Finnish North American Literature Association
Stephen Kuusisto was born in 1955 in Exeter, New Hampshire. He graduated from
the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa and was a Fulbright Scholar in
Helsinki. He has lived in New England, Finland, and western New York. He teaches
at the University of Iowa, after having been at Ohio State University at Columbus
for a number of years.
His memoir, Planet of the Blind, was noticed as a “Notable Book of the Year” by the
New York Times. His poetry and essays have appeared in Harper's, The New York
Times Magazine, and Seneca Review. Planet of the Blind has been translated into
several languages and has sold throughout the globe.
You can link to Kuusisto's website here: www.stephenkuusisto.com
His blog is located here: http://www.planet-of-the-blind.com/
His university website is here:
Eavesdropping - A Concise Review
Stephen Kuusisto's latest work, Eavesdropping, is extraordinary. The book is
divided into two parts: "Sweet Longings" and "Walking by Ear."
In the first part, Kuusisto examines intimately the sounds of his childhood in New
Hampshire and in Finland where he discovers harbor, horse, house, and a number
of other objects and entities. This he shares with us. Hear the horse hold its
breath, feel its wet nose; hear the ravens like hinges needing oil and gulls like
mewing cats; discover the Victrola by touch.
In the second part, he moves outward from closed home spaces to the vistas of
global places, New York, Venice, Iceland, Texas, Greece, and he takes us to these
places via the sounds of nearly being hit by a car that ran a red light, the idle
chatter of passengers on the subway, the surprising congruity of Cuban music in
Iceland, the sound of a baseball game, an excruciatingly slow and blind walk into a
forest to climb into a pine tree to listen to the birds sing.
This work is sometimes intimate, always honest, and unfailingly makes me want to
go to the baseball game, or to a busy street in Chicago, just to hear what it feels
like. Still, Kuusisto's version will outstrip the one I make for myself in its poetic
rendering and in its representation of the details that I don't know how to
experience without his help.
Kuusisto, Stephen. Planet of the Blind: A Memoir. New York: The Dial Press, 1998.
---. Only Bread, Only Light: Poems. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press,
---. Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening. New York: W.W. Norton,
---. “Canto Particular.” In Red, White, and a Paler Shade of Blue: Poems on the
Finnish American Experience. Rhinelander, WI: Tamarack Publishing for FinnFest
USA '96, 1996.
---. “Pentti Saarikoski: Outside the Circle,” an essay, and “Papyrus and Stone,” a
poem. In Michael Karni and Aili Jarvenpa, editors, Sampo the Magic Mill: A
Collection of Finnish-American Writing. Minneapolis, MN: New Rivers Press, 1989.
Kuusisto, Stephen, Deborah Tall, and David Weiss, editors. The Poet's Notebook:
Excerpts from the Notebooks of Contemporary American Poets. New York: W. W.
Additional Book Reviews
Stephen Kuusisto’s Planet of the Blind: Discovering His Vision of the World
By Beth L. Virtanen, Ph. D.
As I work on a project of collecting and commenting on exceptional works of
Finnish-American Literature, I discover in surprising places excellent books that I
have somehow previously overlooked. I think Planet of the Blind: A Memoir is a
work that deserves serious critical attention. Published in 1998 by the Dial Press at
Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, the book is still available new (I found
my copy at Amazon.com). It is available in hardcover, soft cover, and audio, which
The story is of a blind man masquerading as sighted until well into adulthood,
through education in “sighted” classrooms, an undergraduate degree, an MFA
from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, a Fulbright grant to Finland, and so on. How a
legally blind man with “bottle-lens glasses” can succeed is subject of this book as
is Kuusisto’s transformation as he experiences the liberation of addressing his
own needs. In the process, he owns his own difference and his own center.
Through Kuusisto’s perceptions, we experience blindness as only the blind can
know it. “Blindness is often perceived,” he says, “by the sighted as an either/or
condition: one sees or does not see. But often a blind person experiences a series
of veils: I stare at the world through smeared and broken windowpanes” (p. 5).
"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" (p. 5). Haunting. Beautiful.
