Reviewed: Bella Li, Theory of Colours, Vagabond Press
Last autumn I saw Bella Li speak at a poetry reading in a chilly courtyard in Melbourne. As she was reading from her poem ‘Chroma’, she paused after several minutes. Holding a sheet of paper above her at arm’s length, she moved it from left to right so that everyone in the audience could see. The page was flooded with colour, and had the outline of a rectangle printed in its centre. She repeated this several times with new sheets in various hues. Then she resumed the reading. Li’s quiet pause, her grip on the sheet as it tracked across, suggested to me a delicate encounter between contact, space, continuity and sequence.
‘Chroma’ appears in Li’s latest poetry collection, Theory of Colours, which takes its title and structuring principle from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s eighteenth-century book of the same title (in German Zur Farbenlehre). Following Argosy (2017) and Lost Lake (2018), this third book also displays Li’s commitment to what I think should be described as a poetics of contiguity.1 Working with found images and photographs, as well as borrowed and original text, Li takes collage as a guiding principle. At 176 pages, this sturdy volume offers a series of poems that take us through gardens and hotels, down slopes and across fields. The visual works share a similar terrain—mountainsides, abandoned rooms, astronomical skies—reproduced in a coarsely textured black and white.
Split into three sections—‘Theory of Colours’, ‘Metamorphoses’ and ‘Scenes from the World to Come’—the book navigates the shifts from textual to figural space. The first two sections isolate image and text. The titular section is divided into distinct sequences, with ‘Coloured Objects’ presenting chromatic scales superimposed on found photographs, obscuring the faces and heads of portrait sitters, while ‘Coloured Shadows’ navigates a kind of chronicle, with prose poems that contain phrases from the writings of Adolfo Bioy Casares, Shirley Jackson and Henry James. The collaged poems are disquieting. Consider this passage from ‘Coloured Shadows’:
The presence of a third person. Turned his back
to the water. Hand going down and down into the
What was here and is gone. What was going to be
and never came.
Around 1924 a group of missionaries built a
museum, a chapel, and a swimming pool on the
island. There was no one on the hill: the grass go
down. Under the weight of the footsteps.
Li arrests the movement of her sentences with quick cuts, shifting our sense of time and perspective with subtle relocations of the poetic voice. Phrases shed their original and intended meanings, and startling juxtapositions lend the semantic charge of any sentence a strange and unsettling multivocality. Throughout Theory of Colours, sentences and phrases are treated as events, as if they contain their own frequency or atmosphere. Li’s use of the sentence as a small explosive unit is reminiscent of one of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s excised clauses in Dictee, particularly the section titled ‘Erato, Love Poetry’: ‘To make fully evident the object. The touch. Making void the reticence of space the inner residence of space. Not this one. It’s not like that.’2
While Cha also works with fragmented text, photographs and typographic design in Dictee, Li’s collage poetics also has ties to poets such as Susan Howe, Rosmarie Waldrop and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge. However, to approach Theory of Colours as a book that contains image and text, or text with image, would perhaps be to misunderstand the relationships between them. Rather, the poetic and the visual elements of the book are complementary. Li’s relationship to the archive does not appear to be one simply of stewardship; instead it is more akin to a palimpsestic liaison, taking up Waldrop’s idea of composition as explanation, and composition as process. In her essay ‘Thinking of Follows’, Waldrop suggests that writing is a dialogue, ‘with a whole net of previous and concurrent texts, tradition, with the culture and language we breathe and move in, which conditions us even while we help to construct it’.3
Li’s use of found material reveals a fascination not only with the archival resonances of ‘What was here and is gone. What was going to be / and never came’ but also with pattern, combination and juxtaposition. Meditations on sight, perception, sensitivity to different kinds of light, texture and touch appear with great frequency, as Li’s textual excursions mark fictive perambulations into uncanny geographies and architectures, as in ‘Metamorphoses’:
I had arrived in the town not long before, having
begun a strange and unaccountable sabbatical.
On the advice of a good doctor, I travelled from
the polar regions: instructed to rest, in distant and
familiar surrounds, for a treatment of a degenerate
condition of the optic nerve.
Although it is an original poem, ‘Metamorphoses’ reproduces the otherworldly effect of Li’s poems that utilise an assemblage approach. This dense poetic sequence recalls the hallucinatory fragments of Fleur Jaeggy’s I Am the Brother of XX, or the mythic tale of Halldór Laxness’s Under the Glacier. I was reminded of the nervous recordings of Dorothy Wordsworth, whose headaches and morning walks were described with swift, upright sentences. The narrator is at once bewildered explorer and weary emissary, an uncertain guide chronicling their passage, as we make our own journeys through the text.
