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Jul/Aug 2013 Reviews & Interviews

"It's analogous to an LSD trip."

Letters to Borges
Stephen Kuusisto.
Copper Canyon Press. 2013. 112 pp.
ISBN 978-1-55659-386-4.

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy


Buy now from Amazon! Stephen Kuusisto was born legally blind with retinopathy. Not long ago, his better eye was said to be 20/200, and his control of its wandering imperfect. In his own words: "I see like a person who looks through a kaleidoscope; my impressions of the world at once beautiful and largely useless." Between large print (which he reads with his nose pressed to the page), braille and personal readers, he is nonetheless, exceptionally well read.

Several years ago, he gave a more detailed description:

My vision is severely limited. When I walk down a street in New York City I don't "see" so much as I "experience" the visual world. In a way, "seeing" is a proactive sensation—with good eyes one can scan what's ahead or what's coming and make a host of instantaneous decisions and classifications. Vision gives you the power to arrange experience and feel secure, even in a crowd. My version of vision is reactive: odd shapes large and small come flying at me and I can't identify or classify them. At one point in the book [Planet of the Blind] I say something like "The world's red insects fly at my face." My place on the street is wildly receptive and imprecise. It can be beautiful or frightening. It's analogous to an LSD trip, save that it's permanent.

The fact of his blindness is all throughout the poems of Letters to Borges. Not just in the obvious ways, the ways that might be expected, but in surprising ways. The better of Kuusisto's poems tend to resemble Chagall paintings. In a cemetery, in Milan, there are "tombs carved like sailing ships," in wartime "[s]choolteachers who resemble candles." In Houston he falls "slowly into a cold paradise of blue":

My arms were extended like wings.
Joyfully, Falling.

I should add that no one was awake to see me.
Borges, did you ever laugh in so much blue?

The visual images are not quite abstract. In fact he strives to make them as normal, as representational as possible, for the most part, which leaves the colors slightly off, the figures often akilter. Both figure and color are primary, less visually detailed.

Kuusisto is also exceptionally well-traveled. This presumably led to the idea of a collection of prose poems he described in a 2008 interview with the Seneca Review:

I'm working on four things. One is a book of prose poems for Copper Canyon Press, which will be published in 2010. It's a series of linked prose poems called Mornings with Borges, where I travel around to different cities and imagine what those cities look like, even though I can't see them. Borges used to do this, so I'm intersecting with him.

Estonia, Galway, Turku, Graz, Iowa City: his letters go out to Borges from dozens of towns and cities throughout the world, betraying an ironic sense of insight and independence.

The poet is an advocate for the special gifts that come along with disabilities—that come along with the disadvantages and special needs. His books make the point admirably. The kaleidoscopic travels of Letters to Borges are magical, with a perspective that depends less on the eye. During the period between travels, he adopts the perspective of the Finnish poems he loves to loosely translate:

"This is not so hard," I thought.
"I can stand in the orchard

With no more hope
Than that old horse."

Or he can just tell us what the rain sounded like when he woke to it, in his own bed, on a particular day:

That rain had Aristotle
And algebra in every drop.
It had the spill of logic and the riff and roll of zero after zero.
It said it would not have me but that was all talk.

Stephen Kuusisto would be a fine poet sighted or blind. Blind, he is even better. The poems of Letters to Borges are insightful, playful, and refreshingly mature.

 

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