Poems from Vellum by Matt Donovan
(the Sistine Chapel)
Piece by piece the sky was hacked, the star-flung heaven made years before,
its sheen of gold & ultramarine. And the firmament turned to pigmented dust
that caked & stained their forearms & necks & rained down in wide, benedictory arcs
into the space below. It grew dark, of course, & they worked torch-lit
& a man said plaster, bucket. A man said scaffold, whore. And the hammers
mauling the sky from that height swallowed up the sounds from below:
a robed boy scurrying from the candles, the sunset vesper thrum.
And when they rested, they saw the ruin they had made & knew what was needed
would be done. To pull down the entire barrel vault blue, each starred width
of heaven. To prepare the space where the sky had been for, yes, a god
& the shapes of god. Of cloth, a mule, a knuckle. An axe, a bowl, some bread.
Saint Catherine in an O: A Song About Knives
On a page of vellum – Saint Catherine in an O – within
a letter made of vine-sprawl, imbricate bulbs, & the scarlet
interlaced whorl of petal cupping calyx cupping stem, a woman
offers her neck. It’s a kind of ready-made scene – the saint kneeling
on a cropped wedge of earth, someone with a crown in a tower,
& a swordsman who is only a frocked booted boy pulling back
his robe for his work – & seems carelessly done, as if the illuminator
chose death to be a kind of afterthought to vermilion. To leaf-curl,
areola, awl-shaped stems, his blossoms’ dazzling tangle. As if
this were response enough. O, omphalos. Meaning center & navel,
meaning the first time a blade touches flesh. And meaning here
a frame of plenitude through which we witness again.
There are no limits to our verbs, our forms:
think of the knife
that slits an orange or bundled iris stems, the one strapped
to the rooster’s varnished spur. The dagger, poniard, dirk.
Edge that snips the line, whittles an owl, juliennes, traces a lip.
A cut, an incision, a gouge. In Sudan, the story goes, when the slogan
of reform was The Future’s in Your Hands, men scavenged the streets
waving machetes, hacking off hands above the wrist, asking
How will you hold the future now? The stiletto, the skean, the scythe.
The choosing, the mark, the tool. Beneath a concrete bridge,
shirtless & drunk, a boy works his way through the swallows’ nests,
slashing until each mud cone-shape drops into the river, dissolves.
Yet to say so is hardly enough. To say pigsticker, bayonet, shiv.
Because in Waco, behind Benny’s Gas & Go, a man plays slide guitar
with his pocketknife, accompanying the words of his songs –
one about light, the Lord moving on water, about what will be
by & by; how blood, he knows, will make him whole, & blades
that changed into doves.
Or because this splendor of color ends
on the parchment in a burnished gold resembling a cluster of burrs,
the kind of thing that would have snagged in a cow’s mottled hide
as it grazed on grass tufts or slogged its way home. Staring, bewildered
in the stillness, it may survive this way for a few days more
before it is bled & flayed & turned, as was always its purpose,
into the page of this psalm. Here, near the margin, are traces of it still:
patterns of skin, a texture like velvet, follicles, the throat’s scalloped curve.