Poet Lorna Goodison reads ‘To Make Various Sorts of Black’

BY Ellen Rolfes  October 7, 2013 at 1:51 PM EDT

Painting by Lorna Goodison, from the private collection of Dan Kelly, photographed by Hugh Wright

For a long time, poet Lorna Goodison thought her creative talents would lead to a profession in the visual arts. But “one day the painting stopped coming, and I was just writing all the time,” Goodison said. Like a scorned lover, her talent and passion for painting “went off in a huff because I wasn’t paying any attention to it.”

Even though Goodison exchanged the brush for the pen, her previous career as a painter continues to influence her poetry, including her latest collection of poems, “Supplying Salt and Light,” published by McClelland & Stewart.

In her poems, Goodison paints scenes with words, transporting readers through all the senses. Her poems are journeys, exploring Afro-Caribbean history and religion, inspired by her own travels and her upbringing in Jamaica.

The idea for the poem “To Make Various Sorts of Black” came from a book called “The Craftsman’s Handbook,” a 1443 how-to guide on Renaissance art by Florentine painter Cennino d’Andrea Cennini, who wrote about the attitudes of medieval artists and offered advice on methods and techniques.

When Goodison read parts of the book, she was surprised by Cennini’s suggestions for how to obtain the color black. “It had never occurred to me … that you could learn how to make a color like black,” Goodison said.

Her poem is about mixing the color black and then using the paint, images that Goodison describe for their historical context.

Listen to Lorna Goodison read her poem “To Make Various Sorts of Black,” which was published earlier this year in her latest collection of poems, “Supplying Salt and Light.”

To Make Various Sorts of Black
By Lorna Goodison

  According to The Craftsman’s Handbook, chapter XXXVII
  “Il Libro dell’ Arte” by Cennino d’Andrea Cennini

  who tells us there are several kinds of black colours.
  First, there is a black derived from soft black stone.
  It is a fat colour; not hard at heart, a stone unctioned.

  Then there is a black that is obtained from vine twigs.
  Twigs that choose to abide on the true vine
  offering up their bodies at the last to be burned,

  then quenched and worked up, they can live again
  as twig of the vine black; not a fat, more of a lean
  colour, favoured alike by vinedressers and artists.

  There is also the black that is scraped from burnt shells.
          Markers of Atlantic’s graves.
  Black of scorched earth, of torched stones of peach;
          twisted trees that bore strange fruit.

  And then there is the black that is the source of light
  from a lamp full of oil such as any thoughtful guest
  waiting for bride and groom who cometh will have.

  A lamp you light and place underneath — not a bushel —
  but a good clean everyday dish that is fit for baking.
  Now bring the little flame of the lamp up to the under

  surface of the earthenware dish (say a distance of two
  or three fingers away) and the smoke that emits
  from that small flame will struggle up to strike at clay.

  Strike till it crowds and collects in a mess or a mass;
  now wait, wait a while please, before you sweep this
  colour — now sable velvet soot — off onto any old paper

  or consign it to shadows, outlines, and backgrounds.
  Observe: it does not need to be worked up nor ground;
  it is just perfect as it is. Refill the lamp, Cennini says.

  As many times as the flame burns low, refill it.

Photo by Bristol City Council

Goodison was very taken by Cennini’s description of using soot as a paint ingredient. “I have seen artists do this, that there is a black that they obtain from the soot that comes from the flame of a lamp,” Goodison said. “The source of that black is light.”

Cennini connected the opposites of light and dark together in his descriptions of paint. Goodison connects feelings of pain and comfort, grief and happiness together through verse.

Goodison’s father died when she was a teenager and she relied on poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay, John Keats, John Donne and George Herbert for words of consolation. “I didn’t always understand [the poets'] conceits but I knew there was something there and it was making me feel better,” she said. “I like poems that have a bit of medicine in them, and I try to put a bit of medicine in my own poems.”

Poetry is an antidote for life’s challenges, Goodison says. “It’s not a papist plot … it’s not a plot to make you look stupid. It is something that will make your life easier.”

Poem excerpted from Supplying Salt and Light. Copyright © 2013 Lorna Goodison. Published by McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House of Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.