Melissa Range’s “Scriptorium” is a worthy winner of the 2015 National Poetry Series. Range will be reading from her collection on Thursday, Nov. 17, at Women and Children First.
The collection’s title refers to a room in medieval monasteries where the monks copied and illustrated manuscripts, and many of the poems use tight, beautiful language to narrate the arduous process of creating colored ink and paper. But Range also branches out to larger themes of the preservation of language, stories, and culture; and devotion, faith and God. She jumps between her own Appalachian roots: its culture and dialect, and old English, ancient stories from Beowolf to Byrhtnoth, the Ealdorman of Essex who fought the Vikings in 991 A.D.
Archaic and colloquial language alike is remembered and played with: from the Old English word ofermod, literally “overmind,” or “overheart,” to the Southern phrase, flat as a flitter, which Range asks her granny to explain.
These poems were created by an obvious word lover, attention paid to their meanings, their roots, their sounds and their rhythms. And the same whole-minded attention is paid to faith itself.
In “Shell White,” a monk symbolically grinds bleach “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.
Part of the beauty of doubt is how one can act on one’s devotion in the midst of it. I read Range as the monk, and the meticulous creation of these poems as an act of devotion to both God and her Southern roots that she questions but seems loyal to. About her roots, she writes of “the mountain county [she] left with no ambitions to return,” and also how “people mock the south wherever I pass through . . . I don’t hate it, but they all do.”
I know nothing about Range’s personal faith, only that there’s a commitment within her work to the questioning of God, which personally speaks to me as a believer. My questioning of God is a necessary part of my lived-out faith. The faith she writes about is one in which “love suffers: it’s the grace awaiting all God’s lovers.”
“Scriptorium” should be read by fellow word lovers. It should also be read by those who wrestle with ideas, family, faith, (or perhaps anything one feels an obligation to), because it so well depicts how beauty is found in the struggle.