Poetry News

Remarks on books on color from Maggie Nelson

By Harriet Staff

If you're wondering where poet and critic Maggie Nelson (most recently the author of Bluets, 2009; and The Art of Cruelty, 2011) gets her attachment to color, you should check out this small, annotated syllabus that Bookforum has reposted. Nelson, unsurprisingly, has a good reading list when it comes to pigment. She mentions Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture by Lisa Robertson; Chromophobia by David Batchelor; Works on Paper by Amy Sillman, text by Wayne Koestenbaum; Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein; Alphabet in Color by Vladimir Nabokov, illustrated by Jean Holabird; and I Send You This Cadmium Red by John Berger and John Christie.

Fact: Nabokov had synesthesia! Nb. This is not the same thing as Stendahl Syndrome. Of Alphabet in Color, Nelson writes:

This book is devoted to Nabokov's synesthesia, the neurological phenomenon that led him to "hear" colors. The associative alphabet Nabokov described is here imagined and illustrated by Holabird, who based her illustrations on descriptions from Nabokov, such as the following: "The long 'a' of the English alphabet . . . has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French 'a' evokes polished ebony. This black group also includes hard 'g' (vulcanized rubber) and 'r' (a sooty rag being ripped). Oatmeal 'n,' noodle-limp 'l,' and the ivory-backed hand mirror of 'o' take care of the whites." The foreword by Brian Boyd is full of gems about Nabokov's brain, such as this: "Oliver Sacks has told me how fascinated he was to learn that as a seven-year-old in the throes of fever Vladimir Nabokov lost his skills as a mathematical prodigy, and found on his recovery that butterflies seemed to have recolonized some of the mental terrain he had formerly dedicated to his concern for, for instance, the seventeenth root of 3529471145760-275132301897342055866171392."

And of the Berger and Christie collab:

In an age increasingly marked by the tyranny of e-mail and virtual attachments, this color-based correspondence between Berger and Christie is a magnificent display of the joys of materiality and the art of the epistolary. The book showcases, via graceful reproductions, the two friends' calligraphy, stationery, typewriting, and shards of color exchanged by mail between February 1997 and the book's publication in 2000. They pass back and forth everything from the titular painted square of cadmium red to ultrasound photos of unborn children, as well as pigment smudges, critical thoughts about art and artists, and descriptions of early color memories. The book's tone is rich with generosity, curiosity, and friendship—their letters often begin with charming, attentive phrases such as "Today I'll try to reply to your blue only with words," or "I loved your green letter and thought I'd send you some music," or "Your saffron letter got me thinking about substance," or simply "Dear John, I like your brown."

Read them all here.

Originally Published: October 6th, 2011