Stephen Kuusisto writes beautiful, intelligent poems that engage and expand the senses. Like Stephen Dunn and other fine craftsmen, he is energetic without being explosive, and his language-swirls feel as if they spring from a passionate, well-tuned inner ear, from an earned confidence in where sound meets shape, and not from vanity. Instead of saying “feel,” I almost said “appear,” and I’ll momentarily explain the choice.
Letters For Borges is Kuusisto’s second collection of poetry. He is also the author of two memoirs about being blind, one of which I have read. The way a poem is seen on the page is important. How one capitalizes is important. How Kuusisto makes such selections is a talk I’d love to hear. How he thinks his sighted audiences respond to him is a topic I’d love to have explored in a panel, with him leading the discussion.
Full disclosure. I see MUCH more than Kuusisto, but my left eye has always been almost useless, enabling me, with glasses, to process color and light on that side, but almost never allowing me to accurately process shape without a long-practiced assist from my right eye. So, to state the obvious, I come to Kuusisto with a unique perspective that sometimes makes me self-conscious, and always heightens my alertness when I read him.
Sometimes I think the right way to be fair to Kuusisto is to recite him aloud, record and replay. Try this with “Life in Wartime:”
There are bodies that stay home and keep living.
Wisteria and Queen Anne’s Lace
But women and children, too.
And countless men at gasoline stations.
Schoolteachers who resemble candles,
Boys with metabolisms geared to the future.
Musicians trying for moon effects.
The sky, which cannot expire, readies itself with clouds
Or a perfect blue
Or halos or the amoebic shapes
Of things to come.
The railway weeds are filled with water.
How do living things carry particles
Of sacrifice? Why are gods talking in the corn?
Enough to feel the future underfoot.
Someone is crying three houses down.
Many are gone or are going.
A book could be written about this poem, or almost any other in this volume. Or one could write a poem beginning , “How does a blind man envision a perfect blue?” Or “What is it like to learn to name Queen Anne’s lace with your fingertips or entire hand?” One could list countless questions about how the author makes sense of “amoebic shapes,” which in their natural state are too small for a sighted person to perceive without microscope.
Microscope is urgent here because this poem and all the poems in this book are composed by someone with a large inner magnifier, so by the time one has absorbed, or tried to absorb, every composition, new world’s appear, and remain after eyes close.
Borges was also blind, but you know that. And in one of the “Letters” of the title, called “Letters to Borges from Tampere,’’ Finland, where Kuusisto’s roots are, he demonstrates a masterful, well-calibrated physicality :
Winnowing and threshing in the far north –
Sunlight like tea in a glass (a stranger
Tells me) and local musicians play waltzes
In a coffee bar. Borges,
I got a bit drunk last night
And walked into a field and lay down where
The Caterpillar machines had torn a long seam in the earth
And the waltzing was, as the Finns say, nurin kurin, all topsy-turvy
In my head
And my ruined eyes took the roses and broken shards
Of twilight and built another village—a counter-village
Where the houses stood like wineglass stems.
You could see through everything
Even the walls of the walls of the church
A fact that didn’t bother anyone
As men and women made of light
Are necessarily long-lived and unconcerned
About the hour.
How does someone who sees light-robbed grays get to where he can imagine roses and broken shards of twilight, and breathe into them a counter village so heart-freezing and welcoming at once? “I got a little drunk, “ he says, but I suspect that line is there to force a pause, and as a deliberately mild bit of self-deprecation. He needs to be told that the sunlight is “like tea in a glass,” and his straightforward declaration makes the whole poem equal parts poignant and glorious, and a worthy honor to the Nobel Winner.
I have been wrestling for days with the question of how to approach Kuusisto’s blindness and my own concepts of visual composition and its importance in poetry, most of which are accepted wisdom. Kuusisto’s insistence on capitalizing the first letters of lines that are not the beginnings of sentences is a visual impediment making silken, flowing poems less so. But as a poetry reader I am usually intentionally unhurried. All those caps are unnerving, but Kuusisto is such an intelligent, deliberate writer that I have let go, slowed down a little more, and let him have his way .
I find Kuusisto’s way especially devastating in “The War Production Canzon,” with the unnecessary epigraph Whirlpool : Imagine It. Advertising Slogan. It is among the best “political” poems I have read in the past twelve months:
I have come at last
Of my dishwasher:
I use it
To bring back
Don’t kid yourself
And why shouldn’t
I set the dial
To Advanced Patriotism
The Orphic spot-remover,
Let the falling
Of the unreal dead
Muriel Rukeyser couldn’t have said it better, and there’s more, ending with
Of the rascals
You and me.
Stephen Kuusisto’s hearing (“Abstractions/ Of the rascals, ” for example ) is a kind of miracle, helping him see more than the “sighted” community. All of us go deeper into avenues of uniquely lit awareness.