Rory Green Reviews Theory of Colours by Bella Li

By | 3 August 2022

Later in this first section, Li explores colour through a gothic bent with ‘Chroma’, a story in which colour is presented as a supernatural force. In this piece, describing an abandoned mansion which is ‘set back a safe distance’ from a ‘ruined and populous village’ and the wealthy family that once lived there, Li pushes her visual practice to new levels of experimental abstraction, with a sequence of pages consisting only of a hollow rectangle against a bright yet monochrome background. Li’s notes cite Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ here, but while the coloured rooms in Poe’s plague tale are sequential, the speaker in Li’s poem describes the rooms as part of a clockwise, circular sequence. The reframing of this textual allusion gives a sense of inevitability to the demise of the wealthy family to ‘chroma’, which ‘starts in the blood’ and ‘macerates the vein’. Reading between Poe’s and Li’s texts, I can’t help but think of the Silicon Valley billionaires buying up New Zealand land and building bunkers to wait out the climate apocalypse. At a time when it appears the rich might escape the worst of impending global catastrophe, there’s a slightly mean thrill in this dark story of collapse, where the demise emerges from within, and the colourful riches of the family aren’t enough to save them.

Li is at her strongest in ‘Hotel Avenir’, a hybrid prose/collage poem in which careful interventions in both text and image produce an eerie reflection on capitalism’s absences on its deathbed. Part of the final sequence of the collection, in this poem the speaker takes refuge from the apocalypse where ‘the fires had gone out, one by one along the coast’ in a hotel. The full-page images depict a grand and ornately decorated interior, but for the speaker this place is maze-like and disorientating, inducing anxiously cyclical habits:

There were hallways and staircases leading to hallways and staircases. The occasional abyss, missing steps. I developed, in this time, a habit of leaping, from time to time, across. Vast distances and from time to time. Developing a pervasive, a persistent sense of vertigo

I’m particularly taken with a wordless double-page spread around the poem’s midpoint, where Li has superimposed fragments of the same interior image on itself to create a warped, Escher-esque landscape that in greyscale almost eludes a cursory eye. This vision brings to mind shopping malls, department stores and other familiar landscapes of late capitalism where the imperative of relentless growth turns inwards and generates an architecture like a fractal tumour – solipsistic and beyond spatial logic.

As the poem progresses, the images begin to feature white empty rectangles increasing in size. Like the Nothing in Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story, this is an embodied absence that invades the Hotel Avenir. Li published an earlier version of this piece in Going Down Swinging and it’s interesting to see how the poem has been refined for this collection: previously these absences marred the poem from the beginning, but in this version the empty rectangles don’t appear until several pages in. This restraint and slow build of visual tension of what we see in Theory of Colours feels much more in line with the horror genre that Li draws from both thematically and in repurposed text throughout this collection.

Li’s image-text sequences engender a swayed reading, a kind of trance for the reader flipping back and forth between images or disjunctive blocks of prose, scanning for associations between each poem’s suite of vignettes. This is undoubtedly a core intention of Li’s overall practice: in a paper on Lost Lake, Amelia Dale paraphrases a conference talk from Li in which she describes collages as ‘inducing backwards, forwards and circular temporal movements’. There’s a specific pleasure in this multiple, circuitous mode, where a reader will make connections not just between the collagist disjunctions within each poem, but between their perceptual experience of the poetry and their own contextual understandings of the many objects and symbols placed before them. Like additive colours, the superimposition of various textual sources produces effects that are not simply the sum of their parts, but something else entirely.

Correction: An earlier version of this review described the poems as themselves found texts/collage. In fact only the text in the sequence ‘Coloured Shadows’ is composed of mostly found text; the remaining sections are original.

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