Blindness and Image in the Poetry of Stephen Kuusisto

Only Bread, Only Light (2000) by Stephen Kuusisto
review by Marina Buckler, Reference Librarian

Let me tell you something that will be obvious to you if you decide to pick up Only Bread, Only Light: Stephen Kuusisto writes a lot of poems about being blind. This is not a particularly surprising thing–if you know anything about Kuusisto before you open the book, it is probably the fact of his blindness, and poetry is often composed of deeply personal reflections of poets’ lives, decompressed of details in order to lend us some insight into what it means to live a human life. However, what is surprising is the particular way Kuusisto forces the reader to confront, on one hand, what it means to be blind (as you use your eyes to read), and on the other, how we understand poetry as a medium.

Take, for instance, Kuusisto’s description of morning dew from “Terra Incognita,” the second section of the first poem in the book:

Those constellations on the darkened grass

The webs drifted like anemones,
And I thought of lifting them
As if they were skeins of brilliant yarn

Here is a blind man writing about light, an isolated but undeniably visual moment. Here, in the description of constellations, webs, and brilliant skeins lies a slight disconnect. Poetry, with its rich history of oral tradition, is not a visual medium as such, but it certainly has visual implications and utilizes images as its currency with the aim, ultimately, of illustrating. Kuusisto does this well–his lines are clean, unencumbered, pared down. And his description of the way the dots of moisture reflect the morning light above is true; nothing about it strikes as incorrect. And it is this fact which forces the reader to ask how, exactly, Kuusisto accesses this information, how he manages to provide this authority over visual truth.

It seems to be precisely this disconnect that Kuusisto aims to draw attention to in his poems about blindness. His work forces the reader to confront the idea that the task of describing the world we inhabit, with its rich tapestries of shadow, does not–must not–belong solely to the sighted. That the way we think about the disabled body in our society–by thinking of what it cannot do, as if the person operating with a disability is operating at a deficit, encumbered with a projected loss–marginalizes the experiences of the disabled person, categorizes those experiences as less, and sets them aside. By imposing this thinking onto the disabled body and the person living within it, we provide one more barrier for the disabled person to internalize, and to struggle against.

Kuusisto writes about this quite elegantly, and I will not double his efforts except to say that Kuusisto’s poems ask that we discard this barrier, and engage with him about the depths of a wider array of human experience. That is to say that there is ample reward beyond the issued challenge to cease viewing the blind poet’s poems as a blind poet’s poems: Kuusisto’s writing delivers exactly the kind of acknowledgement of human struggle, loss, and elation that we require of our best poets.

Take, for instance, this bright moment in “Post-Orphic,” where the reader is provided a glimpse into the writerly compulsion:

Tonight I felt it in my ribs:
A flood of green in the marrow,

And I decided to live right here
And sing sometimes.

Or this, from “Learning Braille at Thirty-Nine”–a reminder of the gift of reading, which Kuusisto elucidates as a sort of human communion, an engagement with a world we can no longer tangibly engage with, where we can be reminded that we are not alone:

(In the dark books are living things,

Quiescent as cats.)
Each time we lift them

We feel again the ache of amazement
Under summer stars.

Or this, from “Still,” where it is acceptable to ache at the temporal nature of love, at loneliness and the way memory bleeds back to undermine the present:

The old love seeps
Like pond water
In your shoes,
And the field is bracken
Under snow.
Who loves you, who doesn’t:
Each curls like burning paper
And blooms upward In the winter dusk.

Which speaks to another poem much later in the book, “The Sleep I Didn’t Sleep” where we witness the speaker finding a spot of comfort in the almost hairsbreadth of time we are allotted:

It doesn’t matter

Who loves him, who doesn’t.
He sees the rain, undiminished

Behind his every thought.

  Take a peek at our collection of Kuusisto’s writing, which includes his memoir, Planet of the Blind, and look forward to a visit from him at the Nancy Hill Poetry Celebration the weekend of November 5-9.

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