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

One of my Snellen chart poems:

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
Annie Dillard and “Seeing”

But there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go. When I see this way I sway transfixed and emptied. The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera. When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment’s light prints on my own silver gut. When I see this second way I am above all an unscrupulous observer.

It was sunny one evening last summer at Tinker Creek; the sun was low in the sky, upstream. I was sitting on the sycamore log bridge with the sunset at my back, watching the shiners the size of minnows who were feeding over the muddy sand in skittery schools. Again and again, one fish, then another, turned for a split second across the current and flash! The sun shot out from its silver side. I couldn’t watch for it. It was always just happening somewhere else, and it drew my vision just as it disappeared: flash, like a sudden dazzle of the thinnest blade, a sparking over a dun and olive ground at chance intervals from every direction. Then I noticed white specks, some sort of pale petals, small, floating from under my feet on the creek’s surface, very slow and steady. So I blurred my eyes and gazed towards the brim of my hat and saw a new world. I saw the pale white circles roll up, roll up, like the world’s tuning, mute and perfect, and I saw the linear flashes, gleaming silver, like stars being born at random down a rolling scroll of time. Something broke and something opened. I filled up like a new wineskin. I breathed an air like light; I saw a light like water. I was the lip of a fountain the creek filled forever; I was ether, the leaf in the zephyr; I was flesh-flake, feather, bone.

When I see this way I see truly. As Thoreau says, I return to my senses.

“Seeing”/ Annie Dillard

Dillard doesn’t mention peripheral vision in this passage, but that is what she’s describing.

Some of my Vision Resources.

the Moment of seeing, or of not seeing
Pastoral/ Forest Gander

before me before
the picture
window, my arms
around you, our
eyes pitched
beyond our
reflections into—

(“into,” I’d
written, as
though there
swung at the end
of a tunnel,
a passage dotted
with endless
points of
arrival, as
though our gaze
started just outside
our faces and
corkscrewed its way
toward the horizon,
as if looking
took time to happen
and weren’t
offered whole in
one gesture
before we
ask, before our
will, as if the far
Sonoma mountains
weren’t equally ready
to be beheld as
the dead
fly on the sill)—

the distance, a
broad hill of
bright mustard flowers
the morning light
coaxes open.

I really like this poem and Gander’s reading of it. I was struck by his explanation of the poem, especially the idea that we see all instantly, that seeing, as a process, happens without effort, is immediate, and whole/complete. Occasionally seeing is not like this for many people–they experience visual errors, their brains receive conflicting data from their photoreceptor cells and generates confusing, ambiguous images. More frequently, seeing is like this for me. It is work, and sometimes, I can almost feel my brain trying to make sense of an image or a landscape. I witness them changing shape until they settle into what my brain decides they are. But, unlike Gander suggests in his recorded explanation of the poem, I can’t just “look once and find the near and far equally accessible” and the world doesn’t just present itself to me. 

I like how Naomi Cohn describes it in her essay, In Light of a White Cane.

What I remember of better eyesight is how the world assembled all at once, an effortless gestalt—the light, the distance, the dappled detail of shade, exact crinkles of a facial expression through a car windshield, the lift of a single finger from a steering wheel, sunlight bouncing off a waxed hood.

Naomi Cohn
from We grow accustomed ot the Dark/ Emily Dickinson

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

from my log entry/ march 19, 2021

The idea of a moment is great–a moment of panic and uncertainty before we’re able to see. As my central vision declines, I have a lot more of these moments: when I enter an unfamiliar building (or sometimes even a familiar one) and not much makes sense. I can’t read the signs or tell where to go. Or when I’m looking at an object but I can’t tell what it is–is it a dead squirrel or a clump of leaves or furry mittens? Most of the time, my brain eventually adjusts and I can see what I’m trying to look at and continue on with more certainty. I’m trying to work on not fearing that uncertain step, letting the moment just be a moment that I will move past, knowing that I will adjust or figure it out (or ask someone for help). And it’s working. I am getting better.