Disability Poetics: Essay Number Four

I peel off my skin, hair, toss away my eyes, walk around with veins exposed, all the while “me” in a hanging blood gout. You can tell it’s Kuusisto: his heart ticks like hot metal.
“It’s me! It’s me!” says the heart. The bones stick out. And he waves his poems like a child begging attention from adults.

“The first and perhaps most obvious literary representation of disability is that in which it acts as some form of ethical background to the actions of other characters, or as a means of testing or enhancing their moral standing. Martha Stoddard Holmes (2002, 228) refers to this kind of representation as “critical null sets, convenient containers for the essential human emotions required by the nondisabled characters around them.” ”

(Ato Quayson. “Aesthetic Nervousness.”)

Ah but the crippled poet has given up on the moral standing of others.

Nevertheless she, he, they, them, naked, slick, drifting, refinds the solitudes from which we’re born.

Mozart’s Piano

It’s raining in Syracuse, New York where I make my living teaching university courses about disability and the arts. Later today the rain will turn to snow. Of the grayness I’m fond of saying I’m a Finn and it can’t phase me. Yet these last few weeks have opened a portal and the grayness is seeping in. This is the gray stain where a portrait once hung; the lithic gray of the imagination trying to picture the future. Poetry is helpful. Mozart piano sonatas are good. I admire Mozart’s speed and cheer in the face of death which was everywhere in his world.

Speed and cheer.

Now you’re getting somewhere Kuusisto.

Cheer is a funny word. It comes to English via old French chiere which meant face. It’s a mask, a disguise, a pose. In a very real sense cheer is stoicism. The British stiff upper lip.

But if that was all there was to it cheer would be a social lie and of course it isn’t.

Cheer is motion. It is “going further” than wasting one’s time talking to sinister capitalists.

It’s knowing you’ll derive from this planet something something you needed to take with you on your way.

That is why Mozart’s piano fast or slow is so tender.

CHRISTMAS 1961: UNCLE CHUCK

By Michael Meteyer

(From a Silly in Progress)

Uncle Chuck smoked five cigars a day, dressed like a tweed wastebasket, and was rumored to do unpalatable things with his hands.

A hug from Uncle Chuck was like a dive into a smoldering garbage bin, and would hang on you for days afterwards, like a miasma from a swamp of dead alligators, frog innards and spoiled wet tobacco and moldy latrines.

Uncle Chuck was a tenor with the voice of an angel. He sang songs from World War l.

His speaking voice was as plummy as a radio announcer from the 1940s. Everything about Uncle Chuck except for his odor was plummy, even his face color, even his body shape, which was round, with a crease in his forehead where you expected a stem to appear, as if he were a tomato.

There were rumors about Uncle Chuck. We were told as children, to never ask about Uncle Chucks history, which only made us more curious.

Was Uncle Chuck a murderer? Did he work for the government? Had he been a florist? Did he come back from the dead?

No matter: at every family gathering Uncle Chuck was central to a ritual that had evolved.

First there was the imbibing and storytelling, our paramount adult activities: and to this day I am so grateful I came from a clan of storytellers who cherished language as much as a Babylonian farmer cherished his hoe.

Then after the initial bonhomie, and then the giddiness, and then wild laughter, and then me and my brother Timmy would get in a fistfight, and the gathering would become sad and wistful… then it was time for Uncle Chuck to sing the mournful song “My Buddy”.

“My Buddy” was a song from the Great War about the death of a friend, which, although I didn’t know it then, was also about the death of youth, and the end of dreams, and the impermanence of… everything, especially precious family instances and crowded Christmas moments.

Uncle Chuck’s angelic voice- the voice of a plummy winged angel- brought tears to everyone’s eyes, even to those of us, adolescents, who had no knowledge yet of the preciousness of common things and tiring rituals.

I remember the thick snow falling outside, slow but insistent, illuminated by the multiple colors of lights on all the houses in the neighborhood. It seemed like each snowflake was a different color, but I realize now this was because of the Christmas lights on the houses behind them. Something like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

“Each snowflake”, Aunt Marla once confided to me in slurred tones, “Is not only a piece of time, which melts the moment you think about it; it is the secret kiss of an anonymish, ah, aninnymoosh angel who will protect you. And there are numberless angels… They shee everything you do. Except, we’ll, let’s just say they know when to look away. They know what it means to be alive. Most of them. They aren’t nosy, they just want to protect you. Did I tell you they were numberless? Like snowdrops? Like kisses from your Aunt Marla”?

