Corporate Culture and Disability Employment, or Blueberries and Battleships….

While the GOP pushes its anti-unionist “right to work” narrative I think it’s high time the disabled steal the slogan. My global village remains unemployed. The right to work should be a matter of citizenship.

In their 2005 article “Corporate Culture and the Employment of Persons with Disabilities” Lisa Schur, Douglas Krusez and Peter Blanck raised a number of vital questions about business culture and disability: “What role does corporate culture play in the employment of people with disabilities? How does it facilitate or hinder their employment and promotional opportunities, and how can corporations develop supportive cultures that benefit people with disabilities, non-disabled employees, and the organization as a whole?”

(http://disability.law.uiowa.edu/lhpdc/publications/documents/BSL_JanFeb_2005/Corporate_culture.pdf)

One thing that really caught my eye in the article is this prodigious quote:

“When individuals with disabilities attempt to gain admittance to most organizational settings, it is as if a space ship lands in the corporate boardroom and little green men from Mars ask to be employed.”
—John, a 58-year-old employed man with paraplegia.

John, who I’ve not met, is my neighbor in the global village. If, like me, you’re disabled and have a job you’re automatically exceptional though the chances are good you’ll not feel that way. That is, once inside the workplace you’re still a little green man or woman. Meanwhile 6 out of 10 disabled people of working age remain jobless in the United States.

(https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2018/07/25/only-four-out-of-ten-working-age-adults-with-disabilities-are-employed/)

The Schur, Krusez and Blanck article highlights “the taken for granted beliefs” within corporate cultures:

“These ‘‘taken-for-granted beliefs’’ usually are unspoken and often unconscious. More formally, corporate culture at this level consists of a pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.”

The espoused values of the organization generally reflect what has worked in the past. Inviting green men and women into the community has not been a part of past practice.

**

Now the obstacles to change within organizations are considerable. Several years ago I came across a small pamphlet called Rejoicing in Diversity by Alan Weiss. The subtitle of the booklet was: “A Handbook for Managers on How to Accept and Embrace Diversity for Its Intrinsic Contribution to the Workplace”–-certainly a mouthful and perhaps not much of an advertisement. But I liked the word “rejoicing” and I also liked “intrinsic” for when you put these words side by side they speak of poetry. (The Chinese have two ideograms that stand together for poetry: a figure for “word” and a figure for “temple”). In any event, diversity in the workplace is seldom framed in ways that suggest spirit. Yet at the core of culture, spirit is all there is. Take away politics, real estate, the fighting over which end of the egg to crack and what you have left is the human wish for meaning. We tend to lose sight of this in Human Resources circles, substituting phrases like: Raising the Bar, Leadership, Assets, and the like. Talking about spirit is embarrassing. It’s like talking about the philosophers’ stone. Not even medieval historians feel comfortable talking about alchemy. You might look foolish. And we all know that the workplace should not be foolish.

I have advised many organizations on matters of disability and inclusion over the years. These opportunities came about because my first book of nonfiction was a bestseller and because for a time I was a senior administrator at one of the nation’s premier guide dog training schools. I had the opportunity to travel widely. Between 1995 and 2000 I visited 47 of the states in “the lower 48” and spoke at local, state, and federal agencies and public and private colleges. I have advised lots of blue chip organizations including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Metropolitan Museum, the Kennedy Center, even resorts and hotels. Inevitably, wherever I have spoken I’ve heard the rhetoric of middle management: “empowerment”; “equal opportunity”; “productivity”; “zero tolerance”; “bias”; “sensitivity” and the like.

There is nothing wrong with these terms but to paraphrase Bill Clinton there’s nothing right about them either. And this is because the terms have no alchemy in them. They’re just nouns. Not all nouns have spirit inside them. The word “battleship” has no spirit but the word “blueberry” does. One of the first things a poet has to learn is that not all nouns are obedient to the soul.

Well meaning organizations (and some that may not be so) rely on the rhetoric of inclusion without imagining the opportunities for soul–and I mean “soul” the way Marvin Gaye would mean it: its what’s goin’ on. The human soul is present everywhere whether management acknowledges it or not. By way of analogy one can think of management as playing “battleship” while the soul is picking berries. Human souls are looking for ways to be fed and to be happy; management is often trapped in brittle or arid pronouncements.

