"A river that no one can see": body, text, and environment in the poetry of Stephen Kuusisto

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Date: July 2009
Publisher: Liverpool University Press (UK)
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,862 words

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Drawing from extant critical analyses of the sites of language production and reception, and the relationship of body to language and metaphor, this essay examines the way in which Stephen Kuusisto's poetry questions held notions of language and embodiment. In examining selections from his book of verse Only Bread, Only Light, as well as his works of non-fiction, the author analyzes Kuusisto's disruption of the boundaries where communication occurs, and suggests that the poet's work, by establishing the discursive potential of the non-visual senses, represents a direct challenge to existing artistic and cultural discourse.

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In constructing the plot and working it out with the proper diction, the poet should place the scene, as far as possible, before his eyes. In this way, seeing everything with the utmost vividness, as if he were a spectator of the action, he will discover what is in keeping with it, and be most unlikely to overlook inconsistencies. (Aristotle XVII)

The artistic distance called for in Aristotle's Poetics has for centuries shaped and influenced Western conceptions of the relationship between body and text. Aristotle's specific idea of the body as an entity that can see, observe, be a spectator of the action, in other words a physical thing separate from the object of creation, has enforced a persistent belief in the importance of objectivity in art. But when the body of the artist becomes more visible as an Other, due to illness or disability, that artist is able to explore more fully the subjectivity of artistic creation, exploring the "extent to which an economy of the body is involved in our own metaphors about language and knowledge" (Davis 103). The art of disabled people, however, is often overlooked in a society in which "[frequently, corporeal otherness is viewed as an impediment to art," and "disabled artists have been often (mis)understood as succeeding despite rather than as a result of disability experiences" (Snyder 173). It is therefore the task of disabled artists to challenge held notions about embodiment and to challenge the system of discourse that supports those notions because, as Jay Dolmage states in his study of disability and metaphor, writing "the body is how we incarnate ourselves, or are incarnated by discourse" (114).

Stephen Kuusisto has achieved commercial and critical success with his memoirs Planet of the Blind (1998) and Eavesdropping: A Life by Ear (2006), and his book of poetry Only Bread, Only Light (2000). Exploring bodily and sensory variation, the natural world, literature, and music, Only Bread, Only Light contains poems described as "works of spare and musing beauty," in which "each word is set as carefully on the page as a footstep blindly taken in an unknown place" (Seaman 205). In bringing the reader on a journey through his world of different sight, "his lyricism and humor are so exuberant and strong that they explain our world as well as they explain his" (Christian 145), and we become aware that we are not looking at a blind poet, but rather through a blind poet.

Legally blind since birth, Kuusisto nevertheless spent more than 30 years of his life denying his blindness and navigating the world using "residual vision, a combination of shapes and colors, and a capacious memory" (Conan). A significant portion of his adult life was spent resisting the label 'blind,' in spite of his steadily lessening vision: "Why should it take so long for me to like the blind self? I resist it, admit it, then resist again, as though blindness were a fetish, a perverse weakness, a thing I could overcome with the force of will power" (Planet of the Blind 142).

After struggling for years with the issue of his identity, the experience of nearly being run over by a car finally convinced Kuusisto to ask for assistance from the New York State Commission for the Blind. Provided with a white cane, which forced him "out of the closet, and blind for everyone to see" (Planet of the Blind 142), Kuusisto soon realized the need for a more effective mobility aid, and decided to get a dog. After attending a lengthy dog training 'boot-camp' at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, he partnered with Corky, a yellow Labrador retriever who had such an empowering effect on his life and mobility that he described the experience thus: "At the age of thirty-nine I learn to walk upright" (Planet of the Blind 171). Set free by his new-found mobility, Kuusisto traveled extensively, documenting the aural experience of his worldwide jaunts in Eavesdropping, in a series of essays he termed audio postcards.

