Indigo: A poetics of blueness

The post-menopausal women of Kodi, Indonesia, are the only ones allowed to perform the indigo dyeing rituals that yield the most prized cloth. They are the “women who apply blueness” in Janet Hoskins’ “Why do Ladies Sing the Blues? Indigo Dyeing, Cloth Production, and Gender Symbolism in Kodi” in Cloth and Human Experience.

What is the poetry of this blueness? What is a life-stage poetics?

Hoskins explains: “The art of traditional dyeing is merged with the production of herbal medicines, poisons, abortifacients, and fertility potions in a body of occult knowledge known as moro, ‘blueness,’ which is the exclusive possession of a few female specialists. In its magical aspects, as a series of mysteries that only cult initiates may penetrate, this ‘blue art’ is a ritual as well as a technological process.”

While nearly all Kodi women learn to weave and tie threads to make ikat patterns, certain women who are beyond childbearing years are mature and steady enough to handle the blueness of indigo: a temperamental dye process whose initial stages, when indigo plants must ferment, smells like death. Along with acquiring the ability to handle the dye materials and technologies, the women inducted into “the blue arts” are also the ones who participate in “women’s most developed form of the verbal arts: The singing of formalized songs of lament (hoyo) at funerals and other situations where misfortunes are recalled and shared. The songs use metaphors taken from textile production to reflect on situations of loss—bereavement, serious illness, the departure of a loved on to prison or exile.”

Women of indigo understand cloth to be mutable, permeable. As language? As life? Their expertise in this art structures the opposite domain: the male realm of metal work, fixity, durability. “Women's bodies are seen,” writes Hoskins, “as vessels for the transmission of immutable substances, whereas men’s bodies contribute form, social position . . .” “Metalworking and textile dyeing are associated in a couplet: . . . ‘dipping cloth, pouring iron’ . . . ”

In her 1998 essay “The Poetics of Disobedience,” about being a poet, Alice Notley writes, “. . . I’ve seen my job as bound up with the necessity of noncompliance with pressures, dictates, atmospheres of, variously, poetic factions, society at large, my own past practices as well.” She continues: “I’ve spoken in other places of the problems, too, of subjects that hadn’t been broached much in poetry and of how it seemed one had to disobey the past and the practices of literary males in order to talk about what was going on most literarily around one, the pregnant body, and babies for example. There were no babies in poetry then. How could that have been? What are we leaving out now? Usually what’s exactly in front of the eyes ears nose and mouth, in front of the mind, but it seems as if one must disobey everyone else in order to see it all.”

We poets approaching and of this life stage handling language and its mutability with expertise? And even if others do not see us fully, we know and see more. To know more about how to handle the materials of power and mystery: poetry as a training in this. But is this what “we are leaving out now” from poetry?

Notley’s disobedience and her 2011 Culture of One are two books separated by a decade, whose narratives track and inhabit the woman who is leaving expectations behind. Done with childbearing, she is returning to singularity and the mythical, and she is unapologetic in action and voice. Marie, a central character in Culture of One and Notley’s “I”: practitioner in the cult of blueness? Someone who makes, but does not make a child? 

From Culture of One:

. . . then I asked myself what I would like to read, or rather what items I wanted in my culture, to contain created, newly and justly, my needs. The world isn't a text to be deciphered, it si a new creation though ancient—but what is antiquity to me? Every moment must destroy suffering anew; a cloud enters you, to being in.

and from “I Invented the Arts”: 

I invented the arts to stay alive

The art of seeing one carries about a transformational or formational
tool the greens and blues the golds with which a lion or eagle was justly seen,
existent in me. A space in which raw maroon or red is invented, either first—

A newly-sited way of conceptualizing productivity, not making another human being, and not even another text—Marie is very skeptical of the knowledge found in books—but making a self who is able to bring out colors, materials, literally “carrying about” the transformation of the cloth from green—as in indigo dyeing where air is needed to turn the cloth from green to blue—to blue and adorned with gold? She does not transcend the troubles of the world and of girls younger than she is, but she transforms the materials in order to help control the “perforations” of a woman’s body, as Hoskins expresses it. She responds to a younger womans trauma with a mix of exhaustion and healing advice. The woman who applies blueness understands that left too open, too unregulated, a woman’s perforations are a vulnerability. The tighter the threads are bound, before dyeing, the more impactful the resist pattern will be.

