Praxis: Deliberate Beauty by Stephen Kuusisto

I’ve a friend who’s autistic and can smell people’s words.

He knows a man whose lingo smells like feces. It’s a sad thing as my friend likes this man, but what’s a fellow to do? They can’t be in the same room.

I say I know but of course I don’t. My scat world is limited to analogy–Joe’s a shit head; my uncle is full of it, etc.

But shit packed in nouns and adverbs, of this I know nothing.

I think I should.

Why? Because its a hard life and art won’t help you live.

And words are occasionally lethal.

Language is a trick. God knows.

[From a notebook:


In a few minutes I will land in Ashgabat which is a perfectly unforeseen sentence, for in a former life I was afraid to cross the streets in my rural upstate New York town owing to my blindness and a corresponding insufficiency of imagination. The latter sounds hard but it’s true: I didn’t know, even in college, how I might live in the world. And though there are many answers to the puzzle one may call “how to live and what to do” in the end the only solution to fear (whether your life involves disability or something else) is love.]

Interpolation: walking is love; writing a circumstance of faith. So art can help you live but the atelier may smell like a water closet.
I’m always taking back the things I say. I’m improvident.

There are days when I feel the pull of the subconscious, little Kali with her necklace of skulls. “This is normal,” I tell myself. Something delicate–a doll’s chair breaks in my hand. “This is customary,” I say. I feel like a man trapped in a tool shed, fingering the bolts and broken tools.
“Well,” I tell my selves, “‘We Got It Bad, and That Ain’t Good.’ How about a nice, cold glass of logical positivism?” Little Kali hates this. Nature doesn’t like the Romantic idealization of nature.

We are lonely. For me this loneliness stems from childhood, a shadowy calendar of disability solitudes. Sometimes, even in the midst of people I’m so alone I ache. I also inflate balloons, throw voices, make up songs that only the most deliberate and obstinate children can enjoy.

In general I prefer the poets of loneliness. Their ranks include Cesar Vallejo, Osip Mandelstam, Auden, Dickinson, Trakl, Bly, Harry Martinson, and Pablo Neruda. There are so many more. Yannis Ritsos, Cavafy, Richard Hugo, Lorca, James Wright.
“Memory is not an instrument for exploring the past but its theatre. It is the medium of past experience, as the ground is the medium in which dead cities lie interred.”

–Walter Benjamin

(Helsinki: 1959)

Ruminant cold; clouds like machine parts, nothing fancy, a set of gears low on the horizon, gulls walking sideways in the market square.

There were reindeer and old men and drunken sailors.

There were trolley cars filled with tough old Finns who had survived two wars with Russia and now retained entire dissertations on hunger in their heads.

Lights came on early. A darkness inside a darkness–weather “became” philosophy.
(Helsinki: 1999)

“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” (Kierkegaard)

The cold is numeric tension.

“Don’t spoil my circles,” said Archimedes.

I see a very old man making circles on the esplanade–looping circles built by oversized feet in the Finnish twilight.

“Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion.” (Democritus)

Look! A city of opinions!

Architectures of opinion!

But like Einstein, the snow does not believe in mathematics.

The city of my boyhood is a great polyhedron of shadows.

Winter in the far north is a miracle multiplied beyond necessity.

Leibniz wouldn’t like it here.

Even the ravens of Helsinki know the unconscious arithmetic of winter.

This is not a conceit.

I once saw a raven standing in an empty baby carriage.

This was just outside a department store.

The raven was lifting one foot, then the other, carefully, as though composing a dance.

The mind is a question, asked of another question, the imperative, shadow asked of shadow.

When the parents came out with their baby the raven was gone.


From a Finnish poem: “sometimes I see a child/see in him what I was like/and I want to say I’m sorry”.

Jumping from place to place, and the dogs dancing with me.

Easy walking, late spring…


The shirt in my dream was from my childhood. It had dreadful stripes. I wore it in the hospital, a blind child, alone in a ward. The damned thing came back last night. You can count on the Id.
(Helsinki: 1982)
It was a working class bar and everyone was painfully drunk–that manly near death atavistic Viking hallucination of everything. After all these years so many wounds and so few praises. That was when a man I did not know turned to me and said: “You are a Jew!” “You’re right,” I said, because I was young and in love with poetry, “I am a Jew!” It was the first time I had ever felt the pins of anti-Semitism, I, a Lutheran with a long beard. He reached for me then but missed and grabbed another man. “You are a Jew!” he shouted. “No, it is I,” I said, “I am the Jew!” But it was too late. They were on the floor and cursing, two men who had forgotten the oldest notion of them all: in Jewish history there are no coincidences.
Oh but how the words stink. “Shit on your whole mortifying, imaginary, and symbolic theater!” (Gilles DeLeuze)

I ask about beauty. One strives for it with the materials at hand. Oh but how it smells. The black, high flung vowels. The sprung intentions.

I need, like most writers, to keep a blank page in one room, the mind in another.
I wanted to be useful so I wrote a poem–
It was about Orpheus and his birds
So every bird was in it
All the birds in the world
And each bird that has ever been
And you know
It was not beautiful but terribly alive
Like a god who assumes a single shape
In sudden wind.


Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”) and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light, and Letters to Borges. He teaches at Syracuse University.