“I Shall Paint My Nails Red” is a poem written by the British poet Carole Satyamurti. Satyamurti was a woman of many talents – a poet, translator, professor, and sociologist. She was very interested in psychoanalytic theory and often talked about the connection between poetry and psychoanalysis. She was born on 13th August 1939 and died on 13th August 2019. Satyamurti, along with Duffy, is hailed as some of the best women poets in contemporary British poetry. Her subjects, therefore, deal with the lived experiences of a woman, identity crisis, suffering, and social processes. Her language is simple, almost colloquial yet hard-hitting, as evident in this poem.
- Read the full text of “I Shall Paint My Nails Red” below:
I Shall Paint My Nails Red by Carole Satyamurti Because a bit of colour is a public service. Because I am proud of my hands. Because it will remind me I'm a woman. Because I will look like a survivor. Because I can admire them in traffic jams. Because my daughter will say ugh. Because my lover will be surprised. Because it is quicker than dyeing my hair. Because it is a ten-minute moratorium. Because it is reversible. - from Changing the Subject (1990)
“I Shall Paint My Nails Red” is written in first-person and talks about the desire of a woman to assert her femininity. By asserting her identity, the speaker (Satyamurti) challenges the norms of a patriarchal society. She lists ten reasons why she “shall” paint her nails red. Satyamurti alternates between a tone of heaviness and playfulness, so the poem carries loaded meanings without coming across as too serious. She deals deftly with the theme of identity of the modern woman by capturing the reactions of her daughter and her lover to her newly painted red nails.
Satyamurti’s “I Shall Paint My Nails Red” is about a modern woman’s desire to paint her nails red. At the surface level, this sounds like a relatively simple topic, almost too naive. However, poetry often tells simple truths, and Satyamurti was a champion of such a writing style. While being easy to understand, her poems are loaded with symbolism and multiple layers. Similarly, the simplistic urge in “I Shall Paint My Nails Red” is actually a nuanced taking on the identity crisis women face in the patriarchal mold.
Structure & Form
Satyamurti does not follow a regular rhyme scheme, but there is an interesting rhythmic pattern in “I Shall Paint My Nails Red.” The poem is short, yet every line is a complete sentence in itself. Satyamurti, like her contemporaries, ditches the formal rhyme scheme. Instead, she adds rhythm to the poem by using the poetic device, anaphora. She uses the first person singular “I,” which suggests that the poem is personal. However, in the realm of feminist theory, the personal is political, and Satyamurti’s take on gender thus makes her poem political.
The poem consists of ten lines and is written in free-verse. She does not mention red nails explicitly in the poem. Rather, she asserts her reasons for choosing the color and the reactions it elicits from her daughter and lover. This creates a deliberate dramatic effect but makes the poem accessible.
In “I Shall Paint My Nails Red,” Satyamurti makes use of the following literary devices that make her ideas seem more forceful and appealing to readers.
- Repetition: Every line, except for the title of the poem, begins with the word “Because.” The word “Because” explains the reason why the poet wants to paint her nails red. However, the repetition puts more emphasis on the lines, gives them a rhythm, and thus creates a more significant impact on the reader.
- Alliteration: This usage of this device can be found in “look like” and “ten-minute moratorium.”
- Simile: Satyamurti makes a direct comparison to a survivor with the word “like” in “Because I will look like a survivor.”
- Assonance: To create an internal rhythm, Satyamurti uses assonance in the following phrases: “Dyeing my hair,” “it will remind me I‘m a woman,” etc.
- Sarcasm: Satyamurti uses sarcasm to lighten the tone of the poem. In the first line, she says that using color is a sort of public service.
- Symbolism: The color “Red” in the poem symbolizes passion, boldness, desire, and femininity.
- Imagery: The visual image of red nails is striking. It stays with the reader throughout the poem, even though Satyamurti uses the image only in the title. This is aided by the deliberate repetition and refrain that adds to the rhythm of the poem.
- Anaphora: Satyamurti uses the word “Because” to begin every line for the sake of emphasis. This repetition further drives home the conflict about identity in the poem.
Line-by-Line Analysis & Critical Appreciation
Because a bit of colour is a public service.
Because I am proud of my hands.
Because it will remind me I’m a woman.
