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THE FIRST ALBUM I heard by Nina Simone was Pastel Blues. I came to Nina Simone late. Pastel Blues includes the songs “Trouble in Mind” and “Tell Me More and More and Then Some” and “Ain’t No Use” and “Sinnerman.” I came to Nina Simone late, in my 20s, and there are days when I am filled up with regret. I am sad her songs are missing from parts of my past. Each time I listen, though, a little relief moves through the room, because Nina Simone’s sense of time is not wedded to my disappointment; my regret is exposed as tiresome, actually, because her different sense of time and place sonically assembles something more pressing than self-remorse. Maybe, when Nina Simone sings and writes and performs, her sense of time is forgiving and expansive.
On the Pastel Blues album cover, the photograph of Nina Simone is awash in light and dark blues; the photograph is atop a background of lighter and softer blue. I think this photograph of Nina Simone was originally in black and white. The black-and-white photograph was made into a stencil, and it was then put through an offset printer, or a screen printer, using blue inks. It seems the original photograph of Nina Simone was hued to match the blues of the album, the songs, the title Pastel Blues, as well as the other aesthetic choices used on the album cover (font, record production logo, and so on). The hue ties together song and feeling, aesthetics and the creative-intellectual work of the blues; it’s also relational to corporate infrastructures (Philips, Mercury Records, Verve, UMG Recordings). The hue is relation and infinite. The intensity of the blueness, which moves between darks and softs, is indescribable and bold. These blues stretch outside of palette. Pastel Blues, with its expansive blueness, is an exquisite bundle of everything.
The blueness that colors Simone’s album cannot be fully described or replicated. The blueness, in fact, reveals that engaging color, palette, and hue can be a tumultuous and frustrating experience that requires coming to terms with inexplicability; the inability to fully and absolutely describe Nina Simone’s Pastel Blues and its blueness (as color, as song, as genre, as evocation, as embedded within corporate infrastructures, as image, as record, as creative text, as feeling, as…) means we must live with seeing and knowing something (blue) that we cannot accurately chronicle or express. Put otherwise, the unexplained and undescribed unfold into a kind of promising inaccuracy. This inability to explain, and the attempt to explain, has led me to explore Dionne Brand’s uses of color in her book The Blue Clerk: Ars Poetica in 59 Versos.
The Blue Clerk is a long dialogue about poetry and poetics. Each of the 59 versos presents an observation (we might, alternatively, call each of these observations a set of unresolved problems). Here are some crudely truncated examples of observations and problems presented:
…the crisis at the heart of modernity;
…he has become an accountant…;
…the clerk goes about indefinitely;
…Mingus suggests another territory;
…a sloop of war…;
…he pulls the statement apart;
…those aphids … appeared in my real garden. All summer I sprayed them with soap, they haven’t left.
Observation, as we know, is underwritten by the complicated workings of representation. Representation often comes into being through the act of observation (“I see the aphid”), which can potentially affirm that the representation is complete and whole and true (“I observed the aphid, I know and describe the aphid, the aphid will not leave”). Yet observations are always tied to the difficult work of telling the world we inhabit while also noticing that pretense and inaccuracy and other contexts are looming (my knowledge of the aphid, my description, is incomplete; the aphid is bound up in these other observations and problems).
Together, the 59 versos uncover a series of conversations between the clerk and other figures: the poet, the author, and the poet-author. Observation is the infrastructure of these conversations. The struggle to observe and ethically tell or represent each observation, each problem, is uncomfortable and intense. The practice of observing-telling weighs each figure down. The versos are wearying. The observers are weighed down by what they tell: the air raids, the gunshots, the obliterated city, more grief than you can handle, no time, I lived in a room over the hill. I wonder if the observers regret telling the world in this way.
As I read The Blue Clerk, I revisit Brand’s other writings and I read Inventory again, differently. Inventory is the long poem that one day just sat, present and forever, in my peripheral vision. The attempt to lose the inventory of Inventory — I tried neglect, mostly — did not succeed, and here it is again, differently, embedded in the versos of The Blue Clerk. I am worn out.
