Summer 2008

Colors / Maroon

Staying on hue

Moyra Davey

“Colors” is a column in which a writer responds to a specific color assigned by the editors of Cabinet.

Marooned, I keep thinking, by a color: put ashore on the desolate coast of a blank page. But of course there’s the flip side: opportunity in the prospect of a published page.

In a rueful commentary on the process of how many of his essays came into being (usually by invitation from a literary journal to “reflect on this or that”), Quebecois writer Yvon Rivard concludes: “If we associate thought with the essay, I have to acknowledge that I only think on demand.” Likewise, I’m going to think because I’ve been asked to, and because there’s something about this challenge that makes me say I won’t be stumped, even if it is damned hard to know what to say about marooned, I mean maroon. The editors accused me (legitimately) of skirting the color in a previous draft of this essay, but this time I’m going to stay studiously on hue.

I may as well get it over with and say that my first association with maroon is with an outfit I made for myself as a teenager. Maroon was my favorite color, even though I called it burgundy. (FYI: I image-googled maroon and burgundy and switched back and forth between the two swatches: no significant difference. Likewise with Word’s thesaurus). I thought the color beautiful and regal and couldn’t understand why everybody didn’t wear it. The outfit consisted of a corduroy wrap-around skirt, and a vest with a velour front, ribbon ties, and a pinstriped back, all in deep, rich maroon/burgundy. I loved this outfit, especially the vest, which I thought of as samurai-influenced with its little wing flaps contouring the armholes. And now, a long-extinct memory of a photograph of me standing by a canal in Ottawa wearing the outfit has just wafted into consciousness. My boyfriend took the photo and presented me with a Cibachrome print in characteristic bluish tones and with a glassy, unforgiving surface. To my shame, I’m pretty sure I defaced the print by applying India ink to the contours of my chubby waistline. Surely a copy exists somewhere, Cibas (metallic, indestructible) being the Daguerreotypes of their day.

I want to mention one more maroon garment that I sewed for myself: a reversible coat of maroon plush on one side and maroon moiré satin on the other, and snaps, since I’ve had a dread of buttons dating back to early childhood (hence the ribbon ties on the samurai vest).

Maroon is strongly associated with athletic and school uniforms. Though mine were never maroon, I had to submit to a total of five up through grade eight (navy blue, brown, brown, red, red). The first four had buttons that needed to be mitigated by:

1. Turning tunic belt inside out.

2. Wearing unauthorized tie over Brownie outfit.
3. Putting iconic “Flower Power” stickers on shoulder strap buttons.

4. Changing red plastic buttons on closure tabs to metal kind, a variety I can tolerate.

The fifth was a stretchy gym leotard that, thank God, had a zipper.

It’s fascinating and even a bit scary how this assignment is provoking a Proustian flow of involuntary memory. About a month ago on Cape Cod, like a swirl of smoke from the genie bottle, I began to recollect: “Two more notebooks survived for a while, maroon-backed ledgers like the ’57–’59 volume ….” Out of nowhere I’d called up Ted Hughes’s infamous mention of Sylvia Plath’s last two diary books, one of which he destroyed. I thought he’d said “maroon,” but doubted myself, wondering if they weren’t in fact blue, like the cover of the faux fin-de-siècle engraved lavender-blue notebook I’d been carrying around since May. But I was right, and it still amazes me that you can google “maroon-backed ledgers” and in two clicks be reading excerpts from Hughes’s introduction to the diaries.

Apropos of notebooks and diaries: I’ve been finding that the small ones I routinely carry around in my purse or knapsack hold out a kind of promise, and can bring immense comfort and pleasure, whereas the larger diary books I’ve kept on and off since the early ’80s have come more and more to signal something ominous and soiled. The small notebooks are principally “idea notebooks” with stars to indicate something to come back to. The larger ones have a more ambiguous function: they contain starred ideas as well but also a fair amount of sludge. I’ve been trying to cut back on the sludge and have begun formatting entries as “bullets” and lists as a way of having the useful stuff be more visible. But the temptation to round up the events of the days dies hard.

