A Scarlet Thread by Elizabeth Burns
Wayleave Press, 2015 £4.00

The Business of Colour

I have mixed feelings about ekphrastic poetry: I always want to see the painting as well as the verbal response. But this pamphlet is an exception. It’s a sequence about Anne Redpath, the Scottish painter. I have never read poems with so many colour words in them! The effect is not in the least repetitious: it’s extraordinarily rich and satisfying. Elizabeth Burns focusses less on individual paintings than on the cumulative effect of colour, especially when wielded during the bleak war years.

I was struck by the difficulty of writing about colour, too. Because once you’ve worked through red, yellow, blue, green, yellow, pink etc, you begin to think you’ve exhausted your verbal palette. But Elizabeth Burns’ vocabulary never runs thin, and she gives colour adjectives a context that makes them leap out: ‘a thread of scarlet running through the grey’, ‘red slippers from a fairytale / set on an Indian rug with blue leaves’, the ‘cold, ox-blood floor’ of the kitchen, ‘a lavender sky / stippled with patches of cream’.

I realised there are words that summon colour, where you might not expect it – ‘marigolds’ (gold), ‘bare trees’ (black), ‘grass’ (green) and ‘scarcely more than a blush’ (pink); and there’s ‘what fires her’ (the colour of flame). Lemons in the fruit bowl (no need to say ‘yellow’). I see ‘marble’ in its grey-white translucency and suddenly the glitter of a ‘silver wedding’ is anything but accidental.

Why had I never before noticed the ‘red’ in Redpath? ‘Flashes of Redpath’ are suddenly literal ‘in the reds and pinks of lilies’.

And the colour words feel so good on the tongue, the pleasure in saying and seeing rolled up together: ‘lime-green and lilac and pink’, ‘mouse-grey, soft green’, ‘the gold baroque’.

Eiizabeth Burns died recently, and too soon. Even in her surname, there’s gold.