The Rainbow, Jules Breton, 1883
Perhaps Rimbaud got the connection between color and language best in his poem “Vowels,” which sets out to illustrate a colored alphabet within a poem. A translation by Paul Schmidt and Peter Bauer goes like this:
Black A, white E, red I, green U, blue O — vowels,
Some day I will open your silent pregnancies:
A, black belt, hairy with bursting flies,
Bumbling and buzzing over stinking cruelties.
Pits of night; E, candor of sand and pavilions,
High glacial spears, white kings, trembling Queen-Anne’s lace;
I, bloody spittle, laughter dribbling from a face
In wild denial or in anger, vermilions;
U, … divine movement of viridian seas,
Peace of pastures animal-strewn, peace of calm lines
Drawn on foreheads worn with heavy alchemies;
O, supreme Trumpet, harsh with strange stridencies,
Silences traced in angels and astral designs:
O … OMEGA … the violet light of His Eyes!
In this poem, Rimbaud sends up the one-to-one correspondence that Edmond Jabès talks about in The Book of Questions between a progression of letters as a progression of time and a life, as Jabès writes:
The letters of the alphabet are contemporaries of death. They are stages of death turned into signs. Death of eternal death. But there are other signs which the letters covet, erased signs reproduced by gestures at the heart of what is named. Thus the bird’s take-off contains all forms of flight.
Perhaps to name a letter is to name a color, too; is to set a finite progression of colors and letters and things that fold upon each other in the voraciously eating vortex of time. That is not a corkscrew but a path. That is all moments, all colors, letters, all forms of flight. That is the once-dormant light all lit up.
Perhaps when we connect color to language, to sound, in the space of a poem we reconnect and resist what Breton has named the tragic bifurcation of the so-called real and dream worlds that happens to all adults. Perhaps this is poetry’s purpose in our lives, to reconnect the real and dream worlds to one’s own dormant light. Of course, I believe the easiest way to do this with language is through the perfect use of color.