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. 

Her hands in the stream…

You can tell me about Helen Keller
But you can’t say what words
Perform on the inside.

Have you seen a cormorant
Drop from on high
And enter the sea?

That’s my Helen Keller—
That falling…

ie Kuusisto :
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 

Faeries, come…

All those who believe I’m vagrant—blind as I am
Walking with my stick or dog—
That woman in Boston who hoped to pray for me
Who ran away when I offered to pray for her,
What’s wrong with a disabled prayer?
I stood in the street and waved my arms.
In London a girl called me “poor Dearie”
And thrust coins in my hands.
Once in Cleveland a red faced man
Followed me block after block
Proposing to help…better I thought
Than the alternatives—
The asylum; the work houses.
In general the poets of my nation
See the blind as an existential blank.
But tired of standing for nothing
I sing and walk down Broadway
The sweet, manifold, wishful syllables
Of William Yeats—
Faeries, come take me out of this dull world,
For I would ride with you upon the wind,
Run on the top of the dishevelled tide,
And dance upon the mountains like a flame.

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 

Of Book Tours, Antonio Gramsci, and the Unmade Bed

A friend, characterizing a mutual friend said: “he has a mind like an unmade bed” and trust me that’s how I’m feeling. Of the unmade bed I recall an episode of the television version of “The Odd Couple” when Felix discovers a half eaten submarine sandwich in Oscar Madison’s bed. Oscar didn’t say it, but I will: “detritus ye will always have with ye” though one must surely admit when his defenses are down. I’m finding it difficult to concentrate.

This isn’t listlessness. It’s not the blues. (Though I know I’ve got them—a blind guy’s slumgullion of concerns from genetic testing of fetuses (rooting out probable disabled babies, think eugenics 2.0) to the race baiting narratives of American cleanliness espoused by the United States government and increasingly large parts of the industrialized world (Reich 4.0).
Or I worry about your mentally ill brother, child, mother, especially if they’re a person of color, for they’ll likely wind up dead or in jail in our clotted, Dickensian nation. Meanwhile the eroding middle class watches the Kardashians.

OK. Sorry. But when you’re an unmade bed, well, you become that man who natters on the bus. Some mornings I’m a single dendritic spark away from either mumbling or ranting.
My unmade bed is starting to smolder.

I’ve been on a lovely book tour which has taken me to Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, Calistoga, Denver, Richmond, and upstate New York. Talking with old acquaintances and new friends is a cleansing experience. I always meet good people on the road.

Check box: I’ve been talking to excellent human beings.

Check box: In Denver I got an Uber ride from a man who lectured me about the “end times” for twenty five minutes. He touched my hair. Said: “you’re already one of the saved. God loves you.”

Check: It’s raining in the airplane burial ground, as my friend Jim Crenner once wrote.

Crumbs from the bed…Marx was right about 40% of the time.

Bed: Antonio Gramsci was right about 80% of the time.

The above assertions are not incompatible.

Check: I’ve lately had several graduate students who don’t like to read and when pushed turn deflective and mean spirited. These are the children of “no child left behind” who’ve been trained for a decade to take tests. Confronted by the prose of Salman Rushdie they look at first perplexed, than hostile.

Crumb: The students mentioned believe they’re commodified, neutralized, oppressed, etc. according to their respective identities. They won’t read for strength. They believe ideology is strength. In this way they’re no more sophisticated than Donald Trump.

It’s a very hard time to be a professor.

Crumb: last night I realized for the 41,000th time that baseball won’t save me.

Check: I don’t care for popular music of any kind.

Ort. (Everyone’s favorite crossword bit)—scientists now believe outer space is filled with carbon molecules which they describe as “grease”—it means we’re essentially living in a vast kitchen drain.

Speck: The poet Donald Hall just passed. He was a good man on balance.

Note: I’m reading Dr King’s Refrigerator by Charles Johnson. Also: The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli.

Speck: the thing about a book tour is you see with sufficient comic irony you’re not terribly important in the grand scheme.

Ort: I once introduced myself to the folk singer Utah Philips. Told him I was an anarchist at heart. He gave me a withering look. It said: “I’m the only god damned anarchist you little shit!”

What was it James Tate said? “No longer the perpetual search for an air conditioned friend….”

My step children are struggling to stay in the middle class.

I’ve a friend who’s lost his health insurance and has no job.

He doesn’t have the leisure for a mind like an unmade bed.

Like most halfway ethical beings I feel guilty.

Is sharing the unmade bed the best thing a writer can do?