Satyamurti begins the poem “I Shall Paint My Nails Red” by stating that painting her nails red is a sort of “public service.” This declaration is as bold as the choice of color. It suggests that the speaker is unapologetic. She is proud of her choice, even though readers can assume that this is the voice of a middle-aged woman speaking. Her hands are probably wrinkled and traditionally not something that makes women proud. Women try their best not to let these wrinkles glare through their skins. However, the speaker’s hands remind her that she is a woman.
There is a certain heaviness in the third line, which speaks of the trauma that women face because of their identity as a woman. However, Satyamurti’s line is powerful; it firmly establishes the identity of the speaker as an unafraid, confident woman who is not ashamed of displaying her red nails boldly.
Because I will look like a survivor.
Because I can admire them in traffic jams.
Because my daughter will say ugh.
Because my lover will be surprised.
The use of the word “survivor” in the fourth line hints at the trauma that comes with the lived experience of a woman. It hints at a past filled with suffering that the speaker had to overcome. However, it also suggests that the speaker is still affected by lingering traces of her traumatic past. She immediately changes her tone to a mere playful one, saying that she can admire red nails while waiting in traffic jams. Here, the red traffic light image further stresses the use of the color red as a recurring motif.
In the sixth line, Satyamurti writes that her daughter will say “ugh,” which suggests that her daughter is young and does not want to think of her mother as desirable or fashionable. Her daughter will probably find the carnal appeal in her mother an anachronism, something that belongs in the past.
This is the natural “subject” that Satyamurti seeks to change by stating that women have the right to control their appearance, regardless of age. Her lover will be surprised, probably because the color red is unexpected for her age. Not just because the poet is a woman, but perhaps her past self was not this unapologetic or bold. Being a product of her past experiences, she learned the art of change for self-preservation and upholding her femininity.
Because it is quicker than dyeing my hair.
Because it is a ten-minute moratorium.
Because it is reversible.
Dyeing the hair is another way that women seek to either alter or hide their authentic selves. The “dye” could either be read as a form of self-expression, or a symbol of age, as older women are often associated with hair dyes. Seeing as the speaker’s desire is for a temporary, reversible change, one can assume that “dyeing” symbolizes both.
As the speaker is an older woman, she is encouraged to dye her hair but not paint her nails red. In comparison, both are a form of self-expression. The speaker prefers something more temporary, like painting her nails, than dyeing her hair as she wants something “quicker.” Besides, she might want to change her moldering identity, which brings us to the last two lines of the poem.
The poem ends with the line, “Because it is reversible.” The need for a change that is “reversible” stems from a shifting sense of identity common for women, particularly modern women. As they make sense of contemporary contradictions, they also feel the need to change their “self” from time to time.
Leisure as an Act of Defiance
Leisure for women occurs in a personal and, thus, political space. On the other hand, defiance is usually associated with politics. However, Satyamurti juxtaposes both defiance and leisure in her poem “I Shall Paint My Nails Red,” a theme that suggests that leisure is also an act of defiance for women. The whole poem revolves around defying the conventions of society and a woman’s reasons to paint her nails red.
Satyamurti uses the word “moratorium” (line 9) to convey this theme to her readers. A moratorium is defined as a temporary prohibition of an activity. Satyamurti interestingly uses this word in her poem. The speaker of the poem says that painting her nails red is “a ten-minute moratorium.” It means the speaker stops all activity for ten minutes while painting her nails. It is her act of leisure and also an act of defiance.
The idea of femininity is a double-edged sword. It seeks to make a woman more desirable, and yet she is also rebuked for any outward show of femininity. The red color has long been associated with negative connotations, and Satyamurti subverts that idea in her poem.
A woman’s identity is traditionally tied to her relationships, for instance, her role as a mother or her role as a wife or lover. Satyamurti writes about how her daughter will utter, “ugh,” if she paints her nails red. This is because children do not want to see their parents as attractive to the opposite gender, particularly their mothers. Besides, the poet’s lover will be surprised, probably because he never expects her to assert her femininity.
