February 2015

Mairead Case

features

Reading Yellow

I organize my books by color right now, because it’s how my brain is working. It’s how it’s remembering titles and keeping calm to write, and hopefully, sometimes, finishing writing. In other rooms I ask my brain to connect books by countries, philosophies, sexualities, whatever, and while that will certainly win me more money on quiz shows, at home it’s just as good to sit in my thin old robe and ask myself what all the purples say. It’s like in high school, when my friend worked at the mall folding clothes so kept his own in a heap at home (except for the dresses, which he hung). I’ve worked in so many libraries and bookstores, and except for the Loebs -- green for Greek men, red for Roman ones -- none ever organized books by color. So when I do, it makes home mine.

I keep whole shelves of black and white, two hand-lengths of spring green, and a wardrobe-size ombré of gray to gray-lavender, to violet to mud to midnight. Punches of blue, orange, hot pink (pink is usually about sex, or by Kathy Acker). I read everything with a pen in my hand. This reminds me that books are objects, and sometimes also toys. My girl Brit taught me to write my name, the season, and the bookstore inside each one, and in the summers I see my handwriting stretch like taffy. In winters it’s time-tight as seashells.

The yellows are in the middle, beginning with The Color Kittens, whose stars Push and Hush taught me that rhymes are weird. Sometimes words look alike but don’t sound the same. (Also, Easter eggs have Elaine Stritch legs and dance together in lines.) I connect yellow to three specific memories: the Betadine my sister poured into her leg all summer after a tree gouged an eye into it during a tornado, the lights I imagined to stop crying after three days of warm weather violence during the NATO summit in Chicago 2012, and the plastic purple and yellow dolls my grandmother gave us. They smelled like flowers and had flat feet, and because they weren’t pink we never imagined they were wives or mothers.

Yellow is jaundice, the end of summer, caution, wisdom. Hamburgers wrapped in wax, lemon bars lemon drops and printer tracking dots. Italian crime novels have yellow jackets, and some Egyptians believed the bones of the gods were made of gold. In November Joshua and I went to a paint sale and he bought a tube of cadmium yellow, which is deep and pure, solid enough to cut like a layer cake. The man had to get it from the back for us. Years ago yellow paint was made from lead, or the urine of dehydrated, unconsenting elephants fed mango leaves and tumeric.

Other yellows I’ve read as a child and keep as an adult are Harriet the Spy (my copy was handed down from mother to daughter, who crossed out “Cherie Ann” and wrote “CHERYL”), archy and mehitabel, which is about an alley cat beloved by a cockroach (the librarian gave it to me when I asked if there were other love stories like Stuart Little and Margalo’s), and A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door, which Ed and I bought along with a straight razor from a garage sale in the Chicago suburbs. Those sit next to a sun-color coffee cup full of rose petals and a box of the thirteen retired Crayola crayons, three of which are yellow. There is also TOPICS, Nick Butcher’s beautiful box of forty tiny screenprints, which I use as oblique strategies, and a lemon-tinted picture of Amiri Baraka I cut out from a brochure.

Sometimes yellow means punks and traffic, like the spines of The End of San Francisco, Hack, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung (though Lester Bangs would hate being called punk). Like Lipstick Traces, Kill Marguerite, Snip Snip! (“By the fur of Maurice the dog I love you.”), and Re/Search #11: PRANKS!, which Ziggy on Amazon compares to “a rich cheesecake.” It’s the horny unhappy teenagers of The Orange Eats Creeps and Ghost World, and the bravery of the women in Rock, Ghost, Willow, Deer and Live Girls, written by Beth Nugent who rescues birds, also Where the Lilies Bloom and its bathtub full of onions. Also A Widow’s Story: A Memoir, in which Joyce Carol Oates talks about starting to use email because she’s lonely in the middle of the night.

It’s Mrs. Dalloway, The sad drunk Journals of John Cheever, and Milosz’s ABCs, three books from the high school English teacher who saved my life, and Kind One and Epitaph for a Tramp, which make me glad to be older than I was. It is The City in Which I Love You, which my friends at the Nightingale turned into short films, and which contains the first love poem I ever read where the man imagines what it’s like to be the woman. It is Airships and Barnaby, books I read to learn to tell short stories, and Humboldt’s Gift, which Dad gave me when I moved to Chicago. That spine is half-yellow, half-yellowed. It’s Paris Review Interviews Volume One, the first book I bought once I stopped being straightedge, in which Hemingway talks about icebergs. I read it on the bus home from the bar, so at least a third of every interview is joyfully, wobbily highlighted. It’s the copy of Rumi’s love poems that my girl Elisabeth gave me after we lived together for a month, and The Holocaust as Culture, which I read once and felt, so need to read again and think.

Finally, it’s Frank Stanford’s The Light the Dead See, which I re-read yesterday morning, in part, eating my favorite yellow meal which is soft-boiled eggs knifed heavy through with butter, salt, and pepper plus heart-strong black coffee. “There is someone,” writes Stanford, “Like a signalman swinging a lantern. // The light grows, a white flower. It becomes very intense, like music.”

Mairead Case (@maireadcase) is a writer in Colorado, where she is also an English and Creative Writing PhD student at the University of Denver, a Writing Consultant at St. Francis Center, and, through Hoist Point Writing, a poetry teacher at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility. Her book See You in the Morning comes out from featherproof in September 2015.