Later in Culture of One:

I’m nothing, really. I
can be anything. The gold threads tremble against

the black universal throat. She’s awesome and ugly. Not his
Ruby anymore.

So this poetics extends outward, not in toward the encounter with “him” who is perhaps bound up with the household, or the institution, or necessary for bringing children into the world. That fertility marked by redness turns into blue, into dark skies, the “gold threads” of one’s golden years. This is not a poetics of retreat, retirement. She is fully engaged. In a passage that laments the way “a culture” “institutionalizes inequality” and lodges other complaints against society, the poem continues:

This is Marie, thinking, though she wouldn’t use this language;
this is also Eve Love thinking, though she’s young enough
to bang her head against the wall thinking it: Marie would rather
reinvent the world for herself.

In 1998, Notley articulated that disobedience “got more pissed off as it confronted the political from an international vantage, dealt with being a woman in France, with turning fifty and being a poet and thus seemingly despised or at least ignored.” 

I am thinking about life stages, what a training in blueness might be, and of my recent book LABOR and Sadie, one of the book's characters, who has recently been let go by the institution, who is an historian, who has no place to go during the day, but she's kept her keys—actually, the dean allows her this, because an “other” is always there to create the conditions and form of our rebellion—and so she returns to the institution in the dark blue of the night to process grievances to which she affixes all the traces of the official labor archive. But they are renegade, unofficial documents. Sadie will insert them into the archive, but they aren’t alive there—it is a dead space of soon-to-be-lost memories. She wants activism but only gets death. Others have found out about this grievance ritual, and because they have no place else to go and grieve, they start playing her game with her, slipping their grievances under her office door at night. Sadie is ambivalent, though, about helping others, especially the younger women around her. She is peri-menopausal and mutters “I will not turn fifty with grace.” But from the teaching artist she has a lot to learn though Sadie will eventually toss herself over the railing, and in an ambiguous passage, this teaching artist, Miranda—who sees everything though she blurs her eyes—may or may not save her, cradle her, cushion her fall, prevent her from jumping. J., the woman with tenure, at the same life-stage as Sadie, witnesses Sadie’s fall and, simultaneously, the old card catalogue cabinet J. has acquired and is hauling back to her office will also finally fall out of her arms onto the hard marble beneath them all. 

In August 2014, sponsored by the NYUAD Office of Global Education, I had the chance to see natural indigo dyeing in Tamil Nadu, India. At Colours of Nature, a small operation run by Jesus Larraora, we experienced the smell of the fermenting dye, pictured in fermentation vats above, and we held the seeds that make the dye “work”—from a plant that grows right near the indigo plant. I think about those seeds and Notley’s question of what we might not be seeing—something right under our noses, right next to us. Indigo has a troubled history in India. During colonialism, cultivating indigo to make dye blocks for lucrative export enslaved a local population. Post-colonial Indians refused, for a long time, to cultivate the plant that represented exhuastion, servitude, exploitation.

Thinking about all these aspsects to blueness: an alchemical process, a politics, oxidation bringing color to the light . . . 

My next project is to re-write Sadie.

Reading Notley, the unspoken life stage stories of women in my cohort press in around me. Who will say that they are poised to welcome, in full awareness, so not during the tumult and family dependency of adolesence, the next life stage?

To water Sadie’s surfaces: the dry of her paper grievances. She needs to know that she invents, she does not need to bang her head against a wall, she does not need to leap into the abyss: openings are hers now to open and close at will. Her ink is allowed to run into a mass of watery blueness, away from language.

 . . . she takes another piece of paper
and writes, I’m a whole thing. I’m not even my ancestors,
those amber faces. I’m intact, she thinks in her way. I keep
surviving the screams of letters, and the damages of girls. 


Marie is the truth. Treating her badly—an older
woman—is the world’s delight

and the book’s final one-line poem, “Marie Alone in Meaning”:

It means that I make perfect sense.


February 16, 2015