November 13 is the birthday of Igor, my last guide dog. It is a day to celebrate his short life as well as the diligent and loving lives of guide dogs everywhere. Please consider a donation to the fund I set up at the Animal Medical Center in honor of him and my first guide dog, Millennium.
[These thoughts on aesthetics, understanding, poetry, beauty and the senses come from Keller’s 1908 book The World I Live In. “Inward Visions” is Chapter 9. You can read Chapter 6 on Smell HERE. The text has been hyperlinked, gently edited for apparent scanning errors and the odd British spellings Americanized.]
ACCORDING to all art, all nature, all coherent human thought, we know that order, proportion, form, are essential elements of beauty. Now order, proportion, and form, are palpable to the touch. But beauty and rhythm are deeper than sense. They are like love and faith. They spring out of a spiritual process only slightly dependent upon sensations. Order, proportion, form, cannot generate in the mind the abstract idea of beauty, unless there is already a soul intelligence to breathe life into the elements. Many persons, having perfect eyes, are blind in their perceptions. Many persons, having perfect ears, are emotionally deaf. Yet these are the very ones who dare to set limits to the vision of those who, lacking a sense or two, have will, soul, passion, imagination. Faith is a mockery if it teaches us not that we may construct a world unspeakably more complete and beautiful than the material world. And I, too, may construct my better world, for I am a child of God, an inheritor of a fragment of the Mind that created all worlds.
There is a consonance of all things, a blending of all that we know about the material world and the spiritual. It consists for me of all the impressions, vibrations, heat, cold, taste, smell, and the sensations which these convey to the mind, infinitely combined, interwoven with associated ideas and acquired knowledge. No thoughtful person will believe that what I said about the meaning of footsteps is strictly true of mere jolts and jars. It is an array of the spiritual in certain natural elements, tactual beats, and an acquired knowledge of physical habits and moral traits of highly organized human beings. What would odors signify if they were not associated with the time of the year, the place I live in, and the people I know?
The result of such a blending is sometimes a discordant trying of strings far removed from a melody, very far from a symphony. (For the benefit of those who must be reassured, I will say that I have felt a musician tuning his violin, that I have read about a symphony, and so have a fair intellectual perception of my metaphor.) But with training and experience the faculties gather up the stray notes and combine them into a full, harmonious whole. If the person who accomplishes this task is peculiarly gifted, we call him a poet. The blind and the deaf are not great poets, it is true. Yet now and again you find one deaf and blind who has attained to his royal kingdom of beauty.
I have a little volume of poems by a deaf-blind lady, Madame Bertha Galeron. Her poetry has versatility of thought. Now it is tender and sweet, now full of tragic passion and the sternness of destiny. Victor Hugo called her “La Grande Voyante.” She has written several plays, two of which have been acted in Paris. The French Academy has crowned her work. The infinite wonders of the universe are revealed to us in exact measure as we are capable of receiving them. The keenness of our vision depends not on how much we can see, but on how much we feel. Nor yet does mere knowledge create beauty. Nature sings her most exquisite songs to those who love her. She does not unfold her secrets to those who come only to gratify their desire of analysis, to gather facts, but to those who see in her manifold phenomena suggestions of lofty, delicate sentiments.
Am I to be denied the use of such adjectives as “freshness” and “sparkle,” “dark” and “gloomy”? I have walked in the fields at early morning. I have felt a rose-bush laden with dew and fragrance. I have felt the curves and graces of my kitten at play. I have known the sweet, shy ways of little children. I have known the sad opposites of all these, a ghastly touch picture. Remember, I have sometimes travelled over a dusty road as far as my feet could go. At a sudden turn I have stepped upon starved, ignoble weeds, and reaching out my hands, I have touched a fair tree out of which a parasite had taken the life like a vampire. I have touched a pretty bird whose soft wings hung limp, whose little heart beat no more. I have wept over the feebleness and deformity of a child, lame, or born blind, or, worse still, mindless. If I had the genius of Thomson, I, too, could depict a “City of Dreadful Night” from mere touch sensations. From contrasts so irreconcilable can we fail to form an idea of beauty and know surely when we meet with loveliness?
