The earnest monastery scribe begins
to scrape: he must expunge, obliterate
a text of Archimedes. Tonsured pate
bowed over parched and pumiced skins,
stone bench stone-cold, to his chagrin
hemorrhoids, indigestion complicate
his task. But laborare et orare, so he meditates;
offers up his troubles in atonement for his sins.

Beyond clerestory walls descendant sheep
are growing new skins in a lilac breeze.
Fra Pennafolio envies how they graze
oblivious, while lately he’s been losing sleep
fighting dark avengers of Hippocrates.
For help, he rubs his cabuchon of chrysoprase.

He must not let it faze him.
After all, in frugal fact, parchment is dear
and perfect skins are rare. He must persevere,
erase and rewrite without fear.
It is a holy labor, surely in the angels’ care,
to cleanse away the pagans for a book of prayer.


48 responses »

  1. Oh my gosh Cynthia, this is amazing but I need a dictionary! Im glad youre giving it to us in parts, I dont think Id cope! 😊. You are on a completely different intellectual level from me I feel, but I still appreciate your talented writings. I feel a bit sorry for Fra Pennafolio, he seems very stressed right now but is obviously on a mission. Im looking forward to the next part to see how he manages this arduous task.

    I really love the sheep growing new akins in a lilac breeze – what a wonderful line.

    And there I was this morning all worn out after attempting my very first sonnet from a poem task set in our class last Friday! If I have the courage I may share it on my blog next time I post. Watch this space (I cant stand that expression!) πŸ˜„πŸ˜„

    • Poor Fra Pennafolio is indeed stressed….he has to scrape all the old writings off of the sheepskin so he can turn around and re-use it for his calligraphy in a new prayer book, and something about this might bother him…since writing itself was so precious in those times…too bad he doesn’t have a “delete” button! Good luck with that sonnet!

  2. Cynthia, Lady of many talents, how I love the sense of the monastery which pervades this piece, and the flow of the language is very ecclesiastical – you did it again!

    I am a hopeless speller but did you mean, “hemorrhoids indigestion complicate” ?

    I also wonder about the clerestory. The clerestory is generally a row of upper windows (hence ‘clear story’, as in building’s level which implies an upper window). In this case it would be hard to see sheep through – all one generally sees through such a window is sky. The Clerestory is generally the upper level of a tall space such as a cathedral or possibly a monk’s library where copying could go on. In most of the ancient monastic cathedrals of Europe there is an associated cloister where the months often worked it does not have a clerestory as they are not lofty enough. The line could read “outside the cloister, descendent sheep”. Now there is no the window so you would have to change the thought that our monk could see them. This would be more accurate as cloisters were generally inward looking quadrangles. Our monk would still know of their coexistence. Please forgive this comment, it comes because cathedrals are one of my specialties. I can send pictures if you like.


    • Thank you so much, Jane! It’s wonderful to have your expertise to help here. Of course, the clerestory windows would be too high for my monk to see the sheep….could the sheep still be grazing outside that wall? I do want to keep my sheep in the lilac breeze! I was too much into the scribe’s thinking and neglecting what he could or could not actually see. Maybe I can keep him where he is (cloister has more non-architectural associations than I think I want here), and have him envy, rather than admire the sheep….what do you think?

      (I’ve inserted a needed comma between the hemorrhoids and the indigestion…ouch!)

      • Thank you for being such a good sport! Now I suggest that we (I) may be getting too picky and I agree that the sheep are lovely on several levels. I also understand about the cloister. Perhaps this monk’s work is so important that he is doing it in a space with a clerestory!

        Compicate still confuses it is so close to either compile or complicate and doesn’t appear in my trusty tome of a dictionary. I could see it evolve into either meaning.

        • As you can guess, I’m taking some liberties from strict historical accuracy, and not telling where the monk is, only that the sheep are beyond the highest walls. Since the whole idea of a palimpsest suggests revisionist history, I thought a certain amount of “creativity” would get by. But I love that you tell me about these things, Jane. The project doesn’t stay medieval at all points, but when I venture further into these kinds of matters, I hope you will continue helpful criticism. John reiterated your spell-check for me, below….finally, I got it!
          Tired old eyes….Thanks again.