As exhibited by the innovative nature of the audio postcards, variation in sensory perception, such as Kuusisto's, can often imbue a poet's sensibilities with a more intense awareness of the body and provide insight into the interaction between body, text, and environment. Kuusisto describes his level of visual acuity as "a series of veils: I stare at the world through smeared and broken windowpanes" (Planet of the Blind 5), but an effect of this years-long struggle to navigate the world with limited vision has caused the poet to develop tremendous observational skills. In his poetry he explores the bodily senses in a myriad of ways, investigating how sight, hearing, and touch can serve to facilitate expression and communication by both receiving information and transmitting information. In this essay I will examine the way that Kuusisto's poetry interrogates and challenges traditional concepts of language and the body, shaping a new discourse that begins within the body and travels outward to the world.

Reconsidering the Sites of Language Reception: Touch

"Learning Braille at Thirty-Nine" is an entrance into the diverse perceptual world of Stephen Kuusisto. The word Braille in the title immediately presents the reader with an image of language flowing through the fingertips, an image that contradicts the conventional notion of language and its reception. Rather than the hand serving as "the locus for writing, scholarship, and the essay" while the eye acts as "the receiver of the artistic, of written knowledge" (Davis 103), in Kuusisto's world the hand, in particular the fingertips, is the point of reception for language and art. As the poem's speaker hunches over his book, patiently struggling to learn this new language, we feel a tension in the poem that "hums out of language, meaning, and emerges as that shapeshifting thing that twists out of reach" (Kuppers, "Performing Determinism" 100). This tension pulls against the poem's simple structure--short lines organized in couplets--to charge the poem with a subtle, persistent energy.

The poem begins with a gift from the cosmos that spills down over the speaker--"The dry universe / Gives up its fruit, / Black seeds are raining" (Only Bread, Only Light 8)--providing him with potential bounty in the future. The Braille marks have morphed into seeds, which when planted will provide a harvest of experiences and knowledge if he can just get them to grow by learning this new language. The image of planting and germination is juxtaposed with the line "Pascal dreams of a wristwatch," as if to suggest that, as a dream was the source for Pascal's invention (the wristwatch), so too are these seeds the source of invention. The sobering fact of Pascal's death at 39 is not lost on the speaker, but by taking the seeds into his hands, his fingertips, the speaker will be so transformed by the acquisition of language that his soul will transmigrate into a new body ("The metempsychosis of book / Is upon me") and become one with the book. The world of the book has been denied the speaker prior to learning Braille, so with this new knowledge literally at his fingertips, books become "living things / Quiescent as cats," causing in the speaker the "ache of amazement." So strong is this new force in the life of the speaker that he turns away from the company of others, and though "It's a dread thing / To be lonely / Without reason," he is driven to stay up alone and "study late / As quick, musical laughter / Rises from the street." This imposition of the noisy outside world rises up, lighter than air, to confront the speaker in his solitude, a solitude that is "not loneliness, but a pooling into a self, another concentration under a dome, a vibration between space and body" (Kuppers, "Outsides" 27). This vibration wells up from the street, the scene of community and humanity, and provides a strong contrast with the image of the speaker alone in his arduous task. We sense clearly the delineation between the space of the outside world and the solitary body of the speaker.

Perhaps the most compelling image of the poem is the last couplet: "And I rub the grains of the moon / In my hands." These lines provide the reader, in particular the non-blind reader, with the tactile sensation through which Braille readers experience written language. Far more than being simply allowed to witness his experience, by inviting us into his experiential reality, the poet allows us to feel the grains of language itself through his fingers. These grains, like the black seeds in the second couplet, become signifiers of language, and in both cases are perceived as coming down--as rain or as a gift from the moon itself--even as the laughter, the joy of humanity, rises up. Positioned in the middle of this exchange is the solitary reader, who ties the cosmic with the earthly as he pores over his Braille texts.

