Today, I challenge you to write a poem of ekphrasis — that is, a poem inspired by a work of art. But I’d also like to challenge you to base your poem on a very particular kind of art – the marginalia of medieval manuscripts. Here you’ll find some characteristic images of rabbits hunting wolves, people sitting on nests of eggs, dogs studiously reading books, and birds wearing snail shells.
During the Gorleston Psalter
for Philip Whalen
Mine is the illuminating hand in this psalter,
parish church of St Andrew at Gorleston,
Roger Bigod mortuus est, armor his memory,
mine is the glory of the word that is God;
All things were made by Him; I am nothing, I
create nothing. The Word always already existed.
I am just a worthless sinner.
I am just a hypocrite.
I am the minutest seed in Your crop.
I am the merest grain of sand
on the beach where Your tide is turned.
I am but the smallest tinder
in the woods where Your truth is burned.
Let me bring my humble art
of ink and paint
of brush and reed
to Your holy word.
A fool for Christ, this scriba is moved thus:
beatus vir: Blessed is the man 1:1
Let the Beatus initial be burnished.
Let the vellum be ornamented with
carmine and lac, ochre and indigo,
gold leaf and gold powder.
Let the Tree of Jesse grow within the B;
from its family roots among kings
it branches the virga twig of Mary that blooms
into flower to bestow the blessing on all.
His word, my art, this pictorum is moved thus:
laudate Deum citharam decoram cum psalterio:
Rejoice to God the pleasant psaltery with the harp 80:2-3
Interlace the woad and crimson in knots
as the musicians weave the counterpoint
rebec, citole, voice, and tambourine
within the D of God, to glorify His name
while the beast dances and flauts above.
My art is a journey through forests of fancy
And sometimes the animals come out.
His word, my art. My art, my fear, thus:
Dominus fortitudo vitae meae quem formidabo:
The Lord is the protector of my life, of whom shall I be afraid? 26:1
A man peeks from the margin and sticks out his tongue at me
and I am afraid.
Within the D of David, the writer of these psalms
I will show the boy anointed by the prophet Samuel
youngest son of Jesse, a king one day to come
now he plays the lyre, while the demons torment Saul.
The demons on the border come: a mermaid dances,
a bird-man beats a drum, a drunkard plays a horn for a dog
and a man with a crossbow takes aim at Christ the Lamb
ælċ þæra þe ðas mine word gehyrð,
and þa wyrcð, byð gelic þam wisan were,
se hys hus ofer stán getimbrode
My house is these stone walls of
St Andrew. My art is for Christ,
but sometimes the demons come out.
By whose hand do they populate, multiply upon these pages?
I write the words of David and
rabbits of lechery fill the margins
idola gentium argentum et aurum:
The idols of the nations are silver and gold 113:12
A monk pours out coins for a whore
iniquitatem meam non abscondo:
My sin I did not hide 31:5
a man displays his anus
the bagpipe of his genitals
Anathema, they crawl about His words like gargoyles
over a cathedral. I built my scriptorium upon the rock,
but still they crawl, rabbits of cowardice
dogs of obedience, honey out of the rock.
confundantur et conturbentur vehementer omnes
inimici mei revertantur et confundantur subito:
Cowards, my enemies disappear. Disgraced, they turn tail and run. 6:11
a rabbit sprouts wings
calumniam de excelso loquentes:
They have spoken iniquity in high places. 72:8
a naked bishop orders
a monk to defecate
a naked monkey lord orders
a man to play his bagpipe
the stag joins
in his warren
Bigod is dead
amour his memory
clangite in neomenia bucina:
Blow up the trumpet on the new moon 80:4
rabbit pumps bellows on his pipe organ
coaequans pedes meos cervis et super excelsa statuens me:
Who hath made my feet like the feet of deer: and who setteth me upon high places. 17:34
the rabbits conduct a funeral procession
one carries the crosier
another the monstrance
By the letter be banished
I illuminate the Word, only me!
In nomine Lepus et Puer Leporem
et Spiritus Mundi
All hail cowardice
Timor mortis conturbat me
All hail dubium
All hail the fruit