The Significance of Color: On Shayla Lawson’s Pantone

screen_shot_2016-04-12_at_18-01-54Pantone is a New Jersey-based design company responsible for standardizing color reproduction. Their color chip system ensures that “Coke Red” and “Minion Yellow” are consistent across marketing and products. Each year, Pantone picks a “Color of the Year,” which, according to their website, is a “color snapshot of what we see taking place in our culture.” It is wishful thinking that a single color can represent our tumultuous time. Tellingly, Pantone picked two colors for 2016. However in naming the “Color of the Year,” Pantone recognizes that color packs a significant symbolic punch—emotional and cultural.

Poet and artist Shayla Lawson explores the significance of color in Pantone, a chapbook consisting of 20 poems printed on unbound cards slipped into a colorful envelope. Each poem is titled with Pantone color code. (Pantone colors are labeled with a descriptive name and an alphanumeric code.) Shorter poems are printed on white cards with the color chip on the back and poems that need both sides of the card are framed by their color.

Because the poems are printed on cards longer than they are wide, readers can spread the poems out like the iconic Pantone fan guide, a book of color strips pinned together at one corner.

“In these words I am apex & pigment,” Lawson writes, signaling the reciprocal relationship between the colors and their poems. The colors may have provided the author with her source material, but in the shorter poems, the reader encounters the words first and the color second. Thus the color block on the back of the card functions almost like the last line of the poem.

Lawson begins the ominous “Pantone 427 U,” “Sometimes I hope something terrible happens to me.” It ends, “I own no dog but I am bout to let go the leash.” When the reader flips the card, they are confronted with the drab grey of gathering clouds. Without the text, the color could be, instead, a soothing neutral.

Trained as an architect, Lawson is an artist who works across mediums and has a keen eye for design. The chapbook is slick and glamorous. A limited edition run of it came with a perfume Lawson created in collaboration with Age of Earth Collective. The charisma of the chapbook fits given that the poems engage with surfaces—the color of surfaces, the significance of surfaces, and how nothing is “just a surface.”

Because of its glamorous packaging, the reader’s first encounter with Pantone is affective, delighting in the color of the wrapper, handling the cards, figuring out how to read a book without a binding. Then we realize, there is “so much more happening on the inside, underneath.” Complexity rumbles beneath the surface of these assured poems.

The slickness of the design contrasts with the wildness of the poems, which careen from lyric to narrative, first person to third person, and humorous to heartbreaking. Contained within Pantone’s conceptual framework, the poems are free to be loose and peripatetic. There are wistful and lyric poems (“Cotton Candy spins in the aluminum drum, the nebula kneads its imprint on the ridges of the thumbs—the lip filling, the button pore of a cheek”) and chatty, narrative ones (“We all know the dude.”)

Received wisdom is that the order of a poetry book is as important as the poems themselves. (We have Robert Frost to thank or blame for that; he argued that a book of poems contains a certain number of poems and the order of the book provides the final poem.) However, in Pantone, the reader is free to shuffle the deck.

True to the slippery nature of signification, Lawson creates new relationships between color and text on every card. In a poem bordered by dusty rose, Lawson writes, “Michael & I meet Rosie Perez during intermission, under the marquee of the Belasco Theatre.” The color makes a pun with Perez’s name. By contrast “Pantone 19-1020 TCX” tells a story littered with objects that match the rich brown color chip that accompanies it. “The leatherman cradles the soft calf hide, piercing a gentle needle into the soft fringe of a new vest while rings dye the insides of forgotten coffee mugs ...the shop smells of dust clouds & swear words & sweat.”

Other poems seem to invoke or contrast with the mood of the color they are paired with. However, the wordless quality of color makes pinpointing a logical connection between the poem and its hue somewhat beside the point.

Because of its glamorous packaging, the reader’s first encounter with Pantone is affective, delighting in the color of the wrapper, handling the cards, figuring out how to read a book without a binding. Then we realize, there is “so much more happening on the inside, underneath.” Complexity rumbles beneath the surface of these assured poems.

Beautiful surfaces can be used cover up horrible truths. For example, in one poem the cheerful purple border seems to capture the spirit of the poem’s rambunctious subject who brims with optimism: “Any mention of Obama made her wing herself to gossamer.” The purple sours into a bruise with the news of Chris Brown’s beating of Rihanna: “[She] sat nose to newsreel ...the iris of a bruise is a black eye, is the color of unicorns, is delirious revelations flooded into a rut...the muse leaves shiners loud as one-eyed elephants.”

Color in product design also has a history of racial exclusion. In 1962, Crayola changed the name of their silly putty-colored crayon from “Flesh” to “Peach,” but hosiery companies still call pale pink tights “nude.” Lawson acknowledges that color is freighted with racial implications, but is careful not to collapse color and race. The bright yellow of “Pantone 130 C” doesn’t refer to the skin color of the “creole girl with freckles,” rather to the pencil she chews “paint flecks ... like the school bus embarking dimples of her lips.”

Lawson also allows for absurdity when writing about race. Of the word Caucasian, she writes “the assonance, always reminds me of Foghorn Leghorn stomping upon a pool of his own wet feathers.” In another poem, a street vendor calls “Bye bye, Black man” or is it “Buy buy”?

In “Pantone 71-4C,” Lawson writes about the “Paper Bag Test,” a test used by some African American social organizations to determine who was admitted. They turned away anyone darker than a paper bag. The speaker, who is not the “light skinned one” of her family, reports “I try not to be delighted when my winter freckles alight the quadroon in me.” The color that borders this poem resembles the old Crayola “flesh,” reminding the reader that the rancor of colorism comes from a legacy of white supremacy.

The final card is the only card that contains the name of the color, not its numerical code. It’s “Pantone Black.” Lawson plays with the associations with that color to devastating effect: “For so long, I have carried my heart’s carbon to an Unknown. Mined this monumental. I peer into the void/ & full the hold that holds. The task of carrying my empty hands: in my hands.”

Pantone is designed for the reader to mimic this gesture, holding cards in their hands. Thus, the reader participates in this unbounded project. However our hands are far from empty as we navigate the complexity of these poems that exists, not in spite of, but because of the vibrancy of the book’s design.
Elizabeth Hoover is a feminist poet who enjoys working on projects with a conceptual or research element. Her project, Some Poems About Pictures, is a hybrid text that offers art as a space for resistance to and transformation of dominant gender narratives. A portion of that project was awarded the 2014 StoryQuarterly essay prize, judged by Maggie Nelson. In addition, she received the 2015 Difficult Fruit Poetry Prize from IthacaLit. Her poetry has appeared in [Pank], The Los Angeles Review, and The Crab Orchard Review, among others. She is a freelance book critic and lives in Pittsburgh. You can see more of her work at