by Stephen Kuusisto
When I was ten I became enamored of a giant wasp nest. The thing was as large as a basketball, perhaps bigger, and it depended from a birch. I loved the very fact of the nest and I loved that I couldn’t see it. Blindness meant nothing in the presence of those wasps; I had no hunger to understand them visually. That hive became my Bodhi tree. If you’re sighted you likely haven’t placed yourself under a wasp hive and held yourself still. Sometimes I feel sorry for sighted people. They haven’t heard the zith of wasps leaving the house.
I know: wasps have nests, not hives but I knew it was more than a nest. I called it a hive. Adults corrected me when I talked about it. I didn’t care. It was the Taj Mahal. That was my first experience with the art of blind-decision. I’d no use for sighted words. Or if I did, I could pick and choose them. Meanwhile the wasps didn’t care. They were beautiful. They let me sit underneath them. They didn’t sting me.
I see the trouble with this story: un-stinging wasps and sightlessness frame a mystical alembic. Yes I’m in danger of saying I was a boy-Tiresias, Orphée des guêpes. But that’s just what I was. I was the maestro of stinging insects. Those are facts. At the center of romanticism you’ll find the truth. Crippled romanticism is no different.
The disabled must always anticipate objections to their viewpoint in advance. In rhetoric this is called “prolepsis” and it’s a dynamic of argument. I know you won’t believe me. You shopkeeper I know you don’t want me in your store. You physician, I see you don’t want cripples in your waiting room. And the Human Resources types—how they can’t stand us with our breathing tubes, crutches, oversized wheelchairs, dogs, assistive machines, sign language, Braille transcribers—just the sight of us can cause the Chamber of Commerce types to faint.
One may say that being disabled in a world clinging desperately to the fiction of normalcy and good health is much like the act of writing. We must know what contrarian abstract readers will find troubling or inconvenient and find ways to put it over. And one more thing: to get the point across without apology.
Sometimes the wasps got drunk on rotten fruit.
Sometimes they carried beetle larvae.
Sometime they sounded like buttons thrown against glass.
Sometimes I fell asleep listening.
Yes, the wasp will build you an inner life.
Yes, they carry yeast back to the spring grapes.
Yes, there’s no wine without them.
Yes, they are wholly misunderstood.
In a meeting at the university where I teach I must raise my hand to say the power point is inaccessible; the texts are inaccessible; the website…
Even as I lift my arm I feel the threads of prolepsis growing taut under my skin.
Of course the wasps were themselves.
“Label jars, not people,” says the sign on the bulletin board outside my office.
The wasps were to be admired because they didn’t circle.
Their hive my first accommodation.
STEPHEN KUUSISTO directs The Burton Blatt Institute’s Interdisciplinary Programs in disability at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship. He 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. His newest memoir, Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is new from Simon & Schuster. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart & William Smith Colleges, and The Ohio State University. Professor Kuusisto has served as an advisor to the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington DC and has appeared on numerous television and radio programs including The Oprah Winfrey Show; Dateline; All Things Considered; Morning Edition; Talk of the Nation; A & E; and Animal Planet. His essays have appeared in The New York Times; The Washington Post; Harper’s; The Reader’s Digest; and his daily blog “Planet of the Blind” is read globally by people interested in disability and contemporary culture.
He is a frequent speaker in the U.S. and abroad. His website is: www.stephenkuusisto.com