Good, Old Walter Pater

Oh Walter Pater for a Renaissance scholar you had charm. You’ve haunted me for years with your childhood portraits. Unlike Montaigne your utopia was less a matter of craft and more of memory. Once, to shock an academic questioner I said creative nonfiction was Pater’s invention. I’m still not certain I’m wrong. If its honesty you’re after Pater’s your man.

Who was it I was reading last week–who said he was a possibility-ist rather than an optimist. I read a lot and can’t remember. He was one of those data-utopians. The planet will sustain us; we won’t actually slaughter each other. That’s when Pater jumped up. “The way to perfection is through a series of disgusts.” Data is a clean sport and that’s all there is to it. If you want to know about the heart I’ll go with the Renaissance.

Rexroth’s Moose

The American poet Kenneth Rexroth wrote a book which he called an autobiographical novel. Its a great read, especially if you’re interested in progressive history during the first half of the twentieth century. Rexroth was everywhere from the logging camps of the far west to bohemian Greenwich Village and he seems to have had a talent for conversation with almost anyone. He’s at home with anthroposophists, wobbleys, and rare book dealers.

I especially love the book’s opening where he claims that he shot a moose at the age of four.

I suspect he really did it. My mother was taught to shoot first and ask questions later when she was a child and was often left alone in the country.

I’m not sentimental and I don’t think children left alone in the woods with guns (or anywhere else) is a great parenting tactic. Thank you for letting me get that out of the way. I should also say Rexroth‘s moose was probably blameless.

The adult poet, the author of the book, was an environmental writer and human rights activist. Rexroth hid Japanese-Americans from the internment camps during the Second World War.

He never shot a second moose.

He was a pacifist.

**

When I was four I ran away from my parents and got happily lost in Helsinki.

I lived on a constantly turning electrostatic wheel of inventions.

I loved Kaivopuisto Park and chased leaves even though I couldn’t see them.

I was high above the Baltic among leaves and gulls.

The Stillness of the World

While at Oxford Oscar Wilde remarked that he wished he could be worthy of his blue china, a remark that earned him nearly instant celebrity. One may argue Wilde was the first meme generator. He was half pre-Raphaelite, somewhat of Ruskin, fond also of Pater who never quite gave up on mysticism. Wilde lived every hour whole.

I wish I could be worthy of my blue china. I wish I could be worthy of this dear bookshelf. Oh the china works better. Why?

Collection is a contraction of imagination. If we’re entirely in the wrong labyrinth, and I mean all of us, then objects of nearly childish longing mean far more than we can say. In a dark wood I still have two agates in my pocket.

The Day Auden Died

—September 29, 1973

If he’d been born this day
So the newspapers said

He’d have listened for ideas, not words
He’d have been lighter than air

It was Saturday under Libra
And all the pans were empty

America’s best names
Were Michael and Amy

He’d have been Mike Auden
And how do I know about you?

Asked the troll in a tale
I found myself reading

Alone in a library
While the leaves came down

Death’s butterflies

Screw the Vikings, Etc.

In my twenties and lonesome I spent a day walking around a Viking burial mound. I was purging myself of atavistic sentiments—ethnic romanticism, my own Scandinavian sensibility. I told myself the dead don’t mean a damn thing.

Now I know better but I was partly right. Never romanticize your ancestors though they linger, trouble, conflict us. Epigenetic research is correct.

Oh I don’t like them. My private genomic dead. Money grubbers, god fearers, stabbers, superstitious. I don’t like them. And when they came to America in search of juicy prunes they just continued being themselves.

My point is simple. America is better when other people’s children come here—differing nationalities, other epigenetic stories.

Whenever I see Donald Trump I think: “there’s a man whose grandfather came here for the juicy prunes and nothing more.”

About Yesterday or What Teachers Must Teach…

Yesterday I wrote a blog post about the perils of single issue politics and the erosion of critical thinking especially as these things pertain to teaching. Here are the things I suspect I’ll be accused of saying which I absolutely did not say: that racism doesn’t exist; that white people don’t have inordinate privileges; that minority opinions are fanatical; that the only way forward in the civic square is to become some kind of moderate.

I do not believe any of those things.

What I do think is that the common good has been demoted to fantasy. Listening to others is considered a waste of time. Any position that’s front loaded with rage is good.

Because these things are largely the case teaching is more important now than ever. From pre-school to grad school teachers have the opportunity to promote what Paolo Freire described as entering into reality:

“The more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into a dialogue with them. This person does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side.”

Notice Freire’s fascinating disavowal of the egoistic considerations that accompany the impulse toward dogmatism.

Here’s another Freire quote I find useful:

“Because love is an act of courage, not of fear, love is a commitment to others. No matter where the oppressed are found, the act of love is commitment to their cause–the cause of liberation.”

**

I fervently believe love—a true experience of love—is abstaining from seeing the self only through singular positions. Liberation is knowing that disability, blackness, queerness, gender are bio political rhetorics of social constraint. Every. Last. One. Is an impoverishing tale.

Rage from a narrow ledge but you will be bitter and exploited.

**

My friend, the poet Preston Hood, who, among other things is a wounded war veteran writes about piercing through the illusions that separate us in a poem entitled “The Vocabulary Between Us:—

There is a thin covering
Between us & the world.

Sometimes it is the inward blue
Of our souls learning what to become.

Other times I hold you before me
Able to love all of what I have now.

**

Succumbing to individualized or identity rage is what the oppressors want of you.
This is what teachers must teach.

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