New Writing: Your Chroma, by Sinead Gleeson
We're delighted to present New Irish Writing from the latest edition of essential Irish literary journal Gorse - a stunning essay entitled Your Chroma by writer and broadcaster Sinead Gleeson.
NB: This piece contains adult themes.
How does it start? The black of pre-consciousness, the pink
of uterine breaths, the red highways of arteries, splayed.
The beginning is red.
Of the body.
A spy photographer
On an aerial loop.
Begin the descent to bone.
Dive into fissures of marrow,
To the source,
The red and white cells
of the blood.
To put down words about the body—medical, biological,
anatomical—is to present the body as fact. Its being in the
world—a being ‘being’—is irrefutable.
There is a photo of you. Your child body in a red dress at
a trout farm, the brown glitter of a fish wriggling on the
end of the rod’s line. You smile for the camera, and avoid
looking at the bubble of blood at its mouth. Its red gasps.
‘Colour is consciousness itself, colour is feeling,’ said William
Gass, who prioritised blue above red. Blue, he writes, is ‘most
suitable as the colour of interior life.’ Blue, above corporeal
red? What was he thinking?
How do we decide this interior colour? We are one colour in
life, another in death; one in youth, another in old age; one
in sickness, another in good health. We channel Yves Klein
and create a new shade for the interior. A born again hue.
Because of his synaesthesia, Wassily Kandinsky associated
colours with shapes, and sounds. For him, red was a square,
the ‘sound of a loud drum beat.’
Repeat red over and over—red red red red red red red red
red red red red red red red red red red red red red red red
red red red red red—and it’s a hum, a drill, a drumroll. It is
also not-blue, not-green, not-black, not-white.
In the Tate, Rothko’s reds are dreamlike, hazy around
the edges. Are they on the canvas or under it, bleeding
In an old cinema, long closed down, we watched Derek
Jarman’s Blue. I’m curious about his choice of colour, but
don’t question his motivation to use blue. In his book Chroma,
he says: ‘I know my colours are not yours. Two colours are
never the same, even if they’re from the same tube.’ I think
of his eyes and his failing sight. To be a person who has
spent their life looking, photographing, regarding—and
now cannot see.
You are both redheads, and tell me you like to mark this
by taking photos of the backs of your heads. You do this
in special places. Howth pier, the Cliffs of Moher, various
There is a black and white photo in a local newspaper,
dating from the 1930s. It’s creased, and heavily pixelated,
with that old photo blur. But it’s him, Red Con. This is the
only photo we’ve tracked down. I’ve never met him, nor has
my father, but we are related. I descend from red hair.
If blue, as Gass argues, is the colour of interior life, this
makes red a colour of the exterior. But red is the body. Red
is blood, organs, tendons, the red elements:
The raised bridge of a new scar
Platelets working on the crust of a cut
The speckle of heat rash, like pebbles on the bed of a
Driving over the Golden Gate Bridge in a convertible,
sucking in cool Californian air, they argue about the shade
of the steel. Red. Scarlet. Terracotta. Red again, some
consensus. Circular talk of colour under the shadow of
heavy cables, but he knows the bridge’s shade is officially
called ‘International Orange.’ The company that makes the
paint sells a cheaper version called ‘Fireweed.’ He takes this
as a sign to roll a joint and tells his friends that 98% of
people who jump into the bay don’t survive. Those who do
always have the same injuries: broken vertebrae, smashed
ribs, punctured lungs.
You say tomato
I say blood
You say traffic light
I say muscle
You say fire engine
I say vein
Across the woods, basket swinging on a girlish arm, she
weaves off the path to pick flowers. Hood as protector—
stay hidden, girl, cover yourself up—in a tocsin shade of red.
Anti-camouflage. Here I am, come and get me! it says. And so
the wolf did.
Get up! Her mother pulls the blanket off her teenage bed.
Take this to your granny, and wear your hood, it’s cold. The girl
is menstrual, cramped, innards torn. Her mother relents,
returning with a hot water bottle, and a box of Feminax.
There is a wolf in her womb, and she placates it with hot,
vulcanised rubber and codeine.