Alan Weiss wrote:

“I have had the rather unique experiences of providing comprehensive reports to top-level executives on the acceptance of diversity in the workplace, only to have them shout, wide-eyed, “That’s not my company you’re describing!” Yet the feedback has been based on extensive focus group and survey work. Who’s wrong?

No one is wrong. What’s happened is that the respondents have reported what they are actually experiencing, I’ve conveyed that feedback accurately, and the executives are using their own intent and strategy as their frame of reference. The psychologists would call it cognitive dissonance–fully expecting one set of circumstances, while experiencing quite another.

The phenomenon at work is what I call the “thermal layer,” which is a management layer capable of distorting communications and directives it receives, turning them into something quite different. Managers in the thermal layer are the ones who actually control resources, make daily decisions and deal with the customer. They often have strong vested interests in preserving the status quo…think they have a better way of doing things, don’t trust senior management, don’t buy-into the strategy or, for whatever reasons, have some agenda of their own. “

Alan Weiss has perfectly described the breakdown that most often creates obstacles to true diversity and inclusion–or to use the language of the soul, communal berry tasting and picking.

For many years I’ve been asking folks at the universities where I’ve taught to take ownership of disability and accessibility and I have found a deeply invested thermal layer–a phenomenon I like to call the “Campus Rope-a-Dope” to borrow from Mr. Ali. The Campus Rope-a-Dope takes advantage of highly silo-ed administrative hierarchies to in effect pass the buck where disability and accessibility are concerned. Let’s be clear: no one wants to be identified as being part of the thermal layer just as no faculty member wants to be outed for being “dead wood”–and let’s also be clear that the person who persists in calling for blueberries when everyone else wants to talk about battleships will eventually be the victim of considerable distortion.

Alan Weiss again:

“Organizations seldom if ever fail in their intent, executive direction or strategy formulation. They fail in the execution and implementation of their initiatives. Nowhere is that more true than in the accommodation of diversity.”

For my own part I’ve called for universities to provide accessible bathrooms in buildings where I’ve taught. The struggles were astonishing. At the level of departmental administration, no one knows who’s in charge of these matters. That’s because the thermal layer is in charge. And the T.L. has a hundred silos. It also has committees.

I was once upbraided at the University of Iowa by someone from the human resources department. I’d been calling for the installation of assistive technology in the classrooms where I’d been teaching for over three years. The lack of compliance and communication around the issue had been comical and my method of handling it had been to bring my own talking laptop into each classroom and manfully wired it to the projection system–sometimes this worked and sometimes it didn’t. My every teaching experience was therefore a kind of gamble. No one was in charge. How was I upbraided? I was told that by calling attention to my difficulties with assistive technology compliance I’d done considerable damage to my reputation with the committee that handled disability issues–the point being that I’d apparently not gone through the proper channels in my requests for accommodations. This is how the thermal layer works. The thermal layer likes to deflect by distortion. And there were no proper channels.

Alan Weiss:

“How could anyone oppose an accommodating, equal-opportunity workplace?”

“Well, we know that some people can, sometimes with malicious motives, sometimes with prejudicial judgment, and sometimes because they perceive themselves to be adversely affected by the policies. You must be constantly on the watch for thermal zone reactions and distortions. If there’s a policy or value which causes conflict in the workplace, bring it to the surface and discuss openly. If there are misconceptions about policies, resolve them. The failure to do this doesn’t make the policies go away, it simply preserves the thermal layer until, like the executives above, the key decision makers get some shocking news. The reaction to that is usually worse than any other alternative, because senior management will try to legislate change rather than help people to embrace it.”

This brings us back to blueberries vs. battleships. The spirit of diversity vs. the demeaning of diversity initiatives through the employment of thermal language.

Because no one is really in charge when it comes to planning and implementation all disability accommodations are treated reactively and not proactively.

**

Workplace culture is a misnomer. Workplaces are generally affected by habits, old ones, and the thermal layer is where old patterns reside.

The green men and women are afterthoughts.

