Who Are the Blind Poets? Hmmmm.

A friend asked me “who are the blind poets other than Milton, Homer, and Borges?” The question is interesting because it assumes blindness is static and cleanly historic in a biographical sense. At the moment he asked I made a joke and said there’s me. And I mentioned Dan Simpson a blind poet in Philadelphia who is supremely talented. But the question evades its precise answer. Samuel Johnson was blind; James Joyce was also. We don’t think of them this way. Why not?

Dr. Johnson had several disabilities—he was tourettic, had seizures, was legally blind (though the term didn’t exist in his day) and prone to severe bouts of depression. Like me, he could remember everything he read for the pain of reading was profound and you better get it right the first time. This is what made him the right man to craft the first English dictionary. Moreover, when he attended a theatrical production, though he couldn’t see the stage, he remembered every syllable.

Joyce’s eyes were a source of lifelong agony:

“Worsening inexorably over his lifespan of sixty years, the eyes of Joyce were the main source of his misery. It was a feat of preternatural breadth, his undertaking of literary labours via a shroud of painful blindness. Joyce’s struggle with his eyes led him to naming his daughter Lucia, after St Lucia, patron saint of the blind. A scrutiny of him as a young man attests to his longsightedness – his glasses magnify the Irish-blue eyes. The wearing of such spectacles is notable because it reveals that Joyce had eyes of a crowded shape : anatomy which increases the risk of high pressure developing in the eyeball. Ordeals of the ophthalmic type began in youth, but inflammation in Joyce’s eyes (rather than pressure) was the initiator of his sufferings in 1907.”

This is of particular interest:

“Oculists were consulted to assuage the agony. But those attending to him could not acceptably douse the flames. To curb the flammatory pain from his eyes the doctors injected Joyce with arsenic and phosphorus. Since these dosings were inefficacious they would apply a fistful of leeches to his scalp. Ill-advisedly, he had his teeth extracted, on the strength of some advice which ascribed his ocular ills to the bacteria in his mouth. Surgery of the eye was performed and the series between 1917 to 1930 comprised iridectomies, sphincterotomy, capsulectomy, and a removal of cataracts.”

By the time Joyce wrote Ulysses he had ten percent vision in one eye and none in the other.
He carried a cane, not because he was a dandy but because he was afraid of obstacles and dogs.

**

Again one has to ask why aren’t Dr. Johnson and James Joyce understood as being great blind writers?

Performativity comes to mind—Borges was lead around by a sighted guide. Milton was read to by his daughters. These are accepted blind representations. That Joyce traveled and Johnson rambled the dark streets with disreputable friends doesn’t fit the trope of the helpless blind.

As of this morning, this is my answer.

For the full article on Joyce’s eyes see:

https://www.bmj.com/content/343/bmj.d7464/rr-0

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:
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 

Please Mister, Stop Appropriating the Poor Cripples, Or, “The Blind Girl’s Sponge”

1.

A new novel appears; gets lots of praise; about a man who suffers a facial deformity and whatever passes for his inner life is destroyed. You guessed it: the author isn’t disabled. But he’s used a tried and true formula: deform a character and you can cover up your own literary deficiencies. Or nearly. Kafka understood this but his grotesqueries were about capitalism and not about individuals.

2.

In the airports, train stations, public byways, strangers approach and say unbidden things to me owing to my blindness. “I had a dog once,” they’ll say. Or: “I knew a blind girl once.” When I”m feeling charitable I think of their loneliness and let the intrusive moment go. When I’m more vituperative I’ll say anything to get out of the situation. “What dog?” I’ll say. Or: “I don’t like blind people.”

3.

