Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet's Journey
Stephen Kuusisto is well known for his poetry, Letters to Borges (2013), as well as his books of memoir, Planet of the Blind (1998), a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year,” and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening (2006). As such he is in a unique place to share this revealing memoir Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey, a book about his life and that of many others who are served by seeing-eye-dogs. For me, it is a revelation of that world of blindness and one’s relationships with a guide dog, but also of Kuusisto’s noble life.
Blind from birth, the author is quick to point out the variety of the term blind. At the training center for service dogs, he meets Linda. “Linda asked questions about my type of blindness. There are hundreds of blindnesses and no two people experience vision loss the same way. Linda was asking ‘How is it for you?’ ‘It’s like I have Vaseline in my eyes,’ I said. ‘Up close, pressing my nose on a printed page, I can read large print—but only with one eye.’”
And we learn how integral the dog and its owner are. Each must be fitted to each other and work together for the three weeks of training. And so much of the book weaves information about blindness and seeing-eye-dog training with his personal struggle with accepting his own blindness.
For years as a youth, his parents sought to make him normal, like all the others. Faking normalcy, bullied in school, struggling with who he really is, his story is that of so many facing disability. He survives his life and gains an education and deep appreciation for language and literature. Yet it is not until he accepts his need for the service dog that he reaches a fullness and acceptance of himself, through the bonding with Corky. It provides some of the most moving passages in the book:
Corky burst in like a clown. I sat in a tall armchair and Kylie told me to call and damned if she didn’t run full steam into my arms. She placed her large front paws on my shoulders and washed my face, and then, as if she fully understood her job would require comedy, she nibbled my nose.
She was brilliant and silly. I couldn’t believe my luck. Back in our room she bounced, cocked her head, backed up, ran in circles, and came back. All the while I kept talking. “Oh, let’s go anyplace we choose,” I said, feeling I was on the verge of tears.
As our first hours unfolded we began the lifelong art of learning to read each other.
She was happy but she had something else, a quality of absorption. She looked me over like a tailor. She took me in. She wasn’t searching for a ball to be thrown. Was it my imagination or did she actually have the most comprehending face I’d ever met?
There are times when you can’t describe your feelings. You say, “So this is the new life.”
I thought: “So this is the new man with the big dog—the big yellow dog, who cares not a whit about the old man’s history and already believes in his goodness.”
And so, we learn much about the nature of blindness, seeing-eye-dogs and its training, and about our author Stephen Kuusisto, yet in a larger frame we learn about compassion and connecting with others.
The author is quick to share his self-realizations with us, “My principle hang - up had always concerned accomplishment—a misunderstanding of accomplishment—as if blindness was an obstacle to success. I’d lived without any examples of blind triumph. Now triumph was all around me.”
In a style that is both direct, personal, and humble, Stephen Kussisto shares his progressive understanding. This book that so carefully documents the life and times of one blind person and his relationship with a caring animal becomes a triumph for us all.