Here is a sonnet eloquent of a blind man’s power of vision:
THE MOUNTAIN TO THE PINE
Thou tall, majestic monarch of the wood,
That standest where no wild vines dare to creep,
Men call thee old, and say that thou hast stood
A century upon my rugged steep;
Yet unto me thy life is but a day,
When I recall the things that I have seen,–
The forest monarchs that have passed away
Upon the spot where first I saw thy green;
For I am older than the age of man,
Or all the living things that crawl or creep,
Or birds of air, or creatures of the deep;
I was the first dim outline of God’s plan:
Only the waters of the restless sea
And the infinite stars in heaven are old to me.
I am glad my friend Mr. Stedman knew that poem while he was making his Anthology, for knowing it, so fine a poet and critic could not fail to give it a place in his treasure-house of American poetry. The poet, Mr. Clarence Hawkes, has been blind since childhood; yet he finds in nature hints of combinations for his mental pictures. Out of the knowledge and impressions that come to him he constructs a masterpiece which hangs upon the walls of his thought. And into the poet’s house come all the true spirits of the world.
It was a rare poet who thought of the mountain as “the first dim outline of God’s plan.” That is the real wonder of the poem, and not that a blind man should speak so confidently of sky and sea. Our ideas of the sky are an accumulation of touch-glimpses, literary allusions, and the observations of others, with an emotional blending of all. My face feels only a tiny portion of the atmosphere; but I go through continuous space and feel the air at every point, every instant. I have been told about the distances from our earth to the sun, to the other planets, and to the fixed stars. I multiply a thousand times the utmost height and width that my touch compasses, and thus I gain a deep sense of the sky’s immensity.
Move me along constantly over water, water, nothing but water, and you give me the solitude, the vastness of ocean which fills the eye. I have been in a little sail-boat on the sea, when the rising tide swept it toward the shore. May I not understand the poet’s figure: “The green of spring overflows the earth like a tide”? I have felt the flame of a candle blow and flutter in the breeze. May I not, then, say: “Myriads of fireflies flit hither and thither in the dew-wet grass like little fluttering tapers”?
Combine the endless space of air, the sun’s warmth, the clouds that are described to my understanding spirit, the frequent breaking through the soil of a brook or the expanse of the wind-ruffled lake, the tactual undulation of the hills, which I recall when I am far away from them, the towering trees upon trees as I walk by them, the bearings that I try to keep while others tell me the directions of the various points of the scenery, and you will begin to feel surer of my mental landscape. The utmost bound to which my thought will go with clearness is the horizon of my mind. From this horizon I imagine the one which the eye marks.
Touch cannot bridge distance,–it is fit only for the contact of surfaces,–but thought leaps the chasm. For this reason I am able to use words descriptive of objects distant from my senses. I have felt the rondure of the infant’s tender form. I can apply this perception to the landscape and to the far-off hills.
I was sewing–I hand-sew, as you can read about in Sewing Blind–and listening to the series of interviews Bill Moyers had with Joseph Campbell in the last year of his life (1987), collectively called The Power of Myth, when I heard Moyers preface his next question with this:
“We talked about the effect of the hunting plain on mythology, this space clearly bounded by a circular horizon with the great dome of heaven above. But what about the people who lived in the dense foliage of the jungle? There’s no dome of the sky, no horizon, no sense of perspective–just trees, trees, trees.”
I paused the interview and continued stitching. Occasionally sewing becomes a kind of active meditation for me. I thought about that phrase “circular horizon with the great dome of heaven above.” It resonated. I allowed the associations to ripple gently on the lake of consciousness. I’m not sure how long before the rings of “circular horizon with the great dome of heaven above” met those of a visual memory of a desert sunrise , but when they did the opening lines of “Never Be Sorry” emerged.
The memory began in the predawn desert of Joshua Tree National Park. My UC Santa Cruz roommates and I had driven down the day before and arrived at night to the campground. I awoke before dawn to a cold so cold that I still compare all colds to that one. Surely it was not actually as cold as some recent winters in NYC, but sleeping on the ground in a flimsy down sleeping bag my feet and hands were painfully frozen, almost burning so that tears started to my eyes. My companions were somehow still sleeping while I stared at the millions of sharp cold stars. Perhaps I could have forgotten my pain if I had been able to pick out constellations, but having lost my central vision when I was in high school, I had never been able to make them out–I could see the stars just as I could see inked letters on a printed page, but without the detail rendered by the fovea, the words and pictures refused me their intelligibility.
