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.


79 responses »

    • I am sure you have interpreted it in a way that makes sense. Sometimes, my own intention when beginning to write a poem is unclear and only reveals itself as the work takes shape. This one can be seen as a forthright description of a person in a particular time and place, but then take on various meanings in a reader’s mind. That’s good and I am happy when it happens. I, too, see its relevance to today, Shubha, and thank you very much for your comment.

  1. And, I had to rush away to find out what chrysoprase means. I don’t know how well this definition fits in with your message: “Chrysoprase helps to make conscious what was unconscious. It strengthens the workings of insight and the higher consciousness.”

    I wonder what was in Archimede’s text, now lost forever? Well, Fra Pennafolio did what he had to do.

    • Should we get us some of that chrysoprase, Yvonne? That bit in the poem made me chuckle when I was writing it….here was someone working against paganism with his own little superstitious bit of stone rubbing.

      It just so happens that there is a current project at the Walters’ Art Museum, in Baltimore, Maryland to use current technologies to reveal a recently acquired prayer book from the 13th century which is a palimpsest of Archimedes. Apparently, several long lost documented scientific discoveries are involved.

      There’s a whole website about it at in case you’re interested.

      I know you love history. Not sure if the prayer book of the Archimedes Palimpsest Project was inscribed in Italy. My own Fra Pennafolio (feather and leaf, or pen and paper πŸ™‚ ) is a fictitious character who seems to appear now and then in my poems.

  2. It’s wonderful Cynthia – I was thinking about this very thing today after reading Derricks post – was it this that inspired you? If so ’twas quickly done! [You are a wonder of the modern world!]

    A few years back I decided to make a gift for a bibliophile and chose to couch it as a palimpsest….. Which meant I had to make the original which I then worked over ………… madness! I didn’t have the thirty or fifty years the monks had, nor a little finger’s worth of their skill πŸ™‚

    It’s the final two lines that sting – as still the scholars search the Archimedes Palimpsest for more hidden knowledge ……

    • Derrick’s post inspired me to post this one this week, though it was written quite some time ago. It’s pretty rare that I can come up with such a thing overnight…but even if I did, I would probably cool my jets a bit and let it sit awhile before posting. πŸ™‚

      Your palimpsest sounds like a beautiful but very difficult project! I used to confuse palimpsest with pentimento….a painting over a painting. Now I have certainly done pentimento (I think the word comes from “repent”) and have quite a few of those unsuccessful little canvases waiting to be painted-over πŸ™‚ Waste not, want not.

      I guess you are aware of the Archimedes Palimpsest Project I mentioned to Yvonne, above. It’s really most fascinating to read about. A very good use of our advanced technology.
      It’s amazing, isn’t it how the past is buried and rediscovered, how one thing strives to rid itself of the other, recycling, recycling….and the beat goes on.

      • Apparently I am a practitioner of pentimento πŸ™‚ But the palimpsest thing was a mad idea!!

        Yes indeed, the beat does go on, we find it and lose it constantly. I’ve enjoyed following along on the heels of the work done on the Archimedes Palimpsest – for a long while I was hoping they would find a theory of quantum physics or something similar buried within, just to prove that the ancients knew more than they are given credit for. Still, as you say it is a wonder what can be done with technology.

  3. The pious monk in this palimpsestic verse reminds me of Atom Wipeout, an earthling who wanted to permanently delete certain files on his computer (I’m using the pronoun ‘his’ quite liberally, as gender and sex no longer necessarily match these halcyon days) only to learn that nothing is ever erased–only repurposed.

    • “…nothing is ever erased, only repurposed.” An excellent, almost religious, truth to remember. (Politically correct, too, in this age of recycling.) Now that science itself has become a religion, there’s nowhere left to hide; Fra Pennafolio is just one of the turtles standing on the shell of another turtle, in an infinite series of turtles. And be very careful what you write in your emails… WikiLeaks is watching.

      • Fra and Atom, together at last.

        But I’m not exactly certain what I fear most: having someone read Atom’s email (it’s mostly junk, apart from his theories on protofilaments) or having someone blame the whistle-blowers.

