” on page one. It 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.

It doesn’t matter if you know Eliot’s canonical poem. Let’s say the poem ends here. One must be so careful these days. Perfect. It’s all about your subjective horoscope. Personal pan pizza. Lyric me-self. 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 the survivors are collectively afflicted by PTSD 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…”

Even short poems must give you the opera entire.

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

I had a dream last night. I was in a great hotel. With people I’d never met in my waking life. We were eating while floating in a fountain. Little cakes.

When I woke I understood it was a long long dream, a ribbon of psyche’s sparks, and I’ll never get to the end of it. Even when I return to the stars.

I want page two of that dream.

I want Jussi Bjorling at the victory celebration after I’ve figured it out.

And just now I realize “Dear Mrs. Equitone” sounds like a brand name for Victrolas.

Damn modernity with its neologisms and shrinking spirits.


UFO Abduction Department

Terry Eagleton, Marxist critic and spry raconteur once wrote the United Nations should pass a resolution calling on space aliens to abduct a more representative swath of humankind than just the Americans. Reading this caused me to remember a time in the mid 1980’s when my sister, four years younger than I, took up the subject of aliens and human experimentation with earnestness and true belief. We had one of those convos you really can’t believe is happening and I experienced the Kubler-Ross stages—denial, bargaining, et. al. for she believed it was only a matter of time before she would be lifted from the planet and medicated aboard a space ship.

I spent the weeks following trying to figure out what was going on—my sister was a smart woman. What was she afraid of? One knows the readers of Bram Stoker’s Dracula feared barbarians from the caucuses and the middle east. Maybe my sister and others like her were afraid of globalization? Chernobyl had just happened. Or her vision was less a nightmare and more a wish? The UFO as impending nursing home? Jung speculated in the late 1950’s that flying saucers represent the psyche’s wish for wholeness. For Jung they were flying mandalas, spiritual signs. We all need mythologies.

But Jung didn’t foresee the Dr. Mengele aspect of alien fantasy. This was harder to get at. “Occam’s Razor,” I thought. My sister and I grew up in a very dysfunctional house—our mother was a violent alcoholic. Abduction by sinister aliens was, of course, a sinister fantasy about returning home where ugly mama had knives. A far better analysis than Jung’s I thought. Moreover the prevalence of broken and vicious family histories in the US helps to explain the collective nature of the fantasy. It also explains our fixation with fundamentalist churches. “I once was lost, but now I’m found…”

Yes America is essentially a nation of hyper-vigilant orphans. HVO’s explain the UFO’s. I’m glad to have cleared this up for myself. I feel better. “Help,” as Kurt Vonnegut said, “is not on the way…”



The More Loving One

You can’t decide to be more loving. That’s like imagining you’ll prevail over time itself.  But you can decide to love the voyage and make this choice even though your mother was violent; though you were harmed as you played in the grass; though depression still gets the best of you.

I went on an excursion to the corner store. I walked the whole way with my eyes closed, my tired eyes. My guide dog conducted the route. I traveled. Loving as I went. How dear are the minutes. How dear are we. When we get home, I thought, I’ll tell my family all about it.

When I get home I don’t say anything. The kids are arguing about television. It’s starting to rain. How can my little spindrift joy excursion gone so trippingly along crooked streets only to end up at an uninspiring corner store be interesting? My privacies like rubies in the dirt; the dearness of tiny mythic journeys down customary sidewalks. Well, I tell myself, I’ll keep silent for now, though I’ve just surpassed Magellan and have sailed completely around the world with a yellow dog.


I walk straight out of my febrile noggin. Other times I walk in there—depends on the route, the morning, what’s happening in my wrist bone; thoughts, fast as water striding insects, twenty thoughts per footfall, god, blood, a bell—small as a fingertip—ringing in mind; walking without destination…

More loving, decide it’s a place, a universal neighborhood, have good shoes…


Do You Like Your College Students? Really?