So I stared at those frozen chips of light and thought they might enter my heart and freeze my soul, like what happened to the little boy in The Snow Queen. The sleep breathing of my companions assured me I was not alone, but sometimes that is not enough–one yearns in this lonely universe for conscious companions to witness the pain and creeping fear.
The hours or only minutes passed. Perhaps I closed my eyes for a moment. When they reopened, I found a new scene, one that so took my breath away that the cold seemed almost to disappear.
Rolling my eyes around that great expanse of sky–that exalted dome–I saw a pale silver lightening rising up from the horizon, silhouetting the sharp rocks, which appeared heaped into crazy formations as if by an abstract-expressionist deity.
And finally, just above the silver ring of impending sunrise, hung a sliver-moon risen, it seemed, just to complicate the transition from night to day, and create the illusion of a metamorphosis arrested, the dome of night suspended forever in the bowl of rising day.
My poem of sight and blindness would be about the beauty and more than beauty–sublimity–of the visible world. I wanted to celebrate the visible, celebrate my participation in the appreciation of that world from a perspective of one who no longer participates physically in that appreciation, but who, in her mind’s eye via memory and art, still attempts to participate in the glorious materiality of sight.
The poem would resonate with the visible, with ambiguous regret–how can I regret having seen such beauty? How can I not regret, when the having-seen causes a painful desire for more?
The fleeting quality of the visible world had no better analogy than a sight once seen of butterflies falling from the skies in coupling torrents, falling into our hands and into our hair and all around, a frenzy of mating butterflies in an improbable grove of eucalyptus trees. It had been a memory ripe for art picking for many years.
According to the Natural Bridges State Beach website, ” From late fall into winter, the Monarchs form a ‘city in the trees.’ The area’s mild seaside climate and eucalyptus grove provide a safe place for monarchs to roost until spring.”
In my time at UC Santa Cruz, I often brought visiting friends and family to see the monarchs, but never had I seen it like that. Most times I went the weather was not warm enough for them to fly much and they clustered in the trees, wings folded, so that I, with my poor vision, would never have recognized them as butterflies if they’d not been pointed out to me.
The day the butterflies fell from the sky in copulating pairs is so crystalline a memory that I sometimes fear it was a dream. A dream of nature that, as a child, I often experienced as an extension of my waking life–a dream set in a specific and quotidian event or outing–a field trip that really did take place in a verifiable way–but so improbable as to force the memory into the taxonomical mental space of a dream, but nonetheless differing not at all from the memories of autobiographical reality.
As I am writing, I grow more fearful that my mating butterflies memory is not real. For the first time I am trying to situate it in a day, trying to give context–who was I with, for example? We, laughing and stunned, opened our hands to catch them as they fell, but the other hasn’t an identity , just a presence, a guy but not a lover. Sounds rather fishily like a dream, no? And yet I’m positive it happened. And yet I’m disturbed.
I wonder, for the first time, if essaying the story of a poem can destroy its reality? Can a poem even be destroyed in such a way?
Unsure of my answers to the above, I rush on to present my real point: I loved seeing and yet I think being in love with seeing is a danger all seeing mortals face. That to see constantly without a lens, aesthetic or philosophical, or from the perspective of impending blindness, or recovered sight, or religious ecstasy, or even scientific curiosity, is to see without anything but one’s eyes, and thus to render oneself a mere gawker or dumb tourist.
As Campbell puts it in the opening lines of The Power of Myth:
“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive .”
And so with this idea of resonance in mind, I will not be disturbed by the possible unreality of the mating butterflies falling from the sky. If it is but a dream vision, its purity as memory speaks to the power of imagination to endow sad inert brown clusters of cold insects hanging from eucalyptus trees in a Santa Cruz grove, with the flight and life-frenzy of mating monarchs in all their sun dappled orange and black magic.
If I held one of these coupling double-creatures in my hand only in my dreams, is it not enough?
Never Be Sorry
I Will Never Be Sorry
To have seen that jagged desert,
Encircled by horizon,
Topped with that great dome
Of exalted blue heavens above,
Or that lovely cool sliver of a moon.
