Breaking the Rule
by Julia Copus
won in 2002
I. The Art of Illumination
At times it is a good life, with the evening sun
gilding the abbey tower, the brook's cold waters
sliding past and every hour in my Book
a blank page, vellum pumice-stoned
to chalky lustres which my inks suffuse:
saffron and sandarach and dragon's blood,
azure and verdigris. Monsters and every type of beast
curl round the words. Each man here has a past,
and each man reasons for his faith. I wronged
a woman once and nothing I did after could atone
or throw a light upon the blackness of that deed,
whose harm lay in the telling, not the doing.
My floor is strewn with thyme and rosemary
to mask the odours of my craft - fish glue,
gum resins, vinegar and oils. With these I shape
the hosts of the redeemed, and every face
takes on the features of a face I've known
and every angel's face beneath the shadow
of its many coloured wings is hers alone.
II. The Art of Signing
There are ways among the stone and shadow
of our cloisters to transgress the Rule. We speak
in signs: a language with no syntax.
For the sign of bread you make a circle
with your thumbs and index fingers - like a belt
that presses silk against a woman's waist.
For the sign of an eel squeeze each hand tight
as one who grasps a cord of hair to kiss
that one mouth only in the frantic din
of the ale-house where we used to dance,
and later outside with the grainy dusk
unloading a sough of foot-falls in my ear,
our four feet shuffling together
and in time across the quiet earth.
The rhythm of my days goes slower now:
matins and lauds, vespers and compline.
For the sign of silence put a finger
to the dry muscle of your mouth,
the darkness that's inside it. Keep it there