When I was fourteen, I discovered the sound of iniquity on a long-playing record for the blind from the Library of Congress. I listened to Paradise Lost, and sometimes after hours of playing the story of Satan I'd walk to the driveway's edge and feel the elaborate work of sunlight and wind and imagine, the way only a teenager can, the falling of Satan in a blackness so pure you could feel it in the bones of your face.
I'd discovered, without knowing it, the difference between speaking and being. This is what listening is, true listening, the lonely but open mind. I'd discovered the gift of Milton: the soul's path is in the ear - not in the mirror.
The needle worked its way through long grooves of spoken words. Outside, October sunlight kept trusting God's plan.
Upstairs my mother slept with the shades drawn. She drank too much.
The needle scratched. And John Milton promised a flight straight toward badness:
To do aught good never will be our task.,
But ever to do ill our sole delight,
As being the contrary to his high will
Whom we resist. If then his Providence
Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,
Our labor must be to pervert that end,
And out of good still to find means of evil;
Which oft-times may succeed, so as perhaps
Shall grieve him, if I fail not, and disturb
His inmost counsels from thir destin'd aim.
I listened beside a window and just outside the last of the autumn crickets sang. I thought of their song as a little chorus of the good. Somewhere above me a hornet worked its way along the ceiling. In the meantime Satan passed through the kingdom of the dead on his way to the Garden of Eden.
I'd entered the netherworlds of John Milton by accident. A substitute music teacher appeared one day in my Albany, New York, junior high school. He was wildly implausible: a Miltonist from Mississippi, nearly seventy, with a voice like Red Barber. He didn't know a thing about music. He stood before a wide room that was filled with band instruments and a dozen or so teenage boys. He stood stock-still before us. He stared us down. And we, who had been writhing in our seats, we stopped moving. Then he recited:
Of Man's First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav'nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav'ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos: Or if Sion Hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa's Brook that flow'd
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my advent'rous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th' Aonian Mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhyme.
The room was hot. It was early afternoon. All the boys had eaten too much lunch. Each of us was toxic with hormones and our dramas of digestion. Now here was this voice, this presence really, unforeseen, peculiar, at once both soft and hard - a voice from the seventeenth century, a voice that could pronounce words like "blissful" and give them true shape - a voice that could easily suggest contempt for middle flight. He talked and I was gone somehow. The whole room was gone. We were in the smoke of jargon. And he went on reciting. Until we began to sense that something was vastly different about this hour after lunch.
He stopped and looked us over. No one said a thing. There was only the sound of traffic outside on Washington Avenue.
"That's Paradise Lost by John Milton," he said, "a blind poet from England in the 1600s. He knew the affairs of good and evil in humankind."
He knew how to say "affairs" and "humankind" - the lilt that comes with half a dipthong, that circular softness in the vowel.
He also could say good and evil and mean it. He was perfectly strange and he had our attention for a little while. He was not of our lives.
Soon enough we would consider him crazy.
It was 1969. Our lives were pure play. We listened to Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix. The high school next door was shut down at least once a week by a bomb scare.
This man named Mercer who sounded as though he had stepped from the pages of The Sound and the Fury, this fevered man spoke about good and evil in what should have been a music class. And he read to us about the fiery circumference of hell and I'm sure that more than one of us fell asleep to that voice that hummed like bees in an orchard.
To do aught good never will be our task,
But ever to do ill our sole delight,
As being the contrary to his high will . . .
Boys love good and evil in stories, and for a time Mr. Mercer made Satan so very real that we slipped, intact, into Milton's varied planes of action and being. Outside of class we'd joke of course. We'd mime the man's gestures and wave the invisible book for emphasis. I worked on imitating his voice. I overdid it with elaborate lifts of vowels but I captured a little of the madness just as once I'd managed to imitate John Wayne gone mad on a cattle drive. That was my way. And damned if I didn't feel evil while doing it. It was a masturbatory guilt I felt. It's possible that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but it's also adolescent and the art is steeped in shame. And therefore it is addictive. And this is the origin of irony, and when we're really thinking we never forget the first time we understood it.
Mercer was, as previously noted, all fever. Not one of us comprehended what he was up to. What had begun as a novelty, Milton read aloud with a southern flair, became quickly a tyranny. Fourteen-year-olds know nothing of administration and lack the confidence to seek official redress, and so we sat through two full weeks of Milton and during all that time Mr. Mercer never once mentioned music. Soon enough he was just another insane adult in our eyes. He read aloud and we returned to swiveling in our chairs and cursing just below Mercer's level of hearing. One of us practiced smoking with an unlit Pall Mall. Mercer would sometimes stop reading and talk about the human joy of doing evil and the higher virtues of resistance. I thought I heard in his voice something that was of course intangible but real, something sincere. At moments as he read I felt I was racing into space. I realized also that John Milton was indeed a musical figure, and what's more, that Milton, or was it Mercer, could make me feel transparent.
