Poem of the Week: Colour Blind // Lemn Sissay

If you can see the sepia in the sun
Shades of grey in fading streets
The radiating bloodshot in a child’s eye
The dark stains on her linen sheets

If you can see oil separate on water
The turquoise of leaves on trees
The reddened flush of your lover’s cheeks
The violet peace of calmed seas

If you can see the bluest eye
The purple in petals of the rose
The blue anger, the venom, of the volcano
The creeping orange of the lava flows

If you can see the red dust of the famished road
The white air tight strike of nike’s sign
the skin tone of a Lucien Freud
The colours of his frozen subjects in mime

If you can see the white mist of the oasis
The red, white and blue that you defended
If you can see it all through the blackest pupil

The colours stretching the rainbow suspended.

If you can see the breached blue dusk
And the caramel curls in swirls of tea
Why do you say you are colour blind when you see me?

Lemn Sissay, ‘Colour Blind’

The poem for this week is ‘Colour Blind’ by Lemn Sissay. Whilst the poem is infused with beautiful natural imagery, Sissay uses this to illuminate an important message about racism, which is explored through the metaphor of blindness.

Lemn Sissay is an illustrious poet and playwright, however, he did not have the typical upbringing of your average writer.

Sissay’s mother came to England from Ethiopia in 1966 and moved into a home for unwed mothers in Lancashire, where she gave birth to her son. Sissay was found a set of foster parents, as his mother wanted to continue finishing her studies. However, they would not meet again until Sissay turned 21.

When Sissay turned 12, his foster parents placed him back into a children’s home when they had children of their own, thus he stayed in various homes until he was 18. Like many in his position, Sissay left care with a lack of direction and no knowledge of his birth family.

The one certainty Sissay had was that he always knew he wanted to write. He used his unemployment benefit to self publish his first poetry pamphlet, titled ‘Perceptions of the Pen’, which he sold to striking Lancashire miners. He was named as the official poet of the 2012 London Olympics, and is now regarded as one of Britain’s most successful poets.

Sissay’s difficult upbringing was one of the reasons he began crafting poetry. Writing poems became a way for him to ground himself, regaining a sense of identity that was lost when he was abandoned by his family. In the introduction to Gold from the Stone he stated that poems “[are] my family.”

Throughout his wider work, Sissay explores the prevalence of racial injustice, lack of opportunity and how this can influence relationships and self identity. His poetry hits with such force that the reader can rarely ignore the powerful messages that he ignites.

In ‘Colour Blind’, a poem which ostensibly appears to be about the beauty of nature, Sissay explores the sense of blindness that typically provokes people’s lack of knowledge about racial inequality. Witnessing the beauty of nature in all its glory is universal, however, people are still blind to the racial inequality that surrounds them.

Why is it that people can see the colours within “the sepia of the sun,” and “The turquoise of leaves on trees”, yet choose to filter out the prevalence of racial injustice? Powerfully and poignantly, Sissay ends his poem by asking “Why do you say you are colour blind / When you see me?”

The ability to see colour and beauty must be corresponded with the ability to see racial injustice, a message which resides at the heart of the poem. Images of beauty are entwined with darker elements, such as “The purple in the petals of the rose, / The blue anger, the venom, of the volcano”. The use of these antithetical images encourages readers to confront their own possible “blindness”.

Sissay implores people to realise that often we close our mind to what we want to believe and see, and also, that nature’s beauty can blind us to the horrors of what is always there. In a sense, Sissay is illustrating that if we can open ourselves up to the wonders of nature, why do people continue to ignore the ubiquity of racial inequality?

Through repetitions of “if you can see”, Sissay is essentially asking why people can recognise the beauty of nature, but not the rampant racism that infiltrates through every facet of society. The language and tone of the poem is deliberately simple and accusatory, forcing his readers to confront their own privilege and understand their need to open their eyes

‘Colour Blind’ is a powerful, emotionally charged poem full of evocative and beautiful images, laced with a timely message.

Words by Violet Daniels

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