The girl remarks on the size of her grandmother’s ears, eyes,
and teeth, failing to notice the lupine mouth, the rich pelt,
the cross-dressing, the anthropomorphic imposter in the
In the belly of the wolf, she is safe. She cannot be eaten again.
Consumption saves her from more (male) consumption.
Stay hidden girl. Belly as cave.
Fairytales are always about women’s bodies. Rapunzel’s hair
and Sleeping Beauty’s somnolent face and Snow White
choking and Cinderella dancing with glass-slippered feet.
Not glass slippers, but her aunt buys her red clogs, the first
shoes she ever loves. The heavy wooden stomp on the
concrete of the street, the scarlet curve of the leather a
possibility. She learns that women are meant to wear heels;
that heels appear to lengthen a woman’s leg, to accentuate
her calf, to make her more attractive. She decides she will
only wear clogs, or no shoes at all.
Four women in black body con dresses gyrate to a 1980s
song. Robert Palmer, dressed like someone’s office manager
dad rolls through Addicted to Love. The women are heavily
made up, their eye shadow a palette of storm-cloud colours,
but it’s their lipstick I’m obsessed with: my mother’s matt
pinks and creamy browns having nothing on this. This red is
a declaration of war. The gloss is so high it looks like glass.
I practise on my lips with saliva. The models are arranged
democratically, two either side of Palmer. The only contrast
in uniformity is their faces and length of their dresses. Their
whiteness is a shock, the scraped-back hair severe. These
porcelain-faced, storm-eyed she-tomatons are part homage
to Art Deco painter Patrick Nagel’s women. The shock and
sheen of their scarlet lips is the only thing that interrupts their
monochrome faces. Is it because it’s the ’80s that the scene
is so homogenous, so lacking in multiculturalism? White
bodies the epitome of capitalism, even in pop music.
How should we present our face to the world?
How should we present our (female) face to the world?
Make-upped, pore-blocked in shades of ivory and sand.
Brow-arched, lash-lacquered, glitter-lidded. Branded by
We used to paint our lips with whale blubber, but now it’s
mostly wax and oils. I have yet to find the perfect shade of
red lipstick. Too orange, too ephemeral, too knife slash.
I once worked as editor of a spa magazine. I wrote dull
copy about acrylic nails and Glycolic peels, and was sent
endless products: emery boards and seaweed unguents,
poultices and tanning sprays; exfoliation aids in wood and
sisal. I interviewed a woman who gave facials with coloured
oils selected for a person’s mood and personality. Part spa
treatment, part mystical woo. In her tiny salon, above a pub,
she told me about oneness and inner beauty, self-examination
and higher powers. After a pause in her well-rehearsed pitch,
she pointed to a fleshy bump on my forehead and said:
Would you not get that removed?
In 1967, Irish-born writer Lucy Grealy moved to the US
with her family. Life opened up with possibility, but aged
nine she was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare facial
cancer. Grealy endured thirty operations, radiation and
chemotherapy. In Autobiography of a Face, her novelistic
memoir, she writes: ‘This singularity of meaning—I was
my face, I was ugliness—though sometimes unbearable, also
offered a possible point of escape. It became the launching
pad from which to lift off, the one immediately recognisable
place to point to when asked what was wrong with my life.
Everything led to it, everything receded from it—my face as
personal vanishing point.’
I have never broken a limb, even if my bones are
I have never needed stitches because of a cut.
I have never exposed my insides except for surgical
My skin resealed with metal, paper and thread.
When my teenage hip started to disintegrate, baffled doctors
kept asking increasingly random questions:
Did you fall?
Have you ever been knocked down by a car? (Once, but the driver
was going slow and we lived in a cul-de-sac.)
Have you ever had a tropical disease? (Can you get one from
going to Spain?)
Have you ever been bitten by an animal or strange creature? (I tell
him about Lough Derg.)
