Sonnets meditating on illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages may sound a bit sanctimonious, even borderline pompous, but like all the best sonnets, Melissa Range’s subvert expectations. The sonnets, each named for a pigment monks used to color the manuscripts, explore the seedy underbelly of each pigment. For starters, they are all highly toxic. Also, kermes-red is made from “the insect’s brood /crushed stillborn from her dried body,” making even its origins destructive. Verdigris, once applied, is corrosive. It “eats / the page and grieves the paleographer.” How could such beautiful art be made up of something so deadly? How could such devout men be poisoned by such a noble calling? Range explores these questions: “Taking the paint on his tongue, he tastes the blood / but, pocked Christ, can’t feel your toxins enter.” It seems paradoxical that the sonnet form, so measured and contained, can raise such unwieldy, sprawling questions about beauty, faith, art, and death. The strict meter, rhyme scheme, and heavy reliance on Latinate words conjure the mood of a meticulous monk in his cell. (Lines like “but a toxic and unearthly green meet /for inking angels wings, made from copper sheets” beg to be read aloud.) And yet, the sudden switch into first person tilts the poems, almost uncomfortably, into the personal in lines like “There’s copper in my brain, my heart of hearts / in my blood, an essential mineral,” and, “this bright solution, like your law / has leached into my pores.” It’s a poet’s job to ask questions without simple answers and to challenge her readers’ perspectives. Range does this beautifully, crafting poems that explore not just the mystery in this ancient art but the way we view beauty in our own lives.
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 calfskin 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.
King’s yellow for the king’s hair and halo,
mixed if the monastery can’t afford
the shell gold or gold leaf to crown the Lord,
to work the letters of his name, the Chi-Ro,
in trumpet spirals and triquetras, the yellow
a cheap and lethal burnishing, the hoard
not gold but arsenic and sulfur. The Word
curves in compass circles, and again I follow,
tracing on yellowing vellum my dread
of this jaundiced, intolerant composition,
this gold that cannot coexist with lead
or copper. O Lord, this bright solution,
like your law, has leached into my pores, my head,
and there’s no antidote to the pollution.
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, aswarm
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 stipples the page with convoluted trails
of lead toasted rust red, brick red, the color
first used for rubric and for miniature.
Three thousand tiny dots prick the initials,
as if the text itself were pierced with nails,
red edging each green, black, or yellow letter
to embolden the story of Christ’s dolor
and his murder, his earthborn travails.
Again the monk licks the brush-tip; in his head
each red welt stabs sharper than a splinter.
Taking the paint on his tongue, he tastes the blood,
but, pocked Christ, can’t feel your toxins enter—
O pox of love, O sacrament of lead,
O Word of Life with death framed at the center.
Melissa Range’s first book of poems, Horse and Rider, won the 2010 Walt McDonald Prize in Poetry and was published by Texas Tech University Press. Her poems have appeared in 32 Poems, Hudson Review, New England Review, Paris Review, and others. Originally from East Tennessee, she is currently pursuing her PhD in English and creative writing at the University of Missouri.