2014 Featured Festival Poet: Stephen Kuusisto

Posted on by Victoria Russell, Festival Assistant

Photo courtesy of the Poetry Foundation

In his most recent books of poems, Letters to Borges, Stephen Kuusisto presents a speaker who travels around the world and, like an archaeologist, digs around, turning artifacts over in his hands and lingering over the varying textures of each city. Many of the poems are in the form of letters, and they describe bread shops in Estonia, the cobblestone streets of Galway, carriages in Central Park. Always, the exterior landscape prompts the speaker to explore his internal experience. You can hear Kuusisto speak a bit about this book, and listen to him read “Letter to Borges in His Parlor,” below:

A reader new to Kuusisto’s descriptions and observations may sometimes forget that the poet is blind, and that Jorge Luis Borges, whom the speaker addresses throughout the book, is not a dear friend waiting for him at home, but a prominent Argentine writer who was completely blind by the age of 55 and died in 1986.

Following a long lineage of blind prophets, poets, and literary characters, Stephen Kuusisto grapples with questions about vision and sensation, knowledge and reality. His poetry illuminates the ways in which blindness shapes his understanding of the world and heightens other senses:

Today I understood

While drinking tea

And hearing rain

That the word for birth

And the one for sin

Come from a single sound

In Finnish—that tongue they

Spoke when I was small.

Synnty, untranslatable,

Original sin nearly,

But softer

Kuusisto’s world is not black, blank and empty. His poems reflect the richness and variety in his experience: they are sumptuously smart, boiling over with music and stories, beautiful textures and sounds, a feast of allusions dressed with references to figures ranging from Aristotle, to Emily Dickinson, to Ray Charles, to his own friends.

Despite the good company he keeps, however, Kuusisto does not shy away from describing the isolating difficulties of living blind because, as he says in the video, blindness is an obstacle. In a letter from Madrid, the speaker writes to Borges:

Did this ever happen to you? The meeting breaks up

And the people lock eyes and talk

As if they were always friends.

How lonesome I feel just then.

I’m like a man alone on a raft.

Earlier, in a letter from North Carolina, the speaker described blindness as

A house

Of observances

And nothing more than empty air.

And yet. Loneliness and isolation are not the whole story. Blindness is not only an obstacle. One poem on Kuusisto’s website is entitled “Why I Feel Sorry for Sighted People”:

Only this: once when I was very young I saw the morning star. I didn’t really see it the way visual people see. I was with a friend.

Sighted people forget the blind have friends.

They think if they went blind they’d be alone in a closet.

Sighted people have a terrible insufficiency of imagination.

Kuusisto has written about his experience of blindness in two notable memoirs, Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening, and Planet of the Blind, as well as in his first book of poems, Only Bread, Only Light. He will be taking part in “Present Imperfect,” a reading session of poets with disabilities, at the 2014 Dodge Poetry Festival.

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We encourage you to use the “Comments” box below to share other resources you may have found for this poet. In this way, we can build together a mini-wiki-encyclopedia on the 2014 Festival Poets.

For more information on the 2014 Dodge Poetry Festival and Program,
visit our website dodgepoetry.org

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