In The Blue Clerk, the versos offer poetic-creative renderings of the world. The poet and the author are tasked with observing and telling the world, and a brutal and unkind world is recited to the clerk. The observations are beautifully told. Sometimes terror is beautifully told. The clerk responds. The poet and author tell their observations to the clerk of this world, and the clerk keeps files (file 65, file 267) and tracks the attempts to observe-tell. The clerk tells the world, too. I think the clerk keeps memories, too. (How disquieting, to imagine that someone has kept your memories. How painful to imagine that someone holds what you have forgotten.) We notice how the observers (clerk, poet, author, poet-author) talk about what they cannot bear, while compulsively explaining their talking as a brutal unkindness. Sometimes the unkindness is replicated in text. Sometimes the unkindness is told and it is enveloped in the sea, Kamau Brathwaite, something like freedom. It seems the text cannot fully express what it feels, and I think that feeling might be love or livingness or both; the text can only partly express what it feels. I read: “violence is the only world I know for elegance.” I give up and seek a different entry point (I need a way out).
Seeking a different way, I turn to The Blue Clerk for its blueness and for its preoccupation with color, generally. The blues and non-blues are the stitching of the text; they underpin, complement, and interrupt the poetic dialogue. More accurately, the colors in The Blue Clerk are firmly entrenched within the text — they move the narrative forward, yet each hue requires that we imagine what is not offered in the text itself: color and our imaginative rendering of color. The written word — like “pastel blue” — asks that we imagine and visualize that particular blue in non-text form. The colors written into The Blue Clerk are part of the poetic conversation, but they cannot be contained by the narrative. Indeed, each color asks that the reader focus on and use their own sense of hue to thus imaginatively exit the text. Each color asks that the reader imagine the world with and outside the textual dialogue Brand has written.
Josef Albers’s canonical text Interaction of Color offers a series of insights and lessons that speak to our optic and psychic relationship with color palettes and patterns, color saturations and mixtures, and color combinations and gradations. Interaction of Color shows how the complexities of color relate to human experience. Albers asks that the reader not just read about and theorize color but that they experience color. Indeed, he privileges an interaction with color before discourse on (about) color as a way to emphasize the “relativity and instability” of color. For this reason, he provides lessons: cutting two pieces of colored paper, setting them side-by-side, and understanding their relationship; recalling the “red” of a Coca-Cola sign, recognizing that our recollection is experiential and that the “red” of the sign we are remembering is inaccurate (and different from the person sitting next to us); focusing on color pairings, harmonies, and afterimages. Some of the lessons have steps: “combine 4 equal squares of different colors to make one large square. Within this grouping of 4 squares, the lighter will differentiate from the heavier darker color […] the task is to transfer these specific relationships to a higher or lower key within two or more groups of equally large rectangles…”. The lessons encourage us to work closely with color, to move it, to cut it, to invent and imagine unexpected patterns and mixtures, to see its elements in new ways. What Albers allows us to think about — by doing — is how color (contrasts, harmonies, variants, changes, admixtures) is a form that “invites constant reconsideration.”
The lessons open up how our perception of color changes according to context: when we encounter color — pastel blue — it is experiential because the where of the color determines its meaning (the pastel blue square on a wooden desk looks different from the same pastel blue square on top of a green book, which looks different from the same pastel blue square against a white wall). This allows us to notice that hue is soberly contextual. Pastel blue changes according to context; context changes pastel blue into a memory I do not have. Pastel blue is an affective-intellectual
exercise in indescribable vibrancy. Pastel blue is there, the light-greenish-yellow-blue is right there in front of me: palpable, flat, within reach, numbered, charted, singular, and veracious.
Anoka Faruqee draws attention to how factual color — what is right there, in front of us, alone, seemingly singular — is tied to both the viewer’s presence and outlying contexts. She thinks about this in relation to visual art that seeks to isolate and individualize color — huge painted blocks of black, for example. Faruqee not only notices the impossibility of imagining and seeing singular colors in isolation (there is always a context through which the factual color is perceived outside its veracity, just as the huge painted block is always framed) but she also allows us to think about how the deep focus on one color, the desire to find or describe or replicate the essence of a color in isolation, is a useful intellectual project and process that, while leaning on impossibility, underscores the “primacy of context” and how our perception of color “relies on relativity.” The dilemma she presents, as I see it, is not whether a certain color is “real,” but rather how we work through the tensions between what we observe, what we experience, representation, and how we share what we observe. The authenticity, or essence, of pastel blue, generates in isolation its relationality to the viewer and to other colorful contexts while also highlighting — without reifying — the desire to know, or describe, absolute pastel blue.
With this in mind, color also carries feeling. We read of warm yellows and hot pinks. We see cool and soft beiges. We walk past and over frigid grays, peppery reds. Color is symbolism, analogy, and metaphor.
I revisit The Atlas of Rare and Familiar Color:
Green: verdant vegetation and healthful vitality, contrary illness and consuming envy, environmentalism, Quranic exaltation and wholesale liberty; the color green intoxicates with yellow’s incandescence, then allays with blue’s equilibrium.