That’s mostly what creative writing programs are all about.

The Finnish communist poet Pentti Saarikoski said: “I want to be the kind of poet who builds houses for people….”

Saarikoski was just kidding of course. The way poets do. He never built a house for anyone.

Is the unmade bed a place of ambition or escape. Is it both?

This is the point: I want to create unmade beds for everyone.

Check: we’d take turns being servants. The unmade bed mustn’t be class reserved.

What the hell am I talking about?

I fear for the life of imagination; what we used to call the life of the mind.

A student came to me not long ago and said he wanted to be a writer. Then he told me he hated reading.

I want to be a painter but I hate paint.

I’d like to cultivate my mind but not today.

Gramsci: “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.”

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 

Just for the Books

IMG 2248

On Wednesday last, April 11, I had the privilege of reading from my new memoir Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey  at Gramercy Books  in Columbus, Ohio. Gramercy’s owner, Linda Kass took this terrific photo of the event. I’m standing in front of a good sized audience, my purple sweater covered with dog hair, and I appear to be just about to make an extravagant gesture with my hand, like the opera tenor I’d really like to be….

As I’ve said before on my blog, I adore independent book stores. People come there for the books. They really do. Oh they might get a frou frou coffee, some poodle-ish beverage, but for Indie shoppers that’s just “value added” as they say in marketing circles. Customers who shop in independent book stores are drawn by words, intuitions, giddiness, mystery, fantasy, Dostoevsky, or “news that stays news” as Ezra Pound once said, describing why poetry matters.

You can’t tell from this photo but there are several guide dog users at the event. And puppy raisers from Guiding Eyes for the Blind.

What could be better than books and dogs, and lots of readers?

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:
Grammercy Books
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 

Disability, Resurrection, Poetry

It’s Easter Sunday and I’m thinking about human equality, disability, and the poetry uniting both. Strange really, the resurrection of Christ, equal rights, a poetics. Here’s what I mean: Christ rises from his grave, the very action the most extraordinary figure of rehabilitation in human history. All resurrection myths proclaim equality is not out of reach—that soon enough you’ll be unrecognizable to yourself, clean, bright, and favored like others.

Poetry may not always be concerned with religion or equality. The early modernist poets in their desire to rival the immediacy of photographs were at times dispassionate—see Imagism or Vorticism as practiced by Pound—yet poetry often is where we find empathy. I wept alone in my faculty office one afternoon when, after a day of pain, my legally blind eyes unable to keep up with the tasks before me, in the days before reliable speech technology, I read the following poem by Adrienne Rich with my left eye only a half inch from the page:

I know you are reading this poem
late, before leaving your office
of the one intense yellow lamp-spot and the darkening window
in the lassitude of a building faded to quiet
long after rush-hour. I know you are reading this poem
standing up in a bookstore far from the ocean
on a grey day of early spring, faint flakes driven
across the plains’ enormous spaces around you.
I know you are reading this poem
in a room where too much has happened for you to bear
where the bedclothes lie in stagnant coils on the bed
and the open valise speaks of flight
but you cannot leave yet. I know you are reading this poem
as the underground train loses momentum and before running
up the stairs
toward a new kind of love
your life has never allowed.
I know you are reading this poem by the light
of the television screen where soundless images jerk and slide
while you wait for the newscast from the intifada.
I know you are reading this poem in a waiting-room
of eyes met and unmeeting, of identity with strangers.
I know you are reading this poem by fluorescent light
in the boredom and fatigue of the young who are counted out,
count themselves out, at too early an age. I know
you are reading this poem through your failing sight, the thick
lens enlarging these letters beyond all meaning yet you read on
because even the alphabet is precious.
I know you are reading this poem as you pace beside the stove
warming milk, a crying child on your shoulder, a book in your
hand
because life is short and you too are thirsty.
I know you are reading this poem which is not in your language
guessing at some words while others keep you reading
and I want to know which words they are.
I know you are reading this poem listening for something, torn
between bitterness and hope
turning back once again to the task you cannot refuse.
I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing else
left to read
there where you have landed, stripped as you are.

–Adrienne Rich, from An Atlas of the Difficult World

Consider a “stripped” reader—consider her bent low. Stripped is vulnerability, a nakedness, and yet it’s also the first turn toward new language, one that allows us to tenderly imagine ourselves renewed.