I found that when alone I wanted to puzzle this out. Was it Mercer or Milton who could do this thing to me? I ordered Paradise Lost from the library for the blind and when it arrived in its immense black carton I raced to my record player. I needed to hear Milton read aloud by someone who was not Mercer, someone who was not obviously pushing his own heart around the indifferent room.
The words from the machine came as blue and tense syllables.
Meanwhile the Adversary of God and Man,
Satan with thoughts inflam'd of highest design,
Puts on swift wings, and towards the Gates of Hell
Explores his solitary flight; sometimes
He scours the right hand coast, sometimes the left,
Now shaves with level wing the Deep, then soars
Up to the fiery concave tow'ring high.
The voice on the record was more sonorous than Mercer's, a Brahmin voice. I saw quickly that this didn't matter. Milton could join you with the air and with the held breath of vengeance. Old Satan was going to fly out of Hell and mess with Man and I could go with him and feel my blood washing against the whiteness of creation. I knew that Mercer was onto something.
Years later, when I was studying the craft of poetry writing at the University of Iowa, I told the poet Donald Justice how I listened all alone to Milton on records and felt my own little soul bumping along the roof of my skull. Don was quite likely the best-read poet of his generation and he understood loneliness in childhood, and he said that only Milton could put God's breath into punctuation. I knew that Don was right: Milton holds you in the air and holds you and holds you until you feel your own pulse.
In the schoolroom, meanwhile, things were going to pieces. Mercer was determined to read us the whole of Paradise Lost and boys interrupted him demanding to be allowed to go to the restroom. Mercer was indignant. "Please," one boy cried, "I need to freshen my lipstick!" Mercer's voice trembled with calm. We were to use the restroom before class began. Fluorescent lights buzzed over our heads. And the legs of chairs were scraped rhythmically on the old linoleum. There was no relief for Mercer and none for us. He read on as we threw books to the floor. There was flatulence. Spitballs struck thighs and cheekbones.
Pitiable Mercer! He was in love with Paradise Lost - in love, learned and lost . . .
He read on in spite of us and Milton's serpent explained to Eve how he came to speak like humankind:
I was at first as other Beasts that graze
The trodden Herb, of abject thoughts and low,
As was my food, nor aught but food discern'd
Or Sex, and apprehended nothing high:
Till on a day roving the field, I chanc'd
A goodly Tree far distant to behold
Loaden with fruit of fairest colors mixt,
Ruddy and Gold: I nearer drew to gaze;
When from the boughs a savory odor blown,
Grateful to appetite, more pleas'd my sense
Than smell of sweetest Fennel, or the Teats
Of Ewe or Goat dropping with Milk at Ev'n,
Unsuckt of Lamb or Kid, that tend thir play.
To satisfy the sharp desire I had
Of tasting those fair Apples, I resolv'd
Not to defer; hunger and thirst at once,
Powerful persuaders, quick'n'd at the scent
Of that alluring fruit, urg'd me so keen.
Mercer read and we cried out, repeating "savory odor blown!" "Sex!" "Teats!" "Unsuckt!"
And Mercer's voice went on, his tone rueful, his diction numbingly precise...
At home I listened alone, sliding in the unhaphazard intelligence of John Milton, transformed by the weird charts of emotion and grasping at the language.
What else did I know? I'd been listening to recorded books or discovering sounds while alone from my earliest days. I could find patterns in street noises and listen at night to my mother's footsteps as she walked the house - sometimes walking until it was nearly dawn.
It was October and unseasonably hot. The Beatles sang "Come Together" and no one was together in the ambient spaces where I listened.
My father had become a college president and the dormitories at the university were firebombed the week he took office. The state police came to our house and looked through our flower garden with metal detectors. My father was in a shadow and he rarely came out. Sometimes he fought with my mother late at night. It seemed he hardly noticed her. It seemed she hated his career.
The world was cruel and driven by appetites. No one was fulfilled. Listening through walls or to the grooves of records, I was getting it - there were actions one couldn't take back. It was the difference between speaking and being. Milton's Eve didn't seem to know the difference. My classmates didn't get it either. People listened for confirmation rather than the harder things. The air outside was warm as a bath. I was alone with my ridiculous records. I could see Adam and Eve, white as bone. I played passages over again, lifting the heavy tone arm of the record machine and dropping it on the spinning record. I held my nearly disembodied head and sometimes I even held my breath.
