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Issue 212

Bernadette Mayer on the Changing Colours of the Alphabet

The American poet – whose ‘Memory’ is now out from Siglio Press – on the poetics of synesthesia

BY Bernadette Mayer in Books , Features , Thematic Essays | 23 JUL 20

When I was seeing a Freudian analyst, I’d tell him a dream and he would say what it meant. ‘No, no,’ I’d protest, ‘there’s no way it means that!’ If only he could have said: ‘I think this is what it means.’ And as for ‘means’: what a word to throw around. It looks like men but with two more letters. And how is this a letter yet not a letter?

If you are a synesthete and see letters as having colours, your colour for the letter A will always be different from someone else’s, though you might be unduly influenced by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), or by apples that aren’t always red as a rose, or by a toothpick!

In this world, truth is mixed up with objective reality; consistency is only consistent for one person and, within it, you might find a little bit of lambency or, shall we say, icastic lambency amidst the rapid lightness of your multicoloured name. But do you think a name means you’re famous or the other way around?

It’s like when you say: ‘Finally, the sun is warm.’ Everybody knows you don’t mean the sun’s hot gases but its radiance over here, on earth, where the sun can be as flippant as a small-time crook.

Bernadette Mayer, Memory, 1971, photographs. Courtesy: the artist and Bernadette Mayer Papers, Special Collections & Archives, University of California San Diego, and Siglio Press

Here’s a shot glass, what should I put in it? 

When we close our eyes, the moon isn’t always full. The giant strawberry sundae of memory might be there instead, with a blue mountain range, but what if it’s not what you want? The minuscule green grasses grow through the moss, and the moss will win beaus when the trees have leaves, if they have leaves, everything will be in shade and, eventually, the giant mushrooms will come; sometimes it seems like the only red is in your mind.

I can summon the pebbles on this morning’s path. I’ve never seen so many yellow finches before, for instance:

From the pigment Alizarin Crimson

ultrahot electrical particles

two monarch butterflies

a nattering haze of

torrents that lasted 100 million years

sipping dripping maple sap

belching black holes

bleeding down from where we’d put

the buckets to make maple syrup

57 octaves below middle C

blowing periodic bubbles in the gas around it

the pool of cool gas

by where the wild turkeys come

the belch heard round the cosmos

down to visit and show off their displaying

skipping, they were skipping

Bernadette Mayer, Memory, 1971, photographs. Courtesy: the artist and Bernadette Mayer Papers, Special Collections & Archives, University of California San Diego, and Siglio Press

The poet here mixes the bleeding of a maple tree and the belching of the universe, delaying the quickness of your cosmic and ultimate happiness by a sudden change in temperature. The observer says there will be no delay, though the thought is slow, given that what we are observing (a maple tree, the universe) seems to know it is on display. Should we look? Many would avert their eyes, yet mostly we wonder at seeing. So, this becomes two-sided.

‘How long it seems till someone comes!’ says Dante Alighieri in The Divine Comedy (1320). There are too many people in the world and, at the same time, too few to be seen by us at a party, there is no party, there are too many goldfinches at the bird feeder, there is only one trout lily and no hepatica. The maple tree is bleeding.

My synaesthesia’s like a child’s picture book: the sun is yellow because S is, A is red, B is pink, but then E is green like free money, I say to anyone who will listen. Sex is as yellow as the sun with the copper of the X and that green between. So, consistency is predominantly yellow – a word with those beige Cs at either side. Consistency, perhaps a kind of thorough-going harmony, an adhering together of parts, like how everyone in the book lives in the same building, or each character comes from the yellow sun! Everyone’s face is to the hillside, we’ll meet at the foot of the mountain. Everyone will be wearing a yellow violet to signify peace, or a pansy for the first flower’s faith, or a gladiolus for eternal grief. 

A familiar face flew by and I knew he would tell me of the interim torture others had undergone so I would never let him in. I remained troubled, it didn’t make sense to be marooned on another planet with no ability to make food or fly away. People gave me food and told me that hidden somewhere in my hut was a diagram of everything in the universe and, if I could find it and memorize it, I could then become the animal I travelled with, fly to your house, get my gear and dig to the bottom of what they call earth. Still, I had no wings. Suddenly, I remembered the memo, which hadn’t really existed yet, the memo on the human race that I knew would guide me through all of life and all of not-life until I found the right shade of blue for the decorations for all the readers. It was important that we consistently saw blue skies and crepuscular shades for love, those indigos for picnics, that crisp Persian blue that used to be the background on black and white television shows, the blue of the lens and, of course, what each blue would look like in every other condition.

Bernadette Mayer, Memory, 1971, photographs. Courtesy: the artist and Bernadette Mayer Papers, Special Collections & Archives, University of California San Diego, and Siglio Press

Lapis lazuli is now found in the mines of Afghanistan. Its use in Renaissance paintings, jewellery, thrones was recently the subject of a show in Florence. It can also be found in the handiwork of trolls under bridges who seem able to make the stone stand out, even glow, in order to teach what punctuation is needed.

Then on to the ochres, what a challenge: red ochre in the painted desert, in fingerprints in prehistoric caves. To only mention drawings of animals isn’t consistent, so we must also mention bears whose gnawing and scratching can be seen on the cave walls, too.

There are the greens of the aurora borealis, with its glow and hum, above, below, all around us and moving like a candle. There are the reds, a thought about height, about chemicals, seldom seen, maybe seen by our predecessors, maybe never seen, it’s a lie, there were no lies then, there are no lies in the sky, I will stand for no lies in any aurora, that’s the truth, it’s natural to go on to rainbows, in our house the rainbows are in the east.

I always leave out one sense. Now, we can never know a colour because with colours you can proceed in terms of what you can see but the senses are elusive and, as we know, there are so many more than five. White, yellow, green, blue, purple, red and should we say black and the colour you see when you close your eyes, it’s the colour of a speedboat, whizzing fast to the other shore. But am I on it? Was I on it the last time? Am I always on it?

I dreamt I was on a tree branch, solitary, understanding poetry.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 212 with the headline ‘Maple Tree, Universe’.

Main Image: Bernadette Mayer, Memory, 1971, photograph. Courtesy: the artist and Bernadette Mayer Papers, Special Collections & Archives, University of California San Diego, and Siglio Press

Bernadette Mayer is the author of over 30 books, including Memory, which was published by Siglio Press in May. With Vito Acconci, she edited 0 to 9 (1967–69). She lives in upstate New York, USA.