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The Book of Hours

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Like the blue angels of the nativity, the museum patrons
hover around the art historian, who has arrived frazzled
and limp after waking late in her boyfriend’s apartment.
And here, she notes, the Procession of St. Gregory,
where atop Hadrian’s mausoleum the angel of death
returns his bloody sword to its scabbard, and staring
down at the marble floor, liquid in the slanted
silver light of mid-morning, she ponders briefly
the polished faces of her audience: seraphim gazing
heavenward at the golden throne, or, as she raises
her tired eyes to meet their eyes, the evolving souls
of purgatory, bored as the inhabitants of some
fashionable European spa sunbathing on boulders.
And here, notice the lovely treatment of St. John
on Patmos, robed in blue and gold, and she tells the story
of gall-nuts, goats’ skins dried and stretched into vellum—
the word vellum delicious in its saying, caressed
in her mouth like a fat breakfast plum—lapis lazuli
crushed into pools of ultramarine blue, and gold foil
hammered thin enough to float upon the least breath,
the scribes hastily scraping gold flakes into ceramic cups,
curling their toes against the cold like her lover stepping
out of bed in that odd, delicate way of his, wisps of gold
drifting like miniature angels onto the scriptorium’s
stone floor, and dogs’ teeth to polish the gold leaf
as transcendent in its beauty, she says, as the medieval
mind conceived the soul to be.

                                                The patrons are beginning
to wander now as she points to the crucifixion scene,
done to perfection by the Limbourg brothers, the skull and bones
of Adam lying scattered beneath the Roman soldier’s horse,
and the old custodian wipes palm prints from the glass, the monks
breathe upon their fingertips and pray against the hard winter,
and the art historian recalls the narrow shafts of light tapping
the breakfast table, the long curve of his back in half-shadow,
the bed’s rumpled sheets lifted by an ocean breeze
as if they were the weightless gold leaf of the spirit.

B. H. Fairchild, “The Book of Hours” from The Art of the Lathe. Copyright © 1998 by B. H. Fairchild. Reprinted with the permission of Alice James Books.
Source: The Art of the Lathe (Alice James Books, 1998)
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The Book of Hours

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