Book Review: Have Dog, Will Travel (Stephen Kuusisto)
Reviewed by Emily K. Michael
"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."
Corky, a singular yellow Labrador, transforms the gossamer existence of a blind poet. The extraordinary dog bounces in with generosity and poise, what Stephen Kuusisto calls her "keen affection." This is the shining through-line of Kuusisto's latest book, Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet's Journey, released by Simon & Schuster in March, 2018.
Readers of Kuusisto's earlier essays will recognize some of the themes he invokes here: the mother in denial, the hostile or incongruous strangers, the need to accept and remake himself. But Have Dog, Will Travel offers a perspective that is more optimistic than Planet of the Blind or Eavesdropping. It is a book that relentlessly pushes old ideas aside. The reader can feel Corky and Kuusisto's forward motion, a consistent meter that rewrites Kuusisto's whole life.
In this memoir, Kuusisto traces the path that led him to Corky, his first guide dog, at Guiding Eyes for the Blind. The author chooses an associative rather than chronological approach—the "poet's journey" of metaphor, memory, and images. To reach Guiding Eyes and his "superior dog," Kuusisto learns to dismantle the prejudices he has carried from childhood: his mother's insistence that being blind in the world is shameful. The pre-dog Kuusisto in his thirties is still the child of an alcoholic mother who would rather he pretend to be sighted than learn to live independently as a blind man.
What the disability community calls passing, Kuusisto calls "playing chicken." In the performance of credible vision, Kuusisto traveled without a white cane by following "shadow people," hazy outlines of men and women walking ahead of him. He writes, "No one plays chicken because he feels good. When you play chicken with a disability, you're trying to convince yourself you don't have a weak hand." Kuusisto used this method well into his thirties, until a close call in a mundane street-crossing made him realize he could no longer fake sight and travel safely. He decides to train with a guide dog: "At thirty-eight, I'm done with creeping."
As he trains, he explores the history of guide dogs, who got their start after World War I. Kuusisto describes how the tough military dogs of the battlefield prefigured the many guide dogs who help blinded veterans travel safely. He includes the work of Morris Frank, the first blind man to travel with a guide dog in the United States—a story that emphasizes the hard work and palpable dignity of a guide dog team. Blind handlers and guide dogs had to fight for their rights to travel unobstructed. And they won through the professional behavior of their carefully trained dogs.
Kuusisto and Corky visit the grocery store, the barbershop, the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. They ride the subway and walk the streets. He writes, "Guide-dog work was all about the accomplishment of daily techniques, all of them necessary if you're taking a dog everywhere." In each place, he catalogues the reactions to his dog: Corky is a "hero dog" at the Greek restaurant and a bother at the fancy hat store. In the basement barbershop where Kuusisto is greeted with an unwelcome silence, he realizes that Corky can also remind people of their own losses and the loss of their comrades. Silence can signal more than exclusion and hostility.
But most interactions with the public are garrulous, if not pleasant. Kuusisto says, "Dogs make blindness approachable. 'Approachable' blindness means 'easy to talk to' blindness." He learns that being in the world with Corky gives him a kind of celebrity, even if people don't quite understand the work she does. When people at an arts colony ask about his dog, he says, "She's a multimedia artist…She has a tattoo and dresses in leather."
Kuusisto emphasizes how his growth and expansion occurred in stages. On the verge of transformation, he announces, "I'd spent my adult life as a pallid child," but even with Corky by his side, his path is not completely smooth. When she hears of his training, Kuusisto's mother voices her disapproval: "People will know you're on the fritz." On the day of his Guiding Eyes graduation, he and his sister Carol must convince his reluctant mother to participate.
Kuusisto recognizes that he must discard other people's notions of who he should be. He must give Corky a whole and unashamed self. He writes, "My heart would no longer be subdued. I went outdoors and sat on the porch and thought about my blind-dog self, so freshly bold." Kuusisto recognizes all this training—the month-long stay at Guiding Eyes and all the physical and psychological preparations he made before arriving—as a gesture of welcome for Corky, an attempt to make himself worthy of her.
While he trains at Guiding Eyes, Kuusisto describes the pivotal moments of a handler's life: Match Day, where each handler meets their pup; graduation, where the handler meets the family that raised their pup; and "turning over," a supremely beautiful moment for a guide dog team. Though the dog did not choose her match on Match Day, the days of training give her a chance to decide whether she will love him. Kuusisto writes, "Our trainers spoke of 'turning over'—the transfer of a guide dog's love to its new owner. ‘She's turning over to you,' was the best pat on the back I'd ever received. There'd been no praise in my life to equal it." He realizes that this extraordinary dog, the dog he already loves so much, has chosen him.
Kuusisto calls himself "Corky's accomplishment"—a concept that defies the everyday othering of disabled people and nonhuman animals. The man-dog team is a mobile collaboration, a fluid display of love. Not only do Kuusisto and Corky work hard for each other, but their ability to work together has been facilitated by a network of trainers, patrons, and puppy raisers. Corky helps Kuusisto cross streets, travel safely, and circumvent the myth of deficit.
Title: Have Dog, Will Travel