Persistence of Vision: Colleen Woolpert at the Felton Gallery in Syracuse

Yesterday I read some poems and prose at an installation of artist Colleen Woolpert’s works that explores blindness and imagination.  As I’ve often said (so routinely I sound like a public transportation tape loop—“do not lean against the doors; mind the gap”)  no two people who are blind experience vision loss in the same way. Indeed I’ve a favorite comparison: blind people are as essentially “unalike” as the cab drivers of New York City. Nothing about vision loss is ripe for agreement unless one considers the public’s failure to understand the subject. While generalizations are risky, it’s safe to say most able bodied citizens think blind people experience the world like Shakespeare’s Ariel, imprisoned within a tree. In my memoir Planet of the Blind I addressed this straight away in chapter one:

“Blindness is often perceived by the sighted as an either/or condition: one sees or does not see. But often a blind person experiences a series of veils: I stare at the world through smeared and broken windowpanes. Ahead of me the shapes and colors suggest the sails of Tristan’s ship or an elephant’s ear floating in air, though in reality it is a middle-aged man in a London Fog raincoat that billows behind him in the April wind. He is like the great dead Greeks in Homer’s descriptions of the underworld. In the heliographic distortions of sunlight or dusk, everyone I meet is crossing Charon’s river. People shimmer like beehives.”

Excerpt From: Stephen Kuusisto. “Planet of the Blind.” iBooks. 














In Woolpert’s excellent installation viewers can see what they do not see, even as they’re presented with the visual ironies of self-hood. The photo above is of me staring into a projected oval of light thereby making my own silhouette. Have you ever seen yourself on the moon? The blind invariably do. Has the moon made you lonely? As the poet Federico Garcia Lorca said, when we see the moon, we feel “the heart is a little island in the infinite.” In this way all are like the blind. Perhaps you knew it. But I doubt you’d have known it if you thought the blind lived trapped inside trees. Would Ariel have known the moon? She may have recalled it. But unlike the true blind she couldn’t sit before it. A blind girl knows the moon and the moon knows her. Now I’m digressing. I’d really like to see a book about the disabled and the moon. Note: when Galilleo first saw a lunar valley it appeared like a hand. What did it say in sign language? I wrote a poem about this for my deaf pal Brenda Brueggemann:

Kansas: Deaf Girl Watching the Moon

–for Brenda Brueggemann

One night there are valleys,

Say around eleven,

When the moon is wide

As a brother’s grin.

The field is black as shadow:

Soybeans sleep in loops

Of darkness,

Their leaves curled.

The valleys of the moon,

As unalike as pitted stones

Or walls or men

Or water or dreams—

Unalike as pages in a book.
When he saw them,
The valleys like hands,
Valleys like the bones of hands,
Galileo rushed into the street
Hoping for someone to tell.

He had no field.

He could not talk with his hands.”

Excerpt From: Stephen Kuusisto. “Letters to Borges.” iBooks.

Woolpert’s exhibit is called “Persistence of Vision” which is absolutely right. All the blind I know have persistent vision or visions. They are not precisely your visions. In what way is this circumstance anything other than the phenomenology of art?

Above is a wall of Brailled note cards, each bearing the first name of a blind citizen of Syracuse. Run your fingers along the wall. The field is black as shadow. The pages are as unlike as any book’s leaves. Let your mind wander. Try to imagine how liberating Braille was when it was introduced? Did you know that before the Englightenment people thought the blind couldn’t read. Diderot was the first great intellectual benefarctor of the blind.

Above, I’m reading poetry beside a projected video of a lovely blind woman’s face. What’s behind those lovely eyes? What’s behind your own?

The exhibit runs through April 14 at Onondaga Community College’s Felton Gallery. Link here.