Intellectual Labour: Robert Hampson's an explanation of colours

Robert Hampson, an explanation of colours

Veer Books 2010

Reviewed by Melissa Flores-Bórquez & Edmund Hardy

M: Has there been a Marxist theory of colour?

E: The history of the rainbow is ineluctably political, and as colour systems are intrinsically about relationships, you would think so - but I'm not sure. Where such a theory might have been formulated, escaping from the colour thinking of the 19th century, might have been during the short and labyrinthine history of the Bauhaus. Instead there was an eclectic and unsystematic flowering of approaches and courses there, eventually coalescing in the US in the reductive empiricism of Albers. I always think of the action of the Swiss Marxist architect Hannes Meyer, when he became director of the Bauhaus, which was to single out the various colour theories or lessons developed as symptomatic of a less-than-serious games-playing or turn away from the world.

M: I ask because colours appear as flakes of the visible, the political, in Robert Hampson's collection, which I like conceptually more than I do close up to the text. In this politicised showing or 'explanation', the world swarms behind our vision of it, penetrating through in a flaking which our eyes think into an experience of the lived world - our nervous systems keeps creating the future.

E: Even as our immune systems keep creating the past.

M: In part. But anyway, Hampson's collection consists of thirds - a triplet of three-line stanzas makes up each poem. A colour and then its counter breaks through so that the argument rotates or radiates back -

this harm that
radiates back towards
the site of its origin

- in the third stage. It's a sparse dialectic. In the one break from this pattern, the poem becomes a square, with three columns of three stanzas.

E: Each flake is not that of colour lyricism or of the 'painterly' - if a decussation marks the spot, then this is the location or fixed point needed in order to perceive movement, or conceive of change:

the present put together
with intellectual labour

M: This reminds me of the restoration of "intellectual day" from Milton. To stay with details, my reservation with Hampson's book is with the weaker force of language in some of the short-hand formulations in these poems: "haunted by traumas", "an accumulation of disasters / clings to the memory" - it isn't that worn speech is always deleterious to the thought which inheres, but to pick the second example, a thought of memory as something to which anything "clings" seems too easily handed to us here. The stronger poems are at the start of the sequence, and the falling away of attention which occurs in fact gives an overall shape to the book.

E: I read your frustration as pointing to a wider problem of exactly what inscriptions are possible within the dimensions of any given work or poetics, even if those dimensions are open to the infinite: for the organizing violence of language can make every thought seem born of a completed, fully recognised codification; the task would be to force a style which would curatively run ahead of this process.

M: I nearly agree with this. . .

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