The Relative Nature of Sensory Perception

The experience of reading Braille also informs Kuusisto's poem "Dante's Paradiso Read Poorly in Braille," although the tone of the poem is more somber and melancholy than the tone of "Learning Braille at Thirty-Nine." As we witness the speaker struggling with a Braille reading of this formidable literary work, we also see the color slowly being leached from his world as his eyesight changes. This change in visual acuity parallels Kuusisto's, who early in life "could make out enough of the world to have a pretty good intuitive sense of what was out there," but over time developed vision which showed him a "much more Jackson Pollock world" (Conan). In the poem the speaker witnesses the graying of his reality:

   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. (Only Bread, Only Light 12)

The loss of color is daily and progressive, and on this particular day the green laurel tree with its bright yellow berries has become dull and pregnant with gray stones, while the yellow-leaved orange-fruited persimmon has become clear to the point of invisibility. (1)

Contrasted with this slow graying is Dante's vivid description of Paradise, its rivers "reddish-gold," and flowing "Between two banks / Painted with wonderful / Spring flowerings..." The speaker must reconcile the reality of his increasingly colorless world with the explosion of color and imagery he is reading about in Paradiso, while at the same time maintaining the painstaking discipline required to read the text in Braille. It is no wonder, then, that "Finger reading, / [is] A tempered exercise." In considering this line of the poem, there is a certain ambiguity in the use of the word temper, as if the poet is inviting the reader to explore multiple meanings of the term. For example, it can indicate something that serves as a counterbalancing or moderating force, so perhaps the speaker is counterbalancing the perpetual dimming of his visual world with Dante's world of eternally brilliant color. But another definition of the word temper, taken from its industrial usage--improving the hardness and quality of a substance such as steel by heating and cooling--offers an intriguing interpretation of the poem. As the speaker reads, he frequently stops to examine the dimming world around him. Is the switch between the gray and the color, between reality and text, his method of cooling and heating his experience, thus becoming hardened, elastic, and stronger? Perhaps this process of becoming strengthened is what allows the poet to resist the effects of encroaching darkness in the same way "daylight still resists winter."

The title of the poem indicates that the speaker reads Dante's masterpiece "poorly," and we as readers ask why this is so. Is it unfamiliarity with Braille or the complexity of the text that causes the speaker to read with difficulty or lack of understanding? Perhaps, but it appears that something else is at play, too. The poet opens the fourth stanza with the lines:

   Poor poet,
   He hurries to the river;
   And into the river,
   His eyes as wide
   As a man can make them. (13)

In this section, "poor" refers not to low quality or inferior standard but instead refers to another definition of the word--that is, deserving of pity or sympathy. As Dante rushes wide-eyed into the river, "The long sunlight ... /That pulls him / Under the stream," he is clearly being overwhelmed and drowned by light and image, and for that he is to be pitied. The speaker quotes lines from Paradiso that dismiss the significance of the river, the grass, and the gemstone--" These are shadows, / Prefaces of their truth... "--and hint at a reality that exists beyond the imagery of the natural world. Drawing inspiration from these lines the speaker asserts that though he continues to "strain for color," color is ultimately "The preclusion of sight." The idea that color prevents sight challenges our entire way of thinking about sight and calls "attention to the relativism and vulnerability of human sensory perception" (Mirzoeff 388). Rather than becoming an object of pity himself, or embracing melancholy in the face of his graying world, the speaker has claimed power by establishing himself as someone who possesses a greater truth about the true nature of sight.

Armed with his knowledge of this greater truth, the speaker can "put aside the book, / Paradiso in Braille" and turn more fully to the task of self-examination, asking in the last stanza:

   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? (14)

The "hell" in the first line of the stanza contrasts sharply with the "Paradiso" of the title, as if the speaker is rejecting Dante's flowery paradise and embracing his own gray reality. As he turns finally from Dante to the window--the real world--the speaker holds out his hands and feels the warmth of the sunlight and asserts the primacy of touch: he can feel what no one--not even Dante--can see.

Sound, Silence, and the Assertion of Aural Privilege

Much as Kuusisto explores the sense of touch in the poems discussed above, in "'Talking Books'" he foregrounds the ear as a receptive point for language and knowledge. The quoted title refers primarily to the name of the U.S. federal government program established in 1931 to provide recorded materials to blind persons but also calls to mind the impression of a book having a voice. Rather than being a static object consisting of bound pages, the poet presents texts as living, 'talking' entities that can be accessible to anyone willing to listen.

