Today is pub day for my new memoir Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey. The book is a love poem in prose to my dear friend Corky, a yellow Labrador who changed my life for the better. She entered my circle as I say in the book, like a clown, my first ever guide dog who was meeting me for the first ever time:
She was brilliant and silly. I couldn’t believe my luck. Back in our room she bounced, cocked her head, backed up, ran in circles, and came back. All the while I kept talking. “Oh let’s go any place we choose,” I said, feeling I was on the verge of tears.
As our first hours unfolded we began the lifelong art of learning to read each other.
She was happy but she had something else, a quality of absorption. She looked me over like a tailor. She took me in. She wasn’t searching for a ball to be thrown. Was it my imagination or did she actually have the most comprehending face I’d ever met? There are times when you can’t describe your feelings. You say, “so this is the new life.”
I thought: “so this is the new man with the big dog— the big yellow dog, who cares not a whit about the old man’s history and already believes in his goodness.”
Have Dog is a little bit like Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It’s a book about focus. About giving myself and my precious ego over to something that’s decidedly not me. In this way it’s a sixties book—spiritually optimistic without the irritable reach of staid determinism or contemporary vexation about using the word soul. Learning to go places in the company of a superb dog was like writing poems: I had to open my head and heart.
In an early chapter I describe walking with Corky in a busy city for the first time:
It was Corky’s moment. She’d show me what she could do. I’d show her I wasn’t afraid. There is even a moment, in the very beginning, when you have to jump across a precipice . .
We hurried past storefronts. Corky pulled and I con- centrated on my breathing, trying to stay loose. My arm was straight, my shoulders squared, my posture upright. In lecture it had sounded so easy but now I was moving very fast. I was scared and joyous. Kylie was behind us, monitoring.We were“stepping out”as they say in guide- dog work. Corky was going so swiftly I didn’t have time to worry about oncoming shadows—people, street signs—whatever they were, they just dropped behind us.
I’d always been a tippy-toe walker. Now I was put- ting everything into my feet and for the first time I felt vital in relation to my footfalls. It was a circumstance for which I had no prior lingo: a dog-driven invitation to living full forward. Racing up the sidewalk we were forwardness itself.
This is a book for readers who like to walk, who love animals, and who still have Walt Whitman on their bookshelves. Corky allowed me to walk in New York. She took me back to my childhood home in Helsinki. She walked on the Golden Gate Bridge. She drifted in a Gondola past Mozart’s apartment in Venice.
Corky changed my life so thoroughly that I wanted her to have a book of her very own.
ABOUT: 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 The 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.
(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