Scriptorium

Melissa Range

Before the stepwork and the fretwork,
before the first wet spiral leaves the brush,
before the plucking of the geese’s quills,
before the breaking of a thousand leads,

before the curving limbs and wings
of hounds, cats, and cormorants
knot into letters, before the letters knot
into the Word, Eadfrith ventures from his cell,

reed basket on his arm, past Cuthbert’s grave,
past the stockyard where the calves’ cries bell,
and their blood illuminates the dirt as ink
on vellum, across the glens and woods

to gather woad and lichens, to the shores
to gather shells. The earth, not the cell,
is his scriptorium, where he might see
the interlace of branch and twig and leaf;

how green bleeds brown when fields are plowed;
how green banks blue where grass gives way to sea;
how blue twists into white in swirling lines
purling through the water and the sky.

Before the skinning of a hundred calves,
before the stretching and the scraping of their hides,
before the boiling vinegar, the toasting lead,
the bubbling orpiment and verdigris,

before the glair cracks from the egg,
before the monk perfects his recipe
(egg white, oak-gall, iron salt, mixed
in a tree-stump, some speculate)

to make the pigments glorious to the Lord,
before Eadfrith’s fingers are permanently stained
the colors of his world—crimson, emerald,
cerulean, gold—outside the monastery walls,

in the village, with its brown hounds
spooking yellow cats stalking green-black birds,
on the purple-bitten lips of peasants
his gospel’s corruption already sings forth

in vermilion ink, firebrands on a red calf’s hide—
though he’ll be dead before the Vikings sail,
and two centuries of men and wars
will pass before his successor Aldred

pierces Eadfrith’s text with thorn,
ash, and all the other angled letters
of his gloss. Laced between the lines of Latin,
the vernacular proclaims, in one dull tint,

a second illumination,
of which Eadfrith was not unaware:
this good news is for everyone,
like language, like color, like air.

More by Melissa Range

Negative Theology

I get the call about my grandmother. Maybe it is nothing.
A dark spot on a screen: someone says, “Pray that it is nothing.”

On the surgeon’s gurney, swaddled in blue—
she’s lost how much blood? Like you, she weighs nothing.

Pseudo-Denys says to cast off all images, all qualities of you.
So the sculptor chips marble away into nothing.

The preacher speaks over my grandmother,
half her colon gone, where? He lays hands on nothing.

Unlight, Undark, Unfather, Unson,
Unholy of Unholies—all your names stray into nothing.

In the ICU, she vomits everything but the ice.
Unknowing I know her, a body on its way to nothing.

The star points on the monitor collapse to a line,
Ray of Divine Darkness, ray searing all light to nothing.

Cast off all images, even those that seem flesh, seem true.
“Jesus paid it all,” says the preacher. Did he pay it for nothing?

Unmother, Unlover, Undoer, Undone—
like you, she won’t have a name. Two can play at nothing.

My mother calls my name, asks me to pray.
When you’ve got nothing to say, better to say nothing.

Kermes Red

Called crimson, called vermilion—“little worm”
in both the Persian and the Latin, red
eggs for the carmine dye, the insect’s brood
crushed stillborn from her dried body, a-swarm
in a bath of oak ash lye and alum to form
the pigment the Germans called Saint John’s Blood—
the saint who picked brittle locusts for food,
whose blood became the germ of a crimson storm.
Christ of the pierced thorax and worm-red cloak,
I read your death was once for all, but it’s not true:
your kings and bishops command a book,
a beheading, blood for blood, the perfect hue;
thus I, the worm, the Baptist, and the scarlet oak
see all things on God’s earth must die for you.

Crooked as a Dog's Hind Leg

Yanking my lank hair into dog-ears,
my granny frowned at my cowlick’s
revolt against the comb, my part

looking like a dog’s shank
no matter what she did, crooked
as the dogtrot path

out the mountain county I left
with no ambitions to return,
rover-minded as my no-count granddaddy, crooking

down switchbacks that crack the earth
like the hard set of the mouth
women are born with where I’m from.

Their faces have a hundred ways to say
“Don’t go off,” “Your place is here,”
“Why won’t you settle down?”—

and I ignored them all like I was one
of their ingrate sons (jobless, thankless,
drugged up, petted to death), meandering

like a scapegrace in a ballad,
as a woman with no children likes to do,
as a woman with crooked roots knows she can.

“When you coming home?” my granny
would ask when I called, meaning “to visit”
but meaning more “to stay,”

and how could I tell her
that the creeks crisscrossing
our tumbledown ridges

are ropes trying to pull my heart straight
when it’s a crooked muscle,
its blood crashing in circles?

Why should I tell her
that since I was a mop-headed infant
and leapt out of my baby bed,

I’ve been bent on skipping
the country, glad as a chained-up hound
until I slipped my rigging?

What could I say but “I’ll be home Christmas,”
what could I hear but “That’s a long time,”
what could I do but bless

the crooked teeth in my head
and dog the roads that lead all ways
but one?