        • I fear most those who blame the whistle-blower…who toss the usual red herring in the path of compliant news media to help them entrench the low-information loudmouth and further confuse the confused. There’s something really ugly about the refusal of truth.

          Fra and Atom together….I like that.

          • Fra and Atom, like two truth-loving peas in a pod.

            The low-information voter is a tough nut to crack for the rationalist. But the no-information voter is another kettle of fish.

            (Gee, how many more dead metaphors does he know?)

  4. Damn the inerasable past! Does “erasure” poetry count as a palimpsest? And is the Archimedes project “found” poetry? Is math poetry? So much to have fun with in your poem and in the comments which are very helpful. I will come back to this with dictionary and Wikipedia in hand to further scrape at leisure.

    • So many good questions, especially for the seeker of a definition of poetry. Is music poetry? Then math could be poetry, too. Is “erasure poetry” a plagiarism or a smudge? My guess is that Archimedes probably didn’t find himself to be writing poetry, but who knows? So much depends on what you think it is, or is not, or what you want it to be.

      …all of which reminds me of a recent best-seller by Ben Lerner, which I’ve just finished reading: THE HATRED OF POETRY.

      At any rate, I’m glad you had fun with this poem. I did too!

  5. I love this one Cynthia. The opening is so clear, your words create the perfect imagery as if I was sitting right next to him (100 degrees, the stone-cold bench sounds good right about now) watching him labor over his thoughts as he hesitates to write for fear of ruining the parchment paper. Really there is such an ordinary day, as he writes his riches. I see so much in this Cynthia – beautiful work.

    How did you fare with the storms the other evening? From the sounds of it, they really tore up the coast area.

    • I’m glad you took a liking to poor old Fra Pennafolio, Mary. Thank you for your kind words.

      You folks surely have had some heat lately; the other day when I glanced at a weather map on TV it looked like the whole country had turned flaming red.

      It really hasn’t been too terrible here in the western foothills. Those storms stayed pretty much along the coastline, and the days of really muggy heat have been few. Of course, the dog days of August are still to greet us….take care and keep cool!

  6. I love this for the visuals and laughed at someone named Pennafolio (you are sly) and did the a, bb, aa, b, a thing with the rhyme scheme. The idea that so much was destroyed in the act of reuse or recycling is pretty alarming–probably much worse, added up, than the library in Alexandria going up in flames. In any event, I am going to have to check out this web site and see if the Walters has the book on display. Wow.

    • Fra Pennafolio is an invention that seems to be a ghost in my poetic machinations these days.

      I get a kick out of your noticing the rhyme scheme. Of course, once I get locked into a sonnet, especially a caudated sonnet, the choices are few; but it’s a challenge to come up with some that are not totally exhausted.

      I find your idea— that the slow acts of reuse and recycling might almost be worse than a once-and-for-all fire destruction— an interesting one.

      You live not too far from Baltimore, nest-ce pas? I don’t think the Walters’ special exhibit “Archimedes: Lost and Found” is any longer featured, but they may indeed have something on exhibit there, on this whole topic. It would be interesting to know, and see.

      • Oh definitely–think of all the monasteries with libraries and all the pagans who needed to be obliterated (or didn’t matter when a prayer book needed to be produced). Oh, yeah, the collective seepage is just as bad as the catastrophe. Anyway, I do think I’ll investigate the Walters. Haven’t been there. Can never get used to the idea that in an urban area 35 miles is so far and takes so long…so hang about here unless I really want to go somewhere far…

    • My grandmother taught me about the displacement of water in a measuring cup to measure shortening for pie crust when I was a wee lass. She didn’t know it was Archimedes’ “discovery” of the displacement of water, though. It was only in high school that we heard about the poor guy running naked and dripping wet from his bath into the streets crying “Eureka!”

      Won’t it be funny, after all this business of discovering the old manuscript, if the palimpsest reveals only something like a recipe for baklava….

        • I was thinking of the Greek Archimedes when I said baklava… but now that you mention bread and water I’m thinking how I have recipes for bread but….wouldn’t it be great to have a workable recipe for water!!!

