About skuusisto

Poet, Essayist, Blogger, Journalist, Memoirist, Disability Rights Advocate, Public Speaker, Professor, Syracuse University

George Washington, the Onondaga Nation, and Robert Bly

Its Presidents Day or it was, I can’t remember. The television is trying to sell me a couch by raising a photo of George Washington above a love seat. Because I teach at Syracuse University which stands on land that belongs to the Onondaga Nation I wince. It was Washington who ordered the wholesale slaughter of Native Americans in the Finger Lakes. Our principle “founding father” was responsible for a vast human rights crime–what we would now call genocide. I do not make polemical pronouncements. This butchery is a matter of history. Washington called for a “scorched earth” policy which left no village standing and very few survivors. I live among their descendants. I know full well what was done to their ancestors. When I change the channel the TV is trying to sell me a car. Again there’s Washington. I hold my head.

I’ve been reading the newly published “Collected Poems” of Robert Bly. Here are some lines that come to mind:

“Hatred of Men With Black Hair”

“I hear voices praising Tshombe, and the Portuguese
In Angola, these are the men who skinned Little Crow!
We are all their sons, skulking
In back rooms, selling nails with trembling hands!

We distrust every person on earth with black hair;
We send teams to overthrow Chief Joseph’s government;
We train natives to kill Presidents with blowdarts;
We have men loosening the nails on Noah’s Ark.

The State Department floats in the heavy jellies near the bottom
Like exhausted crustaceans, like squids who are confused,
Sending out beams of black light to the open sea,
Fighting their fraternal feeling for the great landlords.

We have violet rays that light up the jungles at night, showing
The friendly populations; we are teaching the children of ritual
To overcome their longing for life, and we send
Sparks of black light that fit the holes in the generals’ eyes.

Underneath all the cement of the Pentagon
There is a drop of Indian blood preserved in snow:
Preserved from the trail of blood that once led away
From the stockade, over the snow, the trail now lost.

Excerpt From: Robert Bly. “Collected Poems.” Apple Books.

**

From Washington’s slaughter of the five nations to Trump’s wall…Bly’s poem still reverberates.

Now Washington is trying to sell me a set of home appliances.

On Being the Only Cripple at the Arts Colony

Over a number of years I’ve had the fortune to be housed and fed at places that are devoted to promoting the arts and one should acknowledge fortune is a neutral word for anything that occurs is a matter of luck for good or ill. I’m not the bite the hand that feeds me type. My work has been assisted greatly by residencies at arts colonies both well known and up and coming places. This past summer I spent four and a half weeks at The MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, a beautiful and legendary place for artists of all kinds. It was my fourth visit to the colony and I will never say a bad thing about the work of MacDowell or its extraordinary-staff.


But something happened to me while I was housed at MacDowell that’s left me pondering what it means to be a disabled artist. Frankly I felt more and more alone. I was the blind guy with the lovely dog. The important conversations were about diversity and while these dinner dialogues were good, I found whenever I suggested the disabled are intersectional figures where issues of identity and human rights are concerned I was treated as a quaint and colorful tinker who makes quirky shoes.

Now being lonesome at an arts colony is an interesting thing. After all you’re not there to be a gadfly and getting your work done in a quiet and nurturing space is what the whole thing is about. I got work done. I wrote in my woodland cabin. I took thoughtful walks with my dog.

I felt like a curiosity rather than a figure of acceptance. I was the only disabled artist there. I’m often the only disabled person in a whole variety of settings. Why was this summer at MacDowell different?

The casual ableism of the other artists was part of the problem. Blindness and deafness and intellectual disability turned up frequently as pejorative terms in casual conversations. I lost my temper one evening explaining to a young writer that the “r” word isn’t acceptable when talking about people with intellectual disabilities.

What was different is my age. I’m too old for ableist nonsense and too tired to care that I’m the outlier.

But wouldn’t it be nice of the best arts colonies actually had disability months? Frankly I could use dome creative and progressive conversation about embodiment and imagination.

And yes, a few ripping good laughs.

If I Could Tell You….

If I could tell you I would let you know and the pear trees, home to wasps in October, they would tell you; a cormorant skull here on my desk, surely it would tell you–natural facts will recite poems, I swear its so. If I could tell you I would let you know; I’d stay up all night, not singing but whispering just a bit–talking to time under stars; if I could tell you; I have walked in circles this life; I think I remember the moment of my birth; I’m not afraid to die.

**

The Romantics still interest me. Not their big ideas but the small. Shelley’s love; Byron swimming and chanting about freedom. We say they were obsessed with themselves but I’m not so sure.

**

Up river and down. Lonesome wherever I sail. Last night I dreamt of my father who told me to play more guitar. I haven’t been playing these past few years. I used to be proficient.

Thanks dad. I will.

**

If I could tell you. If I could. I do like the way horses talk.

**

I went gathering grapes once, while visiting Crete. I now you’re supposed to say “picking” but there was a lot of singing going on. That’s one of the things singing does.

**

It is OK on balance to be lonely. Just do it the right way.

Good, Old Walter Pater

Oh Walter Pater for a Renaissance scholar you had charm. You’ve haunted me for years with your childhood portraits. Unlike Montaigne your utopia was less a matter of craft and more of memory. Once, to shock an academic questioner I said creative nonfiction was Pater’s invention. I’m still not certain I’m wrong. If its honesty you’re after Pater’s your man.

Who was it I was reading last week–who said he was a possibility-ist rather than an optimist. I read a lot and can’t remember. He was one of those data-utopians. The planet will sustain us; we won’t actually slaughter each other. That’s when Pater jumped up. “The way to perfection is through a series of disgusts.” Data is a clean sport and that’s all there is to it. If you want to know about the heart I’ll go with the Renaissance.

Rexroth’s Moose

The American poet Kenneth Rexroth wrote a book which he called an autobiographical novel. Its a great read, especially if you’re interested in progressive history during the first half of the twentieth century. Rexroth was everywhere from the logging camps of the far west to bohemian Greenwich Village and he seems to have had a talent for conversation with almost anyone. He’s at home with anthroposophists, wobbleys, and rare book dealers.

I especially love the book’s opening where he claims that he shot a moose at the age of four.

I suspect he really did it. My mother was taught to shoot first and ask questions later when she was a child and was often left alone in the country.

I’m not sentimental and I don’t think children left alone in the woods with guns (or anywhere else) is a great parenting tactic. Thank you for letting me get that out of the way. I should also say Rexroth‘s moose was probably blameless.

The adult poet, the author of the book, was an environmental writer and human rights activist. Rexroth hid Japanese-Americans from the internment camps during the Second World War.

He never shot a second moose.

He was a pacifist.

**

When I was four I ran away from my parents and got happily lost in Helsinki.

I lived on a constantly turning electrostatic wheel of inventions.

I loved Kaivopuisto Park and chased leaves even though I couldn’t see them.

I was high above the Baltic among leaves and gulls.

Blind

What is this desire to write but the chance to live?
Drink a glass of water at first light,
Open my hands. Whatever is me
Happens also without me
And footfall words can’t prove
Where I’m heading.
Funny then to be blind–
Its double fiction
Moving fast in the dark.