Disability Poetics: Essay Number Three

John Ruskin wrote: “all architecture proposes an effect on the human mind, not merely a service to the human frame.”

The service to the human frame is precisely the thing Ruskin understood least though I’m not willing to throw away the Seven Lamps of Architecture. In any event you can see the Victorian problem. The mind and body perforce occupy separate rooms. You can call them Jekyll and Hyde.

Speaking as a cripple and a blind one at that, the schism-problem still has to be endured where architectures are concerned. Have you ever tried to pass through a revolving door with a guide dog? Yes and stairs built to enforce grandeur are surely an endurance test.

In his excellent book “Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education” Jay Dolmage talks about the ideological nature of steep steps:

“If we were to object that such steps make the university inaccessible, many universities would make the argument that steep steps are stylistically desirable, that they fit with the template, the architectural fingerprint of the school: all the buildings are the same color, with the same size Ionic columns, maybe even the same number of stairs leading up to buildings. These counterarguments show the ways that in the construction and maintenance of the steep steps there is also a latent argument about aesthetics or appearances, one that trips over to the classroom, into ideology and into pedagogy, where teachers are also sometimes concerned about pattern, clarity, propriety—and these things are believed to be “beautiful””

Steps are my enemies and the faculty ableists who unknowingly sweep those steps are to me the poorest sect of all, praying and fasting to keep the deformed out of the gated yard.

Ode to the University’s Steps

I, a blind man,
Cannot see you
But I hear you
And I swear
You sing
Not of petroglyphs
Nor of Venus
You sing of fire
With mouths
Of earth
Your broken voices
Open a dirge
Of buried light
So I must tap my way
Up and down
Your grave song
Pretending
You’re innocent
And I know
You will never
Believe me
My friends
But the stones
Of the chapel
Sing of great violence.

Disability Poetics: Essay Number One

Critical disability studies and crip studies seek to destabilize traditional modes of body analysis and affirm (perhaps an ableist trope) a post-static and unreferenced sense of bodies. I sometimes think of classic, normative bodies as vanishing before our eyes like Brigadoon. In this way I relish what Lennard J. Davis calls the end of normalcy. I like to say (because I’m a poet) that I’m not a blind man at all but instead a rider of dragons. The smoke I leave behind is poetry. It suits me. This is disability as epistemological fancy. This also suits me.

John Ruskin wrote: “The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it.” I’m not so naive as to agree but where the spirit is concerned I’ll take it. Poetry and disability are snug together in the mysterious, rich, daily toil toward newer potentialities. If Ezra Pound was right and poetry is news that stays news one might say crippled poetry is the news which also invites you to turn the page. I’ll say the disabled are different over the course of the day. All disability is protean. We work with it and against it and we adopt multiple accommodations and no one knows more than the crips we’re not static bodies at all. By day’s end my dragon might be a gila monster. And I might be inapparent as twilight comes. Maybe all you’ll see of me are my pin prick glowing spider’s eyes—you know, those eyes that scare children on camping trips.

When I got my first guide dog back in 1994 the guide dog school made me sign a paper that said, among other things, that I wouldn’t use my guide dog for the purpose of begging. Imagine the back stories. I went home and wrote the following poem:

To a Blind Man Selling Pencils: New York City

And then, others arrived:
Eyes first, surveyors, important men,
Men who wore the flag—runners,
Who fill the streets in every town.
They carried sacks like thieves.
Every day such men feel their blood rise:
It uses them, returns them to the avenues
And I alone discovered them, one by one.
I was of the provinces. I was reflected
In their eyes like a fire.
Some men possess the color of origin—
The blind man is amaranth, aman-word of sorts,
A word that will be mistaken on earth.
Still I saluted the closed world
Without its consent,
Crossed the water of streets
And raised a sign
Unreadable as the moon.
My plea had the whiteness
Of things that have no use in life
And the words were Nothing more than a scar
That someone must have given me.
Why then did your name appear
Like the marks of a wheel
In this unyielding light?