          • By the way, Jane, it was one of my youthful fantasies ( I think they call it a “bucket list” now) to travel throughout Europe appreciating cathedrals. Though I’ve visited Notre Dame, Mont St. Michel, Cambridge, Durham, St. Paul’s, St. Stephen’s, St.Peter’s, the Pantheon….those were all tourist kinds of experiences, not what I was after. Sometime I would like to see/hear more of your experience of these places.

            • Your comment struck a cord as I grew up in Durham and always maintained that it is the most beautiful. In 2001 my daughter and I made a pilgrimage to all the greats constructed between 1066 and 1350 in places where French (France and the UK) was the official language. Our goal was to verify the veracity of my assertion. We missed Norwich and Canterbury . I’ve since made it to Norwich but Canterbury still eludes. The most beautiful is still a question whose response would take more space than is proper in a blog comment, short answer is Durham for site and Laon for consistency and clean lines.

              • Oh how wonderful! Of course, as an architect, you would be able to understand much more than I. It’s clear I won’t fulfill the dream of such a pilgrimage, unless vicariously. I hope you have written–or are thinking to write–about it.

  3. I’ve been reading this with quiet pleasure, Cynthia, as you create this person, this scene, and his prayerful labour. It’s a pensive piece – but you can’t keep the errant humour out can you (poor sheep! poor pagans!)? I wonder where you will take us with the larger work.
    (You need to pop an ‘l’ into complicate by the way).

    • First, thank you for spell check! That missing “l” may be what Jane was referring to, but I missed it. Errant humour, eh? This particular series (theme) is going quickly in many directions at the moment. It will probably appear–maybe unrecognizably–in a post here from time to time, but it’s growing in several directions at the moment and I’m not sure the blog is the place for it, as a whole, as yet. Thanks again, John. (I’ll tally one for the sheep, and one for the pagans, on your behalf).

  4. Hi Cynthia, Looks like a great project. I’ve always been fascinated by the creative used to which the Christians put pagan forms. Beowulf may be the supreme example. Look forward to reading the work-in-progress. I’m aware that some people read it as pure Germanic, not Christian. I think that reading is reductive, sacrificing the complexity of the poem. Cheers, Tom

    Sent from my iPad


    • Hello, Tom. There’s some controversy, isn’t there, around the notion that a tenth-century scribe graced the Beowulf epic with Christian elements that may not have been in the original epic , but I’m with you, on the side of the angels who are the only ones to know the origin.
      My “theme” does not stay with Fra Pennafolio and his world but expands out to the present day, as I draw on my professional experience as a calligrapher, my interest in the ongoing palimpsest project at Johns Hopkins using the latest technology to decipher a recently acquired Archimedes codex, and constant musings on the possibilities(or not) of obliterating and/or re-inventing the past…..especially when it comes to the written (printed) word. My project moves in many directions, but the Idea(!) Has a certain wholeness in my mind. It’s very, very unlikely to become an epic.

        • Yes, indeed. The galls are nut-like swellings on bark, twigs and leaves of an oak, where wasps have bored a little hole and laid their eggs. The wasp larvae develop and cause the swelling. A majority of ancient manuscripts were written using this oak gall ink. The galls were collected, pulverized, and boiled with a few other ingredients, including vinegar or wine to make a purplish-black or brown-black ink. The ink was very acidic and bit into the parchment. It had to be scraped to be removed, and even then left shadow forms. To save parchment, the scraped skins were written over,(palimpsests) but historians are always trying to figure out what the shadow documents said. High-tech scientists are now using their latest toys in the enterprise…..of all the gall..

  5. I have to add a comment. In the early 1970s in the UK we prepared architectural documents on vellum, or sometimes linen, using Indian ink. (that stuff really stains!) Erasures were made by scraping the ink off with a razor. The challenge was to attempt to leave the surface smooth enough to take additional lines without smudging, running or disintegrating.