And I will never be sorry
To have seen that ragged face
(that great last love
That blazed so quick)
Or to have loved it
With spit and fire.
And I will never be sorry
To have Seen these fucking butterflies–
Literally, fucking butterflies–
Falling from the sky
(It’s hard to fly when you’re fucking)
So they drop
Into the hand of one
Who will never be sorry she sees them
Drop dancing into the palm of her
And dance till they rocket apart.
Up and away
Into that close slab of sky,
Chipped away by these eucalyptuses–
Whatever they are called,
THEY DO NOT BELONG HERE:
Australian trees on a Santa Cruz
Draw the monarchs from
God only knows where.
This is an impossible grove
With its accessible walks
And its stupid visitors hut–
Winds might yet blow it all away.
And on that ocean
Sit those natural bridges,
Carved out by a thousand years of pounding,
Had I like them
Energy enough and time
I would never, never,
Never be sorry.
*This revised version of “Never Be Sorry” was published at Quail Bell Magazine. Here also is the original version, with photographic visionscape by Todd Jackson…
I have given a name to my pain and call it “dog.” It is just as faithful, just as obtrusive and shameless, just as entertaining, just as clever as any other dog–and I can scold it and vent my bad mood on it, as others do with their dogs, servants, and wives. –Nietzsche, The Gay Science.
I first heard this Nietzsche quote while I was sewing–yes, I like to sew and listen to philosophy books as well as novels! It was a quote that caused me to stop my electronic reader and sew quietly for a while. Then I read it and reread it with more and more attention and finally, a poem popped out! Although it needed another month or two of embellishments and revisions, it felt complete, like it was destined to be a thing, from the very beginning.
The poem “A Pain Named Dog” is one of the few I’ve written that I keep coming back to and it seems to keep resonating. I usually tell people that I stole the central conceit from Nietzsche, and I hope that sometimes It gets people to read The Gay Science, but who knows? It’s just a book of aphorisms, so spending time with one of the aphorisms is perhaps as good as flipping through them all.
In The Gay Science, written after a period of illness, Nietzsche illustrates what Nussbaum has to say about the generality of humans entering into and out of disability/dependence throughout their lives. Nietzsche makes embodiedness a central tenet of his philosophy, and pain a necessary component of that embodiedness. His relationship to pain, namely treating his pain as if it were a dog to be trained and disciplined, turns pain from a thing that he submits to into a thing that submits to him.
Perhaps then it makes sense that “A Pain Named Dog” turned out to be the first poem I read out loud in public since I’d lost the ability to read normal print around the age of twelve. For decades I was ashamed of my inability to read with my eyes, and embarrassed that I could no longer read out loud. I was really good when I was a kid.
Finally I hit upon using my little electronic reader’s earbud as a Cyrano, whispering my own words into my ear. That tiny fix made it possible for me to enter fully into a writerly life, and it was not new technology but a kind of paradigm shift in my mind about what reading was. Though I’d been listening to electronic books for decades, I somehow did not make the leap of understanding it to make possible my own presentation of words.
A Pain Named Dog
I have given a name to my pain
And call it Dog.
I can tell it to sit, lay down,
Roll over, play dead.
I scold it and shame it
And pretend it’s my bitch
And though it worries my carcass
And growls and shits,
It gives me a leg up. On profundity.
I have given a name to my beauty
And call it Snake.
I observe it wind my hand
Delicate as flowers ferocious as fangs
I tell it, PULSE DANGER.
SWALLOW BLIND MICE.
And though its little murders do not ripple
The still-water universe
It’s all about ego. Feeling groovy.
I have given a name to my anger
And call it Cockroach
I fatten it with booze and candy
It waxes petty and cruel
I chase it to squash it
Curse its very existence
But because it incites war
In the bowels of men
It does me some good. Keeps them in check.
I have given a name to my disease
And call it Devil
Sad Devil. Mean-spirited
Jealous and cruel.
I know the Fiend called Devil
Is the Blindness called Life
Still I shout HUZZAH
With the rest.
It appeases. Why not?
I have given a name to my sadness
And call it God
I tell it YOU ARE DEAD.
Long live you?
I command SIT STAY ROLL OVER
At least fucking PLAY DEAD
And though it is just as obtrusive and entertaining