New Welsh Review
Bloom and Bones: A Poetry Conversation Through Colour
Rae Howells and Jean James
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Highly acclaimed Swansea poets, Rae Howells and Jean James, make interesting use of colour and pastoral imagery in their latest collection, Bloom & Bones: A Poetry Conversation Through Colour. Rae Howells is a poet, journalist, media academic and a lavender farmer. She has colour-grapheme synaesthesia, meaning that she perceives words and numbers in colour. Jean James is a Northern Ireland native who specialises in nature writing and poetry.
Bloom and Bones explores relationships, crime, parenthood, place, mental health, and, most of all, climate change. It is not clear which poet is responsible for each work (unless every one was written in collaboration), because the authors do not attach their names to their respective poems. I think attributing each poem would have facilitated the reader’s attempt to follow a ‘poetry conversation through colour’. However, Bloom & Bones is full of some wonderfully lovely phrases such as ‘wedding-white death’ from ‘Like Your Love, Snow’, and ‘hooded against its own death’ from ‘Other Ideas’.
Rae Howells writes, ‘It was Jean’s copy of The Secret Lives of Colour by Kassia St Clair that really got us started. It’s a beautiful book that tells the history of pigments and colours in art, fashion and design. St Clair lays out ten main colours: white, yellow, orange, pink, red, purple, blue, green, brown and black. I began the conversation with a white poem, Jean responded; I replied with a yellow poem.’
Besides ‘Like Your Love, Snow’ and ‘Other Ideas’ and ‘If You Could Taste It Too’, ‘Storm’, ‘Out of the Blue’, and ‘The Banks’ are some of my favourites. ‘If You Could Taste It Too’ captures the story of Georgia O’Keeffe’s art in words. I must admit I didn’t know who she was until I looked her up. She is an American modern artist who lived between 1887 and 1986 and was fascinated by synaesthesia. For example, she explored ‘the idea that music could be translated into something for the eye’ in ‘Music, Pink and Blue No 1’ (1918).
‘If You Could Taste It Too’ is full of deliciously evocative moments like ‘Georgia O’Keeffe tastes colours / rolls each one on her tongue like notes in music’ and the alliterative ‘sharp of citrus bursting blood orange / from a crayon’s crusted womb’. ‘Language without words’ refers to how the colours in the poem and the painting it references invites one to experience the world differently. The Georgia O’Keeffe piece alluded to here is most likely either ‘Ram’s Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills’ (1935) or ‘Summer Days’ (1936), judging from the ‘bloom and bones / […] and the landscape in between’. The poet juxtaposes ‘bloom’, representing life, with ‘bones’, the symbol of death. The ‘landscape in between’ facilitates the circle of life. The speaker draws attention towards the voyeuristic aspect of the visual arts in ‘asking you to be interested in the act of looking’. When combined with the ‘bloom and bones’, this encourages the reader to consider their own mortality and their life as a part of a process. Still life often mixes flowers and skulls to represent transience and death.
One example of how the collection works as a poetry conversation is through ‘The Banks’ and ‘Out of the Blue’. Both poems use blue colour imagery, but in different ways. ‘The Banks’ depicts the ‘bookkeepers, despairing over blue’ because their ‘patrons coveted ultramarine’. Meanwhile, ‘Out of the Blue’ meditates on how ‘we forged a backbone / from no bone’, unexpectedly. The ‘Earth’s scars are ours, / we carved them / into stone’ is another of my favourite lines. It refers to how when we harm the planet, we harm ourselves, and it’s irreversible. However, the gravity of this destruction can be a bit more difficult to understand for some, partly because environmental matters are bigger than us. We know climate change is happening, but some may feel more distant from it, depending on where they live and their experiences. The effects of global warming can be more overt and urgent for those who live in coastal towns, for example.
‘The Banks’ connects the historical politics surrounding the much-prized ‘ultramarine’ with the speaker’s ‘daughters’ running and playing in the present. Life is ‘fleeting’. A ‘life’s work… can be enjoyed in a single season’. Blue typically connotes creativity, the sky and therefore life. ‘Out of the Blue’ picks up this idea in the lines about how ‘we throbbed from the deep, / …fretting web-fingered…. / out of the blue’, identifying the ‘oceans’ as the source of our evolutionary life.
In conclusion, Bloom & Bones is an enjoyable, thought-provoking collection. There could be a whole other review addressing the interesting combination of sexual imagery in the environmental descriptions ‘Arrow Heads’ and ‘Storm’ use, which space here doesn’t allow. As mentioned above, since this pamphlet is a collaboration between two poets and is billed as a ‘conversation’, the identification of who wrote which poem would improve the reader experience in the sense of distinguishing each voice. Yet, Rae Howells and Jean James prove themselves to be highly skilled practitioners in the realm of written beauty.
TK Quentin is a current reviewer-in-residence at New Welsh Review in partnership with GO Wales.