Only Bread, Only Light: Poems [NOOK Book]


With this, his first collection of poetry, Stephen Kuusisto (author of the memoir Planet of the Blind) explores blindness and curiosity, loneliness and the found instruments of continuation. Exploiting the seeming contradiction of poetry’s reliance upon visual imagery with Kuusisto’s own sightlessness, these poems cultivate a world of listening: to the natural world, to the voices of family and strangers, to music and the words of great writers and thinkers.
Kuusisto has written...
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Only Bread, Only Light: Poems

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With this, his first collection of poetry, Stephen Kuusisto (author of the memoir Planet of the Blind) explores blindness and curiosity, loneliness and the found instruments of continuation. Exploiting the seeming contradiction of poetry’s reliance upon visual imagery with Kuusisto’s own sightlessness, these poems cultivate a world of listening: to the natural world, to the voices of family and strangers, to music and the words of great writers and thinkers.
Kuusisto has written elsewhere, "I see like a person who looks through a kaleidoscope; my impressions of the world at once beautiful and largely useless." So it is no surprise that in his poems mortal vision is uncertain, supported only by the ardor of imagination and the grace of lyric surprise. Sensually rich and detailed, Kuusisto’s poems are humorous, complex, and intellectually engaged. This collection reveals a major new poetic talent.

"Only Bread, Only Light"

At times the blind see light,
And that moment is the Sistine ceiling,

Grace among buildings—no one asks
For it, no one asks.

After all, this is solitude,
Daylight’s finger,

Blake’s angel
Parting willow leaves.

I should know better.
Get with the business

Of walking the lovely, satisfied,
Indifferent weather—

Bread baking
On Arthur Avenue

This first warm day of June.
I stand on the corner

For priceless seconds.
Now everything to me falls shadow

Stephen Kuusisto’s 1998 memoir Planet of the Blind received tremendous international attention, including appearances on Oprah, Dateline, and Talk of the Nation. The New York Times named it a "Notable Book of the Year" and praised it as "a book that makes the reader understand the terrifying experience of blindness, a book that stands on its own as the lyrical memoir of a poet." A spokesperson for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, Kuusisto teaches at Ohio State University.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Planet of the Blind, a bestseller and New York Times Notable memoir that landed Kuusisto on Oprah, Dateline and other shows in 1998, has a companion volume in this slim, winning collection. Kuusisto successfully melds music, memory, and his wide-ranging erudition into quiet depictions of his experiences, presenting everything from evocations of a boyhood in Helsinki to earnest poems for Ted Berrigan, "Rachmaninoff's Curtains" and Ogden Nash. Some of its most powerful moments reside in the poet's accounts of his failing eyesight: "Each morning/ I live with less color:/ The lawn turns gray,/ The great-laurel is gravid/ With flint as if it might burn/ In the next life./ Even the persimmon tree/ Is clear as a wine stem." Showing considerable dexterity, Kuusisto also works at times in a more traditional style that draws on surrealism, folklore and metaphysical verse. While too many poems suffer from decorative passages and tidy closure, others show Kuusisto marshalling considerable skills to create finely tuned descriptions of events past and present. In its best moments, this book succeeds in rendering the world both beautiful and strange: "The trees are foreign soldiers/ Talking low in a different tongue." (Oct.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
It is difficult to approach the writing of Kuusisto except through the avenue of his blindness, which threads through this book of poems as it does through his recent and commercially very successful memoir, Planet of the Blind. Yet Kuusisto never stoops to the role of spokesman for the blind, and his lyricism and humor are so exuberant and strong that they explain our world as well as they explain his. His approach to metaphor can be dazzling, as in "Ode to My Sleeping Pills": "Dusk that passes/ Through a priest's glove, Evening with spring comb my hair,/ Smooth my face, / Perfect me in secret/ Like the rose/ That was eaten at dawn/ By that early pope/ Whose name I won't remember." Some of these poems feel more like sketches or notes than completed works, but several of the best--"Diagram," "Post-Orphic," "Seven Prayers," and "Essay on November"--are among the most striking and accomplished lyrics of the last several years. Highly recommended.--Graham Christian, formerly with Andover-Harvard Theological Lib., Cambridge, MA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
From The Critics
In one of his poems, Kuusisto calls himself a "fool of the night seasons," referring to the blindness that affected him during his youth. This poet, however, is no fool about poetry or the construction of beautiful and haunting lines. From the first section of childhood poems in which he appears to be partially sighted, he explores things he will hold dear throughout the poems: light, senses, the love of language, contradiction.Ironically, it is the imagery he lost to blindness that seems strongest in these early poems. For example, He uses color beautifully, "And I saw light / That took a river's form— / Light flashing, / Reddish-gold, / Between two banks..." even as he reveals how his blindness affects the poem's narrative, "Who the hell is this / Turning again to the window, / His finger reaching the sill, / Hands still touching / A river no one can see?" ("Dante's Paradiso Read Poorly in Braille"). Sometimes his short line is haiku-esque in imagery and shape, as in the delicate poem, "Facing the Trees." "We say / Sweet rain / Frees the mushrooms / Our lives / Whirl / Around us / Like Winged seeds." The poems are also influenced by places, his childhood home of Finland, and elsewhere, and are strengthened by a specific awareness of history, as in: "In Finland, in Karstula / Ur-village of my father, / They ate salted roots, // Black parsnips, / Cloud-berries, / Worm-wood." He writes about his seeing-eye dog, about myths and stories—King of the Crickets and Talking Books. His poems refer to muses and allegros, prisms and Breton. Though he calls himself a "fool of the night seasons,"—and indeed there are moments of darkness in these poems—they are filled with light, with careful and startling images, and with a fine appreciation for the senses. His blindness is simply one facet of his work, to be considered as well as any other aspect of his writing persona. If there is any influence, it is an advantage—all the sensory language is lyrical and equally well-crafted, as though only through his night season could the senses, including the absent one, be equally balanced in these poems.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781619320499
  • Publisher: Copper Canyon Press
  • Publication date: 12/11/2012
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 104
  • File size: 837 KB