          • A little bit of oxygen and a little bit of hydrogen equals some sort of explosion (apparently). When I was in the seminary, the library (the largest private library in Australasia) had quite a few “incunabula” – books published before 1501. They were all in special temperature/light controlled glass cabinets. One incunabulum was a monastery recipe book (in Latin). I would love to get hold of it now and try everything in it. Back in the “good old days” one could take it out of the library without wearing gloves, as if it was the latest Stephen King.

            • I can understand the whole business of gloves, archival conservation, etc. still it does seem ironic to keep and save something which then cannot be read or touched except by a very few people. For whom are we saving it? Some ancient mss., like the Book of Kells, are displayed in glass cases and one page turned every so often for those who wish to see….a nice slow way to read! “Excuse me, I must go to the biblio; it’s thursday, and I get to read another page….”
              I agree….I would love to see/read that incunabulum of monastery recipes, and try some of them. We might have a bit of problem with measurement of ingredients, though…

  7. Cleansing the pagans – wonderful !
    Imagine what it must have been like to live when you KNEW without doubt that God existed …

    • That could be such a consolation, I think, M-R….unless, of course, you were on the wrong side of the deity’s commandments (or society’s conventions.) I’m not convinced we’re all that advanced from those hearty pagans… we just have different words for it all!

  8. What an exciting poem which took my imagination off for a ride. I think our dear scribe is quite concerned he is eradication important information but what can he do? Life can be confusing and complicated even when straight forward. I admire ( sort of) those are so sure …. of anything really.
    LOL! I am sure Jesus was just wonderful and one of the few charismatic leaders who didn’t quickly turn to oppressing people. I love his “render under Ceaser” and “be in the world but of it” teachings. It is hard to do good without doing harm. Loved that Hippocrates got a mention.
    It has never been easy to be a person. πŸ˜€

    • A rich banquet of musings you have taken out of this, Sharon. I often wonder if the images of Jesus would be quite different, had he actually written down some of his words of wisdom and we had an ancient manuscript of his, instead of the second-hand reports of his disciples. Maybe his enemies would have burned his papers, anyway, when they crucified him.

      I’m glad Hippocrates got into this, too. I must confess, though, that he made the cut at first because he fit the rhyme scheme! (There’s practicality, even in composing poems πŸ™‚ )Then, of course, I was happy he had presented himself.

      So many interesting thoughts you have here. I think my favorite is: “It is hard to do good without doing harm.”

  9. Poem with a rich vocabulary, Cynthia . Precious .
    Fortunately the monks in the monasteries did not scratch all of the old writings of the Antiquity but copied them by hand and transmited to us the greek and latin civilisation.
    Love ❀

  10. I agree with John, this poem is a true joy to read. I was still admiring the afterglow of its depth and richness during the drive to work this morning when what should start playing on my radio but Diana Krall singing ‘I’ve got you under my skin’!

    • Oh my! If that coincidence had happened to me, I might have lost my concentration on driving! Thank you so much for your kind words about the poem. Isn’t serendipity always ready to strike the receptive mind? Now I will be humming that song—and giggling—all day.

  11. Wow! This was certainly a learning experience for me from the vacabulary perspective. You have used some “iridescent” words in this poem. Hope I got that word right πŸ™‚

    • Iridescence is a lovely word. It’s funny what can happen to one’s vocabulary, too, in searching for just the right word, even beyond denotation and connotation, under the strictures of form, such as those required by a traditional sonnet. πŸ™‚ Your comments today are much appreciated, Ankur. Thank you.

  12. Oh I will better focus on the sheep and lilac breeze. Don’t want to think about the erasers and re-writers of our history your poem reminded me of. Shortage of skin sounds like an almost legal reason to compare to hypocrisy and manipulation of facts. But probably it is only me who gets upset reading your beautiful filigree poem :).

    • Of course, I don’t mean to upset people with a poem, so I hope your upset is because of some “history” this poem suggests to your own real experience, and not the poem itself.

      My intention was to present an imaginative picture of something that might have taken place in Medieval times—as historians have recorded, and as the recent Archimedes Project has brought to the fore. It’s interesting, though, to hear how different persons find different things in a poem….I like that.

      And I agree with you, about the hypocrisy and manipulation that goes on. It’s even crazier now that electronic devices have made it easier and quicker to spread lies all over the world.

