About skuusisto

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

From my notebook, June 2019

“Well I certainly didn’t expect that to happen,” said Uncle History taking a bite out of his generous flan. Big rivers rising. Falling bridges. False teeth on the sidewalk. Three dogs, just mutts, eat scraps from a dropped styrofoam container on the corner of 57th and sixth avenue. Mostly Uncle H is bothered by hair loss. “It’s a terrible thing,” he says to no one in particular, “one has to live with his century but not become its creature.” His sister, Second cousin “Miss Yesterday” pops us and says: “you can’t fool me, that’s Freidrich Schiller!”

**

It’s a tragedy knowing only your neighborhood. I’m not just a blind American. I’m a psychedelic reindeer for God’s sake.

A friend, a retired submarine commander, told me about hearing the whales following his boat. “They were saying, come on out and join us….” That’s the condition of freedom.

**

Ad a very small boy I got lost in a huge department store in Boston. I loved every minute of it.

**

Miles Davis.

**

I’ve been in Samarkand, Lapland, and Newark, New Jersey.

**

I promise that today I shall do some small good.

**

Poem

The Finnish poet Lauri Vita dug a grave on the page
A shovel is a pen

**

Up River

As I’ve wronged many
Fields beside the Hudson
Shine in April.

**

A long list of the dead
Is like music
And the car hurries obedient.

**

When new green comes
Its like smoke—
Branches and shoreline.

**

As I’ve wronged many
I sing to myself
Sorrows of the true.

**

I who argue peace
Have lived in a time
Of bloody exports.

**

If you’ve any honesty left
America will steal
Your grief.

**
I like saying
I’m going on—
This road leads to a garden.

**

I’d get down
And beg forgiveness
If I knew where to stop.

**

Execution is the chariot
Of genius Blake said—
Here’s a place to weep.

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: 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.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(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 

Universal Design and Utopian Insistence

If you’re disabled you must explain yourself always. You’ll never get a medal for this. You’ll say I belong, I participate, I’m equal, though the phrases are gestural, utopian. You might as well say there are mermaids inside the sun.

A poem then:

Five crows in a dream last night
Faces of the old—a woman
Older than iron came near
The skin on her face
Like ice to a pond
But she was speaking
The language of crows
I saw it—the myth
Of speech—
She made no sound at all

**

I’m up early rummaging. Being disabled is a garage sale of the mind. I’m always moving things around. Seeing if things have more value in different settings. The salt shaker on a window sill feels better than when it was in the corner of a cupboard. Does this have something to do with what they call “universal design”?

Design: from Latin designare—to mark out, point out; devise; choose, designate, appoint. Later in English it comes to mean to form an outline or scheme. It’s a hopeful word if you bleach all the history out of it.

Universal is so hopeful it puts Shirley Temple to shame.

**

I think we can’t achieve universal design unless we understand what we mean by defect. I am not a defective sighted person. My friend D.J. Savarese is not a defective talking person. My pal William Peace is not a defective walking person though he gets around with a wheelchair.
Until we understand that defect or defective is as unhelpful as the mermaid inside the sun we’ll get nowhere. We will go on designing things that the majority of people cannot use.

**

The majority of people is a wonderful phrase. Too bad it’s unconnected to reality. It assumes that humans are static. Real people age, go blind, have industrial accidents, become wounded in wars, develop illnesses bases on genetics, have auto accidents, dive head first into shallow ponds, it’s a longer list than we’ve time for.

The majority of people are not defective, they are us.

It’s better I think to say we’re a planet of universal defectives.

Let’s call ourselves unifects.

**

A poem then:

Letter to Borges from London

When I was a boy I made a beehive
From old letters—dark scraps from a trunk,
Lost loves; assurances from travelers.
It was intricate work.
The blind kid and the worker bee lost whole days.
I made a library for inchworms.

Now I’m a natural philosopher but with the same restless hands.
Some days I put cities together—
Santiago and Carthage;
Toronto and Damascus.
If strangers watch closely, Borges,
They’ll see my fingers working at nothing.

In Hyde Park near the Albert Memorial and alone on a bench
I reconstructed the boroughs of New York—
Brooklyn was at the center, Kyoto in place of Queens.
This was a city of bells and gardens, a town for immigrants.
The old woman passing by saw my hands at work.
She thought I was a lost blind man, a simpleton,
Said, “Poor Dearie!” and gave me a quid.

Excerpt From: Stephen Kuusisto. “Letters to Borges.” Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/letters-to-borges/id564556086

Now I hate to sound like a high school English teacher but really, which of us is the more disabled in this poem—the blind guy thinking or the old woman?

The blind guy has design. He’s imagining better cities.

The old woman, who we’ll say has a tender heart, believes in the 19th century social construction of disability. In her unexamined view, the disabled belong in special places, are helpless, and need charity.

It’s worth remembering that this 19th century view required a design to begin with.