You can only appropriate people you don’t understand. Notice I didn’t say, “insufficiently understand” because even maladroit and speculative thinking is better than incurious meddling. And that’s what ableist appropriation of disability is. Anthony Doerr has written a wholly fraudulent disabled character in his award winning novel “All the Light We Cannot See” (a title so stupid “that” alone should have killed it.) His charming blind girl can’t bathe herself though she’s something like fourteen. Her father (who is the author of course) has to help her. I think Doerr should have called the novel “The Blind Girl’s Sponge.”

4.

Now women writers do their own incurious meddling. There’s currently a very popular woman poet who writes of “grotesques” with enough whimsey to satisfy the ableist appetites of the creative writing academy. While I”m at it, let’s be clear that writers who hail from every kind of background write ableist junk. Feeling unimaginative? Just throw in a cripple or two. Two cripples will always be better than one. Beckett understood.

5.

“What’s the problem?” you say? “They’re just books.” You’re right. And Philip Larkin was right: “books are a load of crap.” And there’s more than one problem anyway. But Robinson Crusoe and Friday represent the unassailable comfort of appropriative culture. Novels are seldom progressivist. If you can get away with it, have three cripples in your coffee table book.

6.

In her new book “Believing in Shakespeare: Studies in Longing” Claire McEachern writes: “Even among person, plot, and place there exist differing expectations with respect to believability.” Her premise is that believing in characters is essentially a sacramental act. Read her book. It’s excellent. She writes:

“Persons are also found in nature as well as art; we can believe in each other, as well as in literary characters, the former suggesting the trust we confer on another ’ s purpose, the latter trust in an author ’ s conjuration. Sociobiology, anthropomorphism, and the sciences of empathy all suggest that humans are especially susceptible to each other; as philanthropic organizations know, a cause with a face is more difficult to shrug off than one without. 3 Prosopopoeia has long been the rhetorical figure employed to supernatural or political abstractions, endowing them with human-sized motive properties. Stories whose ultimate concern may be systemic or institutional identities or corporate fortunes (e.g., the fate of a nation, a race, or a culture) typically phrase their exempla in the unit of the individual. There is something particular about the person. Perhaps it is easier to believe in a literary person because less belief is required. People are people persons.”

7.

Prosopopoeia is just the thing, the ingredient you need if you want to turn real people into cartoons. Where disability is concerned Shakespeare was also a cultural appropriator. Caliban’s deformities come from Montaigne’s imagined ugly cannibals but no matter, you’ve got stock characters who will obediently and without controversy represent whatever imperial disdain you need to employ.

It has always been my contention that the first fully realized disabled character in Western literature is Melville’s Ahab. And though he’s not likable, he’s complex and understandable.

Which brings me back to my original point: the average ableist writer doesn’t need to know Ahab at all. He or she watches the cartoons.

I Live in No Country

I spent a dark month translating poetry in the far north and the poems followed me into sleep. Saarikoski’s snakes talked to my dream ears. I don’t always remember dreams but the snakes stayed with me. They followed me in the department store and came with me on the bus. I thought perhaps I should change my name to Asklepios. I also considered the bones inside the snakes. Those glassine springs with their electricities and appetites.

**

If you’re a reasonable woman or man or child you know you belong to no country.
This is the thing—poetry’s reification if you will—I belong in no room, no meeting, no tent.

**

The saddest poets are the ones who keep trying to put up a tent when there isn’t any rain in the forecast.

**

Walking early today thinking of Immanuel Kant, his a priori intuition and the elegance of reason. The snakes’ skeletons still following me down the street.

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.

The Planet That Would Have Me

It was Auden broke my heart then put it back together. Caruso followed with a love song from Naples. By the age of 8 I could read poems and listen alone to gramophone records. Blind I’d little street life though I pretended I belonged well enough in open air. Like most people who come from provinces I was happiest in my privacies, my attic with scratchy records and grey books. Though I could scarcely read that’s the world that would have me.

The ugliness of school was both a matter of being bullied for my disability and a curricular austerity. School never let me share what I was learning while alone. As a university professor these past thirty years I think of this. What do the students before me bring to the room? What can provinces teach us?