Orange: sweetest clementines and divine illuminations, transformation, jubilant gaiety, and flamboyance, Dionysian ecstasy and deepest empathy; the color orange entrances with red’s vivacity, yet pacifies with yellow’s serenity.
The research and lessons of Faruqee and Albers and others have led me to theorize the colors within The Blue Clerk as textual provocations — or, more specifically, prompts — that center and incite imagination. Imagination is experiential and representational; it is also, like color, an act that is difficult to explain with clarity. For this reason, I understand the work of imagination as both quiet and agentive (our inner imaginative thoughts are enunciated imperfectly: they outline the conditions for change, they invite us to do).
As provocations (prompts) intended for imagination, the colors in The Blue Clerk are perceptively tactile and felt and, at the same time, inexpressible. The colors invite our imaginations to work through the simultaneity of visual, non-visual, textual, and non-textual gradations. Thus, if we work with the insights advanced by Faruqee and Albers, we can observe how the emotive, dull, bright, and vibrant layers of blues, violets, yellows, greens, reds, browns, and other hues within The Blue Clerk, provide a way for us to engage the text, imaginatively, by exiting it momentarily and wondering (by wandering into and experientially engaging with) how we understand and visualize specific colors and how color complements how we live and feel.
It is worth noting here that my thinking follows and shares Toni Morrison’s instruction: “Only the act of imagination can help me.” When wading through the nested processes of seeing, knowing, unknowing, observing, representing, expressing, sharing, forgetting, erasing (and living with inaccuracies and unresolved problems), it is our imagination that helps us muddle through these complexities. As we wade, it is our imagination that seeks out and affirms already existing freedom practices. Imagination, too, leads to invention (and reinvention). Imagination is not an answer (noun), it is an opening (an act, a verb). And: Imagination does not always lead to representation, explanation, or description. We are permitted to keep some things to ourselves (they cannot have everything; not every silence needs to be told; they cannot have it all).
I explore the colors in The Blue Clerk as provocations and prompts for the imagination. I keep in mind, as noted above, the blue that washes across and exceeds Nina Simone’s Pastel Blues and the dilemma that arises when we grapple with color context, color veracity, and the impossibility of precisely equating observation (“I see pastel blue”) and representation (“I cannot explain my observation easily”). Put simply, I read the colors in The Blue Clerk as prompts that offer one potential way to attend to the thorny and unresolved problems underpinning observation and representation. Part of this exercise reveals my own interest in color palettes, in color codes harmonies, and in the ways images and image-making help identify the problems and possibilities of description-representation.
Where are the colors? The figure of the clerk holds an “almanac of colours.” The almanac could be an archive, a manual, a handbook, a calendar, or any kind of recording. The almanac of colors might even be, when I stretch my imagination, a collection of sounds or songs. Near the book’s close, there is an index. Under the heading “Language” there is a list of versos, and part of that list references color and where specific colors are placed within the larger text. For example: “Verso 36.1 (blue, violet)” is indexed, and we can refer back to this verso on page 184 and read: “blue wine, blue safety, blue havoc […] violet scissors.” Some colors are clustered in versos (there are whole versos for and about the color “lemon,” for example); some colors are typical adjectives (“a red buoy,” “a yellow house”); some colors are paired with nouns or verbs that, as pairs, we may not consider to be compatible (“blue speed,” “blue disciplines,” “violet haunch”); some colors are coupled with adverbs (“never violet”); some colors are nouns (“bone black”); some colors we may know, imagine, but they are not explicitly named (“wooden dock”). Not all colors or versos with clusters of color are listed in the index. Some of the colors are collected by the clerk in the almanac.
The clusters of colors are captivating and allow the reader to make connections between the written word, hue, representation, and imagination: “Violet terminals have appeared in the violet hours I have spent, the violet bookkeeping has been done, violet officials have declared the violet kilometers’ violet shoulders.” Or: “blue rain, rind blue, blue turbine, blue visas, blue filled, blue tolls, blue storage, blue help, blue sex, poised blue.”
I can and do visualize the blue turbine. In a certain sunlight, the turbine I see is a very light grayish-blue. Some colors that are coupled with nouns present a struggle, as do the colors that are paired with verbs. What violet is a violet hour? When is violet? What kind of violet is a violet hour? What (where) is blue help? The clusters of colors are disciplining and frustrating. The bookkeeping and the kilometers and the officials enclose my imagining. I cannot find the help that is described here. Surrounded, I recall collecting and organizing objects and stories like this
The lemon clusters are brilliant because the yellow is acidic and bright and sharp. The lemon (yellow) is brilliant because it is flavour.
