MAKES ME THINK OF VEGETATION. I see a pond framed by sycamores rooted in a kind of primordial slime. I see the road adjacent, where perhaps I am driving. Call it March, one of those transitional months when we’ve had it with damp and cold and lack of light. The peepers begin to stir, pricking the air like sleigh bells, wafting into my car window as I pull up. Now, the pond stretches to its fullest. The color is brown, like excrement or the clumped dirt of a fresh grave. There are seeds underneath that will blossom into duckweed, and seeds that will die and disappoint. There’s rain pocking the mud, a scent of fresh meat released with each drop. Was I expecting a hallelujah chorus? Angels? On the contrary, most of the trees have lost their crowns. They sway—not like zombies exactly, though just as stiff. One of them clucks gently. Pause. Their funereal song begins, and against all expectations, it is beautiful.
Clearly, I’ve allowed far more than the music to seduce me. It’s obvious how I’ve tinkered with this rendering. As long as I’m using my imagination, why omit the singer’s thumping foot and invisible signal, as his band chimes in? What has the song become but a hushed, dressed up paragraph fashioned by a woman named Sarah? Later, I come across a photo of the album cover, cast in browns and gold, the singer bare-chested and backlit. So, yes, the man who calls himself Phosphorescent could be compared to the silhouette of a crownless tree. Also, his rain stick, with its watery cascade of pebbles, must have led me to those pockmarks in the mud. And further, wasn’t there a particular evening in 2002 when I drove with my windows open toward a village called Stonington? I may have stopped at the pond, lingered on its shore, inhaling the rot surround. And the wind, trees animated, canorous, despite their missing crowns.
I’ve worked with words my entire life, beginning with a small poem I composed at fifteen, near a Swiss Wiese, where skiers descended, cutting wide turns through the snow and spray. Snow waves, I thought, or sound waves, and wrote that down. Later in graduate school, I was drawn to poetry with a rolling kind of music, like Nicanor Parra and C.K. Williams. But given the assignment to write a long narrative poem, I froze, unable to detach myself from the stark influences of Louise Glück and Laura Jensen. There was music in that too, of course. But my attempt at loosening up was a mere twenty-eight lines, the best I could do.
After the group finished its discussion, Jorie Graham presented a four-page, single-spaced narrative that mined her upbringing in Italy—particularly the art of dining with its serious stipulations for creating a feast and elegant table—to be shared by the most highly esteemed company. She read the whole thing aloud, and when she was finished, everyone was quietly stunned. Who could top that? Graham was a princess, a star, a visitor from another world, with the talent to match, even in her late twenties. She could afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment where she hung, with a few thumbtacks, an unframed, authentic Rothko. It was, she mentioned casually, in the family.
CONCERNED THAT I MIGHTlose track of Houck’s song, I paid my ninety-nine cents online so that I could refresh my memory, make sure the images I brought up held strong, even if the lyrics were barely audible, except on the page:
Dark night; meek and aligned
Stones, tied; domes, light
Be dark night
Doe-tide; field, camera
Ran, delight; stand, alive
Be dark night
All rise; speed and alight
Speed and blind; be not bright
Be dark night
I love “doe-tide” and “stones tied,” “meek and aligned”—linked loosely by sound yet shunning the pop-song path which these days boils down to three or four words and a pulsing bass. These lyrics are more mysterious and dense. They don’t necessarily scan in terms of meaning; “camera” comes out of nowhere. Though the fragments are appealing, they are the very opposite of loose and long lined. Together with instrumentation and voice they create a particular, and peculiar, “thing.”
AROUND THE SAME TIME, I met a woman named Katy who has synesthesia, a condition she’s lived with all her life, even as a child. Like many synesthetes, she assumed everyone experienced this enhanced sensation until she was officially diagnosed a decade ago. To her, sound and visuals occur simultaneously. When she hears a loud noise—a motorcycle roaring by, a peppershaker falling on the floor, a car backfiring, or a slammed door—flashes of white streak across her view. When she listens to music, the visions are more complex. They may be in color or black and white. They don’t erase what’s physically there but appear to be projected on an interior screen or hovering at a fixed distance in space. Letters too present themselves in color, even gender--K is a green female; P is blue, “probably” lesbian; T is male, orange, and slightly delicate. Stranger still, if woken from sleep, figures from Katy’s dreams are at once stamped inside her eyelids, as if she’d stared at the sun too long and a likeness now hangs before her. This brings to my admittedly catastrophic mind those Hiroshima victims nearest the atomic bomb explosion—instantly incinerated, the silhouettes of their bodies burned into cement and stone. But there is no bomb or even a match struck for Katy’s experience; a random noise is enough.
I asked her to play “Be Dark Night” and tell me, as simply as possible, what she saw. Turns out, she’s familiar with the band, even the album Pride, but usually skips over “Be Dark Night” because of the opening dissonance and “various disconcerting background sounds.” Here’s what she had to say:
“There are cones. Tubes—layers in some kind of ocean thing. More tubes, like Christmas wrapping tubes, and long sheets lying upon one another (these are the layers). They float in a large, dark, hollow space. I can see the ruptures produced by the percussion. There are shapes vibrating outward, like living, breathing parentheses. So sorry! I don’t know how to pin this down! Some of the percussion is round like whole walnut shells. The last bits of percussion are like coriander seeds. Now the song is over.”
Unlike the description that opens this essay, Katy’s narration is a more direct route from sound to synapse to muscle to pen to page. Of course, her writerly impulse introduces some interesting particulars: percussive ruptures, walnut shells, coriander seeds, and yes, those Christmas wrapping tubes and cones which conceivably derive from the song’s stacked harmonics. I especially like the “living, breathing parentheses,” a weird and wonderful visual.
But more to the point are the halting sentences with generalized nouns like “large spaces,” “layers floating,” and “shapes.” They’re a first effort—evidence she’s struggling a little. Maybe it would make more sense to draw what she sees. Visual-to-visual? I’ve come across a few such depictions of synesthesia, and most were, for me, only slightly more revelatory, perhaps a little too Peter Max. And I like the difficulty she’s having; she’s never tried this and there’s a childlike innocence to her description. Her heart is engaged, the mind bypassed. She even cries.
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SARAH GORHAM is a poet and essayist, and most recently the author of Alpine Apprentice (2017), which made the short list for 2018 PEN/Diamonstein Award in the Essay and Study in Perfect (2014), selected by Bernard Cooper for the 2013 AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. Both were published by University of Georgia Press. Gorham is also the author of four collections of poetry--Bad Daughter (2011), The Cure (2003), The Tension Zone (1996), and Don’t Go Back to Sleep (1989). Other honors include grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and three state arts councils. She is co-founder and editor-in-chief at Sarabande Books, an independent, nonprofit, literary publisher, now celebrating its twenty-seventh anniversary.