    • Yes, that India ink stains surely. It’s made with lampblack rather than gall. Real vellum is calfskin, tougher than linen, which is closer to papyrus (paper), I think. (Of course, some paper companies like Strathmore, make paper they call “parchment” and “vellum”). The problem with scraping with a razor on paper is that you remove the sizing and under the first “skin” it’s too soft and the ink blots…impossible to get a sharp edge to letters unless you resize the paper–a whole ‘nother set of botherations, I don’t do any of that stuff anymore; once in a while I massage a hard stick of ink from China on a stone to use with a brush, but mostly I like my cheap gel pen!

    • Yes, John, fascination would be the right word, since my knowledge is quite limited. Traditional Chinese art moves easily from word to picture and back again, wholistically. I love how they will hang a scroll of poetry on a wall where we might mount a photo. In their tradition, writer-scholar-painter figures as one and the same person. My own work in calligraphy is limited to western alphabet styles—roman, italic, uncial, gothic, spenserian– though I’ve played a bit with what I call “painted words”. Occasionally, for the meditative pleasure, I’ll try sumi-e. There’s great peace in first grinding the ink, focusing on the breath, finding the “sweet spot” for brush in hand, and practising the Chinese character for dog or cat alongside endless ink washes of bamboo and cherry blossom until something besides oneself is wielding the brush……

  6. Wonderful Cynthia! It is always good to have someone come along and shake out the cobwebs in the old grey matter… πŸ™‚
    How painful for the writer to have to destroy previous work to create new. Yet life does offer examples of what can rise from the ashes.

  7. You succeeded in transporting to me to the time Cynthia, such a beautifully written poem, and very literary, in more ways than one!! πŸ™‚ This made me think of Orwells 1984 again, the way literature and information was destroyed and replaced with the new ‘he must expunge, obliterate
    a text of Archimedes’ ‘to cleanse away the pagans for a book of prayer’. The replacing of old words and knowledge has been going on for a very long time. Excellent little piece of history carefully wrapped in poetry! πŸ™‚

    • I’m happy you brought in your recent , excellent treatment of Orwell’s 1984. It just may be a most justified analogy. Impossible to tell, from this far away, how much obliteration happened to save skins (parchment!) and how much was to “save the world.” Your final sentence encourages and humbles. Thank you for being an insightful and supportive reader. πŸ™‚

  8. My favorite line: “He must persevere, erase and rewrite without fear.”
    Love your word paintings, especially “adagio”. πŸ™‚

    • Hello “Sweetie”, That’s very kind of you! (I must tell you that the dandelion always makes me smile. I used to harvest them from my lawn, and make dandelion wine.) Thanks for your nice comment πŸ™‚

      • Hi again! I’m glad the dandelion always makes you smile! πŸ™‚ Harvesting them and making dandelion wine? How interesting! Is that hard to do? Have a good weekend. P.S. Calling me Sweetie makes me giggle. Sweetie, it shall be! πŸ™‚

  9. Contemporary Chinese calligraphy by a young French artist! See In Love with the Way, Francois Cheng and Fabienhe Verdier, from Shambala. For a song on Amazon. Cheng is a treasure, many books. Thanks for reminding me! As for Beowulf, my grad studies long ago convinced me of the Christian presence in the long goodbye of that wonderful poem. Palimpsest indeed!

    • Yes, Tom, I am familiar with that contemporary Chinese calligraphy–very beautiful. Glad I reminded you, and thanks for reminding me! (You introduce Beowulf into the discussion but, of course, Beowulf is not a palimpsest, so doesn’t figure at all in my present project.)