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Blind Days in Early Youth

No Name for It
Start with a hyphenated word, something Swedish —
Rus-blind; "blind drunk"; blinda-fläcken; "blind spot";
Blind-pipa; "nonentity," "a type of ghost."
En blind höna hittar också ett korn;
"The fool's arrow sometimes hits the mark."
(That's what the Swedish matron said
When I was a boy climbing stairs.)
She pointed with a cane: Tsk tsk,
Barna-blind; "blind child."
Her tone mixed piety and reproof — pure Strindberg!
It echoed on the stairs, barna-blind
"Blind from birth." En blind höna hittar ...
The blind child's arrow ...

Terra Incognita

When I walked in the yard
Before sunrise,
I made my way among patches of dew —
Those constellations on the darkened grass.
The webs drifted like anemones,
And I thought of lifting them
As if they were skeins of brilliant yarn
That I could give to my mother
Who'd keep them
Until we knew what to make.
I pictured a shirt —
How I'd pull it over my head
And vanish in the sudden light.

Awake All Night

The cabinet radio glowed
With its lighted dial
As I pressed my face to the glass.
My spectacles, thick as dishes,
Were kaleidoscopes of light,
So I'd lean close
To make out numbers,
And the brilliant city of tubes
Just visible through a crevice.
I never heard the music
As I traced those lamp-lit houses
Like a sleepy, mindful ghost
Who looks down out of habit
At the vivid world.

Learning Braille at Thirty-Nine

The dry universe
Gives up its fruit,
Black seeds are raining,
Pascal dreams of a wristwatch,
And heaven help me
The metempsychosis of book
Is upon me. I hunch over it,
The boy in the asylum
Whose fingers leapt for words.
(In the dark books are living things,
Quiescent as cats.)
Each time we lift them
We feel again
The ache of amazement
Under summer stars.
It's a dread thing
To be lonely
Without reason.
My window stays open
And I study late
As quick, musical laughter
Rises from the street
And I rub grains of the moon
In my hands.