**

Here’s some helpful prose from the National Disability Authority in Ireland:

“Universal Design is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability. An environment (or any building, product, or service in that environment) should be designed to meet the needs of all people who wish to use it. This is not a special requirement, for the benefit of only a minority of the population. It is a fundamental condition of good design. If an environment is accessible, usable, convenient and a pleasure to use, everyone benefits. By considering the diverse needs and abilities of all throughout the design process, universal design creates products, services and environments that meet peoples’ needs. Simply put, universal design is good design.”

This is excellent.

The problem arises, especially in higher educational settings, when people are asked to consider the diverse needs and abilities of students.

University faculty and administrators are not skilled when it comes to thinking about diverse learning styles or needs. In historical terms the university is built on a model of exclusion, a narrow model, one which suggests quite openly that only certain bodies and minds need apply.

Jay Dolmage writes in his wonderful book “Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education”:

“Disability has always been constructed as the inverse or opposite of higher education. Or, let me put it differently: higher education has needed to create a series of versions of “lower education” to justify its work and to ground its exceptionalism, and the physical gates and steps trace a long history of exclusion.”

Without universal design in classrooms, curriculum, teaching methods, websites, the university creates a de facto “lower education” system. If the blind student has to struggle to get accessible books; the wheelchair user can’t sit in the front of the room; the autistic student can’t use the proper accommodations for her needs, then the educational system is exclusionary. Let’s be clear: there are some faculty and deans who like it this way, just as they like lots of step steps that mark off the university as a place of climbing and advantage.

Colleges and universities are the least disability friendly places in the United States. The average airport is more accessible and engaged with design.

In order to have universal design in higher ed we must have inclusive education in mind when we teach.

**

I’m a blind college teacher. There should be nothing remarkable about this. Yet my daily presence haunts the academy. At all three universities where I’ve held tenure I’ve met obstacles to my participation in everything from meetings, classroom teaching, library research, online systems, even simple sporting events. All these basic things have been largely blocked.

Bad as these stumbling blocks are, and I promise you they’re lousy, what’s worse is the extraordinary degree of ableism I’ve met over the course of my roughly thirty year teaching career. Setbacks are one thing, perhaps even to be expected (at least initially) but prejudicial behavior is worse and I’ve experienced it over and over again. I’m a well known blind person. I have managed despite these problems to achieve “senior status”—that necrotic term for full professors.

Yet I’m not a full professor at all. I’m essentially a steerage passenger on a luxury liner, one who has wandered onto the wrong deck. This analogy should be ridiculous but it isn’t.

I’m still waiting for accessible “on boarding” materials at Syracuse University though I came there eight years ago. I asked for them four times. Because I’ve never received them I know less about the place where I work than almost everyone.

Getting accessible research materials in a timely way is grueling and often impossible yet I’m expected to teach as much as anyone else—oh, and also to be a leader in my field.

A colleague criticized me not long ago for speaking out about accessibility problems, saying, “you set back our reputation.”

In the meantime disabled students tell me almost weekly how they’re patronized by faculty and how difficult it is for them to get the help they need to succeed. What do I do? I complain. All too often my reward for speaking “behind the curtain” to multiple administrators about access problems is that I’m essentially conceived of as a malcontent. The eye rolling says it all: I should go back to steerage immediately.

My “non-disabled” faculty colleagues are not generally reliable allies. Even the ones who theorize disability and confront the social and economic history of disablement are seldom on the front lines when it comes to speaking up. Can’t get into the famous basketball arena with your service dog? That’s too bad. We’re all going to the game tonight.

A famous scholar once wrote about the “spoiled identity” the disabled are forced to endure—have been forced to suffer—every day. The word for this is stigma and everyone who hails from a historically marginalized background knows what it feels like. There’s a moue of unhappiness at the sight of you. Many sighted people think the blind don’t know it when it comes but we do.

Lately blind students have been filing civil rights complaints against colleges nationwide. I have not done this because I keep thinking my persistence and whatever in me passes for eloquence will pay off.

But you see, there’s the problem. I want a broad coalition of faculty to speak up.

In order for this to happen we must educate faculty about inclusive education as a human right and underscore the central place of universal design in that expectation.

**

Why is the rhetoric of diversity and inclusion at universities invariably so wooden and dead one would rather succumb to the prolixity of self help manuals? Give me Leo Buscaglia over prose exhorting the building of individual competencies or better, let’s imagine collective talent and free students (and staff) of the corporatized idee fix of the happy happy individual. If we’re to be honest we should admit universities are competitive and structurally opposed to whatever is meant by inclusion. (I like Paolo Freire’s sense of it, grass roots, promoting literacy for all, but on the American campus the term seems to mean—“tag along” as if we’re all going for a nice walk and you’ve been invited, lucky you.)

Lucky you indeed. It’s estimated that almost three quarters of disabled college students fail to graduate. What was it? The food? Must have been the chow. Yes, inclusion stops at the classroom door; stops at the inaccessible website; stops when the disability services office posits there are just a few hoops you have to jump through to get accommodations and you better follow the procedures exactly or your semester will go down the drain faster than your costume jewelry. Structurally speaking disability is to inclusion as mice are to kitchens.