From the first lines of the poem--"I can still hear that actor's voice / with its bass notes, or the static / and hiss of records played all afternoon" (Only Bread, Only Light 82)--the speaker acknowledges the power and permanence of the aural experience. Though the events described in the poem seem to have occurred in the distant past, the speaker has detailed memories of the tone of the voices and the hissing of the records, and clearly recalls "each rhapsodic / twist" of the books he heard as a child.

The primary image of the poem--a young boy, alone in a room for days at a time, intently listening to records and caught up emotionally in the stories-- evokes a strong sense of pathos and melancholy. Kuusisto acknowledges this feeling in his memoir Eavesdropping: A Life by Ear (2006) when he describes the experience of listening to Milton's Paradise Lost on LP when he was fourteen: "I'd discovered, without knowing it, the difference between speaking and being. This is what listening is, true listening, the lonely but open mind. I'd discovered the gift of Milton: the soul's path is in the ear--not in the mirror" (50). This spirituality of the auditory is reflected in "'Talking Books'" as the speaker draws us back into his past to witness his childhood among the talking books. We sense a powerful ceremonial air in the scene he presents us. The boy listening to the talking books has a reverence toward his records--"in half-light, and dark ascensions, / listening without moving"--that borders on the prayerful, and as he handles the records "with practiced fingers" his actions resemble those of a liturgist.

But if the experience of listening to talking books is a ceremony, it is a ceremony with temporal boundary lines clearly delineated by the mechanics of listening to LP records. Though the speaker might be carried away by hearing the adventures of Admiral Peary or the capers of Huck Finn, inevitably the record would end "and the needle would stick--then silence," while the record was flipped, or the next record loaded. These breaks in the text frame the listening encounter and separate books into discrete segments over which the speaker asserts his control, for while he is in control of the records, he is in control of the story. In the silences, our speaker would take control of the production of the story

   as the Duke and Dauphin hovered
   in blackness all the while,
   suspended in their violence. (82)

So complete was his control over the texts that books "might last for days, / but I had them to afford." By the end of the poem, the recorded voice instructing the speaker to switch records is characterized not in imperative terms, but as "the reader's stern appeal-- / this book resumes on the next record ..." By describing this break in the text as a request, the receiver of the story is asserting privilege over the transmitter of the story, and a blind boy alone in a room with talking books is asserting the power to control his literary and intellectual journey.

The intricacies of the intellectual journey and the twisting path of learning are explored in "Guess," another poem which experiences the world via the auditory sense. As the title suggests, the poem is an exploration of the unknown, and the joy of mystery and wonder. In its opening stanza, the poem describes the powerful emotional chord struck by waking to music softly playing on the radio:

   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. (Only Bread, Only Light 11)

The mystery of an unknown melody fills the speaker with three powerful and oddly juxtaposed images. The viola is a mellower, more somber instrument than its cousin the violin, perhaps indicating the drowsy melancholic state in which one awakes. Kol Nidrei is a melodic prayer sung on Yom Kippur that voids and annuls any unfulfilled or forgotten vows from the previous year, allowing the congregant to begin the Day of Atonement with a clear conscience. Thus the music from the radio enables the speaker to face the day with a sense of renewal, a spiritual clean slate. The Finnish music in the final line of the stanza alludes to Kuusisto's upbringing and ancestry. He spent time in Helsinki as a child and his first memories of listening come from hearing old Finnish women sing work songs as they cleaned their rugs on the shores of the Baltic Sea (Eavesdropping 3).

The music of waking extends beyond the radio in the second stanza, and the poem begins to investigate the music of nature itself. The stanza begins by describing fields "swept by a music / Half-heard when rising," a clear allusion to wind, which builds then dies down leaving "No sound, blue intervals." These silences act to frame the music of the storm, much as the breaks in the record framed the texts in "Talking Books." In this case, the silence is almost immediately interrupted--"Then the next phrase / While rain streaks the windows"--as the storm continues. As the speaker recalls "the vibrato of recurrent wind" that "Tells of the waning moon / and Mendelssohn's fiddle," he connects the music of the natural world outside to the sound of the viola coming from the radio.

