Self-Portrait as Illumination


Carolyn Oliver

Sunset casts a madder wash across
the last nun in the scriptorium,
coats in rose her last psalm,  
her quill from a river-plucked  
swan. Near the margin, a gash—
                 the parchment maker’s lunarium
has scraped the vellum deeper than bare,
deep enough to make a window 
to the next leaf’s gilded majuscule, 
flourish of fire and lion rampant.  

She lifts the filmy sheet against an oriel
and in the twilight finds, winding 
through the seeming seamless leaf 
(once bloodfed hide) emptied veins, 
lime-washed map of body history 
she can’t decipher:  
here briar nettled / here mother 
tongue comforted / here flies bit /
here rain lapped the red away.  

[Someone lights the tapers.]  

Around the tear
                            gently her knife 
inscribes the veins, and then she paints
over their traces: vines of sleeping 
morning glories arch and drip, 
twist a frame for moonless sky, 
anticipate the strike of marigold 
lightning behind this broken skin, 
which, shining, drinks her bitter ink. 

Carolyn Oliver

is the author of Inside the Storm I Want to Touch the Tremble (University of Utah Press, forthcoming 2022), selected by Matthew Olzmann for the Agha Shahid Ali Prize. Her poems appear in The Massachusetts Review, Copper Nickel, Cincinnati Review, Smartish Pace, Shenandoah, Beloit Poetry Journal, 32 Poems, Southern Indiana Review, Superstition Review, and elsewhere. Carolyn is the winner of the E. E. Cummings Prize from the NEPC, the Goldstein Prize from Michigan Quarterly Review, and the Writer’s Block Prize in Poetry. She lives with her family in Massachusetts, where she is the editor of The Worcester Review. Learn more at

Art: "Clashing in Good Faith" by Mickey Haist Jr., Oil on Canvas

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