BOOK REVIEW: Theory of Colours by Bella Li

Theory of Colours book cover

Review by Claire Hannon

In Theory of Colours, Bella Li’s third full-length poetry collection, a planet slides into entropy. The collection is inspired by poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s treatise of the same name, in which Goethe makes the controversial claim that ‘colour itself is a degree of darkness’. Drawing on Goethe’s work, Li blurs distinctions between absence and presence to create a haunting meditation on the universe.

Like her previous collections Argosy and Lost Lake, Theory of Colours is a hybrid art piece composed of poetry and images. Photographs and collages sit alongside what Li calls ‘sequences’: snippets of poetic prose, presented as paragraphs or short strings of words. The collection is divided into three major sections with an additional ‘Notes’ chapter at the end of the book detailing the texts from which she draws.

The namesake first section, ‘Theory of Colours’, is concerned with repetitions, spectres and the self as a mysterious other. It takes inspiration from books about early photography and texts such as Sigmund Freud’s The Uncanny and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. Li depicts humans alienated from their humanity, collaging swatches of colour over photographs to obscure bodies and faces and describing people as ‘[w]axwork figures, ingeniously constructed dolls and automata’.

The second section, ‘Metamorphoses’, is a brief snapshot of a precarious present, infringed on by the past and hurtling towards an uncertain future. The narrator returns to their hometown, reminisces about childhood and carries around a photograph that haunts them. Whether the future will be light or dark is unknown, as the narrator’s eyesight fades due to a ‘degenerate condition of the optic nerve’ and their small town awaits an ominous ‘meteorological event’. The section culminates with, ‘[a]t 4.35pm the cyclonic winds reached maximum velocity. In the centre of the town a circle opened its glowing mouth,’ and an image that, at least to an untrained eye, looks like a planet exploding.

The final section, ‘Scenes from the World to Come’, is underpinned by ghostly, apocalyptic aesthetics. People slowly disappear from a grand old hotel while an invisible orchestra plays ‘dense and sullen music’. In a fashion reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, we move through images of wilderness overlaid with patterned orbs and traverse millennia in the course of a sentence. The collection ends beyond humanity, its final subsection drawing inspiration from astronomy, meteorology, oceanography, sound and colour. Li places us somewhere in the cosmos, unbound by time’s arrow or earth’s gravitational pull, waiting patiently for what comes next.

Li’s writing style is unique. She often omits words, repeats phrases and uses unexpected full-stops: ‘I developed, in this time, a habit of leaping, from time to time, across. Vast distances and from time to time.’ Initially, you may think you’ve missed something—it’s as if the sentence has started halfway through and its other half is hiding somewhere. But Li’s language carves out its own logic. It’s dreamlike, containing gaps and glitches but held together by a current of meaning. It often feels like a folk tale: a disembodied voice sharing ancient stories.

In that period there was a kind of darkness at the edge of town.

Where the forest began, at the foothills of the surrounding mountains. Lingering in the parking lot of lost dreams, lit by floodlights.

Li’s visuals are dense with meaning. Her collages often emit a sense of uncanny: photographs are altered so their logic is familiar, but slightly out of reach. One of the book’s most striking features is two unassuming sequences of coloured rectangles. In her ‘Notes’, Li reveals that one sequence is inspired by the sound of planetary orbits and the other by the Edgar Allan Poe short story The Masque of the Red Death, in which a prince hosts a lavish masquerade ball in the midst of a plague.

Theory of Colours is in many ways dark and devastating. It deals with pressing issues like alienation, climate collapse, colonisation and sickness. But amidst it all, Li finds meaning—there is hope for rebirth grounded in something bigger than humankind. The blackness is full, not a void; ‘colour itself is a degree of darkness’.

Theory of Colours was published by Vagabond Press and has an RRP of $35. It is available from the Vagabond Press website.

Claire Hannon studies a Master of Creating Writing, Editing and Publishing and is the founding editor of Layabout magazine, which you can follow on Instagram.

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