Composition as concept becomes a way of embedding the strange resonances between assembled materials into the work. Li’s notes and acknowledgements indicate that her sources for text and image are wide-ranging and idiosyncratically linked—her predilections, connections and pairings discretely mapped out. A glance at ‘Interior of a Garden’, the third sequence of ‘Scenes from the World to Come’, may first suggest that the relationships between a strip of text, a photograph of a rocky valley and a small circle of bird feathers are a little obtuse and tenuous; one may even think that Li is prizing the aesthetic and difficult over the concrete and readable.
But when read alongside its partner sequences ‘Hotel Avenir’ and ‘The Tower’, it becomes clear that ‘Interior’ is engaging in a logic of startling resonance and enigmatic association. The brush-up between like and unlike materials suggests this is the emphasis: Li is constructing an atmosphere of encounters. Susan Howe—who also works with found text, old documents and photographs—describes this type of encounter as the beginning of composition, ‘a sense of self-identification and trust that widens to delight … It suggests the linkage of like and like-in-chance contiguities and alignments’.4 We not only see the product of such encounters when we hold Theory of Colours, but are also invited into an open interpretive space to read, see and touch our way through.
This sense of ‘openness’ is produced through a poetic practice that offers contact and grounding for a reader, while at once withdrawing legibility and context. I am reminded of the directive on the blurb of Anne Carson’s Float: ‘Reading can be freefall.’ The humble scene of a rocky outcrop or an unassuming view into a hotel bathroom suddenly seems a little outré. To use found photographs as Li does is daring: they could be perceived as supplementary, seen as pretty and therefore superfluous, read as a weak attempt at illustration. Yet Li makes use of her images in a way that strips them of any true referent: she is severing the ‘two leaves’ that Roland Barthes claimed made up the photographic object—‘the windowpane and the landscape’.5 I’m not sure if this gives the images some kind of semiotic or symbolic function, but the effect feels more like receiving artefacts posted to us from another world.
In ‘Scenes from the World to Come’, the rectangle returns. A solid white block in the middle of grainy black-and-white photographs, it acts as both veil and void, simultaneously covering and emptying pictorial reference from the photographs. Rather than taking these shapes as absences, however, they are more like openings, a scissor-sliced meditation on boundaries and gaps. Gaps, openings, boundaries—created, revealed, closed—seem to be an important feature of Li’s poetics of contiguity and composition. The juxtaposition of the collage cut, whether textual or visual—indeed between textual and visual—creates a space for new meanings to be created out of old materials. It is a gesture that disrupts and impedes.
Waldrop says it best when she writes that it is ‘a meaning that both connects and illuminates the gap, so that the shadow zone of silence between the elements gains weight, becomes an element of the structure’.6 With very little colour printed in Theory of Colours, the text manages this internal contradiction by being of, and working in, this very real ‘shadow zone’. Indeed, Li appears to engage in an ekphrasis in reverse—collaging a unique set of images that speak to Goethe’s examination of the interplay between light and dark. There is an ease with ambiguity and luminous shadow play that recalls a line from ‘Coloured Shadows’: ‘Float not into clearness, but into a darker obscure.’
In her essay ‘The Rejection of Closure’, Lyn Hejinian suggests that in ‘an open text’ all ‘elements are maximally excited’. She writes: ‘the open text, by definition, is open to the world and particularly to the reader. It invites participation … It speaks for writing that is generative rather than directive.’7 Although it is made of parts, pieces, series and fragments, Theory of Colours unfolds as a vibrantly integrated and dynamic work. The poetics of contiguity is not simply a compositional method for Li, but a way into the text, and a way of moving through it.
In this dance between reading and writing, Li shows us that the illuminated gap of the poetic play is manifold: meanings, signs and associations are generated by author and reader alike. It is open to delighting us in the way that Barthes said a photograph was open to animating him: ‘this is what creates every adventure’.8 •
Isabella Gullifer-Laurie studies English at the University of Melbourne.
- I borrow the phrase ‘poetics of contiguity’ from Fiona McMahon’s article on Rosmarie Waldrop in Revue fran.aise d’.tudes am.ricaines, no. 103 (2005). McMahon uses ‘the poetics of contiguity’ to describe the process of composition/decomposition in Waldrop’s Key.
- Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictee, University of California Press, 2002, p. 108.
- Rosmarie Waldrop, ‘Thinking of Follows’, Writing: UPenn, 24 April 2000, <http://writing.upenn.edu/epc/authors/waldropr/thinking.html>.
- Susan Howe, ‘The Art of Poetry No. 97’, Paris Review, 2012, <https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6189/the-art-of-poetry-no-97-susan-howe>.
- Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard, Vintage, 1993 , p. 20.
- Waldrop, ‘Thinking of Follows’.
- Lyn Hejinian, ‘The Rejection of Closure’, Poetry Foundation, October 2009, <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69401/the-rejection-of-closure>.
- Barthes, Camera Lucida, p. 20.