Kuusisto’s flavor, the taste and accent of his words, is spiced with the accents of
those he’s read and absorbed. He mentions Wallace Stephens, James Wright,
Ezra Pound, and many others. They show as his prose is accomplished,
sophisticated, and nuanced.
In this work, Kuusisto envisions a planet of the blind where “everyone is free to
touch faces, paintings, gardens—even the priests who have come there to retire.
There is no hunger in the belly or in the eyes. The furniture is always soft. . . . [T]
he winds of will are fresh as a Norwegian summer. . . . [S]elf-contempt is a
museum” (p.148). His words frame things in such ways that we see them new.
The memoir moves through Kuusisto’s childhood, where his blindness was denied,
through his teens and into his adulthood, where he finds a cane which becomes
“his divining rod” and finally a dog that becomes his “guiding eyes.” This story is
not only beautiful as a narrative. It is also beautiful in its perception and depiction
of the world that we could never know without Kuusisto’s particular vision of it.
Through his work, we experience the world in unexpectedly terrifying and uplifting
ways. We are apt to cry and laugh.
Kuusisto has other works in print. For them, check with your local bookstore.
Stephen Kuusisto’s Work Delights and Surprises
By Beth L. Virtanen
Stephen Kuusisto is an enigma. I have read both his Planet of the Blind and Only
Bread, Only Light, and I can say that, while I have come to know much about him,
his world still exists just beyond the corner of my vision. His words tantalize me to
enter his world, but that world exists on the fringes of light where meaning is
interpreted from sounds and a kaleidoscope of light that forgets to congeal into
discernable shapes. “At times the blind see light./And that moment is the Sistine
ceiling, . . .” he writes. Nevertheless, he bids me to enter through his skillful
mastery of words in both prose and poetic genres.
In the examination of Kuusisto’s work, I relate it to other voices in the Finnish
Diaspora in North America as it is useful to hear the echoes and reverberations
that result. From it, I get a greater sense of what this Finnish strand of multicultural
literature seeks to express and what its unique sound might be as it is spoken
individually by each and collectively by the group in the Diaspora of Finland.
Kuusisto’s work reminds me of others’ works in very nice ways. Yet it brings to
Finnish Diaspora Literature a new and innovative poetic voice with a clearly
academic bent while maintaining the core features of Finnishness, including a
close sense of the natural world, the value of perseverance, and a broad
understanding of the value of community and connectedness to one’s roots.
Using techniques also used by Barbara Simila, Anselm Hollo, Earl Nurmi, Wendy
Anderson, and other Finnish Diaspora poets, Kuusisto weaves into his work
exquisite, understated natural references: “A pond black as a fig,” he says, and “A
swollen half-moon/ Like a drowsy fingertip/Above the apple trees.” In Simila’s work
we see the northern lights “in glistening fingers” at work, and in Kuusisto’s poetry
we see the marriage of the natural images of ice and snow to express natural
concepts of love and longing. “The old love seeps/Like pond water/In your shoes,
/And the field is bracken/Under the snow,” he writes.
We see reference in his work to classical myths and to early modern poetry, calling
to mind the techniques used by Pentti Saarikoski and Anselm Hollo. We see an
expansiveness and range that is reached only by the few and the great, and still
Stephen Kuusisto writes with a modesty becoming of a priest. While Pentti
Saarikoski’s Dark One in poetry is breathing through his hair, Stephen Kuusisto in
his own work must be seeing through his ears, his sense of smell, his touch, and
perhaps, to borrow Saarikoski’s device, even through his hair. His language, while
filled with sensory detail, is spare and understated, sounding much the Finn that
Stephen Kuusisto’s voice adds to Finnish Diaspora Literature an authenticity that
has until now been missing. He speaks unabashedly about being blind, about love,
about poetry, about dependence on a dog, about finding beauty in surprising
places. His book. Only Bread, Only Light is not to be missed. In it, he brings to life
his own vision of things and renders them lyrically perfect for our ears. The book is
published by Copper Canyon Press of Port Townsend, Washington. Check with
North Wind Books on the campus of Finlandia University for your copy.