The Illuminations
by Mary Kay Rummel

(Cherry Grove Collections)

Recently an artist friend was complaining to me about computers, and how they are degrading graphic arts. Computers, she maintains, could never really produce great art, because the artist is limited by the artificiality of a machine. I pointed out that the medieval scribes and illuminators probably felt the same way when Gutenberg's little invention rolled onto the scene. And perhaps they had a point-nearly five hundred years after movable type drove them to obsolescence, their famous medieval manuscripts, such as the Book of Kells, are still around, and still treasured by writers such as Mary Kay Rummel.

In her latest collection Rummel meditates on the craftsmanship of the illuminators-the vellum and the ink, the animals and the saints, and of course the words-in a series of small, dense, and colorfully embroidered poems. With her sustained concentration to detail, symbol, and objectivity, Rummel reminds us that being a writer, like being a monk, is a process of solitude, "a learning to live in the ghosted now."

... Like that Celtic painter
in the tower, I hold in my mind two thinks at a time.

The lion god on every page
reviver of cubs, swallower of sinners:
we with our heads in its mouth

Later in the collection she takes her illumined eye abroad, on travels to Ireland, England, continental Europe, China and Guatemala. She uses photos (the modern illumination) and places of interest as a focus for her poetry. Many of the pieces have a cinematic feel. For example in Muslim China we find:

crickets, birds in straw cages sing;
a woman rides a bicycle, pole across
her shoulders, a roast duck skewered
on each end; a man balances a long
rolled carpet on his handlebars.
("In Xian")

Rummel looks mostly outward in this collection, though the heart-breaking "Elegy" seems to echo some personal loss ("Sometimes a boat just slips from its mooring") and "A Long Marriage" is more or less auto-biographical. There is also the strange and haunting "Hartland Point", a poem for two voices:

become salt
                        in the brain
become thunder
                        a sudden seeing

The Illuminations is a complex, absorbing, mature book by a poet at the height of her powers. It recalls May Sarton's later poems and, perhaps, Marianne Moore's penchant for the curious. The words may not stir or dazzle, but the clear, diaphanous cloth they weave around everyday things is an enchantment of its own:

Words no longer pour from me
but wrap me round
as the rain on long afternoons
the losing rain
too light to hold it rain.
("Holy Saturday in Siena")

I'd like to have an illuminated manuscript of The Illuminations, and then retreat to some mountain temple to contemplate it. Afterwards I would complain to my artist friend how that printing press ruined everything.

- Joel Van Valin