Li, Bella. Theory of Colours. Vagabond Press, 2021. RRP: $35.00, 176pp, ISBN: 9781925735239.
Emerging Critics on the Editor’s Desk
2021 marked the first iteration of a new Westerly initiative: our Emerging Critics Program. Designed to support both the Higher Degree by Research community at UWA, and to work in partnership with Pelican (UWA’s student magazine), we hoped to provide editorial guidance and mentorship, as well as publishing opportunities, for a small group of up-and-coming critics. The fruits of this process will be seen on the Editor’s Desk in special posts spanning December and January 2021-2022. The successful applicants for the Program were chosen in two ways: nomination by Pelican’s 2021 editors, Riley Faulds and Millie Muroi, and by the Westerly team after applications from HDR students across the Humanities. We’re so pleased with the calibre of work our first Emerging Critics have put forward, and can’t wait to introduce these new critical voices to our readers!
To first leaf through Theory of Colours is to be greeted with a series of intriguing shapes and images: a vacant hotel, the surface of the moon, spherical butterfly wings floating across a mountainous landscape. Upon closer reading, it becomes apparent that this is a work of written and visual poetry; where patterned images and colours form affective counterparts to the words interspersed between them. Theory of Colours is poet and artist Bella Li’s third collection published by Vagabond Press, following the award-winning Argosy (2017) and Lost Lake (2018). Echoing the innovative multimodality of Li’s previous works, Theory of Colours brings together the written word with photography, collage and coloured objects.
For a book entitled Theory of Colours (named after Goethe’s Zur Farbenlehre), I noted its conspicuously sparse use of colour with curiosity—the book meditates extensively on black and white photography and monochrome rectangles. This is one of many ways that the book signals its preoccupation with presence and absence, and the haunting movements in-between. As Li quotes from Goethe: ‘Colour itself is a degree of darkness’ (33). In exploring the shifting degrees of darkness, Theory of Colours presents a journey through time and space marked by wandering, as well as collisions of images, thoughts and intertextual fragments. At times uncanny, others sublime, this is a complex collection with varied aesthetic and intellectual inspirations.
First, Theory of Colours is an enticing invitation to think about form. This is especially evident in Li’s recurring fascination with rectangles: in the collection, blank figures hover like floating doors atop photographs and foreground their own emptiness:
I am left wondering, though, whether these blank shapes are, in fact, empty at all. The interplay between Li’s written and visual elements is characterised by a sense of belatedness or delay—there are times when a poem appears to speak to an image seen earlier in the book (and vice versa). This leaves open the possibility that those ‘empty’ rectangles are engaged in some manner of conversation with the written word, perhaps as the imperfect echo of a phrase or idea encountered elsewhere. These acts of revisiting earlier material proliferate throughout Theory of Colours: a book profoundly interested in repetition and reflection. Take, for example, these observations on architecture: ‘There were hallways and staircases leading to hallways and staircases. The occasional abyss, missing steps. I developed, in this time, a habit of leaping, from time to time, across. Vast distances and from time to time’ (74). Here, the text mirrors itself with familiar, yet asymmetrical, word placements. Whether it is through the superimposition of an image on itself, or the frequent references to glass and mirrored surfaces, readers will find more than one ghostly double within these pages.
Another point of interest is the collection’s focus upon movement and the transformations generated by motion. In the part entitled ‘Coloured Shadows’, Li curates her poetry from phrases borrowed from various other works, showcasing a new form for these sentences through new configurations. Here, she reflects on the ‘use of the camera as a sort of time machine. If we pass suddenly from one state to the other’ (27). These moments of ‘crossing over’ inform the book’s keen attention to matter in motion. Theory of Colours gravitates towards colour, water, music, photography and cinema as subjects through which to explore shifting states of being, and to experiment with the poetics of optics and sound waves. This is a process that unfolds against Li’s meditation on time and the oscillations between presence and absence. For instance, as the collection passes through images of unoccupied rooms and corridors, making mention of absent birds and vanished desk clerks, we are hauntingly reminded of ‘what was here and is gone. What was going to be and never came’ (30).
I found Theory of Colours to be a clever and aesthetically innovative work of poetry. However, I have also come away feeling ambivalent towards the abstract and distant mode through which the poet addresses grief, memory, love. Li writes that ‘there is no star that does not pass its life in agony’ (137). I am struck by the beauty of this line, but it feels to me that I am observing the afterimage of the emotion, from far away—experiencing its delayed rays, as Barthes might put it (80-81). There is a cosmic, melancholy weight to this collection that I find unsettling. And yet, there is a gentle matter-of-factness to Li’s writing that simultaneously reassures; a reminder of life and presence, someone’s voice travelling to meet you.
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang, 2010.
Sarah Yeung (楊静雯) is a PhD candidate living on Whadjuk Noongar boodja. Her current work examines literary representations of memory and haunting.