A Review of THE PLANET OF THE BLIND
by Ray Greenblatt
How does a blind person write a memoir? How does a blind poet write a memoir? Using all the senses—taste, smell, feel, hearing. Stephen Kuusisto with a miniscule corner of one eye was able to see light; so he also paints a phantasmagoria of hues and forms. The greatest challenge in writing this review was the vast wealth of poetic writing from which to choose. Omitting so many fine passages to fit the word limit involved painful decisions. Nevertheless, since this is a type of autobiography, let us return to his very beginnings.
What can he see? “But often a blind person experiences a series of veils: I stare at the world through smeared and broken windowpanes. Ahead of me the shapes and colors suggest the sails of Tristan’s ship or an elephant’s ear floating in air, though in reality it is a middle-aged man in a London Fog raincoat that billows behind him in the April wind. He is like the great dead Greeks in Homer’s descriptions of the underworld. In the heliographic distortions of sunlight or dusk, everyone I meet is crossing Charon’s river. People shimmer like beehives.” (5)
His parents want him to function as a normal child so he won’t be shunned: “It is the unfamiliar or the unexpected that can catch me, and when it does, I find that with a little vaudeville shambling, I can appear merely confused. Everyone walks into a coatrack or a closet—at least now and then. (Charlie Chaplin turned this into a science.) I begin this eccentric waltz with my mother’s own fears that blindness means a reduced life for her child.” (42)
Reading is such a strain for him: “Hours of after-school time are spent before I can match the class in reading. I have to hold my book an inch from my eye and try hard to hold the hot, spasming muscle. The exhaustion of this is like the deep fatigue drivers feel after being too long on the road. The ordinary effort of reading is, for me, a whole-body experience. My neck, shoulders, and finally, my lower back contract with pain. The legally blind know what it is to be old: even before the third grade I am hunched and shaking with effort, always on the verge of tears, seeing by approximation, craving a solid sentence.” (21)
He goes for an eye exam from a doctor who does not seem sympathetic: “His face looms against mine, and sometimes our foreheads touch as he peers intently into my left eye. A mosaic of microscopic blue stones soars inside my skull, blue that I’ve never found in the outer world.
Quickly the blue gives way to red: a spiraling web of blood and winter branches, the reflection of the inner eye before the relentless examination light.
On the eye chart I make out the big E, and from then on it’s guesswork. The doctor procures lens after lens from the cabinets as if they were mounted butterflies and holds them to my face. I see roseate rings of color, rainbow reflections from the thick glass, but try though I may, I can’t climb down those oscillating tunnels of promised clarity.” (27)
Stephen goes through a stage of bulimia; then to the other extreme, anorexia: “I’m learning how to starve.
Evenings I excuse myself from supper and climb to the attic, where I hunch into the rustlings, a silvery, voracious fuse.
I tell my parents I have a stomachache, and I do. I’m overflowing with blind shame, embarrassments of the flesh, humiliation of the demiurge: I cannot look you in the eye. In the mornings I drink only coffee. At noon in the high school’s cafeteria I permit myself one brownie and a carton of milk.” (52)
Being very bright and having a photographic memory help Stephen to survive. Once he gets to know his environment, now at college, he thinks he can “pass” as sighted: “I believe that in every blind person’s imagination there are landscapes. The world is gray and marine blue, then a clump of brown shingled houses stands revealed by rays of sun, appearing now as bison—shaggy and still. These are the places learned by rote, their multiple effects of color made stranger by fast-moving clouds. The unknown is worse, an epic terrain that, in the mind’s eye, could prevent a blind person from leaving home.” (63)
He gets so close to telling someone he loves how he really feels: “I’m lucky. Down deep I know it. I have colors. And although the visual eludes me, I have some of its shapes as keepsakes. In and out of the haze I go, feeling with my toes. O Lord, let me look urgent, let me move with agility.
It should be simple.
Begin with the lips. MMMMMMMMMMMMM.
Now the guh, guh sound, please.
‘ Give me your elbow, please. Guide me through the stones.’” (86)
He continues this suicidal lifestyle by going abroad alone: “I board a Finnair DC-10 with a briefcase stuffed full of incomprehensible poems. I’m a twenty-four-year-old pagan believing in an assortment of gods and goddesses, hagiographies, dream-books, scraps of overheard conversations. I’m a neurasthenic paradox: disabled, quasi-verbal about it, but still sufficiently ashamed to need to hedge my bets. My masculinity is fragile, my ego crawls around blindness like a snail exploring a piece of broken glass.” (117)
Needless to say, his relationships with women are stilted: “Since Bettina, I’ve been with several women, been painfully in love with some of them. Because laughter and song come naturally to me, I’m approachable, amusing, often silly. I get away with fantastic shit. I recite from pages I cannot read, or point out sights I cannot see because I wish to be admired. Since my disabled man’s impression is that I’m ugly, it’s hard for me to understand how these literate and poised young women can find me attractive.” (122)
In his deepening depression he grows careless: “I’m falling now, and for a moment it seems as though the act of falling will last forever. I’m a diver coursing through a great ribbon of tropical water. And the ground! The ground is, alas, harder today. I’ve scraped my chin and left arm on a sidewalk slate. My bag has flown open, and pages are everywhere. I smell my blood.” (135)
In his thirties he is finally down and out: “After seven good years of teaching, I am unemployed owing to campus cutbacks. My adjunct position has been eliminated. I’m in the stone chair at Luxor, crepuscular, shaking, and very afraid. Who will hire me?
