Colors Passing Through Us
Purple as tulips in May, mauve
into lush velvet, purple
as the stain blackberries leave
on the lips, on the hands,
the purple of ripe grapes
sunlit and warm as flesh.
Every day I will give you a color,
like a new flower in a bud vase
on your desk. Every day
I will paint you, as women
color each other with henna
on hands and on feet.
Red as henna, as cinnamon,
as coals after the fire is banked,
the cardinal in the feeder,
the roses tumbling on the arbor
their weight bending the wood
the red of the syrup I make from petals.
Orange as the perfumed fruit
hanging their globes on the glossy tree,
orange as pumpkins in the field,
orange as butterflyweed and the monarchs
who come to eat it, orange as my
cat running lithe through the high grass.
Yellow as a goat’s wise and wicked eyes,
yellow as a hill of daffodils,
yellow as dandelions by the highway,
yellow as butter and egg yolks,
yellow as a school bus stopping you,
yellow as a slicker in a downpour.
Here is my bouquet, here is a sing
song of all the things you make
me think of, here is oblique
praise for the height and depth
of you and the width too.
Here is my box of new crayons at your feet.
Green as mint jelly, green
as a frog on a lily pad twanging,
the green of cos lettuce upright
about to bolt into opulent towers,
green as Grand Chartreuse in a clear
glass, green as wine bottles.
Blue as cornflowers, delphiniums,
bachelors’ buttons. Blue as Roquefort,
blue as Saga. Blue as still water.
Blue as the eyes of a Siamese cat.
Blue as shadows on new snow, as a spring
azure sipping from a puddle on the blacktop.
Cobalt as the midnight sky
when day has gone without a trace
and we lie in each other’s arms
eyes shut and fingers open
and all the colors of the world
pass through our bodies like strings of fire.
– by Marge Piercy
By all rights, this poem ought to drown itself in a pool of self-indulgence. This poem abandons the discipline of rhyme and regular meter, and then plunges its undisciplined self into the deep, deep ocean of love poems – an ocean of triteness and banality filled to flooding by every mediocre wannabe poet who feels the need to write down that feeling s/he feels when the crush of the day enlivens his/her world.
Despite all that, Marge Piercy emerges from that ocean with a pearl in hand. This poem is beautiful.
There are several things going on in this poem that make it stand out. First, despite the lack of a regular metrical rhythm, Piercy builds her poem with the solid wood of sestets (6-line stanzas – most often used as the tasty morsel at the end of a sonnet) and a strong preference for lines with 4 stresses each. This is not an iambic pentameter robot, but it’s not loosey-goosey, windblown words on a page, either.
Piercy also adds structure through her theme. Each stanza, except the second and the sixth, tackles its own color. And hurrah for the second and the sixth – they tell us what is going on – they clue us into why these colors are being shown to us. And the fact that they are not the first and the last stanzas keeps them from tying up this poem into a tidy little package – their positioning breaks the thematic structure enough to keep it from becoming a catalog of colors.
But what really makes this poem stand out is its specificity. The grapes are “warm as flesh.” The orange is not just the color of her cat, but the color of her cat “running lithe through the high grass.” The yellow is not the yellow of a raincoat, but “yellow as a slicker in a downpour.”
As Marianne Moore called for, this poem presents “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”
(Buy Marge Piercy’s poetry at Rainy Day Books, or whichever local bookstore you prefer.)