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Ode to Color

A man in a red GEORGIA baseball cap wearing
          a sweatshirt with a red bulldog over his heart,
          sitting in a subway car, the smell of his poverty much too strong

but I stay out of weakness and pity:
          his dark skin has gone through fire
          and his hands and arms and who knows how much more of him

wear the ropy scars: I watch him not wanting to stare
          as he draws out of a pocket dangling from a long rope at his waist
          a red-plastic compact that he opens;

the mercury pool he dips and dips his face towards
          as though to stanch the fire (who knows what he sees)
          he shuts it opens it shuts it then like a black Narcissus he has to re-open

and stares. Maybe it solidifies him, all I know is steeped
          in my own pool, I keep seeing this portrait in red.


What's he trying to say
          with Red on Maroon or
          Purple, White and Red?

Has Rothko taken away
          saying, pulverized
          the identity of things
so we lean

back on an imaginary grassy mat
          gazing at these stacked heavens—
          or has he broken in on our silence

so you and I can breathe and stretch
          our arms again?


Push the button on Cornell's Lighted Dancer she glows cobalt blue.

Red Sea Bird wrasse is longnosed and blue.


Spend your life inside
window's wind-eye

framed by goldenrod
gazing at exhalations of sky.

are not poppies
but moments of attention
burned into the wall.


God's essence would ensure his existence.
Can one also say the essence
of color ensures its existence?

                                                   What color is God.
                                                   God's the color of water.


Basket lady
yodelled so sweetly
          I wished the earplugs
          from my ears and tossed
          some change in
insisted I pick a bunch
of her flowers crudely
rubber-banded Yes,
I like that one too

blood-red rose and two pale lilac
roses I'd never seen that hue
before never seen a self
so abandoned to goodness


A color will carry you
around the world immediately

Why this poverty when we deal with colors? Why comparisons?
Birch leaves are like small, pale-yellow coins, sparsely attached to twigs
which are of what hue? Lilac, from the lilacs, and violet, from the violet.

Red as the blonde-bearded face
          bloodied by another fighting
          over deposit cans

or as miscarried week-old life
          draining out a full week
          between my legs.


           What does reddish green or bluish orange or yellowish black look like?

           Black is not enough to show the absence of light.

What if colors at night
          look the way they do
to the colorblind in daylight?


When you take me against the rock

still pool sizzled to buttery glare
while others leap from cliffs

in green frolic where shoal
almost hardens to field—stripped

into memory
what will we become?

blue-toned stripes behind
the lime-green bar being brushed

by a wet black feather.


What color do you like best, Tatu?
Black, black!
And you, Washoe. What color?
Red, red!
Beautiful, beautiful!


Think of a bluish orange, a reddish green, or a yellowish violet,
the same feeling as in the case of a southwesterly north wind.


I envy the cuttlefish and squid; wish I could think color-
become any mottled hue into which I sink for cover.


What color is The Barber of Seville?
Teal-gray and teak (or bamboo)
with not a trace of red or black.
Umbria is ochre and rust
dark brown as the centers of sunflowers
keening in late-summer sun.
Bologna is always foggy grey.
And Rome? Goldenrod.
And Paris? Peacock blue and grey.
Nantucket? Grey and more grey-blue studded
with Black-eyed Susan yellow.
What about Tokyo? New York?
Which city is tomato-red? Mexico City.
But you've never been.
That doesn't matter.

I like the color of your coat.
It's brown.
I wouldn't call it brown.

Call it the color of bark, call it
the impasse of color.

The Knobbed whelk on the beach
whose insides caught the light
bright orange twilight
siren song we had to approach.
—There must be mussel inside
—It's just the shell color made stronger by the bending of the light
a color so pearly rich our footsteps swung

toward it as toward the setting sun's mirror.


Diamondback rattler had colors impossible to recall or name:
snake-color will have to do. Maybe fear blanches things
of color and mystery bloods them—the fuzzy fruited
heart of the sago palm lint-covered ribs pulled back
and there the small smooth rosy heartbeats lay.


Go in the closet or the bathroom
with these mushrooms and wait
longer than you think and then
their crowns will glow from underneath
sample these chicken o' the woods
the mycologist climbed trees to pick
more yellow less orange and edible
walk along the beach late afternoon
find two halves of an Eastern cockle
still joined splayed open rust to rose
their own internal sunset.