At Dromineer, Lough Derg was like a beach. I swam out
far from the shore to float in the navy current that skirted
the lake like isobars. Swimming back, I stood when the
water was knee high, and felt a sharp pinch on my foot. It
wasn’t glass, and felt more like a bite, but I couldn’t see what
lurked beneath. I thought of monsters and sea demons, the
creature of the lake. There are not enough horror films set
A hotel exterior, painted walls, a fleeing woman in a scarlet
coat, the vertical lines of blood on a hanging woman’s legs, a
nosebleed, a trickle from a mouth. In Suspiria, Dario Argento
reminds us that we bleed; that the body is vulnerable—not
just to psychologies and fear—but to knives and violence.
The body is the ultimate horror setting.
I look at the mottled skin at your back as a forensic scientist
examines blood splatter.
After major surgery:
I wake up to find my skin yellow and assume this is iodine
or antiseptic used to prep the body for being opened to the
I wake up to find that this yellow is not an ointment, but
bruising, from the pressure of knives, the kneading of
I wake up to red and yellow patches, pools of colour, the
I wake up during hip replacement surgery and feel strong
hands shoving, the weight of arms, a rearrangement.
Who’s pushing me? I ask, before the anaesthetist tops up
the spinal block, shoving me back under the waves.
Arthritis and surgery withered my bones. My left leg is
thinner than the right, full of metal and scars. Frida Kahlo’s
right leg was thinner than her left, a result of childhood polio.
Kahlo painted not just her body, not just pain, but body and
pain united. Exposed spinal columns, a womb that triggered
miscarriages, herself pierced by nails in multiple works. In
her diary, she wrote: ‘I am DISINTEGRATION.’
Eventually Kahlo’s leg was amputated below the knee and
in 1953, a year before her death, she had a prosthetic limb
made. A laced-platform boot with Chinese embroidery in
red leather. Red as defiance, and for the body and for all the
blood she’d shed.
For nearly three months, I wore a cast that covered most
of me. When it was removed, the skin had piled up, and
looked like wax. The sediment of immobility. Removing it
was like rubbing smudges on a windowpane. I felt like a
snake shedding its skin.
Bones are hard as rock but our edges—skin, lids—are not
shores. The body is an island of sorts, containing several
isthmuses, in the throat, fallopian tube, prostate, thyroid,
urethra, aorta, uterus. Body as outpost, as tidal island.
In Northern Ireland we pass bays and inlets, but also red
phone boxes, red postboxes. Imperial, post-Colonial red.
The red stripe of St George’s flag, many Red Hands of
I think of you as though you are a map. Of the contours of
your jaw, the hill of your back, the compass of your arms. I
see them now, at 10 and 2, an almost-Jesus on a cross. I try
to imagine your body at 11:11, or 12:34.
We play The Alphabet Body game and you laugh when I get
Z. What about Zinn’s Zonule? I offer, but you think I’m making
it up. The suspensory ligament holding the crystalline lens
of the eye in place. It’s not immediately tangible; there are
no children’s flash cards like there are for eye or mouth.
Zygomatic Bone you say, and ask me its location. It sounds like
zygote, so I guess it is uterine or cervical. I’ll answer by kissing
you there you say, and brush your lips against my cheekbone.
After the birth of my daughter, by C-section, my husband
said he looked up at the wrong time and saw my intestines.
The operating theatre floor looked like a murder had been
committed. And you were red too on the outside, viscous
and slippery as albumen, but your skin was blue, your lungs
working to inflate.
After the birth of my son, he weighs no more than a couple
of bags of sugar, but I cannot pick him up. A new pain
in my wrist is intense, and feels close to the surface, like
someone tipping a scalding cup over it. I take a glass lift five
floors to see a man who will fix it. De Quervain’s Syndrome,
he says. Can you get it from lifting babies, who are light,
almost not there? Two tendons wrap around each other in a
red embrace. One surgical slit with a scalpel, like a ribbon-
cutting ceremony and it will be free. This injury is also called
Washerwoman’s Sprain (not Washerman’s).
The patron saint of childbirth, St. Margaret of Antioch, was
a committed virgin. Tortured for her faith, her flesh slashed
with nails, she was given the title after an encounter with
a dragon. The creature swallowed her whole, so Margaret
made the sign of the cross and promptly burst out of its
stomach, Alien-style. (Film critic Mark Kermode once said
that Alien is a film about male fear of childbirth).