At most universities and colleges disability isn’t included under the rubric of diversity. As a former administrator once said in my presence: “we don’t want people to know we have learning disabled students, it will affect our rankings.”

Talk about “Typhoid Mary”—disability might be catching! But back to the rhetoric. Consider the following, a fairly typical “letter” which a prospective college student must give to a physician in order to receive accommodations on campus:

Please provide the following information under separate cover and on practice letterhead. The authorized release of information is to include but not be limited to the following:

1. Presenting diagnosis(es) utilizing diagnostic categorization or classification of the ICD or DSM IV. Diagnoses should indicate primary, secondary, etc., and significant findings, particularly in respect to presenting problems.
2. Date the examination/assessment/evaluation was performed for the presenting diagnosis, or if following the student for an extended time, date of onset and date of an evaluation of the condition that is recent enough to demonstrate the student’s current level of functioning.
3. Tests, methodology used to determine disability. PLEASE do not send copies of the student’s medical records.
4. Identify the current functional impact on the student’s physical, perceptual and cognitive performance in activities such as mobility, self-care, note taking, laboratory assignment, testing/examinations, housing conditions/arrangements. Is this condition temporary? If temporary, what is the expected length of time to recovery?
5. Describe any treatments, medications, assistive devices/services the student is currently using. Note their effectiveness and any side effects that may impact the student’s physical, perceptual or cognitive performance.
6. Recommendations for accommodations. Explain the relationship between the student’s functional limitations and the recommendations.
7. Credentials (certification, licensure and/or training) of the diagnosing professional(s).

This information is kept confidential except as required by law.

**

Again, the prose above is standard boilerplate. It’s what’s for breakfast. If you have a disability and want to go to college you’ll need to be medicalized and sanitized. This is what passes for accommodation language at matriculation for most university students. Get a doctor or a psychologist to affirm you are indeed disabled—moreover, ask a medical professional to articulate “for you” what you will need in order to succeed in higher education. The falsity of the claim—that a standard MD or Ph.D. knows much about disability and it’s circumstances is nearly laughable but not quite. Inclusion is in the balance. Let’s see your disability certificate kid. Let’s see what it says we “have to” do for you. Do you feel included? What’s that? Not quite? Perhaps you have a bad attitude.

A campus that’s inclusive is accommodating because it’s classrooms, it’s digital domains, it’s syllabi, it’s assignments, it’s library, all are “beyond compliance”—which in turn means no one should need a letter from a doctor or a specialized office with its reliance on “treatments” and “functional impacts” and “cognitive performance” and the like. This language by its very nature is not inclusive nor is it meant to be—it’s designed to weed out students who might be tempted to fake a disability, because lord knows, maybe extra time when taking a test will give certain underachievers an advantage. I know of no other area of diversity where one’s provenance and authenticity must be vetted and confirmed.

**

Back to universal design— from the National Disability Authority in Ireland
it is:

The design and composition of an environment so that it may be accessed, understood and used
To the greatest possible extent
In the most independent and natural manner possible
In the widest possible range of situations
Without the need for adaptation, modification, assistive devices or specialised solutions, by any persons of any age or size or having any particular physical, sensory, mental health or intellectual ability or disability, and
Means, in relation to electronic systems, any electronics-based process of creating products, services or systems so that they may be used by any person.

Universal Design should incorporate a two level approach:

User-Aware Design: pushing the boundaries of ‘mainstream’ products, services and environments to include as many people as possible.
Customisable Design: design to minimise the difficulties of adaptation to particular users.

Viewing Universal Design at the Micro Level

A single design feature or a simple product, designed so that it can be used by as many people as possible.

At this level, the designer is not expected to find one design solution that accommodates the needs of 100% of the population, as Universal Design is not one size fits all. Rather, designers are urged to explore design solutions that are more inclusive; those designs that push the boundaries as far out as possible without compromising the integrity or quality of the product.

If more than one option is available for a design feature, choose the more inclusive feature. For example, when installing a handle on a door, it is always better to opt for a lever handle, rather than a door knob, as the lever handle can be opened using the elbow or a closed fist, benefiting people carrying shopping bags as well as people with limited strength in their hands.

Viewing Universal Design at the Macro Level

At this level the designer has the opportunity to combine accessible and usable design features, with customisable or adaptable features, alongside more specialised design solutions that deal with the most extreme usability issues (see levels 1-3 above).

By stepping back from the individual features and looking at the product, service or environment as a whole, designers are in a position to investigate alternatives providing equivalent experiences to users.

Examples include a user-friendly website that meets web accessibility initiative’s (wai) web content accessibility guidelines 2.0 (wcag 2.0), has a customisable user interface, and is compatible with assistive technologies.