“I Shall Paint My Nails Red” is also about the conflicting identities of a woman. This is conveyed by the last line of the poem, “Because it is reversible.” Though the poet feels the need for change, she wants something temporary, a “reversible” change. Dyeing one’s hair is more permanent as compared to painting nails, and thus the poet chooses the latter. This suggests an underlying conflict within the poet: a need for change that is reversible, perhaps as a way to cope with the present. The last line contradicts the confident personality of the poet at the beginning of the poem. This identity conflict is a recurring theme in the works of contemporary women writers.
“I Shall Paint My Nails Red” was first published in 1990 in Carole Satyamurti’s collection of poems titled Changing the Subject. Today, it is a part of her anthology, Selected Poems, published by Oxford University Press in 1998. The original collection suggests a breakaway from norms – “changing the subject,” and that is what Satyamurti attempts in this poem. She is unapologetic about her identity as a strong and bold woman. She believes that a feminine appearance is a part of the strength of the modern woman.
Historically, women have been told to adhere to rules and hide their desirableness. The patriarchal structure dictates that a woman is to look attractive only to appear desirable to men, not because of her choice. By choosing to apply red nail paint, the speaker of this poem commits an act of defiance against patriarchy. Thus, “I Shall Paint My Nails Red” can be read as a feminist poem or a “gynotext,” in touch with the sensibilities of 21st-century feminism.
Satyamurti has received many awards for her poetic prowess, including the prestigious Roehampton Poetry Prize in 2015 for Mahabharata: A Modern Retelling. She shared the prize with poet Sean O’Brien.
Questions & Answers
Carole Satyamurti’s poem “I Shall Paint My Nails Red” is about the desire of a woman to paint her nails in a bold red color and thus assert her identity as a woman. The color red is used as a form of self-expression and holds symbolic value in the poem.
The color red has multiple meanings in the poem “I Shall Paint My Nails Red.” Red symbolizes boldness that is usually associated with it and a solid feminine identity that stems from a desirable feminine appearance. It subverts the gender roles by making the middle-aged mother an attractive, bold, and thus, desirable woman.
Satyamurti often exaggerates or uses sarcasm in this poem to give a playful tone to her language. The first line she writes is that painting her nails red is a service to the public. The tongue-in-cheek tone hides the fierce defiance of societal conventions and makes the truth more palatable and enjoyable to the reader.
One of the major themes in the poem is the identity politics associated with gender, particularly women. In a society where all colors are gendered, women are perceived poorly if they wear the color red. By choosing to paint her nails in bold red, Satyamurti flouts the rules and proclaims her identity.
The poet uses anaphora, symbolism, repetition, alliteration, assonance, and simile to emphasize the theme of the poem. She also uses sarcasm to add a playful tone to her bold statements.
An organizing principle is a central reference point that allows all other objects or ideas to be located. It is often used in the conceptual framework, an analytical tool with several variations and contexts applied in different categories of work where an overall picture is needed. In “I Shall Paint My Nails Red,” the central reference point is Satyamurti’s wish to paint her nails red. The text provides ten essential reasons to paint her nails with a bold red color. These reasons encompass not only the speaker’s sense of womanhood but also her “feminine” identity that defies the patriarchal norms.
- “Advice to Women” by Eunice de Souza — This poem is about the poet’s advice to women regarding the carelessness and otherness of their lovers after the relationship gets over.
- “What Do Women Want?” by Kim Addonizio — This piece is about a speaker’s desire to wear a bold red dress.
- “To a Dark Girl” by Gwendolyn Bennett — This piece captures the beauty of the black girls who should accept themselves as they are.
- “I’m “wife”—I’ve finished that—” by Emily Dickinson — In this piece, the speaker is torn between her dual identities of a self-reliant woman and a submissive wife.
- Carole Satyamurti Reads — Listen to Carole Satyamurti reading six of her poems, including “I Shall Paint My Nails Red,” in this extract from a film by Neil Astley.
- A Tribute to Carole Satyamurti — Read this impassioned tribute to the poet from The Poetry Society, England.
- About Carole Satyamurti — Learn about the poet’s life and famous works.
- Poet Profile of Carole Satyamurti — Explore more about the poet and listen to some of her best-known poems.
- Check out Acquainted With the Night: Psychoanalysis and the Poetic Imagination — This book explores psychoanalytic readings of poetry, co-written by Carole Satyamurti and Hamish Canham.