I entered a college classroom as an instructor for the first time in August, 1983. I was 28 years old, legally blind, with extremely long hair and an unkempt beard. I was in love with poetry and fresh off a Fulbright in Scandinavia where I translated Finnish poems into half-baked English and in the process, tried desperately to avoid slipping down the throat of my own increasingly consumerist and reactionary country. I was arriving in an undergraduate class in the first full blush of Reaganism. The students were unaccountably different from my college peers, and really almost a different species. I was Java Man and they were Mall Children and that’s just the way it was and I saw very quickly I’d have to get used to it. Somehow I understood they weren’t going to be like me and moreover it wasn’t my job to make them over in my image. I was lucky to have recognized this. Not every graduate student instructor of “Intro to Lit” got it and yet I did.

Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I liked them. They were mostly Iowa kids and some were from the Chicago suburbs. We were at the University of Iowa which in those days had very few foreign students and almost none from historically marginalized backgrounds—the campus was packed with third generation Czechs and Swedes. They were in college because their families wanted them there and they were lost both intellectually and spiritually as they wandered the big state U. They weren’t about to protest US involvement in Central America or organize against apartheid. What I liked about them—and this will sound rotten—was their earnestness mixed with a non-phlegmatic naïveté I’d never seen before.

Back east where I’d attended college there was invariably a ground swell of contrarianism among students—even if it was Sears Roebuck-ish, wearing sandals because everyone else did, or playing the stereo loudly, as if annoyance might be politics enough. If my classmates were each a kind of enfant naïf at least they imagined themselves to be worse and posing is, at the very least a step on life’s road and false steps are action. There were always students who’d climb on the roof of a dormitory and play flutes and guitars. Everyone hated Nixon and in my freshman year a popular graffito was: “If you voted for Nixon in ’72 you can’t shit here because your asshole’s in Washington.” If many of us were false, we were edgy, and I liked it.

Until I didn’t. Which is to say I was all for protesting the US incursion into Laos and Cambodia, wildly angry about Kent State—angry for the right reasons surely, and not ashamed to say so and not discomfited by my associations. I liked the Trotskyites and wave one feminists and took up fierce reading, everything from Frances Moore Lappe to Emerson, Hannah Arendt to James Baldwin. I felt good in my Army-Navy work pants and L.L. Bean moccasins. And yet…how to say it? What’s the opposite of earnestness? Insincerity and a lack of conviction pervaded the mannerisms of undergraduate life and if one had an ounce of irony one knew it. I remember a classmate who, hearing I liked to visit a local retirement community and lead sing-alongs with the residents said: “Schmaltz for the old bastards eh?” Anyone over thirty was to be distrusted. There were rules, many unspoken, but in the air nonetheless which is to say the late sixties and early seventies could be aggressively shallow. All generations are of course. The shallows weren’t new. But it gave me the fantods as Huck Finn would say. I didn’t like my introduction to privileged solipsism.

In that Iowa classroom I found myself among students so entirely a-political they seemed like people born without antibodies. I was reminded of a poem by Robert Bly in which he says: “The cry of those being eaten by America/and others, pale and soft, being stored for later eating…” (I need to look up the actual lines, but these are close…) The kids before me looked to be pre-digested. They were too sweet to live. And I caught myself then, for what in me was solipsistic? Had I grown up on a farm? Had I lived in small town Iowa? Did I know anything about living outside the Northeast? Of course the answer was no.

The question for me became one of intentionality. Perhaps some would become college professors—one hated to discount possibilities—but wasn’t this an opportunity to show them how lively, improbable, and compelling books can be? Wasn’t my job to be really, nothing more than a bookish impresario? And yes, of course, to help them be discerning when they wrote short essays about what they’d read. My job was to be interesting. And if that’s the case, well, you better like your audience. You’d best avoid thinking you’re better than they are.