From micro to macro, Universal Design has implications for the design of any single feature of a product, service or environment, as well as the design of that product, service or environment as a whole.

The 7 Principles of Universal Design were developed in 1997 by a working group of architects, product designers, engineers and environmental design researchers, led by the late Ronald Mace in the North Carolina State University.The purpose of the Principles is to guide the design of environments, products and communications. According to the Center for Universal Design in NCSU, the Principles “may be applied to evaluate existing designs, guide the design process and educate both designers and consumers about the characteristics of more usable products and environments.” 
Principle 1: Equitable Use
Principle 2: Flexibility in Use
Principle 3: Simple and Intuitive Use
Principle 4: Perceptible Information
Principle 5: Tolerance for Error
Principle 6: Low Physical Effort
Principle 7: Size and Space for Approach and Use

**

The issue of inclusion for people with disabilities in higher ed is a matter of culture: far too many colleges and universities fail to imagine that people with disabilities represent a cultural movement. (Let’s leave aside for the moment the powerful statistical urgencies represented by the finding that nearly 10 per cent of matriculating freshmen are self-identifying as having a disability.)

A cultural understanding of disability means at its very core that students or staff with disabilities are our children, our sisters, daughters, sons, fathers and mothers, our veterans, our colleagues. But it means more than that: an academic or curricular awareness of disability means that our nation’s institutions of higher learning will finally sense that what they “do” they do for all and with no oppositional and expensive and demeaning hand wringing. Such a position requires that disability services and academic culture–matters of curricular planning and cultural diversity be wedded as they should be.

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: 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.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(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 

Disability Teaching in the Age of Ennui

Good morning disability peeps. It’s time. Aller se confesser. I’m making you my priests dear readers. I’ve sinned, though as is the custom let me say it’s a minor affair. Here’s the deal: I imagined after almost thirty years of the ADA, as a lodestar if not simply the law, well, I thought there’d be something like utopian éclat. I believed the disabled would burst onto the scene, collectively, shoulder to shoulder like the Red Army…or even the Salvation Army. Instead there’s been a splintering effect. Éclat in the fullest sense.

I’m writing about ageism. Move over Rover.

I taught two grad courses in disability studies a year and a half ago. One class focused on post colonialism and disability novels; the other was on disability and memoir. Because disability related courses are hard to cross list at my university I wound up with roughly six students in each class.

All went swimmingly for a time. We talked about Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell’s idea of “narrative prosthesis”—the ways in which stories are extended or dis-tended (my word) by the uninformed use of disabled characters. Think of Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel “All The Light We Cannot See” which makes heavy use of a blind teenaged girl who, despite Doerr’s imaginative ministrations, is unlike any blind person you’ll ever meet. She’s a genius on the inside but fully helpless so that her aged father has to bathe her. Yuck. Narrative prosthesis indeed.

Cultural appropriation department: non-disabled people “can” write disabled characters but they rarely do a good job. Notable exceptions exist. Toni Morrison’s “Shadrack” comes to mind. Some may argue but I believe Jonathan Lethem’s “Motherless Brooklyn” is reasonably good.

Both the classes unraveled on me. I’ve been teaching for thirty years. What happened? Two things. 1. The students didn’t want to do the readings. They were difficult. Novels like Ben Okri’s “The Famished Road” and “The Tin Drum” and cultural theory about literature and post-colonialism bothered these students. One actually said about halfway into the semester: “Why are we reading these books?” That was the thing—in both courses the students, most of them Ph.D. aspirants in disability studies wanted quite simply to talk about themselves. The aim of a class was (apparently) to talk about their respective feelings.

There I was, teaching like the literature professor I’ve always been. Guess what? For the first time in my teaching life I was actively disliked.

There are many ways to think about this: the readings were probative and demanding; I’m a terrible teacher; if a class is small why should we have to do real work; he’s just an old blind guy.

I gave them a lot of leeway, imagining they could do the work and talk about books. This turned out to be largely untrue.

Eclat: splinter; no child left behind; unable to read carefully; impatient; and worse, no interest in the broader global dynamics of disability figuration. “I’ve got my disability posture.”

What can we possible learn?

I’m still sorting this out.

But I felt the intolerance toward complexity and the ageism. I was just an old, inconvenient blind professor.

Why “blind” as opposed to merely professor?

Because without a sense of disability as arm in arm work, ableism still exists. What could a blind teacher possibly know?

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: 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.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(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 

Beauty and Art, No Doubt, Pervade All….

Deep in the night and half awake I hear apple branches sway in a light breeze. What a good life. I think of William Shakespeare toasting his actors in the Anchor pub where I too have toasted others. What a good life. I get up early and walk in a gentle rain. Laugh. Thinking of Hegel. “Only one man ever understood me, and he didn’t understand me.” A good life. And how good my shoes feel. Hegel: “History is not the soil in which happiness grows. The periods of happiness in it are the blank pages of history.” My blank page sneakers. A good life. Cold water in a coffee cup.

