Synesthesia (an excerpt from Dostoyevsky Wannabe Cities: Sheffield) — Helen Blejerman

There are times when I feel reverence for the sound of things. Don’t we all, perhaps? Particularly when it is birdsong heard in bed on a Sunday morning, awakening me to roll blindly in the cotton sheets and touch my Martín, who remains asleep. I embrace him and remember how I love him. I grab him and say playfully, “Martín, tell me what’s the last thing I read with my fingers.” And I caress him as though transmitting him the poem with my hands. He follows along with my game as though guessing, receiving. “Hmm… Rabindranath Tagore?” And, as if my caresses were conveying ideas, he says: The wind passes, enumerating your flowers and your stones… I stop and he falls quiet. I stroke his chest again, and he continues: You don’t see what you are, but its shadow… We have reached the end of winter.

When I touch Martín, I ask myself if we always touch one another with the poetry we have read. If the poem, with its ductility, its disposition to osmosis, photosynthesis, invades the other’s body and lodges in the skin. If poetic language penetrates and stays ingrained in the molecules of organic material that compose us. And grows, and its poiesis augments, like cytoplasmic organelles, and flows like light through the organism, absorbed by thirsty foliar phloem. I ask if it is thus that a poem moves from one body to another.

I get up from bed and navigate blind through the house. I know its coordinates. I know the entire space between the bedroom and the hall table. I know the distance from that table to the shelf with the vase of flowers that I change out on Sundays. I like to feel its clay material, such a part of the earth. A clay so unearthed from the soil I tread. Last week I put roses in it, today maybe daisies, another day, perhaps it will be magnolias. The flower petals are very soft and their scent is always a compass on the map, which I inhabit as in the story by Borges. Jorge Luis Borges and his many labyrinths. A symptom of his blindness, maybe, its cause, or a provocation. His labyrinths as deception, as cave, as rite of initiation. Or as a symbol of the paradox he imagined, the infinite library and the impossibility of reading it.

I identify with Borges, as a blind woman, a minotaur without eyes, a sightless mariner, a typhlonaut. I reach the photo of my father taken alongside the sea, which I haven’t seen for years, but which I remember, because that sea united everything. 

“Imagine seeing again,” Martín says to me. “That hospital will do the operation free.” What does Martín know of the secret power of the imagination.

*

I am at my desk, reading with my hands, Tolstoy’s What is Art? I follow the letters with my fingers and imagine the Russia of the nineteenth century, noting a reference to a work entitled The Enigma of the Beautiful, by the German, Julius Mithalter. The title, writes Tolstoy, touches on one of the problems of art. One confronted by Hegel, Kant, Schiller, Schopenhauer. Or Shaftesbury, who, according to Tolstoy, claimed the beautiful was the true. That there was no beauty except for truth.

*

Now my eyes can see

But the sea no longer speaks to me.

They don’t care for you now, a voice says.

Not the cry of the seagulls, not the waves with their saline water. It says.

“Who’s talking?” I ask.

The imaginary order, it answers me.

“I invoke the sea we were,” I say loudly, so it will hear me.

Who are you without your saints? the voice silences me.

“I invoke the blind woman I was,

from my fragmented body, from my alienated identity.”

And your temples? the voice says to me.

“I can’t see you. Who’s speaking?”

The collapse of the symbolic order, it says to me.

“A fraud,” I answer it.

“An ominous premonition,” I tell it, afraid to enrage it.

I hear it inhaling a cigarette.

I am your umbilical cord.

“Who are you? Why won’t you show your face?”

It blows out the smoke strenuously.

I am the limit of your language.

Where the word doesn’t reach. 

Papa grabbed my hand in the middle of the night and took me into the living room. When we got there, I heard him turn on the lamp with the pretty light. I already couldn’t see, so I must have been nine or ten years old. He took a book from the shelf, and when we sat in the armchair, he opened it and told me there was a drawing of a man standing among rocks with three beasts showing their fangs and roaring. That was art, he told me. I should touch it with my hands. This man was a figure from a poem, following a guide through dark circles where people were punished with poetic justice. Poetic justice? Afterward, the man followed his guide over a mountain with winding paths where people sought forgiveness for their crimes of love. Love wasn’t perfect, my father said. Sometimes, the person you love has to leave you. And he turned the page and told me there was a drawing with a man facing a woman he had looked for a long time and had finally found, girdled by light. 

He told me those were engravings, that the artist Gustave Doré had done them, and when he turned the page he said this was a drawing of a man and a woman together, on clouds, looking up, seeing a large circle of light which, if you looked closely, was composed of angels, and that was where the concentric circles of heaven began, which were related to the celestial bodies of the firmament. He told me the two of them had reached the luminous trinity, formed of the extra nos––Platonism––the intra nos––vision and the fixed stars––and the supra nos––the intellect.


Helen Blejerman is an artist and writer from Mexico City. She is an associate lecturer in the Art and Design Department at Sheffield Hallam University. @helenblejerman

This is an excerpt from the anthology Dostoyevsky Wannabe Cities: Sheffield, edited in 2019 by Emma Bolland.

Image: Synesthesia, Bryan Jones, Creative Commons.