Pamela L. Sumners
A BRIEF HISTORY OF BLUE
When Neanderthal stumbled color-blind from his cave
he had no word for sea or sky, knew only cave-black,
blood-red, and later, moon-yellow, grass-green.
Long after he bumbled into homo erectus, his poor
poet, the best of the age, could only call the sea
wine-red. (Homer should feel vindicated as he sips
tsipouro, St. John the Divine revealing the sea will
return to red, Yeats’ mournful blood-dimmed tide.)
“Blue” had not tumbled from troglodyte or psalmist’s lips.
Blue was undeterred by man’s unimagining It.
Blue saw itself through the Iron Age, carrying itself
like a queen dusting off rust from her bustle. Blue
made itself Phoenician and stowed away in the tabernacle
of Ahab, pronouncing itself a prophet while Israel
called it a whore, an abomination, blue, blue Jezebel
resurrected in Revelation straight from First and
Second Kings, one of the seductive and flirty things
Yahweh saw as an impious interloper on his turf.
Ahab and Joram left bleeding, Jehu came for Jezebel.
She did not flee. She painted her eyes blue-black
kohl, dressed and braided her hair, and long stayed
at the window for an augury. She dressed her part.
The eunuchs defenestrated her, but blue blue Jezebel,
window-gazing, queenly, saw the sky and was unafraid.
Blue plotted its odyssey, slithering into Pharoah’s land.
The Egyptians, not color-blind, saw blue, coveted with their
Anubian eyes urns, vessels, Memphian tchotchkes, fleshpots.
They had seen blue, and they wanted more. So they ground
their slaves to dust in crushing limestone to mix with azurite
or malachite. Tura limestone, block of the Pyramids, ferried
from the quarry across the River Nile, over 400 miles upriver
to Aswan, heated with the blue stones to a melting point hotter
than a crematory kiln. This they crushed to powder thickened
with egg white to make a glaze, cuprorivaite, to festoon the
Pharoahs’ tombs. Knowing their blue would outlast even the
Greco-Roman Age would not satisfy them. Had they known their
Egyptian Blue would glow under fluorescent lights in labs
excavating the history of blue one day, they still would have
felt the ache of an empty vessel whose blue had been consumed.
They wanted more. They plumbed the mountains of Afghan
for lapis lazuli to adorn the bejeweled head of Horus. The
Buddhists of Bamiyan called it True Blue, and painted with it
until the Christian traders came in the 1300s to christen it
ultramarinus¬—“beyond the sea” of Homer’s visioning, and
shipped it away to Padua, Rome, Naples, Venezia, Genoa,
to hallelujahs and papal choruses. Blue conquered Florence.
Blue flourished its silken brushstrokes for nobles and popes.
In the House of Medici, the Blessed Virgin’s gown glowed gaudy
with the price. Lapis lazuli! a blue so blue it surpassed the sounding
sea, was coveted above gold. It was so dear, it is said, that Michelangelo’s
“The Entombment,” was derailed, decommissioned, desacralized for want
of it. A later artist, bewitched, plunged his family into penury
to pay for its shimmer. Still a century later, a French chemist dared invent
a synthetic lapis, sadly too late for the destitute Johannes Vermeer.
Lapis lazuli, ultramarine, was cheekily renamed French Ultramarine.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves in the genealogy of blue.
Long before French Ultramarine, the Eighth and Ninth Century
Chinese dynasties prized cobalt blue. But it was dear, and the
Yuan and Tang dynasties traveled all the way to Persia for it,
groveling and grubbing over the saber-toothed merciless mountains.
Once again, the French went to work in the chemistry labs,
making it cheap to give us cobalt hues for Renoir and Van Gogh, to flavor
Maxfield Parrish’s Gibson Girls swinging against the sky or lounging
against Ionian columns looming over the beyond Agean sea, keeping
tabs on something in the distance, a starry, starry night, a boy in
silk breeches, the ephemeral color of a Mediterranean wind.
The French also learned you can roast cobalt with tin oxide and arrive
at cerulean, declared by Pantone to be the “Color of our New
Millennium” and “the color of the future.” But the French aren’t all that.
They didn’t colonize the entire continent of blue. That left room
for nationalizing it. But Blue doesn’t like to think too much
about its extended navy period. It finds it a tad dull, depressing.
The British Royal Navy gave us the eponymous shade, and there were
Davy Jones and Admiral Nelson and of course Gilbert and Sullivan and
after them the Village People, because navy needs some levity. All
the best presidents wore navy, were sometimes even navy secretaries,
or a PT boat captain swimming with a mate’s life jacket strings in his mouth,
hauling us all on his glistening back, by his glistening, grimacing teeth.
The Germans weren’t going to let everyone else monopolize military blue.
Johann Jacob Diesbach hunched at his desk, spasm of a new red throbbing
in his head. He may have been drunk, or given his elbow a bump
that mixed potash with animal blood. So now we have the Prussian blue
of Picasso’s Blue Period and Hokusai’s epic big wave. Light-sensitive,
it’s the perfect hue for blueprints. We’ve even made of it a cure for metal
poisoning, all from a German tremor. Fitting for cyanide-testing blue.
Blue calmly studies, now that it has blueprints for its march to hegemony.
The blue-bereted French retaliate again in the chemistry lab. A guy
named Klein, a Frenchman, trademarked a color he called International
Klein Blue, describing blue as a color “beyond dimensions,” like the
Christian traders’ description of ultramarine: “beyond the sea.”
But blue is red white and blue, too. The Americans would have their share.
The slaves, the chemists, the lab rats, the periodic turners of the tables
of the elements are the protagonists here that propel all the Picassos.
Blue is a coil that must be unfurled in laboratories, distilled to essence,
transformed through alchemy. Yin Mn Blue is a periodic table of a color:
yttrium, indium, manganese, discovered by a tenured professor sponging
his grad assistant’s talents in searching for new materials to help us in the
American war against Chinese electronics. We discovered no sleeping dynasties,
no Tang court favorites excelling in poetry and porcelain paints. “We” found a new
color, and being Americans, sold the patent to Crayola for blue-chip royalties.
To summarize: Blue is res ipsa loquitur. It doesn’t need your petty descriptions.
Blue is beyond. Blue manumits patents that transcend borders. You can’t own blue.
Blue endures. Blue is the Classic Pantone of 2020, revving its throwback muscle-
car engine, forming the backdrop for Velvet Elvis paintings. Blue adapts. Blue
is the New Millennium almost a quarter century gone, reaching back to sleeping
Tangs, Yuans, Van Goghs, Rameses, Medicis, dissolute Vermeers, the resolute
sadness of Jezebel at the window, a Crayola narthex, a wave, a stone rolled
from Christ’s tomb, Homer’s loss for words, a funeral dirge for pharaohs, eternal
blue, the Blue of the Future, COVID blue, Black Lives Matter Blue, thin blue line,
the Memphis of everywhere, a cast-off rib bone with a Beale Street saxophone.
Blue is blue is beyond the sea beyond words and Blue is.
Pamela Sumners' work has been published or recognized by about 30 journals or publishing houses in 2018-20 in the US and abroad. A 2018 Pushcart nominee, she was selected for both the 2018 and 2019 64 Best anthologies. Her first chapbook, Finding Helen, traces her mother's mental illness and institutionalization in Tuscaloosa's infamous Bryce facility and is forthcoming from Seven Kitchens Press. Her first full collection, Ragpicking Ezekiel's Bones, is expected from UnCollected Press this summer (COVID willing). A native Alabamian, she now lives in St. Louis.