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: 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.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(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 

The Original American Good Man: Walt Whitman Discovers Disability

As we honor the 200th birthday of Walt Whitman it’s worth recalling the poet who praised the human body was also our nation’s first writer of disability memoir. This often surprises people since his great opus “Leaves of Grass” famously celebrates strapping health. In fact one may say Whitman turned physical desire into a sexy religion: America’s body was ecstatic, eternal and spiritually orgasmic. In Walt’s nation there were no bad couplings. That was Whitman circa 1855. Then came the Civil War.

One response to crisis is the making and shaping of a new imaginative body. In his seventies, and having suffered paralysis from a series of strokes, Whitman began collecting, arranging, and then supplementing his civil war prose written while he served as a nurse in the terrible army hospitals in Washington. Revisiting his old journals, their pages literally blood stained, he worked both with his paralysis—he could barely write—while giving shape to a historical moment of national crisis. In effect, Whitman created the first American disability autobiography.

His response to social and personal crises is expertly detailed in a marvelous essay by Robert J. Scholnick entitled, “‘How Dare a Sick Man or an Obedient Man Write Poems?’ Whitman and the Dis-ease of the Perfect Body.” This essay appears in the breakthrough collection, Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities edited by Sharon L. Snyder, Brenda Jo Brueggemann, and Rosemarie Garland-Thompson.

Scholnick examines Whitman’s early positioning of the healthy body as a metaphor for a strong democracy and shows how the poet used disability to represent political failure as America headed into the Civil War. Referring to Whitman’s unpublished 1856 essay “The Eighteenth Presidency!” Scholnick notes that Whitman is: “Expressing his belief that a healthy body is a metonym for a healthy nation and, the converse, that an enfeebled body reflects a failure within the body politic…” (248). Scholnick correctly observes that Whitman, who is writing about the political failure of the Buchanan presidency to stop the spread of slavery into the western territories resorts to disabling metaphors:

…[Whitman] deployed a rhetoric of health, disease, and disability to address the national crisis. Describing the supposedly enfeebled political class as “blind men, deaf men, pimpled men scarred inside with the vile disorder, gaudy outside with gold chains made from the people’s money,” in “The Eighteenth Presidency!” he summoned what he imagined as a generation of vigorous young men to take charge. “Poem of the Road” (later titled “Song of the Open Road”) warned that “None may come to the trial till he or she bring courage and health” (Leaves 232). (248) Scholnick observes that Whitman’s disabling metaphors are balanced by a call not just to political health in the United States, but also by a prescriptive exhortation to America’s citizens to practice the art of good health:

Whitman’s urgent summons to his fellow citizens to adopt the practices of healthy living constituted a significant portion of his agenda for America. “All comes by the body only health puts you in rapport with the universe,” he wrote in “Poem of Many in One” (later titled “By Blue Ontario’s Shore”). “Produce great persons, the rest follows,” he affirmed (181). “Poem of the Road” stated flatly, “He travelling with me needs the best blood…” and warned that only the healthy are eligible to join him in the great American procession. (249)

Scholnick quotes Whitman in “Poem of the Road:

Come not here if you have already spent the best of yourself! Only those may come who come in sweet and determined bodies, No diseased person no rum- drinker or venereal taint is permitted here. (249)

In turn, Scholnick details Whitman’s reified and “schizoid” body politic:

In promoting physical health as a means of fostering national stability, control, and improvement, Whitman excluded those lacking the best blood. This exclusion raises the question of just how he and his contemporaries understood the etiology of sickness and disability. (249)

Robert Scholnick’s essay explores how the language of Whitman’s later notebooks displays the poet’s alteration from rhetorical inattentiveness about the disabled body to a position of cultural empathy. By ministering to the maimed and dying soldiers, Whitman faced unimaginable physical suffering. The poet’s prose reveals Whitman’s new and profound appreciation for the literal suffering of men and the spiritual suffering of the nation.

I agree with Scholnick that Whitman is the progenitor of the “disability memoir.” He created a new and wholly conscious rendering of altered physicality in prose. Whitman begins his reminiscence (which he called “Specimen Days”) in a wholly new mode. This is not the metaphorized body of the ideologically constructed man of robust, democratic labor:

Specimen Days

A HAPPY HOUR’S COMMAND
Down in the Woods, July 2d, 1882. — If I do it at all I must delay no longer. Incongruous and full of skips and jumps as is that huddle of diary-jottings, war-memoranda of 1862-’65, Nature-notes of 1877-’81, with Western and Canadian observations afterwards, all bundled up and tied by a big string, the resolution and indeed mandate comes to me this day, this hour, — (and what a day! what an hour just passing! the luxury of riant grass and blowing breeze, with all the shows of sun and sky and perfect temperature, never before so filling me body and soul) — to go home, untie the bundle, reel out diary-scraps and memoranda, just as they are, large or small, one after another, into print-pages. (Whitman 689)

This is Whitman, the disabled poet working to shape and re-shape his memories as well as his present circumstances. He does so with fragments, jottings, things untied, things untidy, nature notes, bureaucratic memoranda… He is announcing his intention to create a “lyric collage” –and by announcing that this is for the printed page he is also announcing that this is a work of art, one created out of a new urgency.