The last stanza of the poem begins by focusing on the speaker as he confronts the mundane realities of personal interaction, the "private, chalked-out game" he must play, a game with its boundaries clearly marked. But although the speaker engages in this world, he does so unenthusiastically, willing only to "carry other people's words, / Advance the clock, talk through habit." The image of the clock calls to the reader's mind a punch-clock at a tedious hourly job, a job where every action is timed and regulated.

In vibrant contrast with this regulated tedium, the speaker reflects on his mornings and remembers a reality where "the music lets me stand-- / Freed from opinion into guess." In the reality of music--both human and natural--the speaker can experience the joy of not knowing, the power of wonder. So deeply affected is the speaker by this experience that he describes it as "A place I need as some need ends."

In a reflection of the first stanza, the end of the poem returns to metaphors of faith and music. At the most obvious level, the references to Solomon and the "Hebraic dawn," signify the spiritual significance of music to the speaker, in particular the experience of an awakening. But there is also a more literal meaning at play here. In 1916, composer Ernest Bloch wrote a piece for solo cello and orchestra called Schelomo: Rhapsodie hebraique, or "Solomon: Hebraic Rhapsody" ("Bloch"). Perhaps the Bloch rhapsody is the "music by unnamed composers" that started the poem.

As the poem draws to a close, the almost dreamlike quality of the last four lines and the description of dawn opening indicate that the speaker has gone through the night and is now seeing a new day:

   I walk between pillars of silk,
   Hear the rhapsody of Solomon.
   The Hebraic dawn opens again,
   A windfall, and I hesitate. (Only Bread, Only Light 11)

But in Eavesdropping, Kuusisto, who has written extensively on the process of listening, suggests a different idea: "If you really want to hear with penetration and find its associated pleasures, you must imagine you are waking up over and over again--waking on your feet, becoming aware 'in medias res.'" (75) Perhaps what we are seeing in the poem's last lines is the awakening of the speaker to a new aural pleasure, and the continuation of the cycle of discovery. In order to appreciate the fullness of the world, the speaker must continually revisit the mystery of the unnamed composer; he must wake up "over and over again."

Curiously, the poem ends in hesitation as the speaker faces the "windfall" of a new dawn. Perhaps this indicates that the sensory experience is not to be embarked upon lightly and underscores the effort required to "hear with penetration." In its final line, the poem reflects back to an implied imperative statement in the title instructing those who dare experience the joy of not knowing that sometimes you have to "guess."

In Eavesdropping Kuusisto discusses the effects of his type of blindness-- retinopathy of prematurity--describing his visual experience as seeing the world in fragments, "like a myopic, darting minnow" (xii). The author goes on to point out that contrary to popular belief, the majority of blind people possess some level of visual acuity. In the poem "Awake All Night," the reader is brought in to the poet's world to see as he sees.

The opening couplet--"The cabinet radio glowed / With its lighted dial"-- sets the scene for this poem, describing an old vacuum-tube style radio. Taken with the title, this couplet bestows on the radio an almost ghostly quality. We can visualize this old radio towering over the little boy as he approaches it late at night. The speaker describes pressing his face to the radio--"My spectacles, thick as dishes, / Were kaleidoscopes of light"--and we are given a glimpse at the way in which he sees objects around him. The image of swirling colors magnified and warped by glass lenses illustrates the "beautiful and worrisome" (Eavesdropping xii) visual world of the poet.

Pressing further into the inner world of the radio, the speaker leans closer to the circuit boards and vacuum tubes "To make out numbers, / And the brilliant city of tubes / Just visible through the crevice." At this point, the totality of the radio has dissolved into its component parts, which are of far more interest to the young speaker. Unconcerned with the typical notions of what a radio is and what it should do, he is learning to form the world according to his own perceptions. Indeed, in his increasingly close-up view of the radio, he "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. (Only Bread, Only Light 7)

Gazing down at the world of the radio, the speaker is fascinated, but also aware that he is looking at a world he does not inhabit. To an extent, these lines describe the speaker's view of the larger world as well. He does not see the world as others see it, and like a ghost he moves in, and observes, but is not entirely a part of this world.