This was not such an easy thing to do since my social circle was mostly made up of graduate students. Many of my acquaintances talked about the undergraduates they were teaching with a smooth contempt, which reminded me of “schmaltz for the old bastards”—a privileging of disdain built from nothing more than unfamiliarity and a generalized suspicion of goodness.

Books are good but only if you believe in readers. Fledgling academics parsed and limited who their student readers ought to be, how they should absorb literary consciousness, and worst of all, how they were permitted to write about it. My graduate school years coincided with the first big push to professionalize the study of English, the first big wave of literary theory (mostly French) and the first turn toward what scholars hoped would be a scientific approach toward language and culture. Our students were to be modified. Every pedagogue was a theorist. There was a lot of post-structural typhoid going around. Nowadays it’s typhoid squared and while many debate whether trigger warnings are proper in classrooms, I’ll argue the biggest threat to students is the unvarying adoption of a proleptic critical apparatus which makes the reading and discussion of literature largely unappealing to a broad range of students—students who are generalists, business majors, psych majors, math majors—who in the old days would read some Dreiser or Dickinson or Dos Passos, admire the books, and appreciate the opportunity to think about what they were reading—all without the pressure to be improved. And here I should say I’m an affectionado of Frederic Jameson; Julia Kristeva; Judith Butler—I believe reading our culture and knowing how language reflects, resists, or fails to resist dominant and unexamined sign systems is crucial to becoming a sharp and resilient thinker. I do. But I don’t think it should be your first pony.

If, as seems the case, the humanities are in trouble, it’s in no small part because of the febrile insistence from “the departments” that students be molded, inculcated directly, and forced to adopt a critical position “over” the reading of books for something akin to pleasure—such a term is nefarious within academe, tantamount to saying “apolitical” meaning the instructor is a quisling if she or he or they refuse to frame every class discussion around oppression. (Here is where I have to laugh: I’m all for oppression! I’m disabled for god’s sake! I’m reified and atomized into abjections galore and trust me I’m not shy when talking about it or teaching it.)

Nor do I think one has to abandon examinations of ableism, racism, homo-phobia, or a solid discussion of misogyny while teaching—one shouldn’t. But damn! Give students a few first ponies. English departments should be teaching Shakespeare for business students; poetry for scientists; Toni Morrison for pre-med students. Let the rich ethical and imaginative properties of great literature inspire students rather than, as we currently do, imagine the role of arts and sciences courses is to immediately create new baby professors.

Back to my Iowans. They liked Kurt Vonnegut; didn’t like Cervantes; enjoyed Jonathan Swift; mostly abjured Tristram Shandy. They understood injustice, but liked a little entertainment. And me? I threw away the required book on critical approaches to lit. I had them write book reports as though they were sharing their thoughts with their grandmothers.





Have Me, You Birds

When I hear Donizetti’s Requiem I’m the only man in Syracuse. Ridiculous!

In Memoria Aeterna. Honey and wormwood in my veins. How foolish!

Old syphilitic Gaetano! Sugared cruelty of flesh!

He makes me want to pray on my knees in the weeds behind my shabby house!

What else? Judex Ergo. The tenor breaks your heart.


If you’re a facts based sort, the tenor is Pavarotti.

Donizetti did have syphilis and he caused his young wife’s death from same.

Judex ergo—when he comes to arraign you…

I think, sometimes—how else—that as we’re dying—the tenor breaks our hearts…

You’re in the weeds behind your shabby house…


Candy and coconuts are facts. I love facts. Once I sat in Sibelius’ arm chair, a big tall wooden contraption which wasn’t very comfortable, and I realized that pine boughs were tapping at the windows. His metronome.


