Last year I stumbled across a Facebook post written by Blake Ross, cofounder of Firefox, entitled “How it Feels to Be Blind in Your Mind.” In his post, Ross describes what it was like to discover at age thirty that he has aphantasia, a condition characterized by an inability to visualize with your inner eye. “I have never visualized anything in my entire life,” he explains. “I can’t ‘see’ my father’s face or a bouncing blue ball, my childhood bedroom or the run I went on ten minutes ago. I thought ‘counting sheep’ was a metaphor.”
Aphantasia affects an estimated 2% of the world’s population, a statistic I was shocked to learn includes me. And like Ross, I grew up without the faintest idea that I might be different. At forty-two, I’m careful not to use the word deficient. I can’t will anything to project onto my scrim of memory, and yet I’ve spent the last three decades writing poems that rely heavily on visual imagery. In sixth grade, I won a $10 gift certificate to Sam Goody’s for a sonnet about my next-door neighbor’s neglected German Shepherd. It was mostly a tearful barrage of similes. The moon was as hateful as an old bone. Jutting ribs were piano keys on loan. I accepted my prize at morning assembly and by evening had used it to buy Paula Abdul’s Forever Your Girl (on cassette), which I then listened to nonstop all summer (on a trampoline). The song “Next to You” proved super helpful in working through both the kinetics of physical attraction and the beginnings of poetic theory: “When I’m next to you/Our love flows through/I can’t explain/What you do.” Of course, the point is that you still try to explain. You can’t not. Paula Abdul, like William Wordsworth before her, really believed in the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.
It’s clear to me now that poetry isn’t just a way for me to locate meaning in experience but is the very organizing principle behind my thinking. Because I can’t visualize in my mind, I conjure through language. I proceed by strange metaphors. It’s no wonder I was terrible at standardized tests. Calendar is to time as aridity is to drought, right? As fortitude is to rind? I could never picture the boat or the goat or the river, but let me tell you how it feels to stand alone on the shore and wait.
One of my favorite poems is Carl Phillip’s “White Dog,” a snapshot in six stanzas that is like a photo of an empty picture frame. In my twenties, whenever I moved into a new apartment, I made sure to tape this poem to my bedroom wall before unpacking. It’s lines are aphoristic and enigmatic. As the speaker releases a white dog into the snow, the dog differentiates, first from her human captor, then from the landscape:
She seems a part of me,
and then she seems entirely like what she is:
a white dog,
less white suddenly, against the snow,
who won’t come back. I know that; and,
I release her. It’s as if I release her
because I know.
Poetry, for me, is a means of release. It is blankness differentiating. It is contemplation that happens on a colorless plain. Maybe that’s why I love lake swimming so much — pulling blindly through open water, the bottom unseeable.
When Blake Ross was first made aware of his aphantasia, he conducted a series of frantic interviews with friends and family: “If I ask you to imagine a beach, what happens in your mind?” He received answers like an untranslatable language. “I ‘see’ the blue water, the sand, a hotel off in the distance,” one friend responded. And another: “I mix my real experiences with those shaped by massive exposure to media to create moving images with sound and smell in my mind.”
I asked my four year-old if he can willfully call up images. “Picture a dog,” I said. “Picture Elke. What do you see?”
“Pieces of light.”
Some researchers suspect that there might be a genetic component to aphantasia. My father, a mathematician, can visualize. My mother can not. At age eighty, she has begun to write poetry for the first time. She titles her beautiful, handwritten lyrics after abstractions like “Time,” and I can tell she is more guided by sound than sight (“Bright, blue sky/Black, wet earth”). My son, who might never be able to willfully produce an image of a dog in his head, also gravitates towards rhythm and rhyme. “I dream,” he tells me. “About trees and bees, buses and houses. Unicorns, rocks. Ice cream.”
Occasionally, it will strike me as odd that the images in my own poems insist on distance. I can’t picture “the red-dipped wings,/the yellow-capped tail” of the cedar waxwing. The geese who “lunged the narrow slick of their bills/into the loam’ are as unseeable as air. But inventing and arranging these pieces of light brings me great joy. Image is to lockbox. Let me tell you how it feels to stand alone on the shore and wait.