What was I after? For one thing a reader response confusion between the able bodied starer and the thing stared at. Abjection is currency and it is exchanged to the detriment of both parties. Sighted people protect themselves from this by imagining they’ve not been changed by their acts of half conscious charity—but fear and beneficence are a losing hand for they suggest poverty and neglect are the yardsticks by which all people must be judged. Another way to say it is: if the disabled must represent society’s failures then you the apparently abled observer must be more than half in love with sufferance. The most often employed phrase for this is “there but for the grace of God go I.”

How many scars can the able bodied give the disabled? None if we say so.

What the Imagination is For: Reflections on Boyhood Cruelty

I make jokes like most people. When I was young I made some cruel jokes as I was bullied for my disability and I looked for children more vulnerable than I was in order to humiliate them and gain a modicum of status. Status is a fragile thing when you’re twelve years old. Having it or not depends on the temporary love of brutish schoolmates and in my case gaining this required art. I remain ashamed of the story I’m about to tell. I make no excuses. If being a blind kid in public school was rough, if I was pushed down stairs, if my glasses were stolen, if I was targeted with nicknames, well so what? I was clever and desperate.

I picked out a kid who sat next to me in math class. His name was Norman and that was bad enough. But he was also gangly, awkward, ill at ease in his skin–just like me. Talk about Carl Jung’s “shadow”–I saw in him everything I hated about myself. He wore maladjusted spectacles and had uncombable hair. There was really nothing wrong with him. It didn’t matter. I could see he was defenseless. He stammered slightly. He was shy. He became my target.

What did I do, you ask? I made him legendary. I drew cartoons depicting him as an ostrich boy with a bird’s body, a periscope neck and a wide grinning face and I named this creature “Normanure.” I even made fun of his stammer with a cartoon bubble that said “Duh!” Though I could scarcely see I could draw serviceably and quickly. I plastered Normanure all over the school. This ugly episode lasted about a week before a school official caught me sticking a cartoon on a bulletin board. But here’s what I recall most vividly. Before being apprehended for assholery Norman himself accosted me and rather than punching me out he asked the most basic and fair question anyone can ask his tormentor: “Why are you doing this?”

I couldn’t answer him. I slunk away. I had no language to describe the starved mice eating my nervous system or my shame at being blind or my terror when thinking about how I might live. I was dehumanizing a perfectly good person.

That was fifty years ago. I remain sorry to this day. And the terrible ugliness of online trolling; the name calling spurred on by the current putative president; the sorrows of people with disabilities who are still largely unemployed and unappreciated–these are never far from my thoughts. And no, I can’t expiate my miniature “Lord of the Flies” moment with a blog post. Nor can I tell you that nowadays I’m an exemplary man. But I do believe in emotional candor and ethics of care. I’m alarmed by all the big bodied twelve year olds I see in the public square. But I’m alarmed also by the knowledge that my insecurities can produce cruelty. It is altogether proper to know what the imagination is really for.

On Being the Only Cripple at the Arts Colony

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

And yes, a few ripping good laughs.

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.

Disability by Any Other Name

I’ve been disabled all my life and I hate the term. Beneath it, like Poe’s tell tale heart, is the pulse of loss. The “d” word is Karl Marx’s term: a 19th century mark for injured workers. It originally meant the lack of utility or earning power owing to a broken body. I prefer to be called a citizen.

That I’m a blind citizen should matter not at all. Did you know that blindness is nothing more than being born left handed? Disability is a false name which pulses underneath us and continues to cause human beings with diverse bodies terrible harm.

Of course there are cutesy efforts to fix the d word like putting the “dis” in parentheses to emphasize ability. This has always seemed to me like putting antlers on a cat. Diversions are seldom more than gestures and unless you’re using sign language gestures don’t mean much. Most if not all disabled will agree we’ve had enough of gestures.

The d word can’t describe me or the hundreds of d people I know. My band is made up of practical men, women, and children who have imaginations, wisdoms, loves, sorrows, tastes, and ambitions. For them the d is a horse collar—outdated, heavy. No one needs a horse collar anymore. Blind I’m disabled by the idea I’ve nothing to give. Disabled I’m doubly blind—not seeing becomes figurative worthlessness.