This sense of ghostliness, of being in, but not entirely as one with the world might well describe the ethos of disabled artists as they observe, record, create, and shape their experiential world while struggling with a language system that has "inscribed and controlled the experience of disability for disabled and nondisabled alike" (Dolmage 108). In a society that sees body as destiny a disabled person "is somehow forever in possession of an indelibly pathologized body," (Snyder and Mitchell 2) that relegates the individual to the status of object. In this society reclaiming the subject position is an imperative for the disabled artist. But such a project of reclamation remains an arduous if not Sisyphean task within the existing context of our language system and its concomitant prejudices about embodiment. Therefore, the first priority in establishing a new subjectivity in disabled art is to challenge these language systems by interrogating the sites and methods of language production and reception, and reshape societal notions of the body.

As a language art, poetry is well suited to examine and shape aspects of language and its embodiment by drawing on its "meaning-making functions that can illuminate poesis: the blooming of words from one body to the next" (Kuusisto and Kuppers 74). In his poems, Stephen Kuusisto explores the boundaries where communication occurs. Acknowledging the limitations of the visual realm, the poet explores the changing and changeable world of the body's other senses, examining and explaining their communicative abilities. By doing so, he and we begin to understand more fully the role of the body in shaping metaphor, which in turn shapes our perception of the world. As Snyder and Mitchell state: "Reinterpreting our imaginative space allows analytical participants, in turn, to better anticipate ways of revising our cultural space" (2). Thus Kuusisto's poetry, by establishing the discursive potentiality of the non-visual senses, represents a direct challenge to existing discourse, while at the same time creating a new, subjective, body-based poetics.

Works Cited

Aristotle. "The Poetics." Trans. S. H. Butcher. Project Gutenberg, 1999. <http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/1974>.

"Bloch, Ernest." Encyclopedia Americana. 1992.

Christian, Graham. "Only Bread, Only Light (Book Review)." Library Journal 125.20 (2000): 145.

Conan, Neal. Interview with Stephen Kuusisto. Talk of the Nation. National Public Radio. 5 January 1998.

Davis, Lennard J. Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body. London; New York: Verso, 1995.

Dolmage, Jay. "Between the Valley and the Field." Prose Studies 27.1 (2005): 108-119.

Kuppers, Petra. "Outsides: Disability Culture Nature Poetry." Journal of Literary Disability 1.1 (2007): 22-33.

--. "Performing Determinism: Disability Culture Poetry." Text and Performance Quarterly 27.2 (2007): 89-106.

Kuusisto, Stephen. Eavesdropping: A Life by Ear. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006.

--. Only Bread, Only Light: Poems. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon P, 2000.

--. Planet of the Blind. New York: Dial P, 1998.

Kuusisto, Stephen, and Petra Kuppers. "Auto-Graphein or 'the Blind Man's Pencil': Notes on the Making of a Poem." Journal of Literary Disability 1.1 (2007): 74-80.

Mirzoeff, Nicholas. "Blindness and Art." The Disability Studies Reader. Ed. Lennard J. Davis. New York: Routledge, 1997. 382-398.

Sacks, Oliver W. An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales. 1st edn. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Seaman, Donna. "Only Bread, Only Light." The Booklist 97.2 (2000): 205.

Snyder, Sharon L. "Infinities of Forms: Disability Figures in Artistic Traditions." Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities. Ed. Sharon L. Snyder, Brenda Jo Brueggemann and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2002. 173-196.

Snyder, Sharon L., and David T. Mitchell. "Disability Haunting in American Poetics." Journal of Literary Disability 1.1 (2007): 1-12.

Michael L. Melancon

Department of English, Oklahoma State University

(1.) This description of the colors of the visible world fading to gray echoes a famous medical case documented by Oliver Sacks in his (1987) essay "The Case of the Colorblind Painter." The 65-year-old painter, referred to only as "Jonathan I." experienced a concussion-producing injury in a car wreck that left him completely colorblind. So total was his achromatopsia that entering his workspace, "he found his entire studio, which was hung with brilliantly colored paintings, now utterly grey and void of color. His canvases, the abstract color paintings he was known for, were now grayish or black and white" (Sacks 6). Like Sacks' patient who saw a rainbow as a "colorless semicircle in the sky," the speaker in this poem is a citizen of a grayscale world.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A243528228