It’s renewal that interests me. If equality is a moral concept, as I believe it is, than the broken body is also a moral agent; if “where you have landed” is neither a sacred or profane space, it is solely Jeffersonian—embodiment, whatever the circumstance is human, therefore fully, entirely human. In Disability Studies we often speak of resisting “overcoming narratives” by which we mean a resistance to medical persuasion—the idea that humans are only valuable insofar as they can be cured of their maladies. We call this the “medical model” of disability and many a disabled person has written a book touting his or her “miracle cure” often attributing it to a marriage of god and science. Sometimes of course it’s god alone or simply science. In either case the subtext of these books is routine: only a physically able and firm body has value. I think such stories are immoral for unlike Adrienne Rich’s poem which holds out the possibility of new directions in despair, overcoming narratives are steadfast in their insistence only the healthy body matters.

In his new book “One Another’s Equals” Jeremy Waldron observes:

“When we talk about equality, one of the most important distinctions we have to make is between prescriptive and descriptive equality. Descriptive statements tell us how things are, and prescriptive statements tell us how things ought to be and / or what things ought to be done. Crudely, we can say descriptively (or deny descriptively) that people are equal in some respect; we can say their opportunities are equal or that there used to be less inequality of income than there is now. Or we can say, prescriptively, that people ought to be equal. We can say that in general—for example, that they ought to be treated with equal respect—or we can say it in some particular regard, such as their income or opportunities.”

Excerpt From: Jeremy Waldron. “One Another’s Equals.” iBooks. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/one-anothers-equals/id1242543605?mt=11

He adds:

“Prescriptive statements call for something to be done that might not otherwise be done.”

This is essentially what poetry is or concerns itself with. And one thinks of Robert Kennedy’s famous declaration: “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”

Resurrection is prescriptive and whether its a fantasy or not matters less to me than its moral inference: we are equal in renewal which differs profoundly from being cured or healed. Jesus, risen, still had his wounds. He remains, even glorified, our physical equal, in flesh our aspirational moral equal.

The best disability poetry tends to work in these areas though it may not be overtly spiritual in nature. Embracing the equal status of the disabled body is invariably renewing.

In her poem “Future Biometrics” JILLIAN WEISE writes:

the body that used to
contain your daughter

we found it
behind the fence

It was in a red coat
It was collected

Is she saved
Is she in the system

You’re lucky
we have other bodies

to put your daughter in
Come on down

to the station

Weise combines the medical model, the curative, with a post-human vision of cyber-resurrection. The “it” daughter, not entirely human, dead behind a fence will be transmogrified through technological means, industrial means, one imagines a whole new shipment of alternative bodies arriving by train. A motto for the poem could read: “beware what resurrection you’re calling for” or the like.

Jim Ferris describes resurrection as survival—after eugenics, after Aristotle, the disabled actually dare to thrive:

“Tell Aristotle”

    As to the exposure and rearing of children, let there be a law that 
      no deformed child shall live.
            Aristotle, Politics

Tell Aristotle I lived.
    Tell him Dave did too.
Tell him the state has not
    yet fallen, though you know
kids these days. Tell him perhaps
    all our words are but
elaborations, repetitions
    of that crier’s claim.
Tell Aristotle, tell the Spartans,
    tell the legions of those
who think they can’t afford the difference
    that difference makes,
tell Montaigne, tell Hobbes,
    tell Dr. Tiergarten
and that off-key singer
    of sad and silly songs,
tell them the useless eaters
    have survived,
tell them there are more of us now
    than ever, disorderly,
imperfect, splashing out the gene pool,
    what a messy species,
tell them my brother Dave and I
    inhabit this moment,
tell Aristotle we are alive,
    tell them all we thrive
.

Resurrection is imperfect, splashing out of the gene pool, more of us now, and implicitly, firmly, prescriptively, morally equal.
The poet Laurie Clements Lambeth writes:

and then there are days when I can stride across the house
five times even, springing forward with an armful of laundry
 
as though I never forgot how, no longer offering the body
instruction in hip tuck or the proper undulation of each foot
 
(hold wall, heel first, steady now, lift the next). My gratitude
at such moments is not for the walking, that easy
 
grace. It’s for the shadow, that other gait hovering around
my frame, a faint, wavering outline, staggering dragged
 
water-edge purling behind. How can one measure time or space?
The miles I saw stretch across this little house unfurled a span
 
to heave through, now condensed to mere feet. I will see those
miles again, I know, and somehow now: I keep a foot in each world.

Embodied, prescriptive, we’re equally unknowable—the truest definition of equivalence and equality one may ever know. Disability as poetics, an epistemology is a resurrectionist school but not a school of overcoming or cure.

