In a Melancholy Mood

I am sad though I scarcely know how to characterize my feelings. Disability is part of the matter. I’ve been traveling and as always, my blindness makes for unhappy experiences with airlines, Uber drivers, even fellow writers at a poetry conference who have tacit ableism. The other night at a poetry reading where I was seated in the front row a woman jumped over my guide dog who was lying obediently at my feet. She didn’t ask if this was OK. When I objected I was told that the man next to me had signaled to her that this was fine. Dissed twice. You should never jump over a guide dog. It’s disrespectful to the guide dog and her handler. Ableism has many facets but one of them is the assumption that the disabled don’t need to be communicated with; that we’re furniture of a kind. Yesterday an Uber driver tried to charge me extra for the guide dog. Today United Airlines made it difficult for me to accommodate my dog in a bulkhead seat, though the law is of course on my side. My daily status is provisional and while I generally wake up happy and love my life it’s also true that even the most customary aspects of living are steeper for the disabled. You can be philosophical about it. You can say it’s just another arm of the many armed goddess of bigotry. And this is true. As Wallace Stevens famously wrote: “the world is ugly and the people are sad.”

The trouble is this position isn’t sufficient for personal growth or civics. All citizens deserve dignity and at least something like respect. Read Malcolm X; Whitman;; Toni Morrison; read and read about dignity and its mysterious operations. Never give up. My black friends know all about living on sufferance in public, about the reasonable expectation they’re going to be treated poorly any moment; worse, they can be subject to violence just for appearing on the street. Though I’m less prone to overt violence it’s true that hate crimes against the disabled are common. Lucky it is when a day goes by without some shitty thing flying in my face. Ugly fate like loose boards.

One of the things I’ll never get over I think is the experience of being among artists and writers at conferences or arts colonies who see me standing in their midst with a guide dog and rather than speak to me, walk right past to engage with others. You can say, “well they’re just connecting with people they already know,” and this is possible but often untrue. Disability is a turn off. What could the blind poet share? I don’t know how to get out of this trap. In public settings I often feel like furniture. Maybe you’re sighted and introverted and feel this way too.

Am I just pissing and moaning? Right now the disabled are losing health insurance and their lives are in peril. Veterans with disabilities are far more likely than non disabled vets to commit suicide. The disabled remain unemployed at rates three times that of non disabled people. Or more. Because of the woeful state of public transportation in the US many disabled folks can’t even get to jobs. Only one in four college students with a disability graduates. Wallace Stevens indeed.

So I’m in a bit of a mood. Melancholy. Yes I’m happy. But there are these moments when the disabled feel especially alone.

In this way I’m just like everyone else, disability or not. Each of us is alone on this earth. It’s just that for some lucky ones, you’re not reminded of it every minute in the public square.

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 

In a Meadow

Because I am always talking the horse rescues me with his head like a bone canon which now he rests on my shoulder inviting me to join him in silence. It’s twilight and the first fireflies have come out which I cannot see and he apprehends with his sidelong eyes—lights that come to him almost from behind. I want to tell him he lives the condition of religion, those tiny brilliances coming over him from places where men can’t look. But I keep silent and he soon exhales—a long equine sigh that imitates water.

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 

Once in Kyoto

In Kyoto if you’re blind it’s open season. Everyone stares. If you’re a blind foreigner they stare twice. In the great municipal Buddhist cemetery people literally run to get out of my way. I wonder which is more catching, the blindness or my outsider status. Since you scarcely see disabled people on the streets it has to be the blindness. In the reverse metempsychosis of rebirth I’m advertising what can happen if you don’t take care in this life. I know it of course. Among the superstitious I’m always a bit ghoulish. I like to scare them. Lunge into a stranger’s path and flap my arms.

I’d thought of Kyoto as a respite. I imagined it as a living network of temples and artful glories where a sore spirit might gain whatever we mean by sustenance.;I’m always doing this kind of thing, romanticizing nations or cities. In some cases this is an effect of literature. I’ll never see Dublin for what it is but always through the snail glistening of Joyce. Helsinki, the city of my youth is always Saarikoski’s town filled with urgent, sharp people puzzling out what it means to be loose in the cosmopolitan provinces and never mind that it’s never been that place. I’m a fool.

Kyoto was for me a wonderment because poets I admire had found riches there. Kenneth Rexroth, Sam Hamill, Cid Corman. I therefore imagined it was the most transparently and gently awake place on earth where you might see straight through the butterflies and see the eyes of immanence and love on a moving wing. Oh hell, that’s how I get around.

Imagine my surprise learning how peculiar and discomfiting blindness still is to the Japanese. Yes in Japan the disabled are still largely sequestered and I should have known before traveling. I sit for awhile in a temple and think about the phrase “I should have known.” When you’re walking the road lightly its not applicable. In the glory of Zen there’s no should. I restore myself with this. Enter a noodle shop and have the best soup of my life as the rain begins falling.

If I haven’t found a megatheric peace in Kyoto I have found a firmer footing in whatever it is we mean by the inner life.

I think of Sam Hamill who once said to me “there’s no real town for orphans.”

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 Three Legged Desk

Suppose you came to work one morning and discovered they’d given you a three legged desk. In turn everything that should be on the desk is on the floor. The three legged desk leans against the wall awaiting leg number four.

You think “aha, someone will solve this problem” and call the furniture department. “We can’t get four legged desks for everybody,” they tell you. “We’re in a hurry around here,” they say. “Unfortunately some people get the three legged desks, it can’t be helped.”