“…lemon elegies, lemon summary, lemon pulley, lemon factors, lemon archives, what lemon, lemon acts, lemon nails, lemon steps, lemon crevasses, written lemon, lemon vanishing, lemon deposit, missing lemon…”
The lemons are sensory. They leave lemon debris. The wreckage (junk, debris, waste) is brilliant and acidic and bright and sharp. Presenting color in this way — words and words and words, adjective-
noun, adjective-noun, adjective-verb, noun-adjective, verb-adjective, noun-adverb — shows that text-word can simultaneously constrain and open up our imagination. The turbine is aqua, royal, or indigo. The lemon (yellow) is sweet (the debris is sweet).
As prompts, the clusters of color in The Blue Clerk function to anchor and unleash the imagination. Brand’s persistence and repetition (violet, violet, violet, violet, “exhausted violet”) perhaps indicates the struggle to imagine and write and feel color as — and in — text. The reiteration of the same color, over and over, signals a move toward and the inability to precisely capture color essences. Each violet has a context that troubles exact violet. Perhaps persistence and repetition expose the limits of description (I tell myself, again: description is not liberation). The clusters of colors are not told in isolation. The attribution (lemon, violet, blue) requires a complement (archives, officials, wine). Each complement to lemon, violet, blue, pulls it toward and away from the potential essence of lemon, violet, blue: “violet transcripts” and “violet schemes” somehow, for me, intensify and punctuate bluish-purple.
And if it is a flower? The violet? If the violet is a flower? A noun?
Reminder: Color changes according to context. Color cannot be accurately recalled or explained. Color holds memories I do not have. If the versos filled with clusters of colors function as provocations that take the reader, if only for a moment, beyond a mode of reading that decisively conflates observation and representation and flattens (suffocates) hue, then the remaining colors in The Blue Clerk are similarly expansive. Some of the non-clustered colors are repeated in the text. The green unclassified aphids are introduced early, and return (without green-adjective). The clerk’s blues (her coat and book and hands), and other blues (blue crabs, iridium oxide, blue bale, indanthrene blue, blue to the heels, maljo blue, a blue bowl full of feathers, 200 incidents of blue, and more) are constant. Some blues carry connotation: maljo (cf. maldjo) blue, the violet-blue color of laundry blue; maldjo will prevent fever in a small child, maldjo will interrupt the consequences of cut-eye, etc. Some neutral and composite gradations signal infrastructure, institution: white shirt, white library, gray white public hospital, white steps, white blouse, gray petrol, brief brown post office, gray naval ships, gray paper, her dress is lead white, brown school uniform. The library is ochre, too. Ochre (yellows, oranges, clay-yellows) roves: mars yellow, iron yellow, a column of orange air, her head scarf is ochre, yellow ochre, golden temple, a yellow dress, a yellow ochre dress, black with yellow border, a sense of orange.
“I was in my brown school uniform, I think. It/wasn’t brown it was blue and white. A blue skirt, a white/blouse. I would have to have been younger to have worn/the brown. You are always younger in this type of moment./I have always sat beside this bed in my school uniform …”
One could keep listing (clouds fire pink, cobalt cranes, brown clay silt). Keep tabulating, arranging (green lake, green glow, aquamarine). Do something; (the risk of accounting is to forfeit a bigger discussion, a bigger life). This (my) list now functions to prompt and prompt endlessly. I see that sense of orange differently than you. I hardly remember the sense of orange. Keep it up.
Don’t Wear Down.
Placed within the broader context of The Blue Clerk — conversations and poems that drag you through care and unkindness, versos where glimpses of livingness are emptied into pathos, stories where some love is sustained and other affections disappear and love never was, where we are collected, observed, described, and turned into what they think we are, where the sea is reassuring, where the zinnias pause, where the real-true-honest meaning of poetry is shared and swiftly destroyed (the blackness of it all!) — the interaction of colors, the uses of color, the colorful prompts, affirm, displace, and recalibrate our imagination. The prompts take us through and beyond the love and the emptiness and the endless accounts. Representation, as an unmistakable sign or rendition or expression of what we see or know or feel, is foiled by the prompt. The ink blue is not an answer, it confounds. We are offered text — “black valves of black engines” — as imbricated with imaginative labor, inexplicability, constant reconsideration, and an expression of promising inaccuracy and maybe praxis: a lesson.
Katherine McKittrick is professor of Gender Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. She authored Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle (University of Minnesota Press 2006) and Dear Science and Other Stories (Duke University Press, 2021).