These “color swatch poems” are taken from a larger work in progress called Mutterfarbe, a book of experimental translations and poems using Goethe’s Theory of Colors as a primary source.
Each of the colors and their names were pulled from the landscapes and built environments I inhabited during my travels throughout France in early 2015. The nine images at the top correspond with each color swatch poem, and represent those landscapes/built environs. The “Anhang” (appendix) at the end features lines I translated from Goethe’s text on color theory—each numbered line corresponding with one of the color swatches to create a new poetic text.
We are standing in front of Mark Rothko’s Black, Red Over Black on Red at the Centre Pompidou.
“I love Rothko,” says my companion. “I am not crazy about modern American art, but Rothko is different.” A painter himself, my companion is a talkative man behind whose frail body and white hair is an energetic, sometimes erratic mind. “Look,” he says, as he moves closer to the painting, the guard keeping a polite watch over us. “The way he has layered the painting—as if he were breathing it.”
In the Paris Métro last summer, heading to the Chatelet station on my way home after a wayward day, I caught the sound of a saxophone and that familiar melody from decades past, Sidney Bechet’s Petite Fleur. I could tell the music was coming from a source close by, perhaps only a few rows behind me. I froze, not knowing what to do as though I were in the grip of something large and timeless.
A little man walks
Through the golden dust
It is a summer’s morning
A morning fresh and mild
As other mornings, other sorrows
He walks across roads
Where no one else walks
With a tiny wooden coffin
Tucked under his arm
September. It seems these luminous days will never end. I first encountered those lines over ten years ago in New York City. I was living near the United Nations building. It was late evening. I was on the fifth floor of a high-rise and through my windows I could see the sky’s reflection against other windows. I felt lucky to be able to see the image of the sky from my apartment. I felt lucky to be in New York. I believed I had figured things out. Which is to say I was young. I could count the amount of friends I had on one hand and I was happy about that. I enjoyed being alone. I preferred the company of imagination. It was what, in the end, seduced me, more than any person during that time. And for a few nights, what lived with me was the narrative of Phillip Dean and Anne-Marie Costallat, in faraway France, in a world so very different than mine; and yet their story felt, page by page, more alive, more vast, more sensual and more true than my life could ever feel or become. And rather than being depressed by this, I was elated. Joyful. Celebratory. I paced my apartment. I looked out the window at other windows. I went to work and came back and returned to the pages.
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David and I leave our children, thirteen and ten, watching television in our rented house in Barjac, a village in southern France, to go hiking. They often fight like scorpions in a jar, but are best friends right now. “Bye,” they wave, eyes screen-ward. We don’t expect to be long. But after ten days of family vacation, we crave time alone together.
We had no plans to visit Paris that winter. I was at the end of the second trimester of a difficult first pregnancy, when a few hours away from the comfort of home were all my hundred-pound body could afford. We were living in Salem, Virginia, five thousand miles from all our family in India.
On the third morning of our vacation in Barjac, a small Southern French town, a car pulling a trailer bearing a plastic tiger, gorilla, and elephant drove around the square announcing a circus via megaphone. Delighted to see the French tradition of traveling circuses was resisting extinction, I dragged Zoë and Gabriel from the computer and my husband from his French horn. A blue plastic tent was set up in a field below the village. A llama, goat, and minuscule pony with a ground-sweeping mane grazed between the caravans.