“Scriptorium is a rare and beautiful collection of poetry.”
“Each of the poems in Scriptorium is a marvel,” Tracy K. Smith asserts in the Foreword. She goes on to say that Melissa Range “moves nimbly, naturally, with comfort and acrobatic delight through the rigors of sonnets, villanelles, anagrams, cento, and the like.” But this formalism has a purpose, “an urgent usefulness.” Her poems view “language as a means of survival.”
Scriptorium is indeed a marvel. In less than 100 pages, Range displays her adept skill in creating poems that delight in the English language and speak with a strident grace for those long dismissed or shoved aside. It is with no surprise then that the National Poetry Series chose Scriptorium as one of its five 2015 Competition Winners. Every year the National Poetry Series publishes “five collections of poetry annually through five participating publishers.”
But it should be noted how this collection eschews the easy categorization of so-called “awards-bait.” Range has assembled a collection of poetry radiating with linguistic joy, religious fervor, and regional pride. The collection’s tone ranges from a mannered medieval formalism to slangy hillbilly elegies. Where else can one find references to Beowulf and NASCAR? Range grew up in rural Tennessee and went on to a teaching career. She currently is a faculty member of Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. Her poems weave together the autobiographical, the regional, and the historical into a seamless tapestry.
“Ofermod” focuses on an Old English word used to describe the warrior Byrhtnoth’s “foolishly proud (some say arrogant) battle maneuvers in the poem ‘The Battle of Maldon.’” Range takes this academic and otherwise esoteric premise and uses it as a jumping off point to describe her friends and family back home in Tennessee.
. . . and ofermod as our daddy and granddaddies
and everyone else
in our stiff-necked mountain town,
always with something stupid to prove,
doing 80 all the way to the head of the holler,
weaving through the double lines;
splinting a door-slammed finger
with popsicle stick and electrical tape;
This poem co-exists with others like “Kermes Red,” one in a series of poems about pigments used to color medieval manuscripts.
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, a-swarm
in a bath of oak ash lye and alum to form
the pigment the Germans called Saint John’s Blood—
Range brings together a fervent Christian faith to the poetry. It is a religion harnessed in the monk’s cell and the scriptorium. This faith was carried over by the Scots-Irish immigrants from the British Isles to the American colonies. These poems about pigment and medieval manuscripts are more than a formal poetic exercise using historical records. They are small-scale acts of poetic mysticism, tiny re-affirmations of faith devoid of the crass politicking and hypocritical hate mongering the public sees every time a new campaign cycle begins.
In the poem “Negative Theology,” Range explores the limits of her faith as she stands vigil next to her grandmother who is dying from cancer. “The preacher speaks over my grandmother, / half her colon gone, where? He lays hands on nothing.”
Unlight, Undark, Unfather, Unson,
Unholy of Unholies—all your names stray into nothing.
In the ICU, she vomits everything but the ice,
Unknowing I know her, a body on its way to nothing.
The star points on the monitor collapse to a line,
Ray of Divine Darkness, ray searing all light to nothing.
Negative theology, the concept, is about describing God by what He is not. Range witnesses her grandmother reduce herself down to nothing. With its short two-line stanzas and the repetitive incantation of the word “nothing,” she creates a poem with heart-wrenching emotion. It is a poem set to challenge the assault of nothingness.
Scriptorium is a rare and beautiful collection of poetry. A more informal assessment is that it lives up to its hype. It links rural Tennessee and its proud stubborn citizenry with the heroic struggles of the medieval monks. Melissa Range has created a small masterpiece on par with the early work of Ezra Pound, each poem a jewel-like miniature of artistic craftsmanship.