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.
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.
Among 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
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.
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.
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.
About the Authors
Melissa 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.