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 Forehead Egg, Biopolitics, Disability

When I was in my early twenties I read a lot of poems by James Tate. If you’re an American who’s interested in poetry and you’re over forty there’s a good chance you’ve visited Tate’s poignant, Da-da universe where dark alleys and cemetery willows remind a man to have a cigarette; where Sam Beckett’s people enter cereal naming contests; where only a dish of blueberries can pull you out of a lingering funk. Somewhere in my reading I saw a line about a man who feels like a fried egg has been glued to his forehead, which is to say, he walked around that way. There I was, blind, in college, cross eyed, the streets before me erasing themselves as I moved, lonesome, stamped by the U.S. Department of Alienation, hyper-aware that a cutting remark would be coming my way any moment. I knew Tate’s fried egg was my third eye, my sunny side up stigma. Disability can feel like that.

When we, the disabled discuss the biopolitics of disability, which is to say, the economic and political performances and entrapments of disablement, it often seems, at least to me, we’re talking about eggs and foreheads as much as anything else. What kind of egg will it be? Will you cook it yourself or will someone do it for you? Just so, will you self-apply your egg or have it done professionally? (I’m not metaphorically describing disability but the stances one must take because of it.) And there’s more: will it be a free range organic egg or from a factory? Perhaps if you’re lucky it will be cooked just right.

The neoliberal egg-on-forehead (hereafter NEOF) is like the cereal naming contest above–you have to pay to win and while you may be named Estragon you’re reliably in the game because it’s now an inclusive economy. In the bad old days you’d have been forced to live in the NEOF asylum but suddenly you have putative value. A productive, non-normative worth has either been declared or assigned. You round up your pals who once lived in the ward with you and together you create a federation. You’re online. Christ, you even blog. You belong to a Single Condition User Group. You’re no longer just a person with egg on the unibrow, you’re informed, itchy, talkative, contrary, ardent if not militant.

In their groundbreaking book The Biopolitics or Disability: Neoliberalism, Ablenationalism, and Peripheral Embodiment, David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder point out that: “as medical citizens within neoliberal biopolitics we are expected to take active control of our health management regimes to a greater extent than in any time in history. This active control taking health represents the double-edged sword of biopolitics and results in the desperate necessity of participating in funding initiatives on behalf of physicians and researchers to provide the missing profit motive for future investigations of potential medical treatments for members of rare condition groups.”

You were in a special hospital not so very long ago but now you’re an anguished expert on forehead eggism because you must be. You must be because either you’ve a job and want to keep it (you’ll need an accommodation—you can’t wear standard issue hats) or you hope to have a job—or jobless, you wish to have community relevance, which means among other things you should have the right script memorized.

I for one commit to memory a lot of self-declarative language. Yesterday I went to the ophthalmologist. I told him all about my eyes. In ophthalmology land I’m a failure. You mustn’t imagine eye doctors view low-to-no vision patients as successful and autonomous citizens. I felt the need to take care of myself and control the medical narrative to the best of my ability. I wasn’t an uninformed blind person. I wasn’t in need of rehab. No. That’s not a laser scar on my left retina, that’s what it looks like. You see, I don’t need to be cured, and even if that’s something in the cards it’s not happening today. I like the eggs. Yeah you can call me Estragon.

 

 

 

Notebook, October 2017 

King worm drops to the floor having taken too much Beethoven. There are no loudspeakers in nature. At first he thrilled to the sensations—moisty liminal guts buzzing with the string section,

all that rum ti tum zithing the straight line of his pooper but then Ludwig nackered him with tympani and you know, the poor bastard’s just a worm who’s lost. “How to you paint music?” he thinks, scooching his way on lemon-lime linoleum.

**

You breathed right up against the windowpane. Drew your mother from memory. Breathed again. She was gone.

**

Sometimes when I go to a funeral I’m aware the dead man knows my thoughts and there’s no blinking it away. This is why I don’t like ministers. They don’t get this.

**

Everything I touched today belonged to Rimsky Korsakov.

**

Last night I slept walked to the river.

All rivers wear black coats days, evenings, doesn’t matter.

Gave the river my white sleep shirt

Just to cheer it.

“You know,” I said, “textiles…”

**

I have always hated the laughter of drunks. Their mirth is terrifying, like the sounds we’ve recorded from the sun.

**

The water shining through trees. Lake of childhood.

Long ago I saw despair on the surface.

Don’t cry anymore!

**

King worm has a pair of wooden clogs which he uses as his winter and summer palaces. Wind blows darkness outside.