  10. A passage from a longer poem, Cynthia! That is music to my ears. I have written two epic-length blank verse poems and a number of others that aren’t over a hundred pages long, so I love longer poems even though I realize Americans seldom have the patience of such efforts. I am currently re-reading Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Cavender’s House,” a wonderful work. I am looking forward to more installments of this work with excitement. It sounds innovative and exciting.
    There is a lot to like in this first passage. The tone is sustained throughout, and the scene is set. The tension in the monk comes through, fulfilling the first requirement of story. There has to be a problem in the major character’s life that needs resolving–as well as a flaw that grows in significance as the story continues. The idea of the scribe is certainly intriguing, especially to a poet, and the setting is well done. The commonness of his physical complaints,
    Tonsured pate
    bowed over parched and pumiced skins,
    stone bench stone-cold, to his chagrin
    hemorrhoids, indigestion complicate
    his task…
    would certainly not be an element in ancient poetry, but strikes a contemporary tone that could lead us to more contemporary elements later in the poem. I want to see the entire poem in one piece when it is complete even if you have to email it to me. I simply admire you as a poet.

    • Hello, Thomas…It was a pleasant surprise to find your comment this morning, and thank you, as always, for your interest; I treasure that, especially from an accomplished poet such as yourself. “Palimpsest” is still at the big-idea stage, and exists as a host of unfinished, interrelated pieces. I think it will not be a straightforward narrative—(This has me noodling about something that seems true, i.e.. that epics have been a genre favored by persons of the male persuasion)–but more like a patchwork quilt. It will likely have more in common, structurally, with John Stevens’ “Silk Road” than, say, the Song of Hiawatha. As you so astutely observed, it will have to see old things with a contemporary eye….because that’s the eye I have! But I will definitely share the whole of it, when I can do that as a whole. Your viewpoint would be valuable to me.
      I’m happy to know you are enjoying E.A. Robinson–one of my very favorite poets, and so neglected and under-valued by the current poetry establishment.
      Thanks again for stopping by to read and comment!

      • Unfortunately it’s easy to understand why Edwin Arlington Robinson is no longer valued, Cynthia, and you are, sadly, right. I was at a Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets meeting. They were giving out awards for the best chapbook published in 2013, and they read the commentary the judge made about the winning entry. Basically he said the winning entry, which was pretty strong, was innovative and fresh, not caught in the old traps of traditional verse. I am afraid my current efforts with traditional verse in antediluvian at best–it does not lead to a future of fame and fortune.
        I admit that epics are largely favored by male poets, but what about H.D.’s Winter Love? Its structure sounds somewhat like what you are working on.
        I am really looking forward to Palimpsest!

        • Like that of her pals, Eliot and Pound, the later poetry of H.D. does move away from the sparse, imagistic sort of work to something that might be called “epic” because of the very sweep of it, and its concern with myth, I guess. Not like the old legends, for sure. The moderns hoped to use the old stories, I think, as some kind of exploration and maybe clues to salvation from the horrors of the twentieth century. H.D. was hell-bent to re-characterize the women—Helen, Eurydice, Cassandra, etc.and have them seen quite differently from the ways in which they had been portrayed by men. She also had a work called “Palimpsest”–not at all like what I envision……but now that you’ve reminded me of her, and that, I wonder if I should change my title, eventually. For now it helps to keep me on track. H.D. is such an interesting poet—far superior to so much current blurb in the name of imagism. At least she wrote in sentences!

  11. I love this! What inspired rhyme and imagery. It reminds me (in the best kind of way—I do not mean derivative, but equal to if not better than) of some of Robert Browning’s portraits of artists. Have you read “Fra Lippo Lippi” or “Andrea del Sarto” recently? Your Fra Pennafolio would fit right in.
    And I love it when I am sent to a dictionary!

    • I haven’t read those Browning poems in a very long time….but now that you mention them they come back to me clearly, and I think you’re right about Fra Pennafolio’s fitting in. I wonder if, when writing a poem, memories of other poems lurk as part of the process at the back of the mind, and we channel those ghosts of the past, in some way. I’m honored to find you here reading, Natalie; though your visits are rare they are among my most treasured ones in this otherwise strange and wonderful blogsville!

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