The above-mentioned lavender-blue diary, even with its attractive cover, was beginning to feel particularly freighted. Here’s an extract from one of its last pages that sums up fairly well both the good and bad aspects of diaries and notebooks:

See small black notebooks: write about these friggin notebooks, love/hate relation. Compulsion to keep track of every damn thing. Fear of forgetting vs. how sick , how unhealthy, dirty, nauseating the whole 
project can begin to seem.

notebook = rag write about this

= a soiled handkerchief.

A maroon-backed law ledger that served as Sylvia Plath’s journal for her first three years at Smith College, July 1950–July 1953. The journal encompasses the time period that would later become the basis for her largely autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar. Within the journal, Plath makes no mention of her suicide attempts, which are dramatized in the novel. Photo Stephen Petegorsky, 2008. Courtesy Sylvia Plath Collection, Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College.

I’d been wanting to shed the lavender-blue notebook, which luckily was nearing its end anyhow, and I considered, in honor of maroon, and thinking it might bring good luck, of finally activating an actual hard-backed maroon spiral notebook with blank, white pages and ribbon ties that had been given to me as a Christmas present by Mark D. several years ago and has been on the lower shelf of my bedside table ever since, awaiting the perfect task or moment to be called into service. But it’s too beautiful an object for such an ambivalent purpose as mine, nor have I ever been able to sustain anything for very long on un-ruled paper.

Instead, and also thinking it might bring good luck (because of the Plath association), I bought what I think of as a classic ledger notebook: it’s not maroon, but it has that outdated stationery store look that would have felt at home in the 1950s: stiff blue board covers, threaded binding, and the pages numbered from 001 to 120. It’s also exactly the same style of book my beloved partner used for his philosophy notes as an undergraduate in the early 1980s (an un-ambivalent purpose in my estimation).

But I made a mistake. This brand new notebook makes me sick, too. Its pale, lime-green pages are too thin and transparent, too tightly ruled: I can’t see clearly what’s on the page because there’s not enough contrast between the ink and the delicately tinted, see-through paper. Hence, it’s too hard to separate out what’s worth retaining from the sludge, even with stars. I need the pristine whiteness of papier velouté to offset the messiness excreted by my pen. The notebook also reminds me too much of the marble notebooks from the mid ’80s. Plus, I just googled “ledger,” and it turns out this book is not a ledger at all (though the association between accounting and note-keeping is not completely off the mark). I wasted $9.08, but worse than that, I’m in the awkward position of having begun a notebook that will have to be discontinued at page 009.

Another memory is signaling from the depths: a postcard in a plastic sleeve of Freud’s couch sent to me by my childhood friend Alison S. (whom I met around the time of the maroon outfit). This postcard has been in storage and in three different apartments (in fact, at one point it was also in the diary box at my house in upstate New York that contains all my journals going back to the early ’80s). I recall unpacking it several times over a series of moves and always thinking of it as a touchstone, something to come back to. It has that “talismanic” quality (Sontag), and though I’ve played lost-and-found with it a few times, I’ve always kept it in my peripheral vision. I fished it out of its current repository, the 1930s aqua metal dentist cabinet in the studio, and sure enough, Freud’s room was packed with maroon, not just in the geometric shapes on the Persian rugs draped over couch and wall, but also in three large cushions that are as unambiguously maroon as the spines of many books on the shelves to the right.

To return to the printed page: I’ve always wanted to write one of those “Top Ten” lists. Were I to do it now, I’d place at the summit Catherine Lord’s tour de force memoir The Summer of Her Baldness, devoured and cried over in the last few weeks while writing up these memories of my own. I love Lord’s book, subtitled “A Cancer Improvisation,” for many reasons, not the least of which is its diaristic, epistolary mode and her habit of drawing up lists, including one of a collection of hats and caps wherein the gift of a maroon fez is gratefully noted.

See press on Moyra Davey’s “Colors” column in Mousse.

Moyra Davey is an artist living in New York. Long Life Cool White, a twenty year survey of her work, was recently on view at the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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