Then she would giggle, and give me a kiss: wet, like a snowdrop, but much warmer, and then she would look deeply into my eyes, as if seeing all things past and future, but especially the present. And her eyes would fixate that moment into my consciousness like it was riveted by a laser beam.

But then her eyes would quiver and she’d burp or hiccup or something, and it rather changed the moment.

In Babylonian Times there were parties and rituals around the solstice, and lamps and torches set alight in the dark, and the presentation of gifts and the recitation of prayers to urge the Sun, the God that controlled the light, to come back, to return us to light and warmth again.

They acted as if light and warmth and illumination were as fragile and promising as a new born infant, as if everything, even the continuation of life, depended upon its growth and thriving.

Those Babylonians didn’t have snow. Or tinsel. They had their own form of crèches, and talked to the statuettes in them all year, as if they were alive, but that is a different thing, and I don’t want to get into it now.

Those Babylonians, they didn’t have snow, either.

They didn’t have, like I had, Gloria Matthews dressed up as the Virgin Mary in our fifth grade Christmas play.

They didn’t have, as we have, the Christ child.

And then as now, several thousands of years later, the prayers and the lights and the gifts and the love worked. The infant son, as good as God, began its way home us, bringing more light and longer days.

I’m sure the pagan Babylonians had their own version of doleful ballads and plummy Uncle Chucks.

And when Uncle Chuck finished singing, we were all as quiet as the stars in the night sky.

Then the adults would wipe away their tears, and begin to sober up for the journey home.

Michael Meteyer is a longtime friend of the blind, a newly retired orientation and mobility instructor. He studies creative writing at the University of Rochester with the poet Anthony Hecht and spent many afternoons riding horses with Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He lives in San Rafael, California.

Alone in Boston, Guide Dog Notwithstanding

I’m alone with my guide dog Caitlyn in the back bay of Boston. Tonight we’ll take in a ball game at Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox. Dog and man going solo to a stadium. Sometimes in this blind life I worry in advance: how will it go? Will everything be OK? Will I find my seat? Will I find my way back to my seat after searching for a hot dog? Will strangers be helpful? Will I experience kindness? Then in occurs to me, these questions are ordinary—everyone has them, blindness or not. Will this day receive me? How will it go?

There’s a song by the late great Lou Reed that I like which has the refrain “it takes a bus load of faith to get by…” I’ve always liked Lou’s employment of “faith” which he offers with a hint of irony to be sure. A bus load of faith is a crowd’s worth of faith—we will get where we need to go without mishap. And we’ll manage it because we all had the proper thoughts. We kept that bus on the road with our individual and collective magic. Faith is hard work.

I think this is why I like to just take off and go places by myself. Or with just my dog for company, I feel the skin of my faith grow tighter. I step out into the unfamiliar. I’m alert to the mysteries of being alive and the sheer improbability of having a consciousness. I walk down Boyleston Street and feel how provisionally alive I am and how lucky. And I don’t know precisely where I’m going.

I’ve been teaching this week at a wonderful low residency creative writing MFA program called “Solstice” located at Pine Manor College in Chestnut Hills. As a nonfiction writer I’m often talking about the essay—how creative prose can help us shape experience, make sense of the blooming buzz as they say. One may think of the essay as a soothing corral for the mind. Here is a shape in language within which we can rest, survey, feel a bit less panicked by the wideness of perception. Sometimes a horse, upon entering the corral is instantly calm.

And then there’s the horse who gallops into the shadows and sun beams with no idea where she or he is going.

I think that’s me just now. Enter the day. Get a little lost. Feel again the ache of amazement, that transverse cross of body and mind.

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 

Wittgenstein for Breakfast

From a Notebook circa 1990: 

Comic irony: the condition of knowing what you didn’t know just seconds ago or years back and then, knowing how to think about it. 

Tragic irony: the condition of not knowing the above while others do. 

Morning irony: understanding you’ve the blues and knowing you’ll have to work with them all day. 

Evening irony: seeing how the blues at 6 AM were correct or incorrect. 

Luck stands between the above like an 18th century lamp lighter. 

“What did the president know and when did he know it?” was not, as many believe, a political or juridical question, but one connoting either comic or tragic irony. Nixon is one of the few public figures to have had both. He knew he’d broken the law. He didn’t know quite how he came to be a law breaker. His answer, deflective, was to say “everybody does this….”

Whenever you hear someone say, “everybody does this,” remember the double tragic irony of not knowing which camp above you fit into. 

I’ve always liked James Tate’s line: “curses on those who do or do not take dope.”