**

Do you ever see something innocent in the faces of old men and women? It’s the pink undamaged. Always a miracle since mostly we’re all ashes in rain.

**

I make mistakes over and over because I believe in assisting powerless human beings and animals. This means I argue with bureaucrats, sometimes noisily. The organizers don’t like me much. I sit opposite them, at a big table, trying to see myself as an organ, a stomach in a larger body.

**

Missing the daily mail. Cutting open letters with a horse head knife.

**

Dogs know the heavens do not turn in silence and they’re simultaneously cheerful.

**

Put on my little “peace hat” and pepper the aborning hour with words—names—Isaac Bashevis Singer, entelechy, sea cucumber, yellow mittens, mother-world. No one is about in my neighborhood. No one’s awake. The houses are all buttoned, windows dark. My feet love the wet road. I think I need to pardon my youth. I hear the Phoebe bird. The age I live in has a dark taste. I’m seldom prone to this but I do sometimes wish I was a bird.

**

Count on me

Says the pea-stalk reindeer

**

Birches clouds books

 

**

“Embraceable You”—Bill Evans

**

Up and down the museum stairs above the physical museum. That’s the ticket.

 

Teaching in the Age of Trump

When I was very small I didn’t know that I’d meet people who wouldn’t like me until one day, climbing stairs with my father, my hand in his, we met an elderly Swedish woman who lived just below us and who said, “Tsk, Tsk” because I was blind. I was only four and it was winter in Helsinki, Finland. This was a foundational moment for me as such moments are for all sentient beings, its the very second we sense we’re not who we’ve met in the mirror, or having no mirror, we’re not exactly who our parents say we are. Cruelty is one way we arrive. It comes without warning like branches tapping a window. “She’s a fool,” my father said as if that solved the riddle of human embarrassment.

If you teach at the post-secondary level and care about soul (not all teaching concerns itself overtly with soulful things, nor should this be the case per se) you’re likely a stair climbing contrarian, the kind of professor who knows the Swedish dowagers both of history and the ones living next door. Knowing we’re incontestably faced with deviant personalities, people who, according to private or political history, have been rendered un-civic-minded is central to narrative literature and when properly encountered this can strengthen the ironies of  compassion. I swear, as a boy I felt sorry for my grey Swedish matron. She’s still (for me) the image of absolute loneliness. The reach of dramatic irony is broad in poetry and fiction and while it’s not my intention to sound new age-y the human soul needs all the nutrients it can get. Who hurt the old Swedish woman who lived downstairs? Was it her White Russian husband who beat her and her children and then died in middle age having drunk away her dowry?

No one should have the power to steal our compassion. Books alone won’t prevent the theft but they’re the perfect anodyne for thin skinned covetousness and envy, the two conditions most prevalent in hyper-consumerist, post-industrial economies. No one’s reading John Bunyan these days but he’s worth quoting: “You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.” Compassion is a muscle. It’s flexible when used. Employing it we enter wider circles.

In the Age of Trump we’ll need help with compassionate climbing. I do not single out students any more than faculty or administrators—all people of conscience are rightly confused by the wide and unrelenting brutishness we’re now seeing.

Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries, as the Dalai Lama has often said. Our survival both as individuals and communities will now depend on understanding this. Again, echoing the Dalai Lama, compassion is the radicalism of our time. It’s a radicalism that can be practiced daily. It’s also the hardest thing to put into action. “You must not hate those who do wrong or harmful things; but with compassion, you must do what you can to stop them — for they are harming themselves, as well as those who suffer from their actions.” (Dalai Lama)

Over the past few days I’ve been putting together a literary reading list for our present moment. I’ve been culling books that highlight the radicalism of what, for lack of a better term I’m calling compassionate irony. These poets, non-fictionists and fiction writers are assembled here in no discernible order—their work has come to me as I’ve walked in the public square. The public square is a steeper place now. I believe the following books are now necessities:

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The Sympathizer

James Lecesne:  Absolute Brightness

Toni Morrison:  Sula

Anne Finger:  Elegy for a Disease

Gail Godwin:  Father Melancholy’s Daughter

Colson Whitehead:  The Underground Railroad

Adrienne Rich:  An Atlas for the Difficult World

Jacqueline Woodson:  Another Brooklyn

Kurt Vonnegut Jr:  Slaughterhouse Five or The Children’s Crusade

Kwame Alexander:   The Crossover

James Baldwin:   Giovanni’s Room

Dorothy Allison:   One or Two Things I Know for Sure

Ralph Ellison:  Invisible Man

Saul Bellow:   The Adventures of Augie March

Azar Nafisi:    Reading Lolita in Tehran

Naguib Mahfouz:  The Cairo Trilogy

Sam Hamill: Habitations

Walt Whitman:  Leaves of Grass

Pema Chodron:  The Places That Scare You

Kenneth Rexroth:  Collected Poems

Deborah Tall:  A Family of Strangers

Kwame Dawes:  Duppy Conqueror: New and Selected Poems

Mark Doty:  Fire to Fire

Wang Ping:  The Last Communist Virgin

Robert Bly:  My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy

Pablo Neruda:  Selected Poems

Bernard Malamud:  The Stories of Bernard Malamud

Anita Desai:  Clear Light of Day

John Banville:  The Sea

Thomas Hardy:  The Mayor of Casterbridge

John Irving:  The Cider House Rules

Richard Yates: A Good School

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections

Paule Marshall:  The Fisher King

W. H. Auden:  Collected Poems

Evelyn Waugh:  Brideshead Revisited

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:  Americanah

Salman Rushdie:  Midnight’s Children

Naoki Higashida:  The Reason I Jump

W. B. Yeats:  Collected Poems

Per Petterson:  Out Stealing Horses

Magda Szabo:   The Door

Tove Jansson:  The Summer Book

Majgull Axelsson:  April Witch

Jean-Dominique Bauby:  The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Bruno Schulz:  Sanitarium Under the Sign of the Hourglass

Jerzy Ficowski:  Waiting for the Dog to Sleep

Gyula Krudy:  Sunflower

Chris Abani:  The Secret History of Las Vegas

Binyavanga Wainaina:  How to Write About Africa

Joan Didion:  The Year of Magical Thinking

Carlos Fuentes:  The Death of Artemio Cruz

Mo Yan:  Life and Death are Wearing Me Out

The list above is my start—a syllabus of the compassionate climb. You’ll notice I’ve left Kafka off but include Bruno Schultz. Left off Camus but included Carl Jung. One prefers the early Rushdie and Thomas Hardy before he elevated his wife to sainthood. Compassion resists Aristotelian templates—it doesn’t like being talked about. Like a milk snake it shines in its own way. Compassion is more than fellow feeling or empathy—it is mercy. All the books listed here are merciful. Please, start your own lists. Share them. The literatures of compassion are necessarily shared in a university without walls.

 

 

 

 

Free Cookies, Evident Dignities

No one gets a free cookie in the work camp called America. You kids get back to work. Get on your scabby knees and scrub the jetsam.

Last night two cabs in Brooklyn refused to give me a ride. No to the guide dog. No to the man.

The man was told, despite the ardor evident in his heart, and perhaps observable on his smiling face to get back on his scabby knees.

No taxi. No cookie. Same old.

I never get used to it.

This came after a beautiful poetry reading honoring the late poet Deborah Tall at Bookcourt, a lovely indie bookshop. We had a good turnout and wonderful readers and wisdom and lyrical intelligence were all about us. About. We were about together honoring a poet who passed away young and who’s posthumously published final book is now out.

I said to someone, “well they can’t take our souls” in reference to Trump. Later I had to say it about the taxi men. You can’t have my big plush heart you bastards. And I’m terribly sorry no one gave you a free cookie. I haven’t gotten mine either.

Meanwhile I almost got run over yesterday while walking down Sixth Avenue when a bicycle messenger ran a red light and almost struck me, save that my guide dog made a quick maneuver and saved us both.

Meanwhile strangers, pedestrians, witnesses jeered the bicyclist who fell of his damned bike and was scrambling to get to his feet.

Meanwhile I thought he’s just another guy who didn’t get his cookie. I couldn’t be angry. I was alive. He was alive. We went our separate ways.

Meanwhile I like this recipe for the free cookie:

I part Walt Whitman’s breakfast (whatever he was having)

2 parts reexamined opinion (almost anything by Naomi Wolf)

3 generous doses of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and—

3 equally generous doses of Susan Sontag

Garnish with Christopher Hitchens “Notes to a Young Contrarian”

You can tinker with this recipe. It will accept many ingredients but the caveat is that the input, the human sine qua non must represent ardor and a history of assisting others. So, for instance, Ayn Rand doesn’t quality. No also to Norman Podhoretz.

You can put in Hilda Doolittle or Roberto Clemente if you like.

And of course we’re talking about spirits, so it’s up to you how you’re going to get this into cookies.

See? I’ve nearly forgotten being almost killed and then denied my rights.