You say something about equal opportunity but they shrug and offer to send a desk specialist to assist you.

When the DS arrives he’s pushing a wheelbarrow filled with an odd assortment of tattered books.

“I’ve got old dictionaries, yellowed paperbacks, outdated textbooks, even a collected grammar of the Finnish language,” he says proudly.

“What we do is this: we will stack books where your fourth leg should be.”

“Your job is to pretend you’re working and also hold the desk steady as I try out different combinations of books—you know, a tower of discarded editions.”

Now or course they never get the desk right and the solution to your dilemma, the jerry rigged tower of castoff books doesn’t really work, but the desk specialist is satisfied.

The story above illustrates what it’s like to have a disability in the workplace and experience a rather unending series of inaccessible websites, programs, software applications, etc.

When the central administration buys into something that’s the equivalent of the three legged desk in digital domains they send the equivalent of the desk specialist, who asks you to be patient while they fail to rectify the problem.

I work at a great university but the problems of access for me remain almost comedic.

They’re sorry they bought inaccessible software, sorry over and over.

“Eventually he’ll get used to the tripod desk,” someone inevitably says.

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 

Melancholy Breakfast

This morning I dropped a plate. Felt childish. I tumbled in memory. Some bad time came over me with my drunk and violent mother raging and no one home but me. Yes no one home but me and uncontainable epigenetic anger over something small.

**

And didn’t I know it? Emmanuel Kant could not save me. The brilliant day could not assuage the return of boyhood trauma. Coffee didn’t do a thing.

**

Went to the basement for awhile. As a child I always went to the basement or attic.

**

I listened to Miles Davis down there in the dark.

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 

What’s the Use of Having a Body if It’s Always Just a Map?

Disability Studies has embraced metonymy and you may not care. After all it is an academic field, interdisciplinary certainly, but largely an abstruse means of theorizing what bodies are and how they function and do not function in societies devoted to normalcy. By metonymy I mean the body now stands for vast arrangements. Disability Studies has grown to conceive of the body as a colonized thing; the body as geography; disabled bodies are occupied countries.

**

Of course we’re all property of some kind. It’s as true under capitalism as communism and there’s no end in sight. When you’re little you’re the property of your parents and if you lose them you become the property of the state. Some people are more “of” property than others: the illusion that they are not is too costly to purchase.

**

I don’t know if its liberating to think of the disabled body as colonized space. The idea is richly polemical but also against reason. You have nothing to lose but your chains becomes “once you lose your chains there will be more chains because your body has no corporeal independence from the manufacture of chains.” I chose not to believe this.

**

Who is paying for the illusion we are always in chains? The idea of independence is imagined by many Disability Studies scholars as being illusory. There’s no freedom within nation states or under neoliberal economies.

**

That this is tautological and prescriptive is one reason why representing bodies as failed states or colonized regions is seductive. My blindness is a conditioned program. I’m doubly blinded by both the pejorative value of sight loss and by the illusion I can ever achieve my own value. The very notion that one might achieve subjective satisfaction of any kind is foolish. Let us richly theorize the fool’s errand.

**

I’ve lately talked with several disability studies students who can’t imagine uncathected lives.Anything that smacks of personal choice, autonomy, potential happiness, independence, is to them just a neoliberal trap. Everything is a trap. We’re all colonized.

**

As a poet I know every poem is an experiment—a life experiment. Taken this way, life is outside of ideological and proscriptive failure.

There are so many sexy ways to sell hopelessness.

I like poems to be both sexy and true.

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 

Tiresias My Lady-Fellow

It’s not likely I’ll ever get away from him. He’s “they”—mythically gender fluid—one of the incitements for his subsequent suffering as Greek myth is not only polysemous it’s ingrown in its cruelties. I once told a college class every Greek myth is an ingrown hair in the psyche. I’ve no reason to change my mind.

Tiresias made they fateful mistake agreeing to referee a divine game of sex trivia as high on Mt. Olympus Zeus and his wife Hera were arguing whether men or women gain more sexual satisfaction from heteronormative intercourse—or so one must presume—the story is a bit sparse on the details. We also know Tiresias was long prone to mistakes where the gods and goddesses were concerned for in a prior episode he was transformed into a woman by Hera because he struck a pair of copulating snakes with a stick. Hera loved snakes or at least copulating snakes and so the story is an ingrown hair. Once he became a woman he was forced to serve as one of Hera’s handmaidens.

Tiresias was the perfect “go to” when the matter of comparative gender orgasm satisfaction came up.

**

His second mistake was saying women have more fun in the sack because in her fury Hera blinded him.

One of the many ways to go blind in Ancient Greece was telling the truth as you understood it.

Once blind, Zeus took pity on Tiresias and gifted him with prophecy.

In Ancient Greece you could be blind and mystical.

I’ll never get away from Mystic T.

I’ll never get away from the presumption that any talent I may possess is a compensatory gift from the gods.

I’ll never get over the narrative of divine punishment. My blindness—all blindness—must owe something to cosmic missteps.

I’ll certainly never get over the idea disability is both a misfortune and a gift. Better I think to say all life functions this way. Better to let blind and gender fluid beings go about their business. Better to stop throwing superstitions at real humans.

But I cannot shake Tiresias.

In a taxi cab a driver tells me I must have done something to displease god.

“It’s wonderful you write so well,” says a woman in a public library, “it must take away some of the hurt.”

I imagine the private life of Tiresias, blind, fondling they sensitive breasts, alone for just a moment, and seeing that his fucked up story would last for all of history.

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