Red Yellow Blue

This plant is tansy. It’s a terrible thrawn persistent weed, but it yields a dye that makes interesting shades of yellow and green.

Ever since Alice Oswald’s talk abut translating colours in Greek texts, I’ve been thinking on and off, about how we perceive and respond to colour. There has even been some debate on Facebook about whether the Celts or the Greeks could even see colours like blue, as there doesn’t seem to be a word for it in early texts.

This doesn’t necessarily follow. I remember my youngest daughter playing with a box of coloured plastic cotton reels just after her first birthday. Although she was beginning to talk, she hadn’t got as far as numbers or colours, but there she was, completely unprompted, sorting the cotton reels into their separate heaps – red, green, white, yellow and blue, without any mistake or uncertainty. I guess what you speak about depends on what’s important to you.

Alice Oswald analysed the word ‘glaucopis’ which is usually applied to the goddess Athena, and often translated as ‘grey-eyed’, but she points out that  the word actually means something more like ‘lively and responsive’ – perhaps even changeable – and sparkling. I thought of Tolkien’s description of the grey elf-cloaks the hobbits are given, which actually change to reflect light, grass, forest or water because, they elves say ‘we put the thought of all we love into what we make.’ Tint or pigment doesn’t seem to be on the elves’ radar either. What we record is not necessarily all we see.

Somehow, sitting in a tent at the Edinburgh Book Festival, a germ of an idea came, for the next step after Haggards, and some new writing. I thought I’d look at colour – what we see and how we say it, what we mean by it and how it makes us feel. And I thought I’d look at dye plants and how traditional techniques connect with the landscape, and then textile art especially as practised by women — it fair got away with me.

Last week at the Burgh Poets meeting, I wrote the first few poems. Here’s one:

Wine-Dark

The sea is dark,
full waves just before breaking
tinted with lowering cloud
like ripely swollen berries,
like a calyx about to burst with bloom,
a child with a birthday cake
just before the explosion of tears,
like an angry choleric face.

 

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