Iowa Alumni Magazine | December 2006 | Reviews

Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening by Stephen Kuusisto

By Marvin Bell

Marvin Bell, 63MFA, UI professor emeritus of creative writing and former Iowa poet laureate, is currently reading a book by another noteworthy Iowa Writers' Workshop alumnus. In Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening, Stephen Kuusisto, 80MFA, offers profound insights into a world that he can see only through his rich imagination.

Why did you choose it?

Kuusisto, essentially blind from birth, was nonetheless brought up to live like a sighted person, a story of absurdity and triumph he tells in an earlier book, Planet of the Blind. It's an amazing story. This follow-up was originally subtitled, A Life by Ear.

What's it about?

Just about everything. There's Caruso in the attic, the harbor in Helsinki, the stones of Venice, birdcalls, tavern talk, streets and airports, talk overheard at the ballpark, Paradise Lost, radio, childhood, politics, and an extraordinary range of music.... What's it about? It's about the crisscrossing of a blind writer's inner and outer lives.

What do you like most about it?

Kuusisto is thoroughly awake, and he writes like an angel. Eavesdropping draws on music, literature, philosophy, and travel. He writes with both his brain and his heart, with an ear for conversation that grabs you, and with a precision that, ironically, opens one's eyes.

What would you say to recommend it to others?

Imagine this. Kuusisto, who is blind, travels to Iceland to hear Cuban music. Because he has written a famous book and can see light and colors, he flies to Italy to be photographed for an ad for interior lighting. He races through New York City streets with a guide dog. He ventures into the woods without his dog and spends time with just his dog in an island cabin in New Hampshire. He quotes poetry and music and thinks about what it is to be alive and to listen. He can be heartbreakingly observant. He is funny and wise. His language is rich, his observations trenchant. His mind's eye and language are so fully aware that he does not need to make things up. In the end, one can't do better than this: unusual stories told by someone who listens and thinks about life. Eavesdropping goes way beyond listening. It is chock-full of the thrill of reality.