Johnny: In time you’ll see that this is the best thing, Loretta.
Loretta: In time you’ll drop dead, and I’ll come to your funeral in a red dress!
— Loretta Castorini to Johnny Cammareri after he breaks off their engagement. From by John Patrick Shanley
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
— Sylvia Plath, “Lady Lazarus”
Rose, where did you get that Red?
— Chip Wareing, Fifth Grade, PS 61, New York City
Red has been roiling around in my head the past two weeks, and it’s no wonder. It’s February: heart-month, love-month, Valentine’s month, all abstractions given visual power through association with that most vibrant of colors.
February Red (or Feb Red, for short) is a paradox. It makes sense that here, “in the bleak mid-winter, ” against the backdrop of gray skies, bony branches, and dun snow, we crave this color. The eye delights in the flash of the cardinal amid the oak’s “bare ruined choirs, ” the reckless poinsettia blooming long past Christmas, the red of the horizon as “sunset fadeth in the west.” Our winter hearts are starved for red, and we consume it greedily.
Red speaks to us directly, without the agency of words. The most incarnational of hues, it is the stuff we’re made of. Elizabeth Bishop, in “The Fish, ” after she captures her prize, imagines “the dramatic reds and blacks / of his shiny entrails, ” knowing they are the colors of her own. Red, she nearly says, is the language of the flesh.
Red is Power, the nerve and the verve to speak your mind. The soprano of the opera, the first violin of the orchestra, the Madonna of the feste, the lead in the play, the star of Broadway—red is the One who won’t be ignored, the One who insists she not be missed.
Red has a voice: “Beware anger, passion, warfare.” As Sylvia warns (with her fiery red hair) rising from the gray ashes, “I eat men like air.” Red is the release of energy that can create or destroy, and there is a strange beauty even in its destruction. (I think of the famous beginning of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now—the powerful images of the green jungle exploding in clouds of red fury against the turquoise sky as Jim Morrison sings ominously, “This is the end.”)
Red is the explosion of life that gives the lie to death; thus, Loretta’s threat to do the deed: wear a red dress to her former boyfriend’s funeral. What better way to say “I’m very much alive and very glad you’re dead” without ever speaking a word?
Red is Miracle, talisman and charm. I think of the celebrated “girl in the red coat” in the film Schindler’s List—an innocent child who is the only bit of color in a world of black and white. She is the life force the Nazis are bent on destroying, her red coat marking her as keeper of the sacred flame. The viewer’s (red) heart aches for her survival, knowing it is bound up with our own.
Red is Desire. Thus the schoolboy’s urgent question, “Rose, where did you get that Red?” He longs for a piece of that beauty (don’t we all?) and needs to know where in the world he can find it.
The Rose, of course, stays silent—
his question hanging in the air—
speaking our desire,
staving off despair.
(Think Loretta’s red dress.)
(Think Sylvia’s red hair.)