Here is Whitman again, writing of his increasing paralysis and its effect on his ways of living:

Quit work at Washington, and moved to Camden, New Jersey — where I have lived since, receiving many buffets and some precious caresses — and now write these lines. Since then, (1874-’91) a long stretch of illness, or half-illness, with occasional lulls. During these latter, have revised and printed over all my books — Bro’t out “November Boughs” — and at intervals leisurely and exploringly travel’d to the Prairie States, the Rocky Mountains, Canada, to New York, to my birthplace in Long Island, and to Boston. But physical disability and the war- paralysis above alluded to have settled upon me more and more, the last year or so. Am now (1891) domicil’d, and have been for some years, in this little old cottage and lot in Mickle Street, Camden, with a house-keeper and man nurse. Bodily I am completely disabled, but still write for publication. I keep generally buoyant spirits, write often as there comes any lull in physical sufferings, get in the sun and down to the river whenever I can, retain fair appetite, assimilation and digestion, sensibilities acute as ever, the strength and volition of my right arm good, eyesight dimming, but brain normal, and retain my heart’s and soul’s unmitigated faith not only in their own original literary plans, but in the essential bulk of American humanity east and west, north and south, city and country, through thick and thin, to the last. Nor must I forget, in conclusion, a special, prayerful, thankful God’s blessing to my dear firm friends and personal helpers, men and women, home and foreign, old and young. (1298)

In lyric terms this prose is necessary to assure the poet’s survival. Gregory Orr’s useful polarities of lyric incitement come to mind: Whitman is experiencing “extremities of subjectivity” as well as the “outer circumstances [of] poverty, suffering, pain, illness, violence, or loss of a loved one.” As Orr points out: “This survival begins when we “translate” our crisis into language–where we give it symbolic expression as an unfolding drama of self and the forces that assail it” (4).

It’s interesting in this context to note that Whitman imagines his paralysis as part of the unfolding drama of family loss as well as the national trauma of the civil war:

1873. — This year lost, by death, my dear dear mother — and, just before, my sister Martha — the two best and sweetest women I have ever seen or known, or ever expect to see. Same year, February, a sudden climax and prostration from paralysis. Had been simmering inside for several years; broke out during those times temporarily, and then went over. But now a serious attack, beyond cure.

Dr. Drinkard, my Washington physician, (and a first-rate one,) said it was the result of too extreme bodily and emotional strain continued at Washington and “down in front,” in 1863, ‘4 and ‘5. I doubt if a heartier, stronger, healthier physique, more balanced upon itself, or more unconscious, more sound, ever lived, from 1835 to ’72. My greatest call (Quaker) to go around and do what I could there in those war-scenes where I had fallen, among the sick and wounded, was, that I seem’d to be so strong and well. (I consider’d myself invulnerable.) But this last attack shatter’d me completely. (1297-1298)

One notes Whitman’s use of military metaphors to describe the onslaught of paralysis: the disease “broke out” and “then went over” –figures that suggest the illness has scaled the healthy wall of his body, the fortress of self. It’s interesting also to note that Whitman arrives at this correspondence between his paralysis and the national trauma of the civil war by way of his doctor who believed that the strain of working in wartime hospitals was the likely cause of Whitman’s stroke.Describing his youthful and healthy body Whitman writes, “I doubt if a heartier, stronger, healthier physique, more balanced upon itself, or more unconscious, more sound, ever lived, from 1835 to ’72” (1297-1298).

By distinction Whitman as the writer of lyric prose is no longer unconscious and balanced but self-conscious and obviously unbalanced. This “imbalance” is reflected by the unevenness of the memoir. Sentences read like fragments. Memories and the contemporary circumstances of the writer are narrated “paratactically” –the past and the present are presented side by side.

One is reminded of the contemporary American poet Gregory Orr’s assertion that:

…our instability is present to us almost daily in our unpredictable moods and the way memories haunt us and fantasies play themselves out at will on our inner mental screens. We are creatures whose volatile inner lives are both mysterious to us and beyond our control. How to respond to the strangeness and unpredictability of our own emotional being? One important answer to this question is the personal lyric, the ‘I’ poem dramatizing inner and outer experience. (4)

In the case of Whitman’s lyric prose this instability links with the art of memory to address the very meaning of the lyric self: the self that possesses comic irony—a self that understands it is a shaped thing. It can be shaped by personal or physical suffering or by social forces. Whitman ends “Specimin Days” by speculating about the divine or philosophical nature of suffering:

Just as disease proves health, and is the other side of it. . . . . . . . . The philosophy of Greece taught normality and the beauty of life. Christianity teaches how to endure illness and death. I have wonder’d whether a third philosophy fusing both, and doing full justice to both, might not be outlined. (1300)

Here Whitman, writing in paralytic bursts, wonders about the construction of normalcy and its origins in stoic philosophy Then in one swift lyric shift, he wonders about the Christian view of illness, a view which leads in Western civilization to the so called “medical model” of disability. This is the “I” of lyric prose, working its way through inner and outer experience. The “I” of lyric prose assembles its greater sense of irony from scraps.

