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. 


I

How does it start? The black of pre-consciousness, the pink

of uterine breaths, the red highways of arteries, splayed.

The beginning is red. 

II

Fly over

This country

Of the body.

A spy photographer

On an aerial loop.

  

There is

breast and

brain and

bladder and

bowel.

  

Begin the descent to bone.

Dive into fissures of marrow,

To the source,

The red and white cells

of the blood.

Canada,

Japan,

Poland,

Peru.

Venal Vexillology.

III

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.

IV

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.

 V

‘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?

VI

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.

VII

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.’

VIII

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.

IX

In the Tate, Rothko’s reds are dreamlike, hazy around

the edges. Are they on the canvas or under it, bleeding

through?

X

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.

XI

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

lighthouses.

XII

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.

XIII

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:

  

Rashes

Hives

Sores

  

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

stream.

XIV

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.

XV

You say tomato

I say blood

You say traffic light

I say muscle

You say fire engine

I say vein

XVI

LITTLE

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.

RED

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.

RIDING

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

bed.

HOOD

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. 

XVII

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.

XVIII

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.

XVIX

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.

XX

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

brands.

XXI

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.

XXII

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?

XXIII

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.’

XXIV

I have never broken a limb, even if my bones are

troublesome.

I have never needed stitches because of a cut.

I have never exposed my insides except for surgical

wounds.

My skin resealed with metal, paper and thread.

XXV

When my teenage hip started to disintegrate, baffled doctors

kept asking increasingly random questions:

Did you fall?

(Who doesn’t?)

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.)

XXVI

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

underwater.

XXVII

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.

XXVIII

I look at the mottled skin at your back as a forensic scientist

examines blood splatter.

XXIX

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

elements.

  

I wake up to find that this yellow is not an ointment, but

bruising, from the pressure of knives, the kneading of

hands.

  

I wake up to red and yellow patches, pools of colour, the

body’s semaphore.

  

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.

XXX

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.’

XXXI

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.

XXXII

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.

XXXIII

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.

XXXIV

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

Ulster.

XXXV

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.

XXXVI

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.

XXXVII

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.

XXXVIII

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).

XXXIX

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).

XL

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

her eyes.

XLI

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.

XLII

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

or Liverpool.

Have a baby between twenty and thirty-four, it’s the optimum

fertility window, they

keep

reminding

us.

The ticking of ovaries, your body as timepiece, swinging on

a chain.

XLIII

Heads, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes.

Or

HIPS! TITS! LIPS! POWER! (REPEAT)

XLIV

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.

XLV

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.

XLVI

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.*

XLVII

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.

XLVIII

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.

XLIX

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.

L

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.