It was in the nature of things
That I couldn't see. The nature of things
That the magpie should watch me.
Perpetual strangers
Touch my sleeves,
The steel light of August
Draws me, affirming
Over brilliant and terrible streets,
And the bird looks on —
You'd swear
He's like those wounded gentlemen
From the First World War,
Watchful, innocent,
Hoarding his words
In case someone is lost.


Because waking, the radio low,
I've heard music by unnamed composers,
The puzzle of melody returns me
To the viola, Kol Nidrei,
Or the oldest songs of the Finns.
The fields are swept by a music
Half-heard when rising,
No sound, blue intervals,
Then the next phrase
While rain streaks the windows
And the vibrato of recurrent wind
Tells of the waning moon
And Mendelssohn's fiddle.
It's a private, chalked-out game
As December collects and snow begins.
All morning I carry other people's words,
Advance the clock, talk through habit,
But early, the music lets me stand —
Freed from opinion into guess,
A place I need as some need ends.
I walk between pillars of silk,
Hear the rhapsody of Solomon.
The Hebraic dawn opens again,
A windfall, and I hesitate.

Dante's Paradiso Read Poorly in Braille

Each morning
I live with less color:
The lawn turns gray,
The great laurel is gravid
With flint — as if it might burn
In the next life.
Even the persimmon tree
Is clear as a wineglass stem.
In Paradiso
A river of hosts
Opens to the poet
Who begs and prays
For an illumined soul.
And I saw light
That took a river's form —
Light flashing,
Between two banks
Painted with wonderful
Spring flowerings
Finger reading,
A tempered exercise,
I notice how dark
The window has become
Though it's noon
And August
And daylight still resists winter.
I bow my head,
Return to the book.
Poor poet,
He hurries to the river,
And into the river,
His eyes as wide
As a man can make them.
The long sunlight of late summer
Floods the rhododendrons —
This is the light
That pulls him
Under the stream,
Hands, lips, fingers, opening ...
The river
And the gems
Of topaz
Entering and leaving,
And the grasses' laughter —
These are shadows,
Prefaces of their truth....
I strain for color,
The preclusion of sight,
And put aside the book,
Paradiso in braille.
Who the hell is this
Turning again to the window,
His fingers reaching the sill,
Hands still touching
A river that no one can see?
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Table of Contents

Blind Days in Early Youth 5
Learning Braille at Thirty-Nine 8
Accomplice 10
Guess 11
Dante's Paradiso Read Poorly in Braille 12
Serenade 15
At the Woods' Edge 17
Diagram 19
Guiding Eyes 20
Only Bread, Only Light 22
Still 25
Drink 26
Post-Orphic 28
Summer at North Farm 29
Helsinki, 1958 30
Facing the Trees 32
In the Attic 35
Praise for the Yiddish Poets 36
Lying Still 37
Competing Interests within the Family: 1909 39
At the Summer House 40
First Things 41
Waiting 42
Deus Faber 47
Tourists 50
Sheraton, Chicago, Three A.M. 52
In Our Time 54
Mandelstam 56
Tenth Muse 57
The Approximate Hour 58
Allegro 59
Prism 60
Knossos 62
The Invention of the Wolf 63
Open Window 65
King of the Crickets 67
Breton-esque 69
Rachmaninoff's Curtains 70
Running to the Wood 71
Viaticum 72
Essay on November 73
Mnemosyne 74
"Revolution by Night" 75
Descant on Climbing and Descending Stairs 77
The Sleep I Didn't Sleep 81
"Talking Books" 82
Elegy for Ted Berrigan 84
Ode to Ogden Nash 86
Ode to My Sleeping Pills 88
The Mockingbird on Central 89
Corazon, Corazon 90
Seven Prayers 95
Night Seasons 102
About the Author 104
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