**

Memory

I loved my mother

She was always a such dark person

I see her everywhere in the woods

Muisti

Rakastin äitiäni

Hän oli aina tumma henkilö

Näen hänet kaikkialla metsässä

**

I guess there’s another category: forest irony. Where you recognize the animism of your subconscious. 

**

I think of Ludwig Wittgenstein some mornings. Isn’t that odd? He occurs to me very early. 

Usually it’s this quote that pops into my waking noggin:

“Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in the way in which our visual field has no limits.” 

Oh I like this for lots of reasons. As a visually limited man I admire the temerity of the utterance, insofar as all humans have some kind of visual limitation. Wittgenstein posits the power of imagination to declare anything, and then, with a smear of logic, to cement an idea into consciousness. I suspect this is how he survived the trenches in WW I. And I know for certain its how the disabled survive. Look at the nouns: 

Death. Event. Life. Experience. Eternity. Duration. 

In my sophomore year of college I was fascinated by Boolean algebra. In mathematical logic, Boolean algebra is the “branch of algebra in which the values of the variables are the truth values true and false, usually denoted 1 and 0 respectively.” (See Wikipedia.) 

The quote above is pure Boolean logic. One may easily draw a Boolean equation for the proposition eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Then there’s a leap—Wittgenstein says our visual field has no limits. 

If eternity = timelessness then the present (time) also equals timelessness. Good. 

If timelessness is related to mindfulness (we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration) then the operations of mind become our vision. Hence our visual field (anyone’s) has no limit. 

You can see where the poet in me would like this. You can see where the blind person in me also admires it. 

As logic it is unimpeachable. The trick is to live it. 

Early. Wittgenstein for breakfast. 

 

 

   

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 

Soul Clap Its Hands

I have reached the age when I must ask “what kind of old person do I want to be?” One thinks it may be an American question, the pursuit of happiness has no age limit. I don’t mean wealth, or success in common forms. I don’t know how the coming years will unfold. All I know is I want to be flexible, kindly, and retain my curiosity until the end. This isn’t a workday ambition. It’s a matter of soul. Soul clap its hands as William Butler Yeats once said.

Often these days I’m forced to reflect on Marcus Aurelius’ famous maxim: “the soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.” I am 63 and entering the age of disappointments. This means I’ve had my share of luck. I wasn’t a refugee child. As a boy I was treated with penicillin. If my schooling wasn’t superb it was adequate. It is proper to reflect on one’s advantages. If I was a blind child who was bullied—well, I also fell in love with Duke Ellington in solitude and later an excellent professor told me about Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” and so muscular lyricism came my way. I have enough good sense to count these discoveries as good luck.

I remind myself to stay mindful of small fortunes. The color of thought is yet another thing I can’t describe. But reflecting on it has to be good. Before this sounds like a self-help book let me point out human imagination is dark. 9/10 of it is pessimistic. You don’t have to be Buddhist to know it’s difficult to hold a clear thought in mind. The direction of thought influences its coloration. This much I know.

Perhaps I’ll die lonely without money. America is such a place. Maybe I’ll die in good company like Allen Ginsberg. If I pass like my father I’ll fall over while walking my dog. The soul has its own “thing” as they used to say in the sixties. Steeped in its iridescent moon-glow it can be open and unconcerned.

Of disappointments there are many. I know I won’t live to see a golden age of peace and tolerance. I understand it was silly to imagine such things even as late as fifty. Americans are encouraged to be naive. I wept with joy when Barack Obama was elected in 2008. I even allowed myself to believe if only for a minute in the phrase “post-racial America.” Of course remembering optimism is like recalling seasons of love. I see all about me younger people who will not give up on equality and justice. They are still progressively Romantic. Disappointment is nothing compared to future hope. Even in age I can have this. The soul says so.

Maybe I sound like a half baked version of Martin Buber. Or Mary Poppins. I don’t know any more than you what colors the soul prefers. Let’s say it’s a clean window after everything we endured.

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 

To James Tate in Heaven

 

 

I haven’t been followed by a government agent lately, Jim, but I know it will soon happen. I’ll be walking around a campfire with my dictionary and a G-man of small stature will pop out of the underbrush. I’m not sure about the rest, how sad he may or may not be. You never know with those guys. I knew a CIA agent who loved his kids but ditched his family for a shack in the woods. Before he vanished he was quite charming. Then poof! He was gone. I think that’s the way of it after years spent following people, you just snap. Kind of like a cheap banjo. I’d like to write more to you about the suspicious person I think is coming but I’m sure you remember being tired. Sensible paranoia is exhausting. Doctors don’t understand it. If a thing comes true they say it’s a coincidence.