In 1961 my mother built a bomb shelter in the cellar of our house and filled it with canned goods and jars of water. One afternoon I went in there after being abused by a neighbor kid who flat out hated me because the world gave him permission—who after all wanted a disabled child next door? And so it was the bomb shelter for me. I lay on cool cement and whispered stories to no one. That’s how storying unfolded, talking in the dark, breathing the odor of Army blankets. Who loves you, who doesn’t, where’s a lucky window, how high the sun, my lips moving. To this day I talk to myself. My wife sees me, says, “what are you saying?” I shrug. How can I say? I’m reciting fragments the way some boys skip pebbles. It might be someone else’s words. Maybe Ezra Pound: “And the days are not full enough/And the nights are not full enough/And life slips by like a field mouse/Not shaking the grass”… Or sometimes it’s just me: “Trace the veins of a barberry leaf, that’s Braille enough…” Talking in sidelong darknesses of broken manners, when the day is insufficient, the minutes not feeding me… Up river go the words, the lonely words. Oh anything will do.


Have me you birds. Sit for a time in the Agora thinking of Aristotle’s wrists. I believe he looked at them before he spoke. My favorite bird is the Phoebe. I like Miss Dickinson. I’m fond of the late Finnish poet Pentti Saarikoski. He imagined snakes cleaning his ears. Some poets love the snake properly. I like to spread my ten fingers across my face. “Not only is the Universe stranger than we think, it is stranger than we can think.” (Werner Heisenberg) Don’t give up. Keep moving. Even in a small dark room.

Old Friends, Early Occasions, and Blue Mountain Center


Photo: Left, David Morris, co-founder of The Institute for Local Self Reliance; Stephen Kuusisto, poet. Blue Mountain Center in background.

I’m reminded many days (though never enough days, never enough) how lucky I am as along the road I’ve been graced with friendships that have turned me. I mean the agricultural metaphor and know precisely why I’m using it, for when I was 33 years old (28 years ago) I was essentially “Top Soil Man” (as opposed to “Java Man”) and that was when I first met David Morris and his wife Harriet Barlow at the Blue Mountain Center in the Adirondacks of New York. Harriet founded BMC, a progressive retreat for activist artists and scholars, and as a comparatively young laddie I found in her company (and a broad company it was and remains) a community of social planters. Me? I was just an MFA grad trying to keep writing—a noble enough pursuit in these United States, maybe, but in my case conducted largely without commitment to sewing (again with the agronomy) and worse, perhaps, (employing one of Kropotkin’s favorite metaphors, of “broadcast”—flinging your seeds as far as you can) I wasn’t much of a thrower.

(Kropotkin in his Anarchist Morality: “Be strong. Overflow with emotional and intellectual energy, and you will spread your intelligence, your love, your energy of action broadcast among others! This is what all moral teaching comes to.”)

I hadn’t had much moral teaching—not at the University of Iowa’s “Writer’s Workshop” nor at my undergraduate college. I knew the bad men in Dreiser and saw plenty of Babbits in America and fully recognized the nation’s soul was Ahab-ish and with Reagan’s encouragement there were  tons of Elmer Gantrys to go around. A foundation in literature can hardly proceed without ethical animadversions, all that praise or blame in classroom discussions, but what I didn’t know was how to inhabit a public square with curiosity and diligence since no professor I’d ever had had sufficiently claimed either the space or the stance. I’d say it was just my college but the workshop was equally insular. Faculty and students alike had library pallor. Certainly no one ever said be strong…spread your intelligence, broadcast among others…commitments of such magnanimity and magnitude are neighborly, impassioned, and unconcerned with payback.  

Well, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. “Je m’en vais chercher un grand peut-être.” (Rabelais) I was looking for a big “maybe” and maybe I’d be a writer. If I didn’t know what that meant (and I  didn’t) surely “doing” was Rabelaisian enough. I was lucky then, and it was two fold luck as one part of good fortune is it’s timing and the other is being ready. This also I didn’t fully understand. But I knew the Blue Mountain Center was beautiful. And I saw on day one on the wide stone porch of an Adirondack “great camp” (a vacation manor, built long ago for the wealthy, now a place of ideas) that poetry (by which affectedly I mean all the arts from philosophy to dousing) was being practiced as spread intelligence (again with the Kropotkin) and there was plenty of vigor to go around.