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 

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 

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 

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 

Those Old Contours of Ableism

Disability is everywhere once you learn to look for it. Elvis Presley had continuous high grade pain the last ten years of his life. Samuel Johnson was legally blind, suffered from seizures, and may well have had a variant of Tourette’s Syndrome. The people in my neighborhood are touched by disablement. Some show it. Others do not. Normalcy, the belief in it, the animadversion to live it or else is the most destructive fiction in the world. What does it avail me to say so? And why do I keep saying it?

In her excellent book The Contours of Ableism (an elegant title I think) Fiona Kumari Campbell imagines the structural and attitudinal dispositions against the disabled as residing within a telos or set of illusions that maintain the non-disabled identity. When I write against disability discrimination and the privilege indexes of ableism I’m engaging in the work of all disabled activists by asserting the truth of the matter:

“Ableism refers to: a network of beliefs, processes and practices that produces a particular kind of self and body (the corporeal standard) that is projected as the perfect, species-typical and therefore essential and fully human. Disability then is cast as a diminished state of being human.”

Excerpt From: “Contours of Ableism.” Apple Books.

So if there are so many disabled people around why does compulsory normalization still rule the roost? The contours of ableism are protean rather than strictly geometric.

Fiona Campbell writes:

“Whether it be the ‘species typical body’ (in science), the ‘normative citizen’ (in political theory), the ‘reasonable man’ (in law), all these signifiers point to a fabrication that reaches into the very soul that sweeps us into life and as such is the outcome and instrument of a political constitution: a hostage of the body.”

Excerpt From: “Contours of Ableism.” Apple Books.

One of the interesting things about ableism is that whatever form it takes it occupies the future perfect. There will be time enough to make things right for the non-normals but not today. One may fair say “not today” is the motto of the thing. Non hodie in Latin. Picture a flag bearing the image of an indolent house cat. Not today will we question our assumptions about the majority of bodies on the planet. Ableism also refrains from saying “maybe tomorrow.”

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 

G.K. Chesterton’s Free Thinking

There should be a place in the public’s mind for G.K, Chesterton. The great Victorian writer understood better than most that absurdity and discernment are intellectual bulwarks against tyranny. He wrote: “Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.” Let’s be clear: poets are mysteriously silent about many things.

I was yesterday joking with a friend, a poet, who was lamenting a tendency in contemporary verse—how does one put it? The kind of poem where the poet tells us someone has been murdered right before his or her or they eyes and then goes on to tell us what’s for breakfast.
The personal is political until it isn’t. In other words: claiming a political life isn’t the same as living one.

Chesterton: “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.”

What a relief he often is.

“The word “good” has many meanings. For example, if a man were to shoot his grandmother at a range of five hundred yards, I should call him a good shot, but not necessarily a good man.”

**

A disabled poet I know thinks the entire able bodied civilization despises the cripples. She’s right of course. We rely on social programs, trouble the architects, bother administrators charged with the enforcement of normalcy. There just ain’t no way around it, the lame and the halt are trouble.

Chesterton; “Dear Sir: Regarding your article ‘What’s Wrong with the World?’ I am. Yours truly,”

I’m for the democratic ideal of wrongness. This is where true equality resides.

Perhaps my favorite Chesterton quote is this one:

“The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have two great types — the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins. He admires them especially by moonlight, not to say moonshine. Each new blunder of the progressive or prig becomes instantly a legend of immemorial antiquity for the snob. This is called the balance, or mutual check, in our Constitution.”

One is reminded of the late poet James Tate who wrote:

“Curses on those who do or do not take dope.”

**

Chesterton was a fierce opponent of eugenics. He famously said:

“There exists today a scheme of action, a school of thought, as collective and unmistakable as any of those by whose grouping alone we can make any outline of history. It is as firm a fact as the Oxford Movement, or the Puritans of the Long Parliament; or the Jansenists; or the Jesuits. It is a thing that can be pointed out; it is a thing that can be discussed; and it is a thing that can still be destroyed. It is called for convenience “Eugenics”; and that it ought to be destroyed I propose to prove in the pages that follow. I know that it means very different things to different people; but that is only because evil always takes advantage of ambiguity. I know it is praised with high professions of idealism and benevolence; with silver-tongued rhetoric about purer motherhood and a happier posterity. But that is only because evil is always flattered, as the Furies were called “The Gracious Ones.””

Excerpt From: “Eugenics and Other Evils.” Apple Books.

Who takes advantage of ambiguity in our time?

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.