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(SPAM Cuts) ‘white paint’ by Rebecca Perry


In this SPAM Cut, Robin Boothroyd explores the subtle chromatic obsessions and luminous turns of Rebecca Perry’s poem ‘white paint’, which you can read here, at Poetry Daily.


> When did I discover that white isn’t a colour? I can’t remember. White reflects light completely, meaning it’s really the absence of the visible spectrum, every colour trampolining away. So when Rebecca Perry writes that to render this non-colour with paint ‘is essentially to capture the light that falls on it,’ it’s exactly that: white is the light that falls on it.

> I very much enjoy looking up colours in the dictionary. What you find there are dazzling lists of objects and associations. Red is the colour of blood; yellow of sulphur, egg yolk, a ripe lemon. Besides milk, one of the most common dictionary comparisons for white is snow – which is where the poem begins. The speaker walks to a park after a blizzard, where the air has ‘the muffled quality that follows snowfall.’ With the sound dampened, they focus on the act of looking. Their gaze falls on the ‘white slopes of the park’, which are indistinguishable from the ‘bright grey sky.’ 

> Perry splashes colour across the monochrome background as though it were a canvas. Like the ‘bright grey’ of the sky, they’re precise tinges and hues. The pond water is ‘very dark navy,’ while the duck’s feet aren’t orange (the colour orange), they’re ‘orange orange’ (the colour of the orange). I experience this orange viscerally, as though it were perceived rather than imagined. The overall impression is of a vivid winter tableau – poem as painting.

> In the second half of the diptych, the poem’s focus switches to The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, a painting by Paul Delaroche. As in part one, Perry zooms in on the detail, including the colour of Lady Jane’s dress. It’s ‘the closest anyone has come to painting the colour white,’ the speaker declares. The garment ‘appears to be very white,’ though is ‘nearer to a yellow-white or cream.’

> I decide to visit the painting in person. That way, I can determine the colour myself. The Execution of Lady Jane Grey is held by the National Gallery, but at time of writing it isn’t on display. I download a JPEG from their website and analyse the colour values in Photoshop instead. When I hover the cursor above the train of the dress, it registers C8 M19 Y74 K0. Which is to say: crème caramel. White paint is more than the light that falls on it.

> Another object of the poet’s gaze is the space between Sir John Brydges’ palm and the arm of the blindfolded Lady Jane, whom he guides to the chopping block. ‘That small space,’ the speaker maintains, ‘is a pure and perfect manifestation of care and tenderness and of men who stand by and do not help.’ The historical moment is catapulted into the present. Whenever I read this line, I reflect on my complicity in discrimination and injustice; how many times I’ve stood by and not helped. It’s confronting – and necessary.

> The poem ends with a wail. Or rather a refusal. A refusal to describe the space ‘between the mouth of the grieving lady in waiting’ and ‘the surface of the column she presumably wails at.’ The poem’s emotional impact, I feel, is in conjuring – but not describing – this space, and the wail that pierces it. Looking at the JPEG of the painting, I see that Delaroche didn’t depict the space either. It’s an imagined space, and all the more moving for it.


Text: Robin Boothroyd

Image: The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, by Paul Delaroche


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