Provincial culture means the one we must create. Yeats couldn’t be Tennyson and though there were Irish poets before him, he had to be both cognizant of his inner life and the outward world. If he was going to be Irish-provincial he’d have to do it in a dual way. Its a matter of accomplishment that Yeats doesn’t quite fit anywhere. His planet doesn’t exist. Yet its apparent.

Is it a bit silly to invoke Yeats next to a kid with a large print book and a Victrola? I don’t think so. The inner life is Romanticism and strength of mind and each must find it in her or his way. You don’t have to be a poet to need your planet. More and more contemporary fiction and memoirs seek to find planets that will have us. Everyone hails from some version of my childhood attic.

I’m guilty of reductionism here. What I’m after is emergence not life alone with some arias. The planet that will have us is a made place and not granted. What is it made of? Yeats wrote:

By the help of an image
I call to my own opposite, summon all
That I have handled least, least looked upon.

The planet that will have you won’t look like you. Yeats knew and if we’re lucky we also learn it.

Yes when I go walking the world does not resemble my stride, my frame, nor, despite my yearnings for mysticism does the world answer my longings. The world simply is and not what I say of it.

On Critical Thinking, Disability, and the Academy

One of the ironies about the current state of academe is that universities propose to introduce students to what is called “critical thinking” as if most teaching faculty are available and capable to do this very work. I remember a biology professor wagging his finger in my face because, he said, biology students really don’t need to know how to write. That he was a well regarded professor made the moment doubly remarkable. “Don’t you want your students to be successful grant writers?” I asked. “You don’t need to take writing courses to do that!” he sniffed. Opposition to writing and the teaching of same is fundamentally a resistance to the teaching of nuance, scruple, irony, and pesky associative questions like “why is this problem interesting; confounding; worthwhile; perhaps even utopian?” Whatever we mean by the term critical thinking behind the term must lie a hope that students will bloom beyond being students. If this isn’t your hope as a member of the professoriate—which is to say a wish that your students will master their own curiosities no matter their chosen profession, then you’ve no business teaching. And there. I’ve said it. I believe far too many faculty are insufficiently inclined to engage with students as potential contrarians which is what we all should be after.

How many department meetings have I attended over the years? Lordy. And scarcely a discussion about students or what we hope they’ll gain. Worse perhaps is the cynical shorthand of “outcomes assessment” that’s been adopted for inclusion on syllabi and which now occupies senior administrators from the accreditation complex—themselves former faculty who’ve little experience teaching critical thinking. In this way the contemporary academy is like the singsong monkey that chases its tail around the flagpole. There’s a lot of talk about critical thinking and little actually happening. Instead there is essentialism about any number of topics. Here’s a popular one: Capitalism is the source of all suffering. I think one should say it’s the source of many problems. But critical thinking demands probing the assertion: was there ever a civilization without some kind of capitalism? Are there capitalist countries where the people are happy? These questions are not popular in essentialist teaching circles. Essentialism requires agreement, a prescriptive shared narrative. I know disabled students who think all able bodied citizens are their enemies and that able bodied people believe in compulsory able-bodiedness.

Remember “The Combahee River Collective Statement” of 1977?

“This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.”

As Mark Lilla puts it in his book “Once and Future Liberal” the left, following Reagan’s election failed to unite and instead augured into separate coverts of bitterness:

“Instead, they lost themselves in the thickets of identity politics and developed a resentful, disuniting rhetoric of difference to match it. ”

**

Three weeks ago I watched the televised memorial for President George H.W. Bush. I found the occasion moving. Bush 41 signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law in 1990 and that moment still stands for me and many others as a watershed in American politics as it was perhaps the last time the left and right worked assiduously to promote the well being of millions upon millions of citizens. The law was fiercely opposed then and still is now. That Bush signed it says a good deal about his willingness to resist calls from the Chamber of Commerce to let the disabled continue living without rights as they’d always done.

