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The Language of Brightly Colored Illuminations: 3 Poems from Melissa Range’s Scriptorium

By Melissa Range and Tracy K. Smith

Scriptorium
Illustration: Louis Roe

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tracy K. Smith selected a gem of a poetry collection as one of the National Poetry Series winners. Praised by Library Journal as “a collection not to be missed,” by Booklist as a “book [that will] dazzle a lot of poetry readers,” and by poet Jay Parini as “revelatory poetry of a high order,” Melissa Range’s Scriptorium explores questions of religious and linguistic authority through the way language is used or abused. She mingles the historical with the personal in meditations on medieval art, theology, and verse, as well as personal struggles with faith and doubt. To give you a taste of Range’s linguistic talent, we’re sharing three poems from her collection, published on October 18, and introduced here with Tracy K. Smith’s glowing foreword from the book.

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Each of the poems in Scriptorium is a marvel. What may likely strike you on the first read is Range’s remarkable facility with form. She moves nimbly, naturally, with com­fort and acrobatic delight through the rigors of sonnets, villanelles, anagrams, cento, and the like. She submits joyfully to the whims of rhyme, allowing music to ex­ert its will upon her train of mind, and she does so with such virtuosic ease that you may not even detect it on a first read. But what you will feel more than any of this, I am certain, is an urgent usefulness. These are poems for which form is not an end in itself.

All the many formal commands to which Range’s po­ems gladly bend are in service of something urgent, some­thing having to do with a view of language as a means of survival. In this sense, Range’s work reminds me of the phrase “the Living Word,” the very thing that ignited the piety of medieval monks; only here it is made up of words that fit in the mouths of “drunkards, / bruisers, goaders, soldiers, / braggers” and their kind. What we say and how we say it, Range urges her readers to see and claim, tells us who we are and who we’ve been. Our voices mark our time, but they also guard a place for us in time, which is to say, they keep us alive.

ScriptoriumAmong the things this particular voice seems entrusted with keeping alive is the voice of Appalachia, what the poet claims as her “hillbilly” legacy. Not academically or anthropologically, but as a kind of earnest commemoration, a claiming of kin. And that’s not all. Range reani­mates Old English, which she assures us “has a word for our kind / of people.” And she initiates us into the lan­guage of the brightly colored illuminations once meant to serve as vehicles for Christian belief. She casts her eye and ear in every direction, asking, “Must one sing of this?” And answering, “One must.”

Traditionally, a scriptorium was a room where monks sat copying manuscripts. The word calls to the sense of what is precious, what must be made and remade, what one could give one’s entire life to preserving. How elegant a corollary for the work of the poet, and of this poet in particular, whose most sacred text—the one inspiring the most rapt devotion—is the very vernacular we live, love, grieve, fumble, and forgive in.

—Tracy K. Smith

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VERDIGRIS

Not green as new weeds or crushed juniper,

but a toxic and unearthly green, meet

for inking angel-wings, made from copper sheets

treated with vapors of wine or vinegar,

left to oxidize for the calligrapher.

When it’s done, he’ll cover calf-skin with a fleet

of knotted beasts in caustic green that eats

the page and grieves the paleographer.

There’s copper in my brain, my heart of hearts;

in my blood, an essential mineral.

Too much is poison. Too much air imparts

sickness to the script—once begun, eternal,

its words forever grass in drought. Nor departs

my grief, green and corrosive as a gospel.

———

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.

———

SHELL WHITE

The monk grinds bleach from mollusk-carapace,

pestles his basket of beach-combed sea-crumbs

so limed hides might beam brighter for the Lamb.

Before he paints incipit, interlace,

he blenches before the page as if it were the face

that he might hope to glimpse in prayer, numb

within the blizzard of love that strikes dumb

the heart, shell-shocked before the story’s grace.

Eyefull of Snow, Dazzling Blank—

I believed you once the union of all light

and pled the searing of my eyes. Then I blinked.

My wool-puller, my white-hot blind spot,

I’m washed up, shelled out, your thankless monk,

or else the page you’d scour, whitewash, illuminate.

—Melissa Range

 

About the Authors 

Melissa RangeMelissa Range is the author of the poetry collection Horse and Rider (Texas Tech University Press, 2010) and the recipient of awards and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Antiquarian Society, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Fine Arts Work Center (Provincetown, MA), and the Rona Jaffe Foundation. Originally from East Tennessee, Range currently lives in Wisconsin and teaches at Lawrence University. Find out more about Melissa Range on her website.

 

Tracy K. Smith is the author of three books of poetry: The Body’s Question (2003), Duende (2007), and Life on Mars (2011), which won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

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