Thinking of James Wright

I know, I know, there are those who call
Two horses in particular–
One is young and one is old
Though they think they’re brothers—
So that I, a blind man
Hear them like books read aloud.
No sentiment; no romance;
Each has his voice
Each wants a touch.
I run my fingers gently
Down their long foreheads
Lightly across their noses.
What are we waiting for?
What are we going to do about it
In the meantime?

Alone with Caruso in the Attic at Five

I was alone but not unhappy. That was the thing. Wind up the Victrola, listen to incomprehensible words and musical notes. And sometimes hornets flew over my head. Was it Caruso who kept them away? Whatever the case the hornets never bothered me. The snick of the needle hit the outermost circumference of disk. The systolic static from the horn. One more second and the music starts. 

Thinking of Cesar Vallejo, Early Morning, in the Age of Police Brutality

I want to begin with a short poem by the great Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo, translated by Robert Bly: 

Black Stone Lying On A White Stone

I will die in Paris, on a rainy day,

on some day I can already remember.

I will die in Paris—and I don’t step aside—

perhaps on a Thursday, as today is Thursday, in autumn.

   It will be a Thursday, because today, Thursday, setting down

these lines, I have put my upper arm bones on 

wrong, and never so much as today have I found myself

with all the road ahead of me, alone.

   César Vallejo is dead.  Everyone beat him

although he never does anything to them;

they beat him hard with a stick and hard also

   with a rope.  These are the witnesses:

the Thursdays, and the bones of my arms,

the solitude, and the rain, and the roads. . .

This poem has been much on my mind for several reasons. Vallejo wrote it in despair and weariness. As a Marxist poet living in exile in Paris he was hounded by the police, was frequently arrested and subjected to beatings. His is the true story of literary exile in Paris as opposed to the white privilege story of Hemingway and his circle. Hemingway’s crowd held no political positions and fought for no causes. 

It’s also been in my thoughts because it’s about life inside the broken body which to my mind makes it a disability poem. His upper arm bones are wrong, his will can’t change the fact, and like so many cripples he finds himself alone. The only witnesses? The opaque and unfeeling days. 

The third reason the poem’s been in my thoughts is that we’re living in a globalized police state now. From Minneapolis to Mumbai; from Atlanta to Ashgabat police violence is not just the norm, it’s welcomed by the ruling classes. This poem is about the toll this takes “on the inside”—what this does to “the inner life.”

The poet will die in Paris on a rainy day—a day he can already remember, for death by persecution really never ends. 

It’s a brave poem. It skips the contemporary American penchant for lyric poems that sentimentalize the glories of nature or the joys of sex.  

It’s a brave poem. There’s a hint of Orwell. (The jackboot that’s going to step on you throughout eternity.) 

It’s a brave poem. Cesar Vallejo never does anything to anyone and they beat him for his very consciousness and his foreign appearance. 

It’s a brave poem because he wrote it without sentimentally. 

It is much on my mind. 

March

There was rain falling through spring branches and then it was gone. For an hour or so no birds sang. The world can in fact be quiet. The old couple next door slept in the afternoon with their radio tuned to static. Telephone calls entered a void. I know something about hope: people create angels but only when they’re alone.

Lying on the Frozen Lawn in Syracuse

Open the door. Newspaper in the grass. Big headline about local basketball team. I decide to lie in the grass.

Don’t be sentimental.

Be sentimental.

When the frost hits my shoulder blades I get up, go into the house. Start a fire with the newspaper.

**

I like Paul. After the road to Damascus he understood folly. Christ risen is the most glorious and improbable thing. You can’t make good sense out of it. And that’s god.

(A thought while lying on the lawn….)

**

As for me….I’m folly too. And I make so many mistakes. But it’s the spiritual ones that matter. Poetry like god is improbable.

**

When I was an undergrad I found a couplet by one of my teachers, the poet James Crenner: “Life is like a game of chess /death is like two games of chess.”

I loved the wit of this and still do. For instance: If you checkmate death (a la Bergman) are you reborn or do you sit throughout all eternity waiting for another opponent? Does death always win? Does Jesus play chess? What about the effects of analogy, to borrow Wallace Stevens’ phrase, that is, since life and death are not like chess what do we gain or lose by saying so?

**

I really was lying on the lawn in the bright frost.

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 

Marigolds

Of blindness I’ve written much
But not of the marigold.
A failing yes.
Astringency—yellow
Happy in birth
As children are not
Or the beautiful foal
Unsteady on her legs
Cannot be.
Your first arrival
Is cream on cream
So bright
The Romans called you
Officinalis
Important in cheer.
Unprompted earth.

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 

Ripeness is All

Beethoven’s violin concerto is the perfect balance of milk and milk.
Adorno’s dialectic is to body shame as money is to dialysis.
Disability studies is to ableism as crickets in August.
Wallace Stevens is to philosophy as bibles are to baking.
When poets have fun so do the tea cups.
Playing the violin burns about 170 calories per hour.

**

How close am I to becoming someone?
Of course I mean this in a moral sense.
I have the history of morals here in my cup.
Dregs of Aristotle.
Push them with my finger.
Happiness. Virtue. Work.
Remember to be a good flute player.

**

I ask so many questions.
Why do I believe I should soften death?

**

What is someone?
Is it cumulative flowers on a grave?
Even Shakespeare threw up his hands.
I joked once in a Helsinki pub:
Lear is a self help book…
“Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.”

**

Thank God I have the radio for company.
Thank God for William Shakespeare, life coach:
“And worse I may be yet: the worst is not
So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.”

**

After Ecclesiastes:

I haven’t been true to myself lately
I press my face into barberry leaves
I weep among stems
If you know me you’ll not be surprised
If you know me you too will be honest

When I Close My Eyes

Face it: its feeling drives you
No help for it
Bread sits untouched
& the country that isn’t a place
Takes you in

**

Yes I’m blind
I can still see a swan’s track
On the water

**

History calls the sleepless

**

After years
I’m not much of a talker
I prefer to drop things

**

The houses hereabouts have no special beauty
You won’t find gorgeous specificities
Strangers have sorrow smoke in their eyes

**

Up in the tree of boyhood
With a home made arrow and bow
When I close my eyes