When I posted on social media my appreciation for Bush’s role in promoting the ADA I was besieged by Facebookers and Twitterers informing me Bush was a moral coward, a bigot, a war criminal, a homophobe, a liar, a groper—all to edify me. Having said he’d done something good I must be obtuse or utterly ignorant about his life in its entirety. This is the sloppiness of identity politics—its execrable cheapness of thought, adopted formally at the Combahee conference and now a laziness disguised as moral advantage. If critical thinking is to be taught let’s ask what it might actually mean.

I’ll venture it may require a willingness to give up first response finger wagging—the “gotcha” which is now everywhere on both the right and left. Someone who teaches disability studies told me on Facebook (in response to my observation that much about racism I find hard to absorb having grown up in a very liberal environment) I “must be” racist as I’m white. Her proof? I’m soaked in white privilege. Gotcha works this way. It substitutes paradigms within an argument. Example: “You believe you’ve a personal identity which is moral and possesses Enlightenment values of nuance and rationality but actually you’ve no personal identity since postmodern culture assures this. Therefore you can’t be immune to racism, if say, you’ve gotten a bank loan at any time during your life.”

If you’ve white privilege you’re a de facto racist. The essentialism behind the argument—the confirmation bias—is that this has been entirely decided by people who recognize oppression better than I do.

Forget that I grew up blind; have lived on food stamps and unemployment and have spent time living in Section 8 housing. Dispose of the fact I’ve been discriminated against in education and employment over and over during my “career”—that fancy term for what the Buddhists call the “meat wheel.”

That I’ve been harmed owing to disability doesn’t change the fact that I have advantages over others. If you believe this than you also have to imagine that human beings are just flies in amber, mere products of ancient entrapments with no hope of escape.

**

Why is this “gotcha” so attractive?

Fundamentalism is easier than scruple.

Amos Oz died this week. I’ve been reading his book “Dear Zealots” with considerable interest. He is at pains to understand how fanaticism works and why it’s the illness of our time. He writes:

“Fanaticism is not reserved for al-Qaeda and ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, Hamas and Hezbollah, neo-Nazis and anti-Semites, white supremacists and Islamophobes and the Ku Klux Klan, Israel’s “hilltop thugs” in the settlements, and others who would shed blood in the name of their faith. These fanatics are familiar to us all. We see them every day on our television screens, shouting, waving angry fists at the camera, hoarsely yelling slogans into the microphone. They are the visible fanatics. A few years ago, my daughter Galia Oz directed a documentary film that probed the roots of fanaticism and its manifestations in the Jewish underground.

But there are far less prominent and less visible forms of fanaticism around us, and perhaps inside us, too. Even in the daily lives of normative societies and people we know well, there are sometimes revelations, albeit not necessarily violent ones, of fanaticism. One might encounter, for example, fanatic opponents of smoking who act as if anyone who dares light a cigarette near them should be burned alive. Or fanatic vegetarians and vegans who sometimes sound ready to devour people who eat meat. A few of my friends in the peace movement denounce me furiously, simply because I hold a different view of the best way to achieve peace between Israel and Palestine.

Certainly, not everyone who raises a voice for or against something is suspected of fanaticism, and not everyone who angrily protests an injustice becomes a fanatic by virtue of that protest and anger. Not every person with strong opinions is guilty of fanatic tendencies. Not even when such views or emotions are expressed very loudly. It is not the volume of your voice that defines you as a fanatic, but rather, primarily, your tolerance—or lack thereof—for your opponents’ voices.