  13. This is such a subtle work of art, this poem. It can mean different things to different people. As if the opening visual where the monk-scribe assiduously labours to ready the palimpsest weren’t confounding enough, you opened a can of wild imaginations with the second stanza:

    Beyond clerestory walls descendant sheep
    are growing new skins in a lilac breeze.

    Is it an imagery of the changing times and pulverising ethos? Why does the Normandy church attack rush to flood my mind? What new scriptures are being written on the palimpsest obliterating the values of sanity? Or is it the other way round? Will the blood of the priest cleanse away the delinquency of pagans?

    Wait, I will read the poem one more time. Maybe I will return tomorrow too.

    • You said it, and through the comments I discovered it: it can mean different things to different people. The fascinating thing, for me, is that it is very close to fact, in terms of what monk scribes did in medieval Europe.

      Many of the monasteries copied and preserved writings from ancient Greece and Rome—that’s how we know some things about philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, physicians like Hippocrates, and mathematician/scientists like Pythagoras and Archimedes.

      But when I was studying the calligraphic alphabets of Europe, I learned that there were also those who were writing Christian prayer books—and it was a practice to “re-purpose” some of the older parchments, by rubbing out the earlier works and writing on top of those pages.

      It was also a time when the religious wanted to convert those folks they called pagans, and they would have considered the pre-christianity people of Greece and Rome, as well as their writings, pagan. (The word “pagan” has developed many ups and downs of meaning in its etymological history…not exactly the same as “infidel”.)

      All of this is simply the narrative, with my own images of it. It’s quite amazing to me—in a wonderful way—that the poem can carry so many of the meanings that readers are finding there.

  14. I have just returned from a UK visit where I saw several cloisters (cathedrals are very much my “thing”). Upon my return I find it serendipitous to read this poignant poem which, believe it or not, I thought of as I walked the stone floors, gazed at the sculptured ceilings, and pretended to write at the stone windows of the cloisters as they did of old.. In Durham they celebrate the Venerable Bede who is buried there. Again, as I gazed at his tomb, I thought the uncelebrated many such as Fra Pennafolio. The poem is most memorable and I thank you!

    • How I envy your visit there…as I have loved visiting the old cathedrals also. The Venerable Bede is definitely a personage of interest to me, since his scholarship gave us Caedmon’s Song, reputed to be the very oldest poem in the English language. Thank you, Jane.

  15. Thank you for pointing me to Caedmon’s Song of which I was ignorant even though I grew up knowing Bede’s tomb and frequently visited it. Wikipedia has an interesting article about the poem. It is difficult to deduce the pronunciation of old English and I’m sure that the translations both into Latin and modern English miss the subtleties of the pauses, alliteration and magic of the original language. Caedmon is touted by Wikipedia to have been a genius.. I thank you for your introduction.

  16. You are so vividly there in the time, that it took me back to long hours studying pages of missals and bibles (way back my first degree was in Art History – Medieval). I never thought about the loss of Archimedes or other text under the pages of these manuscripts. I will now dream of all those illuminated pages and the scribes dilemmas – moral and physical.

    • I practiced calligraphy and studied Medieval book arts for many years, and though I was aware of some of the complaints and worries of scribes (because of their marginalia, so wonderfully camouflaged in arabesques and vine-work of the manuscripts) the business of expunging previous mss. to recycle parchment only came to my attention a few years ago. That’s when I read about the work being done on a palimpsest to “liberate” an ancient Archimedes codex—with its possible revelations of previously unknown math/science ideas. The work continues, I think, in Maryland, here in the USA. The whole thought of it blew my mind. How much do we know, in this world….and how much gets erased?

      • Yes, I saw your note above to Yvonne about the Archimedes palimpsest. It is magical what can be re-found, but perhaps a good thing that only a small proportion survives. We pour stuff out these days and I think it’s a good thing that 99.9% will vanish in a few years at most.

        • And why do we bother, if it all will vanish? Not a small question. “Only a small proportion survives….” as you say, Which proportion? How will the historians, the archival librarians, the literary critics—the general pedants and degree-chasers— justify what they do, if 99% is destined to vanish? Who cares?

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