Book Review: Letters to Borges (Stephen Kuusisto)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

Stephen Kuusisto is one of the renaissance men of disability literature. His best selling autobiography Planet of the Blind put him on the literary map, and with the publication of Only Bread, Only Light, Kuusisto established himself as a gifted poet as well. He has guest-edited the Disability Studies Quarterly , arguably the most academically respected American journal of disability literature as well as a special edition of Seneca Review called "The Lyric Body." His blog, "Planet of the Blind" is followed daily by many. Not surprisingly, then, when a new book by Stephen Kuusisto comes out, it generates interest. Letters to Borges (Copper Canyon Press, 2013) rewards the anticipation.

Jorge Luis Borges looms large in twentieth century literature and even those who have never read Borges' work respect the awe that surrounds his name. What many do not know is that towards the end of his life, Borges became essentially blind. Argentina prior to 1960 did not have Braille and the effect of the loss of sight on Borges was that he shut himself up in his house and did not come out. Letters to Borges is developed around the idea of showing what Borges missed by adopting the housebound life style that he did. Kuusisto takes Borges' idea that "imagination loves to be lost," but rather than turning that wandering internally as Borges did in Labyrinths, Kuusisto makes a labyrinth of the external world.

Kuusisto's degree of sight loss is generally on par with Borges, but rather than play it safe, Kuusisto thrusts himself out into the world. Everywhere that he travels in the world he gets lost, but as Kuusisto says, "That's how you learn about the world." In each of the places he stops, Kuusisto sends a poetic letter back to Borges to let him feel vicariously what he could have experienced. Thus, wherever in the world he travels, Kuusisto has two constant companions, his service dog and Borges.

Near the beginning of the book, Kuusisto addresses his mentor, whom he imagines taking daily walks with a caregiver and then retreating behind the window of his house. Admitting in "Letter to Borges in his Parlor" that "Some days I too don't feel like going out", Kuusisto then goes on to say:

Once, years ago, I got lost in the vast cemetery of Milan.
I had my dog; I was taking roses to Toscanini's tomb.
It was an ordinary day,
Men were digging graves.

Confounded in the ballyhoo Italien,,
The tombs care like sailing ships,
I talked to perfect strangers:
Women alone with grief,
Men walking "on doctor's orders."

It is good, Borges, to have a mission, don't you agree?

The poets travels take him throughout the United States (Iowa City, Houston, Saratoga CA, Los Angeles, Troy NY, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Buffalo) and Europe (Estonia, Galway, London, Vienna, Graz, Grazer Schlo&berg, Madrid and several cities in his native Finland). He tells Borges, "In any given destination, where I go is considerable doubt." A map is useless to him, but when lost, he simply asks strangers and is always eventually helped.

In describing his experiences to Borges, of course, Kuusisto is also describing his experiences to the reader. It is not just Borges who needs to learn something of how the world is experienced by someone who is blind, but the sighted reader as well. Poet and disability literary theorist Jim Ferris points out that an important contribution – even mandate – of disability literature is to shake readers out of their default way of viewing the world. Using Borges as the device to pull us in is Kuusisto's way of getting the reader to meet the world as he does. In Galway, Kuusisto says:

I go out in the early morning rain
And tap the cobblestones with my stick.
On my left, there is a river.
On my right, a loose window
Makes funereal percussions.
"Songs of Earth," I think.

And adds a few lines later. "I have learned much by following the whims of architects."

The impact of the physical world offers a chance to share his experiences with the reader, but, like any other choice about how to write, it inevitably invites criticism. Kuusisto anticipates this. In his letter from Pittsburgh, he remarks: "A friend tells me my writing is too 'experiential' but I can't afford to it bother me: The forests of blindness are like the dreams of the robber barons, you move the buildings and streets in your head."

Of course, any reader familiar with Only Bread, Only Light knows that Kuusisto has a deeply philosophical bent and that a certain slant of light can become an occasion for brief but penetrating reflection. More importantly, however, the conveyance of the world as he it experiences from the perspective of a person with limited vision is precisely the project in which this poet is engaged. If the overall conceit of the book is ostensibly to bring the world to Borges, it is this mapless navigation of the unknown that brings his world to the reader.

This seeming aimlessness (which in truth is extremely artful) feeds into another of Kuusisto's dominant themes, the inevitable decrease in our ability to rely on memory as we age and our increasing reliance upon imagination. Having had to forego many of the visual clues that sighted people have built up and relied upon, Kuusisto ironically becomes the guide, giving us clues to navigating the unknown as we inevitably loose those landscapes of memory we've come to rely on.

Though the architecture of Letters to Borges is indeed scaffolded on the Borges "letters", they are by no means the only poems in the book. Topics only hinted at in the letters are given fuller range in the complementary poems that fill out the overall framework of the book. Clearly one of the topics that bothers Kuusisto most is the senselessness of war. This is hinted at in the letter from Glazer Schlo&berg in which he quotes Borges as saying that the Falklands War was like "Two bald men fighting over a comb," but in poems such "Life in Wartime," "The War Production Canzone, " "Ode to Victor Frankenstein" and "Prose Poem Written at 2 a.m." Kuusisto develops this theme much more fully. In the last of these poems he says candidly:

In a short while I shall abandon this business of writing in the dark and I'll switch on the radio and listen to the BBC and hear more about my countury's foreign policy, which as far as I understand is simply to kill as many civilians as we can.

Among the other topics Kuusisto's poems consider are the nature of jazz, Lucy Grealy, the importance of literature for the future, and Emily Dickinson.

In addition to getting readers to think about a variety of topics, Kuusisto also introduces them to some of the poets of Finland. Unlike the poets of Great Britain, Russia or France, names of Finnish poets do not immediately role of the tongue of most Americans and many a Jeopardy player would be hard pressed to identify Risto Rasa, Pentti Saarikoski, Turkka Suominen, Jarkko Laine. Though Kuusisto letters do include a larger number written from Finland than any other country but the United States, his means of introduction to these writers is amazingly unobtrusive. After the poem's title, he provides a subtitle crediting the poets influence. "Autumn Comedy" is subtitled "after the Finnish of Risto Rasa." In this way, Kuusisto gives us the feel of these poets without pedagogy or claim to translation.

One of the things that is so attractive about Kuusisto's work is that it is ever changing and taking new chances. This is the artist in him and is what makes his work in disability literature not just one of advocacy but of defining and reshaping a genre. Only Bread, Only Light was an important debut book of poetry. It was a book that not only introduced the reader into a new way of seeing the world, but provided a number of well crafted, deeply thoughtful poems that would be welcome in any anthology. With Letters to Borges, however, he pushes into new territory. It is the kind of book that ones reads through once, just to get the lay of the land, as Kuusisto does in his own travels, and then returns to again and again to see what they will discover on the next reading. Even as this review is being written, Kuusisto is in Uzbekistan talking with the people, listening to what they have to say and trying to understand the nature of disability in that country. Who knows what he will come up with next?