Citizen is better. I’d like my value to be understood as a matter of the hive. And yes, “value” is another tell tale heart. Value for whom? What does value mean? Why should the tax payer pay for a kid with Down syndrome to go to school?

Hitler called the disabled “useless eaters” to suggest the state shouldn’t support the unproductive. The presumption of competence, that the disabled have potential can’t co-exist in a purely industrial and essentialized vision of human bodies. It’s a terrifying vision. The d word is outworn, dangerous, and like the horse collar above, unsuited to a century when work itself is being reexamined.

I believe the future of work will involve more and more autonomous systems—robotics, driverless cars, supply chains that are fully automated. What will work mean for humans? It’s possible that deconstructing the d word will be important for everyone. Or it already is.

The Blind Eyes are Lonely Hunters: My Life in Higher Education

1.

They come late. They had some way to travel. The blind eyes enter a room. Sighted colleagues have read all the reports before them. And the man with the blind eyes sits down. Accessible materials are not provided. The others call him “professor” though it means little. He’s without info like a cat without whiskers; like a ghost without living people to haunt; a ballplayer without a glove. Now in his early sixties he comprehends how improbable his professional life really is. He’s not meant to be here. He’s been told so all his days.

Nevertheless…

He reads everything he needs to. Since the committee never gives him the materials in advance he must read the agenda and the report while everyone else has already digested them. In this way he is sub-literate and it proves their point, their implicit bias for atopic literacy is questionable. Reading differently, slowly, after the fact, from the margins, why that isn’t reading at all.

2.

That he’s lonely in the academy is unquestionable. Because he studied poetry in his youth he knows a good deal about loneliness and understands its spiritual and secular effects. He loves Jesus for his brave solitudes and his sacrificial acceptance of pain. That Christ never abandoned empathy, never unclenched the burning rose of love, he keeps in mind always.
But he’s lonely as a lost shoe, like a fish still respiring in ice. He’s a bird flying underground.
You see, he did study poetry. Analogies are his anodyne. He’s lonely as the rains arriving on time.

3.

Poetry, the writing of it, the study of it, was for him a reasonable accommodation. If he couldn’t read forty books in a semester he could read three poems well. He knew the smell of rotting pears and why it broke Goethe’s heart. He understood why Byzantine louts secretly hated their libraries. He saw in the Codex Sinaiticus proof of the inalienable wisdom that we’re small. We are very very small.

Human beings are questions asked of another question. Yeats: “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”

As his eyes will never grow sharper he will open to magics.

More Yeats:

“Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.”

4.

So poetry was my first educational accommodation. And a beautiful irony it is, for poetry is not reasonable at all.

Tone ex nihilo.

I’m familiar with all those songs that start from nothing.

5.

I am a senior faculty member with a distinguished professorship at Syracuse University. I’m also conditional in the agora. Just two weeks ago a man who I assume was a professor, for he had the angular characteristic gestures of privileged catastrophe, came unbidden into my personal space (such a lovely modernist, cosmopolitan conceit, personal space) and told me that by not picking up my guide dog’s feces I was “antisocial”—which is of course confirmation bias at best, and unsympathetic gibbering at worst—but either way, it was snowing hard, I had no idea where a trash can might be, and who in their right mind picks on a blind person?

I’m contingent on my campus. Alright. Alright. I know all about the first handwritten manuscript in a Slavic tongue. Old Finn Vainamoinen is my secret friend. I know how to enter and leave the guts of dead shamans and steal their secrets.

6.

There’s a tremendous freedom to the imagination. Though I’m often not welcome in academic environs (insisting on accessible web pages; inclusive software; descriptive videos; braille signage ((of which Syracuse has very little))) demanding my dignity; I know all about the cuneiform implications of sharp edged shadows and all their ironic and skeptical intelligences.
Around me everything is alive.

All my poetic currencies stay at the right rate.

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