What the Man-of-War Told Me in the Gulf of My Youth

To say it now: I can hear the tangible skin of words — as one might with his tongue taste musicalities or catch with the olfactory glands the boulder-grey whiffs of uncertainty. In eleventh grade, one afternoon, in my high school library, contemplating how O’Hara was telling us that Lana Turner had fallen, I came across an antediluvian handbook of literary devices; twenty years after the fact I can finally put my hands on the heat of what I lusted for that afternoon. It was in the name: synesthesia. And it stuck to my breath like a bull thistle rife with the many, spiny routes a metaphor could take, the dim sound my dull thumb made as it tapped the strongest syllables of a boy’s curiosity.

The heat of this lesson in the library was my own cleft desire for what happens when one’s senses are in upheaval, reversed, inverted, led to attract something inordinate, unexpected, queer. I was seventeen, then, and I read in this little handbook that synesthesia is the device that labels what writers do when activating one sense to describe another. In less animated terms: the sensation that occurs in one modality when stimulus is applied to another modality, says Dictionary.com.

The conventions, then, are less than rebellious: bright sounds, quiet colors, hard tastes. In poem-making, as in other forms of writing, to activate the senses can require mundane toil — perfunctory — like a set of compulsory jumps an ice jumper must enact to make it past the first round. We all know to do it. We fathom its results, its coverage, its lasting effects on the meaning we build through word selection, image, and syntactical construct. And sometimes, it is the only right choice. There is no other way to say it.

I’d like to think that my hunger that day in the library was deepening. I’d like to think I wasn’t faddishly finding out some sweet, instantaneous device that offered spit to my mind so that I could press forward. I wasn’t a poem-maker back then. But underneath my excitement — and I do believe that beneath any elation for creation we’ll find some fodder, some veering pivot on which to pilot or offset the rule of our bodies — there was energy and potential and a voice calling up through the bone-heat to say: there’s something here.

And so I confess my affinity for transferring the senses in order to make sense. And I arrive at the question: Do we hear images? And I don’t mean simplistically, as in onomatopoeia, or one-dimensionally, as in the predictably common zoom-sound a car makes when it’s placed in a commercial for cell phones or in a line of text speeding down a freeway clogged with lowriders. What I intend, rather: Do images speak? Is that language of image intelligible, responsive, valid? Can it be heard by poem-makers, prose writers, painters, and dancers alike? And are we listening? And is this even synesthesia any longer, imbuing or imparting to an image a sensual body that wants to be heard, touched, seen, eaten, explored?

I am like this with Gulf birds. Now. For the past years or so. In a difficult time of my life, I ventured to my childhood homesite, a small coastal town along the Texas Gulf near Corpus Christi. I recall morning runs trying to make sense of a tragedy that had befallen me, some of it my own doing, much of it resulting from the mental breakdown of a now-deceased lover. Whether running or walking my dogs, I found myself watching the Gulf, learning again, for the first time, to listen to its song. I might jot a few notes about a blue heron or the dunlin, in my pocket journal or on scrap paper, twig-like observations about waiting and beaks opening for salt and barnacles. Later, sitting with my papelitos, I listened. It was if I’d swabbed the ears anew, for the heron-image spoke, and I heard the things it was saying. Shards, bits, motes, and chunks. This wasn’t anthropomorphizing. Nor was it figurative.

But, it began with the idea of reversing my senses: to hear salt, to swallow the sound of dark mud and to say its tastes, to clasp my palm around the girth of a man-of-war’s polyp-heart.   I return to Robert Bly’s A Little Book of the Human Shadow to translate what these images were saying to me. For I heard their voices. Loud intonations of beak woe and patience. Mule noise and fish hissing. It was here at the Gulf shore that I learned to mine an image for meaning. To render it powerful in the great fluidity of symbolic messaging: I had to first —  singularly, vulnerably — admit my past had encoded my art, my desires, the goliath fear-bound shambles of words and syntax-sticks. From gaunt, vanilla-garnished iambs to the mud-caked boots in which I trekked to the shore in hopes of building a tiny fire, a chance at hearing the dark music of the Gulf. I was certain the animals could hear it, and I, too, wanted to partake of the sounds of salt.

If I wrote a draft-poem about walking along the shore of my youth to find a cadre of beached man-of-war, what was my desire about, then, to bury them, to lift their tiny once-bubble bodies and carry them off into the soft sands of the dunes, regardless of the injuries I might sustain? If I listen to the image, what language does it speak? And how might I render myself privy?

But, this isn’t to say there is a secret language of images. Nor is it to assert a privilege or to make special and unobtainable the want to decipher sound from within sight or texture or scent. But hasn’t your heart ever filled with a small and tiny terror at the sight of a fire engine near your home? Or haven’t you ever smelled old cologne that places you back in a now-defunct department store or a bedroom or someplace other than where your feet effect themselves present? I say that if an image propels itself into your mind or onto the pages of your exercises, a notebook or draft, then, perhaps it is wildness, perhaps it is Bly’s Shadow, perhaps it is the Duende asking you, pleading perhaps, begging you to mine.

But, this is to say there is a language to secrets, and it says, also, that one must first want to set his wide-open fist like an eye in the dark music of disorder and chance in order to hear the clicking that images have to say to us.

Joe Jiménez lives in San Antonio, Texas. His work has appeared in Mariposas: New Queer Latino Poetry, Borderlands Texas Poetry Review, Saltwater Quarterly, elimae, and is forthcoming in Caper Literary Journal. The short film El Abuelo [1983], commissioned as part of London’s 2008 Fashion in Film Festival, is based on Jiménez’s affinity for ironing.