It’s made from what remains:
powder of oak galls, tincture
of iron, thin wine or vinegar--
a mixture mysterious as a hag’s charm
or potion aflame in a cauldron.
How could these monks know in the future,
twelve hundred years later, that their hooks
and angles carved in the skin of a small herd
of calves using pens cut with feathers
would make us stop in our tracks, full of wonder,
stunned by the mystery of the alphabet,
the fastness of the word.
Not precious metal,
but the sun: yolk
candled and cradled
inside the thin shell.
Or else it was orpiment,
called yellow arsenic,
shining loudly on the page.
Not gilt flake or leaf,
merely plain pigment,
layer upon layer.
Breath of the Holy
Spirit made visible
For the Book of Kells,
monks made Kermes red, bled
from crushed bodies
of small pregnant insects.
Not the red lead of minium,
rusty red-orange, but bluer,
truer, to scarlet, to flame.
Look how its placement
makes gold gleam,
a dream of a color
that burns to set
your yearning heart
In the Book of Kells, 2000 capitals, no two alike.
Animals, humans, plants twisted and interlaced
to form letters: petals, stems, branching patterns.
The line “Remember Lot’s wife” begins
with a salty white face looking backwards, framed
in the heart of the capital. “Paying taxes to Caesar”
starts with a capital T in Latin, made up of a little man
with his neck torqued and straining, his arms
outstretched, reaching through a tangle of ribbon
to catch a bird in flight. The Pharisees tried
to snare Jesus in their net, but he flew away.
The Sermon on the Mount has eight capital Bs
for Blessed, four of them human, four of them
swans, whose long necks outline the right-hand
side of the letter. I would like my letter B to be
embellished, emblazoned in orpiment, lapis lazuli,
red lead, copper green, woven out of flowers and leaves,
knots and curlicues. I would like to be scratched
into vellum with the quill of a swan, delineated
in brown oak gall. Bend me, lord, like a human pretzel,
fit me into the form you desire. Let me shine
like crushed foil, let me become a perfect design.
Symbol of the resurrection, slithering and hissing
down the page. The monks believed a snake
was restored to youth whenever it shed its skin.
But then there was the snake in Genesis, the loss
of innocence, the great fall: a double-edged
sword, a forked tongue. In the Book of Kells,
some snakes are made out of abstract interlace,
while others form complete borders:
serpentine coiling interweaving fretwork tracery:
Some parts of the Book of Kells are punctuated,
not by ordinary marks like ampersands, colons,
exclamations, commas, but like this:
a horseman’s foot points like an arrow on a one-way
street, drawing the eye to the text Et tertia die resurget.
Instead of brackets, tiny animals. When a word didn’t fit
on the line, they placed the extra syllable in the space
over the line or tucked carefully under the unfinished
word, guarded by the outstretched wing of a bird
or the front paws of a dog. The scribes called this
“putting the head under the wing” or “taking the turn
down the path.”
I’d like to insert little animals into modern English:
ladybugs instead of periods, question mark earthworms,
starfish asterisks, squirrel-tail commas, and ellipses,
a fine line of industrious ants, ever marching. . . .
All of these poems are from Barbara's book, The Book of Kells (Cascade Books, 2018.)
Barbara Crooker is the author of many books of poetry; The Book of Kells and Some Glad Morning are recent. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies, including The Bedford Introduction to Literature, Commonwealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania, The Poetry of Presence and Nasty Women: An Unapologetic Anthology of Subversive Verse. www.barbaracrooker.com
The Ekphrastic Review
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