You Go First

I’ll leave it to you with all the cloud forms,
Men and women who resemble clouds,

Children who pass through weather—
Your book of life might say

What people mean—I’ve
Only poetry with its rains

Or clearings until sun
Falls when we’re unprepared.

In this way, “do I know you”
Doesn’t matter nor “will”

As firmament is random.
Down the street a girl

Fashions a whistle from grass
And for a moment

She’s the first person in history.

On Disability Poetics: Essay Five, or, Falling in Love with the Great Caruso

I fell in love with “The Great Caruso” because I was a lonely kid and that’s how many of us find art. If you’re blind and you’ve an attic and a Victrola you’ve everything you need. Soon I was haunting the local library, asking for any books I could get my little hands on. And with my one working eye I held a picture book an inch from my face to see photos of my private tenor. There he was with Helen Keller, gently holding her hands to his throat as he sang. My Caruso was a kind man. I thought of Keller’s finger tips pressed against a living hive of musical notes. On the next page Caruso was dressed like an ancient Egyptian. Though his pose was supposed to suggest fierceness he looked like he knew a private joke. You bet I was in love.

Soon I graduated from listening to Caruso in the attic to bringing home long playing records from the library’s collection. This way I could hear several arias at once. If I knew next to nothing about the operas from which the songs were taken I knew the sound of milk and iodine, the suffocations and gasps of life, the magnificence of a heart beat that won’t be ignored. If I was disabled and reviled by the children in my age bracket, well, I had what I’d discover later is known as enantiodromia—the emergence of the unconscious opposite in the course of time—a Jungian concept—it occurs really as a fixative from underneath, just when you’re hopeless you become powerful on the inside.

Snick of the needle in a groove. Caruso in La Boheme. What did I know about love? I understood how it could fill a room.

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.

Disability Poetics: Essay Number Three

John Ruskin wrote: “all architecture proposes an effect on the human mind, not merely a service to the human frame.”

The service to the human frame is precisely the thing Ruskin understood least though I’m not willing to throw away the Seven Lamps of Architecture. In any event you can see the Victorian problem. The mind and body perforce occupy separate rooms. You can call them Jekyll and Hyde.

Speaking as a cripple and a blind one at that, the schism-problem still has to be endured where architectures are concerned. Have you ever tried to pass through a revolving door with a guide dog? Yes and stairs built to enforce grandeur are surely an endurance test.

In his excellent book “Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education” Jay Dolmage talks about the ideological nature of steep steps:

“If we were to object that such steps make the university inaccessible, many universities would make the argument that steep steps are stylistically desirable, that they fit with the template, the architectural fingerprint of the school: all the buildings are the same color, with the same size Ionic columns, maybe even the same number of stairs leading up to buildings. These counterarguments show the ways that in the construction and maintenance of the steep steps there is also a latent argument about aesthetics or appearances, one that trips over to the classroom, into ideology and into pedagogy, where teachers are also sometimes concerned about pattern, clarity, propriety—and these things are believed to be “beautiful””

Steps are my enemies and the faculty ableists who unknowingly sweep those steps are to me the poorest sect of all, praying and fasting to keep the deformed out of the gated yard.

Ode to the University’s Steps

I, a blind man,
Cannot see you
But I hear you
And I swear
You sing
Not of petroglyphs
Nor of Venus
You sing of fire
With mouths
Of earth
Your broken voices
Open a dirge
Of buried light
So I must tap my way
Up and down
Your grave song
Pretending
You’re innocent
And I know
You will never
Believe me
My friends
But the stones
Of the chapel
Sing of great violence.

Disability Poetics, Essay Two

After the usual greetings….

Let’s talk about the up river blues, terror capitalism, how to live and what to do against a backdrop of Bram Stoker dread…I often imagine I’m closer to the gothic than many of my friends. Because I might die today stepping into traffic, blind, but with a dog for company. And I could die tomorrow in a strange hotel on my hands and knees trying to plug in an electric fan, dead too soon like Merton. And one must think about letting go slick phantasms in the buying and selling laundromat that is America, let go of the gruel thin lingo of political talk. Give away the early text books. Yes up river. Yes the blues. Yes a song or two about catfish.