Indeed, a hidden—or not so hidden—kernel of fanaticism often lies beneath various disclosures of uncompromising dogmatism, of imperviousness and even hostility toward positions you deem unacceptable. Righteousness entrenched and buttressed within itself, righteousness with no windows or doors, is probably the hallmark of this disease, as are positions that arise from the turbid wellsprings of loathing and contempt, which erase all other emotions there is nothing wrong with loathing in and of itself: in Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky and Brecht, Chaim Nachman Bialik and Y. H. Brenner and Hanoch Levin, we find a stinging component of loathing. A blazing component—but not an exclusive one. In the works of these great writers, loathing is accompanied by other feelings, too—by understanding, compassion, longing, humor, and a measure of sympathy.)”

**

If the American university hopes to embrace critical thinking it must examine righteousness entrenched. In literary writing courses we talk of comic or dramatic irony—those moments when a literary writer asks “what do my characters or my narrator know “now” that they did not know even just a few moments ago? In a dramatic stage play comic irony is when the audience knows more than the figures on stage. All of Shakespeare’s comedies depend on this device.

If the American university hopes to embrace critical thinking it must offer courses that show students how to work across divides. My suggestion is to look at the history of the Americans with Disabilities Act—it has a long back story, driven by veterans wounded in foreign wars, pushed by political activism—cripples crawling up the Capitol’s steps; grassroots politics of the best and worst kind; and perhaps most remarkable of all its demonstration that intellectual and dogmatic buttresses can come down just as architectural barriers can.

If the American university wants to embrace critical thinking it should look at the peacemakers.

Amos Oz again:

“There are varying degrees of evil in the world. The distinction between levels of evil is perhaps the primary moral responsibility incumbent upon each of us. Every child knows that cruelty is bad and contemptible, while its opposite, compassion, is commendable. That is an easy and simple moral distinction. The more essential and far more difficult distinction is the one between different shades of gray, between degrees of evil. Aggressive environmental activists, for example, or the furious opponents of globalization, may sometimes emerge as violent fanatics. But the evil they cause is immeasurably smaller than that caused by a fanatic who commits a large-scale terrorist attack. Nor are the crimes of the terrorist fanatic comparable to those of fanatics who commit ethnic cleansing or genocide.
Those who are unwilling or unable to rank evil may thereby become the servants of evil. Those who make no distinction between such disparate phenomena as apartheid, colonialism, ISIS, Zionism, political incorrectness, the gas chambers, sexism, the 1 percent’s wealth, and air pollution serve evil with their very refusal to grade it.

Fanatics tend to live in a black-and-white world, with a simplistic view of good against evil. The fanatic is in fact a person who can only count to one. Yet at the same time, and without any contradiction, the fanatic almost always basks in some sort of bittersweet sentimentalism, composed of a mixture of fury and self-pity.”

“The urge to follow the crowd and the passion to belong to the majority are fertile ground for fanatics, as are the various cults of personality, idolization of religious and political leaders, and the adulation of entertainment and sports celebrities.

Of course there is a great distance between blindly worshiping bloodthirsty tyrants, being swept up by murderous ideologies or aggressive, hateful chauvinism, and the inane adoration of celebrities. Still, there is perhaps a common thread: the worshiper yields his own selfhood. He longs to merge—to the point of self-deprecation—with the throng of other admirers and unite with the experiences and accomplishments of the object of worship. In both cases, the elated admirer is subjugated by a sophisticated system of propaganda and brainwashing, a system that intentionally addresses the childish element in people’s souls, the element that so longs to merge, to crawl back into a warm womb, to once again be a tiny cell inside a huge body, a strong and protective body—the nation, the church, the movement, the party, the team fans, the groupies—to belong, to squeeze in with a crowd under the broad wings of a great father, an admired hero, a dreamy beauty, a sparkling celebrity, in whose hands the worshipers deposit their hopes and dreams, and even their right to think and judge and take positions.

The increasing infantilization of masses of people everywhere in the world is no coincidence: there are those who stand to gain from it and those who ride its coattails, whether from a thirst for power or a thirst for wealth. Advertisers and those who fund them desperately want us to go back to being spoiled little children, because spoiled little children are the easiest consumers to seduce.”

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