"The world is a surreal pageant," writes Stephen Kuusisto. "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 rain coat which billows behind him in the April wind."
So begins Kuusisto's memoir, Planet of the Blind, a journey through the kaleidoscope geography of the partially-sighted, where everyday encounters become revelations, struggles, or simple triumphs. Not fully blind, not fully sighted, the author lives in what he describes as "the customs-house of the blind", a midway point between vision and blindness that makes possible his unique perception of the world. In this singular memoir, Kuusisto charts the years of a childhood spent behind bottle-lens glasses trying to pass as a normal boy, the depression that brought him from obesity to anorexia, the struggle through high school, college, first love, and sex. Ridiculed by his classmates, his parents in denial, here is the story of a man caught in a perilous world with no one to trust--until a devastating accident forces him to accept his own disability and place his confidence in the one relationship that can reconnect him to the world--the relationship with his guide dog, a golden Labrador retriever named Corky. With Corky at his side, Kuusisto is again awakened to his abilities, his voice as a writer and his own particular place in the world around him.
Written with all the emotional precision of poetry, Kuusisto's evocative memoir explores the painful irony of a visually sensitive individual--in love with reading, painting, and the everyday images of the natural world--faced with his gradual descent into blindness. Folded into his own experience is the rich folklore the phenomenon of blindness has inspired throughout history and legend.
"In the country of the blind," the old adage asserts, "the one-eyed man is king." But in Stephen Kuusisto's superb new memoir, The Planet of the Blind
, the world of a one-eyed man is a kingdom of confusion and quixotic struggle. Born with only residual vision, one eye capable of 20/200 vision and the other unseeing, Kuusisto was led by the insistence of his mother and the ignorance of the society around him to an elaborate and harrowing attempt to appear sighted. At times the effort was life-threatening, as with the bicycle he rode from the ages of 10 to 30 ("Were my years of cycling an actuarial gift?" he wonders), and at other times profoundly humiliating, as when his stumblings and collisions are assumed to be signs of habitual drunkenness. Indeed, the almost inconceivable effort of maintaining his sighted masquerade leads to all sorts of self-destructive behavior, from obesity to anorexia, from booze and cigarettes to drugs and perilous clambers up fire escapes.
Most biography is a recounting of struggle that leads to success and achievement, but Kuusisto's story is of a lifelong struggle that leads to acceptance. For this gifted poet, the barely glimpsed visual world is an irresistible temptation, despite pain, embarrassment, and failure. When he finally submits to the white cane and a guide dog, suddenly he can envision a "Planet of the Blind," a place where those without sight live in peace with their own lives, where "everyone is free to touch faces, paintings, gardens," a place where beauty is behind the eye of the beholder. --John Longenbaugh