Disability Poetics: Essay Number One

Critical disability studies and crip studies seek to destabilize traditional modes of body analysis and affirm (perhaps an ableist trope) a post-static and unreferenced sense of bodies. I sometimes think of classic, normative bodies as vanishing before our eyes like Brigadoon. In this way I relish what Lennard J. Davis calls the end of normalcy. I like to say (because I’m a poet) that I’m not a blind man at all but instead a rider of dragons. The smoke I leave behind is poetry. It suits me. This is disability as epistemological fancy. This also suits me.

John Ruskin wrote: “The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it.” I’m not so naive as to agree but where the spirit is concerned I’ll take it. Poetry and disability are snug together in the mysterious, rich, daily toil toward newer potentialities. If Ezra Pound was right and poetry is news that stays news one might say crippled poetry is the news which also invites you to turn the page. I’ll say the disabled are different over the course of the day. All disability is protean. We work with it and against it and we adopt multiple accommodations and no one knows more than the crips we’re not static bodies at all. By day’s end my dragon might be a gila monster. And I might be inapparent as twilight comes. Maybe all you’ll see of me are my pin prick glowing spider’s eyes—you know, those eyes that scare children on camping trips.

When I got my first guide dog back in 1994 the guide dog school made me sign a paper that said, among other things, that I wouldn’t use my guide dog for the purpose of begging. Imagine the back stories. I went home and wrote the following poem:

To a Blind Man Selling Pencils: New York City

And then, others arrived:
Eyes first, surveyors, important men,
Men who wore the flag—runners,
Who fill the streets in every town.
They carried sacks like thieves.
Every day such men feel their blood rise:
It uses them, returns them to the avenues
And I alone discovered them, one by one.
I was of the provinces. I was reflected
In their eyes like a fire.
Some men possess the color of origin—
The blind man is amaranth, aman-word of sorts,
A word that will be mistaken on earth.
Still I saluted the closed world
Without its consent,
Crossed the water of streets
And raised a sign
Unreadable as the moon.
My plea had the whiteness
Of things that have no use in life
And the words were Nothing more than a scar
That someone must have given me.
Why then did your name appear
Like the marks of a wheel
In this unyielding light?

What was I after? For one thing a reader response confusion between the able bodied starer and the thing stared at. Abjection is currency and it is exchanged to the detriment of both parties. Sighted people protect themselves from this by imagining they’ve not been changed by their acts of half conscious charity—but fear and beneficence are a losing hand for they suggest poverty and neglect are the yardsticks by which all people must be judged. Another way to say it is: if the disabled must represent society’s failures then you the apparently abled observer must be more than half in love with sufferance. The most often employed phrase for this is “there but for the grace of God go I.”

How many scars can the able bodied give the disabled? None if we say so.

A Perfectly Level Headed Note Now that I’m 64

I was born on this date 64 years ago. My twin brother died in the next room.
I was born prematurely by three months. I lost my vision in an incubator.
I’m aware that even today there are “bioethicists” who’d argue against my existence.
I know who they are. There are one or two at the university where I teach.
Sometimes I tell myself I know more than I used to. I know that not all Greek infants with disabilities were put out to die on mountains. I know that Oedipus means swollen foot and his story is a perfect disability dumpster fire. I know his story still haunts the blind. I know there are one or two at my university who believe the blind shouldn’t be on campus. Or the lame. Or the mute. They ruin a perfectly good agora. I know these things but care less about them since I know the arc of history bends toward disability justice. I really do believe that. I also know that universities hate hiring the disabled. I believe that will change. I have to believe these things. Tap your shoes together three times Dorothy. Sam Cooke: “A change is gonna come.” And maybe not today. On the other hand….