Published on: 10/30/2008
On a long oak table in a formal room
in the rare book department of the library
is the fifteenth-century manuscript—Middle English—
from which I mean to wring a dissertation.
The librarian, anxious for this precious object
left to my handling, offers me a bookweight.
I settle into the captain's chair and the task.
These first steps are detective work, forensics.
Hand: Anglicana; Secretary features.
Materials: paper. Visible watermarks.
Though faded, the pen strokes have the ebb and flow
of a bending quill tip in a moving hand.
The heavy paper still shows peaks and troughs
that speak to the moving pen. My own right hand,
knows pens and writing, and it feels these moves,
knows in its bones another hand was here.
I move on steadily, noting organization,
stories, verse forms, language variants,
marginal scribbles. I don't know how long
I've worked like this when I come to the colophon.
The words are, /Pray for him that made this book/.
It hits like a stone: Handwritten words on paper,
like any scrawl on spiral-bound, ripped out
and passed across the classroom, any note
on an envelope's back, left on the kitchen table,
and in my cradle-Catholic head, the prayer
has said itself before the doubt could speak.
It's only later, as I walk toward home,
plowing head down into the wind of spring,
that I picture a grave—somewhere near Hull, I think—
and wonder how long the bones of a hand would last.