When you Cannot See

(when all of your central vision is almost gone and the rest will be gone within 5 years because of an incurable eye disease, cone dystrophy)

Not really to not see, but to see differently, strangely, queerly, sideways and slantways and in ways that aren’t seen as seeing

2 goals for my work on vision

First, a critical intervention in the privileging of vision/sight—an exploration of other ways of attending and other language for that attention. Not just seeing but listening and feeling. What might be some aural-centric words to counter vision, insight, focus? In tune, in harmony, I hear what you’re saying?

Thinking about this reminded me of a poem I memorized this summer: And Swept All Visible Signs Swept Away/ Carl Phillips

Easy enough, to say it’s dark now.
But what is the willow doing in the darkness?
I say it wants less for company than for compassion,

which can come from afar and faceless. What’s a face, to a willow?
If a willow had a face, it would be a song. I think.
I am stirred, I’m stir-able, I’m a wind-stirred thing.

Here, I’m thinking about listening and the expression of self through song, as opposed to through face and vision. The “visible signs” have been swept away by the wind, yet compassion and recognition (to beholden) are still possible. 

Second, an expansion of what vision/seeing is—how do we see, what does it mean to see? what are others ways of seeing are possible? what are the different ways I do/can use my vision (e.g. peripheral instead of central)? This second project is inspired by Georgina Kleege’s book Sight Unseen and the descriptions of her own ways of seeing–even though she is legally blind, she likes to go to movies and art museums. She can still watch the movies and see the paintings, just in different ways.

At the end of her introduction to Sight Unseen she writes

…my goal is not merely to expose my blindness to the reader’s scrutiny; some general insight can come from introspection. I also hope to turn the reader’ s gaze outward, to say not only “Here’s what I see” but also “Here’s what you see,” to show both what’s unique and what’s universal. I invite the reader to cast a blind eye on both vision and blindness, and to catch a glimpse of sight unseen (5).

Sight Unseen/ Georgina Kleege

from my chapbook, How to Be When You Cannot See

A poem about how to B when you cannot C/ Sara Lynne Puotinen

Anxious adjustments
Barely visible buoys blinding bright big beach little beach bridge spanning
Cedar avenue congested cars clear lake cloudy vision
Dodging ducks and drifting swimmers dark triangular shapes disappearing
Emptied mind, emptied lake, everything erased by eroding eyes
Goggles getting off course gaining perspective on not seeing only feeling
How to swim straight how to be when you cannot see
Isolated isosceles
Jumbled views
Kayaks keeping out menacing boats
Lifeguards lining the course
Muscles moving then stopping to sight
mid-lake motionless
messed up maculas magically making bright orange buoys disappear reappear then disappear again
Nothing to sight but
Opaque water occasionally the color of
Pea soup thick hiding Northern Pike Yellow Perch a percolating panic is
Quelled even as quirky gaps in my central vision
Remain removing random objects, often red ones I
Swim without seeing showing off strong shoulders and straight strokes.
Touching toes testing limits tracking towering light poles tired yet triumphant
Weightless worry-less wiser
eXiting the water with a silent joyful exuberant
“Yes!” to an audience of yellow paddle boats yelling kids and my yellow backpack its many
Zippers zipped, indifferent to my effort unfazed by my exhaustion

How to Be When You Cannot See, Some Strategies
  • Learn to listen
  • Learn how to pay attention, then memorize the path
  • Accept, accommodate, adapt
  • Ask for help
  • Read, write, search for better words

from reflections on my mood ring poem, Resilient

Tips and Tricks
  1. When you’re in the checkout line at Target with your husband, make sure to notice the lane number if you have to leave the line, because when you return you won’t recognize him, but you’ll recognize the number.
  2. Figure out how many seconds it takes to fill up your water bottle (or glass or mug) then count to that number as you refill it–even when you can’t see the water you won’t spill because when you reach the magic number you’ll know it’s filled.
  3. If you have identical containers for your sugar and flour, write in giant letters across each, “FLOUR” and “SUGAR” so you don’t accidentally put sugar in the flour, or flour in the sugar.
  4. When it gets too hard to see letters, read with your ears instead of your eyes; listen to audio books. 
  5. To see someone’s face, look at their shoulder.
  6. Triple check that you have the right toothbrush (and not your daughter’s) before brushing your teeth. Consider moving yours or putting a rubber band around the bottom.
Ask for Help
  • Always ask someone else to check if there is mold on the food before using/eating it, especially cheese and bread.
  • Ask someone to explain what’s happening on a television show, especially one with lots of fast action, but only when you think it’s important. Otherwise, just learn to live with not knowing what’s happening.
  • When someone wants to show you a meme or a picture, ask them to explain what you are looking at so you don’t panic when you can’t see it, or hurt your brain trying to figure it out.
  • If possible, always go with someone else to a public bathroom in a new place. They can tell you which one is for women, which for men. In a better world, ALL bathrooms would be gender neutral so this wouldn’t be a problem–for you, or, more importantly, for a lot of other people who urgently need them
We grow accustomed to the Dark/ Emily Dickinson

We grow accustomed to the Dark –
When Light is put away –
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Goodbye –

The Moment – We uncertain step
For newness of the night –
Then – fit our Vision to the Dark
And meet the Road – erect –

And so of the larger – Darkness –
Those Evenings of the Brain –
When not a Moon disclose a sign
Or Star – come out – within –

The Bravest – grope a little –
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead –
But as they learn to see

Either the Darkness alters –
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight –
And Life steps almost straight.

We grow accustomed to the Dark/ Emily Dickinson