I won’t name names but there were writers at BMC working on eco-feminism; poets creating social spaces for the elderly to swap stories with the young; a journalist home stateside from a probative stint in Central America (the “Gipper’s” Central America with the assassination of Oscar Romero fresh in mind); a performance artist-filmmaker highlighting the work of Meret Oppenheim, the foundational Surrealist overlooked by the boys. The wealth of talent and action was rather astonishing—at least to me having lived a self-contained life to that point. Of self-containment one may say several things, not all of them bad. Later I’d write a book about it, a memoir, Planet of the Blind in which I noted the isolation of a disabled childhood, a story familiar to anyone who’s been an outsider, crippled or not, and in turn I argued for the attainment of a worldly life which means (you’ve guessed it) “action broadcast.”

I don’t think the term is much of an ars vivendi. Father Kropotkin was no Horace. But action is the fulfillment of imaginative possibilities and you know it when others are doing it.

It was early one morning over coffee I had my first conversation with David Morris. We talked of how it’s possible for local communities to take control of their electricity and then we were instantly talking of citizenship. I’d never had such a conversation and it was all the better for being unanticipated. There was a thing called the public good. It was energy democracy. Or better: democracy itself. Morris was funny. Progressive, with ardor, and sufficiently wry to gracefully sidestep the pedantic, David was at once generous, hopeful, and properly stubborn. Later I’d hear the term “scholarship in action” and like a Jeopardy contestant I wanted to push the buzzer and say: “Who is David Morris?”

Harriet is harder to describe, chiefly because she’s an activist impresario, though not a publicist or showman. She’s more a cultural maestro for which we have no term in English but in French might be a “salon d’accueil.” Gertrude Stein with more fancies is how I’ll put it. She’s more interested in the structural and humanitarian transformation of the public sphere than anyone I’ve ever met, though by now I’ve met many. Harriet also has zero vanity so she’ll be a wee teensy bit uncomfortable with all this. I can hear her laughing at me now.

It’s hard to say with any certainty how any of us might have turned out minus a spot of formative luck. In my experience Americans don’t like to talk about luck. Cowboys don’t need it. We’re all self-made snakeskin salesmen around these parts. One evening in the mid 1990’s when I was working for a non-profit organization that serves the blind, and owing to my having a bad headache, I lay in bed powerless to change the TV channel. Paul Newman was being interviewed by Larry King. That’s when I heard Newman say something wonderful. He said after WW II when he was a stage actor in New York, there were, as he saw it, dozens of actors and actresses who were more talented than he was. Then he described how one night, the lead actor in a play by Tennessee Williams came down ill and since he was the understudy, Paul Newman had to assume the role. I don’t remember the play. What I do recall is Newman’s declaration that his performance that evening got him some attention in the press and from that came a quick succession of opportunities and then Hollywood. And he said, essentially, I’ve never forgotten there were better people than me, who didn’t have my luck. He talked about his charitable foundation called “The Hole in the Wall Gang” and how he never forgot how capricious luck really is—how important it is to give back when you’ve been fortunate.

Like anyone else I can’t say how I might have turned out in an alternate past and I have no idea how my work would have gone without meeting David and Harriet and their salon of optimist-seed throwers and I’ll be damned if I’m going to try. The last thing I want to do (or maybe never) is be sentimental or mystical. One can go to the opera for that. But I know two things for sure: I turned to public life, and advocacy because of these friends. And in no small part, because of them I’ve kept at it.

As a final point—if you’re thinking of applying to the Blue Mountain center you should know that the food they serve is very good. It’s a great place for fresh vegetables. Which reminds me of this old joke:

A guy has celery sticking out of one ear, lettuce out of the other, and a zucchini up his nose.

He goes to the doctor and asks him what’s wrong.

The doctor tells him, “Well, for one thing, you’re not eating right.”