I know a girl with Rosacea, which makes me think of
‘Rosary,’ not red. The skin is affected with papules and
pustules, reminding me of holy beads. I love these words
for awful things, and the galaxy of red under the moons of
You do not own your body if you live in this country. Your
womb is not under your control. Legislation owns your
ovaries. Lawyers lay claim to your fallopian tubes. The
government pays stamp duty on your cervix.
Tick tock, women’s body clocks.
Have a baby even though you’re not ready.
Have a baby when you can’t afford a home.
Have a baby when you’ve been raped.
Have a baby because you can’t afford the airfare to London
Have a baby between twenty and thirty-four, it’s the optimum
fertility window, they
The ticking of ovaries, your body as timepiece, swinging on
Heads, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes.
HIPS! TITS! LIPS! POWER! (REPEAT)
Once you enter the medical system, there are rooms and
hospital numbers, blue disposable gowns and Styrofoam
cups. There are people speaking—always speaking—asking
questions, taking details. The body you think of as yours
is not private. It is in the system, on charts, in operating
theatres. Your body needs to take the lift to x-ray. Your body
needs to drink more fluids. Your body needs to come back
in three months. Your body is ours.
Just before her lumpectomy, photographer Jo Spence wrote
on her left breast: Property of Jo Spence? The question mark is
defiant and panic-stricken. The need to hold on to this part
of herself. To assert autonomy, even over the toxic growth
in her chest. To have a say in her own medical life. Later,
post-lumpectomy, Spence is photographed in profile, breast
puckered and scarred. Wearing a crash helmet, the image is
uncompromising. Come at me, it says.
In the hospital, you are not supposed to use your hands.
In the bathroom, toilets flush and taps spill and blue
paper towels dispense with the wave of a sensor. Germs,
cleanliness, DO NOT TOUCH. The ward is a bubble,
confined and contained, and I feel like Margaret Atwood’s
‘Girl Without Hands.’
No one can enter that circle
you have made, that clean circle
of dead space you have made
and stay inside,
mourning because it is clean.*
He used to give himself stigmata. Burning the hollow of his
hand with cigarettes. Pressing the red sieve tip into his heart
line, head line, life line. This is for you, he said, but I know it
connected him to himself.
The Catholic Church’s list of notable stigmatics is comprised
mostly of women, including St. Catherine of Siena. Born in
the mid-fourteenth century, she believed she was married
to Jesus, and that her (invisible) wedding ring was made of
his foreskin. Her stigmatic wounds were visible only to her,
and she suffered from anaemia. Every day, she fasted and
engaged in self-flagellation until she drew blood. In one of
many letters to her confessor, Raymond of Capua, she spoke
of a vision where she leads her followers into the wound in
Christ’s side, guiding an army into his blood.
My birthday is the anniversary of the death of St. Ignatius
Loyola. Once a soldier, he was shot through the hip,
shattering his leg. I’ve never gone to war or been beatified.
There is no redness in death. Maybe this is where William
Gass’ interior blue comes in. But the body turns many
colours at the end: white, grey, blue, purple, a tinge of green.
The body spent and stopped and still is not red.
But when will the red stop?
When will I die?
When will you?
About the author: Sinéad Gleeson’s essays have appeared in Granta, Winter Papers, Banshee, Gorse and Autumn: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons. Her short story Counting Bridges was longlisted at the 2016 Irish Book Awards. In 2015, she edited The Long Gaze Back: an Anthology of Irish Women Writers, which won Best Irish Published Book at the 2015 Irish Book Awards, and in 2016, The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Women Writers from the North of Ireland, which won in the same category. She is currently working on a collection of non-fiction, and a novel. She presents The Book Show on RTE Radio 1.
Gorse no. 8 will be launched in The Liquor Rooms, Dublin on Wednesday 19 April from 7.30pm, with readings from the issue by Sheila Armstrong, Sinéad Gleeson, Caitríona Ní Chléirchín, Colm O'Shea, and Dimitra Xidous - further details here.
*From Morning in the Burned House by Margaret Atwood, Virago Press Limited, 1995. Originally published by McClelland & Stewart Inc, Canada, 1995. Copyright © Margaret Atwood, 1995. Used with permission of the author.