Tuesday, April 5, 2011

What color is 3?

     Long before there were six-digit hexadecimal codes for color (red #FF0000 or green #000800), there were paint-by-number craft activities.  And there is synaesthesia (syn -joined, aesthesia -sense),  a neurological condition in which two or more senses are connected. For example music might be "seen" in colours and patterns, or taste may have shapes, or letters and numbers have textures.
     Miroslav Holub (1923-98), Czech poet and research scientist (and one of my favorite poets) establishes number-color pairings in the following poem:

Brief Reflection on Colors

Blue is certainly number four or even
     the vowel o, including birds and smoke
     of native Ithaka.

White is number one then, same as the vowel i,
     as long as it's out in the cold and not aligned.
     Then it also means the future of flowers,
     the past of books; blindness of the earth,
     opaque till now. Silence.

Black can be the number of nine as long as it's not in the
     of very refined numbers, even numbers fade
     if they're sophisticated; you too may be black
     sometimes, blackness can also occur in
     skull-like cliffs and caves; yes and in the order
     and anger of matter.

Red on the other hand is three, and as five
     it's lighter, more brown. The letter a is red
     like the open mouth of a small animal. Also,
     battle is red and Faust's pen and love
     in summer. And the fanfare of hope.

Therefore, we have an equation in four colors.
     4 = 1 x 9 - 5, likewise olive groves by the sea
     during the equinox and the period between
     two wars, which happens once a year at most.

No wonder the authorities don't love poetry and
     linger in the shadows where nobody can see
     how worried they are about the strict order of


This translation of "Brief Reflection on Colors" is found in Sagital Section, Field Translations Series 3 (Oberlin College Press, 1980); the translation is by Stuart Friebert and Dana Hábová.  Additional postings (in 2010) featuring work by Miroslav Holub include: March 30,  April 28, August 19, and December 9.


  1. This poem is amazing! I love it, thanks for sharing.