Whitman’s lyric prose is more than the short hand for a self help book. The prose he wrote in crisis lead him away from his early figurative representations of the muscular
democratic body. He wrote in the civil war hospitals on pages stained with the blood of dying soldiers. He wrote fast and he wrote about something larger than ideological metaphor:

FALMOUTH, VA., opposite Fredericksburgh, December 21, 1862. — Begin my visits among the camp hospitals in the army of the Potomac. Spend a good part of the day in a large brick mansion on the banks of the Rappahannock, used as a hospital since the battle — seems to have receiv’d only the worst cases. Outdoors, at the foot of a tree, within ten yards of the front of the house, I notice a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, &c., a full load for a one-horse cart. Several dead bodies lie near, each cover’d with its brown woolen blanket. In the door-yard, towards the river, are fresh graves, mostly of officers, their names on pieces of barrel-staves or broken boards, stuck in the dirt. (Most of these bodies were subsequently taken up and transported north to their friends.) The large mansion is quite crowded upstairs and down, everything impromptu, no system, all bad enough, but I have no doubt the best that can be done; all the wounds pretty bad, some frightful, the men in their old clothes, unclean and bloody. (712)
In the Preface to Leaves of Grass Whitman wrote, “All beauty comes from beautiful blood and a beautiful brain” (11). As the writer of lyric prose Whitman writes:
I must not let the great hospital at the Patent-office pass away without some mention. A few weeks ago the vast area of the second story of that noblest of Washington buildings was crowded close with rows of sick, badly wounded and dying soldiers. They were placed in three very large apartments. I went there many times. It was a strange, solemn, and, with all its features of suffering and death, a sort of fascinating sight. I go sometimes at night to soothe and relieve particular cases. Two of the immense apartments are fill’d with high and ponderous glass cases, crowded with models in miniature of every kind of utensil, machine or invention, it ever enter’d into the mind of man to conceive; and with curiosities and foreign presents. Between these cases are lateral openings, perhaps eight feet wide and quite deep, and in these were placed the sick, besides a great long double row of them up and down through the middle of the hall. Many of them were very bad cases, wounds and amputations. Then there was a gallery running above the hall in which there were beds also. It was, indeed, a curious scene, especially at night when lit up. The glass cases, the beds, the forms lying there, the gallery above, and the marble pavement under foot — the suffering, and the fortitude to bear it in various degrees — occasionally, from some, the groan that could not be repress’d — sometimes a poor fellow dying, with emaciated face and glassy eye, the nurse by his side, the doctor also there, but no friend, no

relative — such were the sights but lately in the Patent-office. (The wounded have since been removed from there, and it is now vacant again.) (717-718)

Think of Whitman writing after a series of strokes, revisiting his old notebook pages, tying them together with seasoned reflections on his diminished body. By gathering “Specimen Days” and arranging its pages, Whitman claimed disability—both for himself as well as the civil war veterans. Claiming disability requires claiming the lyric. If people with disabilities have been exiled by history, by the architectures of cities and the policies of the state, then the lyric and ironic form of awareness is central to locating a more vital language. The lyric mode is concerned with momentum rather than certainty. This is the gnomon of lyric consciousness: darkness can be navigated. The claiming of disability is the successful transition from static language into the language of momentum. But of particular importance in this instance is the brevity of the lyric impulse. The urgency of short forms reflects the self-awareness of blocked paths and closed systems of language. The lyric reinvents the psychic occasion of that human urgency much as a formal design in prosody will force a poet to achieve new effects in verse. Igor Stravinsky put it this way: “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.” We are in a hurry. We must tell the truth about the catastrophe that is human consciousness. And like Emily Dickinson who feared the loss of her eyesight we will tell the truth but “tell it slant”—the lyric writer may not have a sufficiency of time.
Twice then we see Walt Whitman, lacking a sufficiency of time, writing the lyric claim.

Citations:

Orr, Greogry. Poetry As Survival. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2002.
Scholnick, Robert J. “‘How Dare a Sick Man or an Obedient Man Write Poems?’ Whitman and the Dis-ease of the Perfect Body.” Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities. Ed. Sharon L. Snyder, Brenda Jo Brueggemann and Rosemarie Garland-Thomas. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2002. 248-259.
Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982.