Ancient idea that colour is afterthought.

Often when I settle down to work I begin by noting

the icy clearness of the sour blue sky.

You cannot approach color as if coming in a barn door.


Her molten hair beside the stone-grey caviar

light has tigered its way into a figure
          black sofa speckled red with people eating

as flecks of words glint and rise
          in an evening sky until they fuse:


Vermilion cannot do everything
Matisse enjoyed saying,
but had he seen the virgin's vermilion gown
with puffed mandarin-orange upper sleeves
tapered to violet-blue satin at the wrists
and the startled Mary from Recanati
holding her hands at chest height
from the force of unclasping them from prayer
ready to push the air of the intruder?
Whatever else Lotto meant I know he meant
that red as did Frederic Leighton
for the sleeping Flaming June a color so stunning
it goes by many names: cinnabar red, scarlet, China
red and calypso. Even God, so this story goes-
as though the angel clothed in pastel blue
holding a stalk of lilies would pale at the task-
flew down wearing the same
shocking vermilion cinched by blue
and reached into her room.
And I could spend an afternoon worshiping
at the foot of such rich hues
and did.

When we are bathed in what radiates
we forget everything that borders
on yellow or blue. We imagine an absolutely
pure red, fine carmine suffered to dry on white

White to ward off
the distracting din of colors


Today all the colors have been mixed together.
No harmony, the result is grey, as Goethe knew
and the sky storing up its first snow, contains them all.

                     If I say a piece of paper is pure white and if snow
                     were placed next to it
                     and it then appeared grey . . .

Lemon-yellow-black was my idea of the underwing of the grasshopper
but the carmine in connection with the sunset is better.


Who shouted with glee
when the color blue was born?

Lapis lazuli ground up as paint once more precious than gold—

gold the color a Jew was made to wear in the Middle Ages, a mark of shame
                     until Michelangelo on the highest reach of wall beneath the ceiling

of the Cappella Sistina painted Moses in flowing robes of yellow
                     painted Abraham Isaac Sarah all all in golden yellow

Yellow for Goethe the color nearest the light

Blue still brings a principle of darkness with it
          (to be blue) an affinity with black
          a brooding Northern blue

for Goethe even Roman blue
          best seen in full moonlight

This placid space . . .
          not so blue as we thought. To be blue,
          There must be no questions.

La terre est bleue comme une orange

          the earth not really blue though round as?
          though in shadow in the bowl the orange may turn blue

                     There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life.

Enter my blood-orange frame
          letting cobalt waves
          wash over you—give way

          to pleasure then
          give it away.

What color is the universe?
          Between aquamarine
          and turquoise.

When asked his favorite color he
          blurted out blue (as his shirt)
          hers, like Lorca's, will always be green green.


Quotes from the following sources, sometimes edited or altered, in the order

Mark Rothko, as quoted in Mark Rothko: A Biography, by James E. B. Breslin (The
University of Chicago Press)

James McBride, The Color of Water (Riverhead Books).

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on Colour, trans. Linda L. McAlister & Margarete Schättle (University of California Press).

Tomaz Salamun, from "King of Birds," The Four Questions of Melancholy (White
Pine Press).

Czeslaw Milosz, "A little Treatise on Colors," Roadside Dog (Farrar, Straus and

A color manual for painters.

"It Seems Art Is Indeed Monkey Business" by Sarah Boxer, The New York Times, Nov. 8, 1997.

Roger Fry, "Plastic Colour," from Transformations, 1926.

Henri Matisse, "Notes of a Painter" (1908) in Theories of Modern Art, ed.
Herschel B. Chipp (University of California Press).

Le Corbusier.

Goethe's Theory of Colours (1840), trans. Charles Lock Eastlake (MIT Press,

Marianne Moore, from a letter in The Selected Letters of Marianne Moore, ed.
Bonnie Costello (Alfred A. Knopf).

Pablo Neruda, The Book of Questions, trans. William O'Daly (Copper Canyon

Wallace Stevens, "The Ultimate Poem Is Abstract."

Paul Eluard, "L'Amour, la Poésie."

Frank O'Hara, "Why I Am Not a Painter."

Neil deGrosse Tyson, "Colors of the Cosmos," in Natural History, March 2002..