Are you sure you didn’t just memorize the colors from those alphabet charts in kindergarten? a skeptical tenth grader asks when I explain.
I was an adult before I learned this condition of mine had a name—or that it was a condition. Until then, I thought everyone had synesthesia. Even the word is a seductive ploy, a mingling of yellows, oranges, and reds punctuated by blue e’s and just enough evenly spaced ghost letters—y, i—to give the whole word a mysterious, plexiglass cast.
Synesthesia is defined as the production of a sense impression by the stimulation of a different sense. My letters have colors, but some people associate musical notes or numbers with color. Some synesthetes experience taste as a combination of shape and texture, pointy chicken or smooth-as-glass chocolate mint. The condition is believed to stem from crossed connections in the brain, maybe a result of decreased pruning, a watercolor bleed of information that makes those of us who have it perceive the universe as looped, interwoven, inextricable — and that makes me see B as brown.
See? a student calls. A for apple, b for brown!
What shade of brown? someone less certain asks.
A warm brown, I say. Like a baby bear in a picture book. The brown, scribbled line of earth in a child’s drawing.
C stumps them: creamy, soft yellow, like butter-colored velvet, with none of A’s crystallized gloss.
Wait, they have texture, too?
Not exactly. It’s more like properties of the color itself — some slick and clear, some furred, opaque. (Duke Ellington, another synesthete, understood how texture and color fuse into essence: “If Harry Carney is playing, D is dark blue burlap. If Johnny Hodges is playing, G becomes light blue satin.”)
The handout on poetic devices, face-up and forgotten on my students’ desks, is how we got here: synesthesia as literary device, describing one sense in terms of another. My example comes from an Anne Sexton poem: “God has a brown voice, as soft and full as beer.” My students are much more interested in the condition, though, than poetry.
D is the cloudy bottle-green of tumbled sea glass.
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