It is a matter of advantage to say I will never be understood. In a poetry class with disabled students in Almaty yesterday I stressed the power of being unclassifiable. This is the fundamental work of the imagination and I felt lucky to be able to talk about it in a nation of nomadic descendants. No two persons will have the same feelings about the moon but we all know why the emotion matters. If we can explain just an inkling of this we are fortunate. It’s also possible to laugh in the face of what we don’t know and be poets together. There was more than a little of Emily Dickinson in that room. As part of an exercise to write about going far into the world I wrote the following lines:
Sometimes I leave the house and walk for miles
Because of an old song—a Finnish hymn
Which says I have yet to find my home
Clouds and birds follow
There is no name for this
I stop beside a river
There is no name
If disability or “to be disabled” is a label (it is) then such labeling insists on singularity. I found it apt that we were conducting our workshop in a very contemporary “maker’s space” with 3D printers and stylized cartoons of robots. One woman in an adjacent room had manufactured several plastic baby doll arms and was busy trying sequentially to attach different ones to a doll torso—the disfigured doll had an electronic voice box and was wailing. I thought of the “medical model” of disability—the disabled man, woman, or child reduced to being merely a patient among doctors who must be cured or face a reduced life. The doctor who fails to fix the doll says “I’m sorry, there’s nothing more I can do for you” and wants no further conversation. The woman with the baby doll couldn’t get the arms to fit and gave up. I don’t I know where she went or what became of her broken doll but I know what the delimitation of projective disfigurement will likely mean and the bots on the posters won’t save us.
Let me add you don’t need arms to make poetry.
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 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