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  • "Draw Deep from Your Palette":Lorna Goodison's Poetics of Pigment
  • Amy E. Elkins (bio)

It has become something of a critical commonplace to evoke painting and its media when talking about Caribbean writers. For example, when Michael Gilkes writes about LeRoy Clarke from Trinidad and Tobago, he theorizes painting as a metaphor for Clarke's use of language: "Using language as if working with tubes of paint, [Clarke] has shaped an idiosyncratic, imaginative, metaphorical, poetic discourse . . . of a rooted Caribbean sensibility" (qtd. in Robinson-Walcott 602). Gilkes's metaphor is more felicitous than we might realize at first, in that a surprising number of Caribbean writers, especially poets, are also skilled painters, and many painter-poets showcase original paintings on their book covers. Born in Kingston in 1947, Lorna Goodison is one such poet―a major figure in West Indian and global poetry who was appointed Jamaica's poet laureate in 2017. Earlier in her career, she was trained as an artist at the Jamaica School of Art, eventually intensifying her study of painting at the Art Students League of New York. Critics have been keenly interested in the significance of painting as a metaphor in her work but have largely neglected in-depth studies of how the concrete practice of painting might inform her literary texts as uniquely cross-artistic crafted works.

I once had the chance to ask Goodison directly about the significance of color in her work―her books and her paintings. Without a moment of hesitation, she replied, "I'm a colorist!" In this essay, I follow Goodison's colors, including her in-depth studies of col-or's conspicuous absence in shades of black. At the root of all color is the science of pigment, and I suggest that pigment―painting's [End Page 89] most fundamental structure―provides a rich signifying resource with which Goodison materializes the complexities of Jamaican women's experiences. Using art historical accounts of pigmentation and theoretical approaches to Caribbean feminism, I argue for "the power of color to transform," as bell hooks has it (196), because at a constitutive level, color is fundamentally unsettled―variable by its nature. Color's fundamental properties destabilize fixed conceptions of feminist identity even as pigment, which is sourced from the Earth or synthesized from organic materials, situates color in a materially specific, politically deterritorialized history of the land. This essay addresses the conversation between Goodison's literary work and her artistic practice as a colorist to show how she recuperates certain elemental aspects of postcolonial womanhood without indulging in an essentialist vision of cultural identity. Goodison activates painting and its earthly pigments in a way that comments broadly on a range of issues extending from the political aesthetics of contemporary Jamaican nationhood to the history of women artists in the Caribbean.

For as long as people have been writing about color, there has been a tension between attempts to fix its properties in formats such as spectrums, wheels, and tables and a theoretical fascination with color's physical and conceptual fluidity. In readings of verbal-visual intersections, critics commonly rely on metaphor, a process of iconic thinking that facilitates deep analysis while running the risk of distancing the original object from its source. Wendy Steiner explains,

It is this potential for both growth and decay that makes iconic thinking the dynamic process that it is. This dynamism is particularly evident in . . . the likeness between painting and literature. For this is a privileged case: it is metaphor about resemblance itself and, even more significantly, about the resemblance between reality and the systems man has developed to represent it. . . . The need to discover the mimetic potential in literature has been the underlying motivation for the long history of critical comparisons between the two arts.


Steiner's formulation underscores how literary and painterly representations of modernity constitute a dynamic aesthetic exchange, [End Page 90] especially when those systems of iconic thinking are put into conversation with each other.

Authors who paint provide critics with the opportunity to read painting/literature metaphors as rich, deep wells of symbolic experience as well as think analytically about the craft of literature through the lens of painting...


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pp. 89-117
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