Then Mercer was gone. He disappeared from class the same week the New York Mets defeated the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series, and accordingly the boys didn't have any leftover curiosity about what might have happened to him. He was replaced by a college girl with long braids and granny glasses who encouraged us to bring our favorite pop-music records to class for group discussion. We were going to listen for confirmation. I'd begun to figure out what people meant by "relevance" and I knew I wasn't up to it.
One kid played Simon & Garfunkel's "The Sounds of Silence." Another guy played Sly and the Family Stone. We were free to be straightforward and hopelessly sincere. Someone played the Beatles' "Hey Jude." Soon it would be my turn to bring my favorite pop record to class and the prospect gave me "the fan-tods," as Huck Finn would say. I liked rock and roll plenty and could have produced some vintage Sam Cooke or something by the Yardbirds, but the prospect of talking about Eric Clapton was disagreeable - I knew how this would go. Someone would shout "Who's better, Clapton or Hendrix?" and things would devolve from there into a discussion of rock guitar supremacy and it would become a free-for-all.
But I was a longtime cutoff listener. I could identify the call of a purple finch without confusing him with a thrush. I enjoyed the songs of Hector Berlioz and at the same time I loved the Marx Brothers in the movie Monkey Business. When Harpo tries to pass himself off to French customs officials as Maurice Chevalier by brandishing Chevalier's stolen passport and wearing a Victrola on his back, well, that's art, then and now, and I was lucky enough to know it even though I was still too inexperienced to guess if I would find a way in the world of style. I knew that much. Things seen and heard are not the same.
Then it was my turn. I lugged my enormous Library of Congress talking-book record machine into school and carried it up three flights of stairs to the classroom. The voice from the speaker was deeper than Mercer's and it was gloomy. And no one laughed because the show was unanticipated. I said that Adam and Eve were now being banished from the garden because they couldn't distinguish between what they'd wanted to hear and what they already understood to be the truth.
So spake our Mother Eve, and Adam heard
Well pleas'd, but answer'd not; for now too nigh
Th' Arch-Angel stood, and from the other Hill
To thir fixt Station, all in bright array
The Cherubim descended; on the ground
Gliding meteorous, as Ev'ning Mist
Ris'n from a River o'er the marish glides,
And gathers ground fast at the Laborers heel
Homeward returning. High in Front advanc't,
The brandisht Sword of God before them blaz'd
Fierce as a Comet; which with torrid heat,
And vapor as the Libyan Air adust,
Began to parch that temperate Clime; whereat
In either hand the hast'ning Angel caught
Our ling'ring Parents, and to th' Eastern Gate
Let them direct, and down the Cliff as fast
To the subjected Plaine; then disappear'd.
They looking back, all th' Eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late thir happy seat,
Wav'd over by that flaming Brand, the Gate
With dreadful Faces throng'd and fiery Arms:
Some natural tears they dropp'd, but wip'd them soon;
The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wand'ring steps and slow,
Through Eden took thir solitary way.
The needle rasped at the paper label for a moment.
I picked up the tone arm and held the record up like an Olympic discus. "There's Braille on the label because this record is for blind people," I said. "Can you imagine how solitary John Milton must have been in the days when there was no Braille and no blind person could read a book without help? He had to listen to voices. He had to figure out who was telling the truth without seeing their faces."
There was a long silence. I was in the midst of people whose ways were not my own. I was alone with the spirits of Milton and the vanished Mercer.
Then it was the next kid's turn to play a record. I sat down and listened to "Aquarius" by the Fifth Dimension.
I thought of Mercer reading aloud while the class whispered.
I liked the way he did that. I could tell that I liked it more than I at first supposed. I was comfortable in a room of words recited, brief though such visits may sometimes be.
About the Author
Stephen Kuusisto is the author of Planet of the Blind: A Memoir, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and Only Bread, Only Light, a collection of poems. He is coeditor (with Deborah Tall and David Weiss) of The Poet's Notebook: Excerpts from the Notebooks of Contemporary American Poets. His poems and essays have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Harper's, Poetry, and Partisan Review; he is a frequent commentator on National Public Radio and lectures widely on disability and public policy. He teaches courses in disability studies in the English Department at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, and lives in nearby Worthington, Ohio, with his wife, Connie; his stepchildren, Tara and Ross Connell; and his dog, Vidal. Visit him online at www.stephenkuusisto.com and on his blog: www.planet-of-the-blind.com
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