Tracy K. Smith
The poems in Scriptorium are primarily concerned with questions of religious authority. The medieval scriptorium, the central image of the collection, stands for that authority but also for its subversion; it is both a place where religious ideas are codified in writing and a place where an individual scribe might, with a sly movement of the pen, express unorthodox religious thoughts and experiences. In addition to exploring the ways language is used, or abused, to claim religious authority, Scriptorium also addresses the authority of the vernacular in various time periods and places, particularly in the Appalachian slang of the author’s East Tennessee upbringing. Throughout Scriptorium, the historical mingles with the personal: poems about medieval art, theology, and verse share space with poems that chronicle personal struggles with faith and doubt.
the Gospel Book of Otto III, ca. 10th century
Shines forth from the vellum this film of sun,
the precious metal pounded thick as air,
then bound to the page with gesso or with glair—
more than one hundred leaves of gold from one
ducat. Otto, on the gold-leaf throne
which he commissioned—servant of Christ, ruler
of the world—surveys his gilded empire,
and the hand of God adjusts his crown.
O Christ, how I have loved you, with my heart shut
like an emperor’s fist or a golden door,
a Bible with its pages locked up tight.
In my poverty I sought a poor God to adore,
a love I could buy with my widow’s mite.
But this is not a Bible for the poor.