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: 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.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
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Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(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 

Equivocation at 2 AM

I often read far into the night. Last evening—early morning really—I found myself thinking about the word “equivocation” which emerged in Shakespeare’s time and is an early modern neologism—to half speak, parallel speak, hedge speak. The word itself is a barometer of how literacy affected the public nerve. Once people could read they could engage in irony. To equivocate became a crime in some cases as Shakespeare knew. Talking at cross purposes was a newfangled thing. Oh people had always been liars. But equivocation was unique—a conspiracy within the self if you will. Shakespeare’s late plays are concerned with this. Dr. Faustus perfects the matter later. From “The Year of Lear” by James Shapiro:

“Shakespeare was clearly fascinated by the various ways that one could equivocate and had been employing this device in his plays and poems long before he or his culture had settled on a name for it. For better or worse, it was simply part of how people communicated (a view perfectly encapsulated in the deeply equivocal Sonnet 138, which begins: “When
my love swears that she is made of truth, / I do believe her though I know she lies”). What else, after all, did actors do for a living other than convincingly recite words they didn’t actually mean while at the same time suppressing their own thoughts? And what else did playwrights do, in an age of theatrical censorship, but encourage actors to say one thing while slyly pointing at another? Though the scene in The Second Part of Henry the Sixth would be the first time Shakespeare so explicitly employs what would come to be called equivocation, it would be far from the only instance of this verbal trick to appear in his plays. One of the great pleasures afforded by his works is watching his many lovers, rivals, servants, avengers, and villains equivocate, sometimes playfully, sometimes in the most cunning and destructive ways imaginable. He would have understood efforts to reduce equivocation to the diabolical, to something that could somehow be rooted out and eliminated, as hopelessly if not dangerously naive.”

Meanwhile let me not equivocate. I’m short. You see? The truth is seldom promising. This is why short people join societies, become demotic, develop academic disciplines like “diminution studies” and argue that tallness is a conspiracy.

As I say: I’m just short.

Sometimes subjective bravery requires talking less.

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: 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.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(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 

Galileo, Blind, Saw Stars With His Body

Yes people go blind late in life and they go on living, seeing in different ways. Sight is an immoderate thing which makes its imagined absence a sublime condition, a vast terror, something beyond understanding. Blindness is not this at all. Trust me: I know thousands of blind people. They don’t live in the unlit depths of the sea. They’re not helpless on the streets. As with Galileo, blind at the end, they go on knowing. It’s painful to write such a rebarbative sentence but the sighted know nothing.

There are different kinds of not knowing and at the risk of going Hegelian let’s say that the largest of these is tied not to phenomenology but superstition. Seeing is more than believing, it’s conceiving. Why if you can’t see an object it simply disappears. The majority of people believe this, world over, and it doesn’t matter their respective level of education. Doctors, scientists, professors of education, analytic philosophers, data miners, mattress testers, all imagine that without sight the essences of things will vanish. The American poet Wallace Stevens concludes a poem called “The Snowman” with the line: “the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is”—a perfect jeu d’esprit for the sub-phenomenological dread of vision loss.

The blind of course, who are simply your neighbors, children, mothers, fathers, the college student in the room next door are always in the position of having to reassure the puny sighted that life without peepers has meaning. For meaning you can substitute any variety of terms: dignity, joy, hot sex or popcorn. “My life has as much meaning as yours,” says the blind girl though she says it in Morse code tapping her way down the sidewalk with her stick. Tap. Tap. Tap. I’ve got rhythm. Possibility. I’m fantastic. Do you see how fantastic I am? And of course the sighted can’t believe it. They’d sooner believe in alien abductions than rest assured that a man, woman, or child can have a lyrical, involved, sophisticated and examined life without billboards, Keep Off the Grass signs, and all the other quotidian junk the sighted absorb minute by minute. In fact I’ll admit it right here. I feel sorry for the sighted who are prisoners of whatever dopey nonsense they encounter: panel truck messages, junk mail, commercial art, what the Beatles once called “corporation tee shirts.” Far from needing to prove my life has value I think the sighted are the most wanton people, walking about with advertising slogans on their lips.

Now you’ll say I’m being a little hard on the sighted and you’d be right. But I’m not wrong to suggest the blind are forced across the globe to play out the “fear of blindness absolution charade” by performing logo-rhythmically a dance that says our lives have value. This is true for all disabled people. Our crippled existences are OK. You see? We are happy just like you! With blindness though there’s this extra twist: “We can be happy despite your all encompassing dread that objects and pathways forward exist only because of sight.” Our lives are more difficult to imagine owing to the weakness of the average man or woman’s visual centric ego. It’s as if the customary sighted person is no more than a child who believes that when his or her parents turn out the lights everything in the room disappears.

I’ve just returned home to Syracuse from a trip to Kazakstan where I met with blind children and their parents. Inclusive education is still not customary for disabled kids in much of Central Asia and I spoke to an audience of parents and young people with vision loss about having a life. After the hour was up I was on the verge of tears. The sighted believe the blind are not of this world. They believe it from Kansas to Nur Sultan. How many rooms have I entered just to say “your customary fears are groundless.” I”d put a question mark there but I don’t know.

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: 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.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(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