The day answers with its flatness. Nothing happens. The telephone doesn’t ring. Outside trucks shift gears, buses stop at the corner.
Like Robinson Crusoe returning to his wrecked ship for a bag of nails and some calico, I return to old habits, looking for a talisman against the future. The inability to read, the dread of traffic, the fear that blind and unemployed I will wind up home-less—these assorted delations and horrors keep me on my couch. I drink Guinness stout, Harp lager, smoke Marlboros, aware that every puff increases my blindness—that radical damage to the lenses of my eyes speeds up with smoke and drink.” (136)
After all those years of emotional and physical pain, Stephen makes a decision. First, he learns to use a cane, something that was an embarrassment, an admission of being disabled: “I’m wrapped in the silence of discovery.
I’m an acrobat walking on the wings of a biplane. I’m both light-headed and somber, bending to a delicate task.
Nothing terrible happens. I can be disabled. On this ordinary street.
I need to touch my hair. I want to feel my own face.
Nothing is ever going to be precisely the same. My cane is a divining rod.
I’m walking in safety at last.” (145)
He imagines that he has discovered marvelous things on his “planet of the blind:”
“On the planet of the blind, no one needs to be cured. Blindness is another form of music . . .
On the planet of the blind, people talk about what they do not see . . .
On the planet of the blind, everyone is free to touch faces, paintings, gardens . . .
On the planet of the blind self-contempt is a museum.” (148)
Then after much training he gets a guide dog, Corky, a yellow Lab: “There’s a breeze from the far end of the room. The sliding doors open, and I can hear the curtains billowing. When I call Corky’s name, my voice catches. I have to call her twice. I hear a sound like the snorting of a horse, and the musical dog tags, and then she’s on top of me, her paws on my knees, her immense head straight in my face. I’m unprepared for the speed of it. This dog is kissing me. Her tail is banging like a rope. Tears are literally running down my face. “ (168)
Before, he felt safe only in small towns. Now with his new security New York City calls to him: “On Fifth Avenue the world tickles us. What a thrill to hear a horse’s hooves at sunrise! Here comes a mounted policeman! Corky stands stock still, erect, making sure I don’t step into the street. The freshness of the hour circles and sways around me. I didn’t know the dog would bring me the morning.
I smell bread from a French bakery, chestnuts roasting, the wet skins of oranges. At the center of this sensorium is the soft jangle of Corky’s harness, a striving music like a tiny breeze along a mast.
Now on Fifth Avenue with aching, foggy eyes, I can walk without trying to see. I close my eyelids and move as smoothly as a dragon in a child’s story.” (175)
Stephen’s vision of the world and his fate has changed: “Corky flops on her back and rolls in a huge pile of fallen leaves. Leaves are in my hair . . .
Fate it seems is made of thorns and blossoms and bones. As Corky flings leaves and growls with satisfaction I contemplate gloom. The future is indifferent to emotion: events unfold with or without our melancholy or optimism. But there must be sufficient reason for optimism, and for the sentiment that we can craft our potential lives.” (181)
Brooklyn Bridge inspires him: ”My eyes fill with violet silhouettes, tricks of the air, shapes made by the cables of the bridge, a cluster of grapes hanging in the open air. No, it’s a turn of the century gas light, still standing out here. I’m stock-still, filling myself—every microscopic and meandering raindrop inside a man must be replenished with another. I picture myself holding the sieve of Theocritus above my head, the water falling in streams through my hair.” (183)
This portion from the Prologue could just as well come from the Epilogue; they are now in Grand Central Station: “There is something about us, the perfect poise of the dog, the uprightness of the man, I don’t know, a spirit maybe, fresh as the gibbous moon, the moon we’ve waited for, the one with the new light . . .
We don’t know where we are and though the world is dangerous, it’s also haunting in its beauty. Even to a lost man with a speck of something like seeing, this minute here, just standing, taking in the air as a living circus, this is what tears of joy are for.” (1)
Because of limited space we miss so many poetically rendered scenes—in the shed, attic, barn, library, hotel, circus; or the incident of the bike, radio, typewriter, car, birds, etc. The memoir ends when Stephen Kuusisto is thirty-nine. With his lofty intelligence and all-encompassing heart, we are sure his life went on to other significant milestones. We read that he happily married and founded Kaleidoscopic Connections LLD for aiding the disabled. Perhaps another memoir will appear in 2025; we will avidly look forward to it.
A Note About The Author:
Ray Greenblatt has been connected with the SVJ from its inception, as a poet, essayist and fiction writer. Thirty years ago he and Peter Krok, Editor-in-Chief of the SVJ, formed the Overbrook poets, a group that meets monthly to critique poems and thrives into the present. Ray Greenblatt’s poetry has been published around the world, translated into Gaelic, Greek, Polish and Japanese, as well as set to music at the University of Siena in Italy.His book reviews have been published by: Bookmark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, North of Oxford, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His experimental novel, TWENTY YEARS ON GRAYSHEEP BAY, is available from Sunstone Press.