Friday, November 11, 2011

The Calligrapher to the Queen & to Me

I have been teaching at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu since 1991.  Some years I was there only a week, and for many years over six weeks.  In 1994 I happened to be there teaching poetry while another group consisting of master calligraphers was also working away.  I heard that the calligrapher for the queen of England, Donald jackson, was among them. Of course, being curious, I would watch to see what he ate in the cafeteria line and then we crossed pools at Ojo Caliente when both classes were chilling by soaking in iron pools, soda, or arsenic.  I wrote a little series called "In Praise of Calligraphers" and along with my student writing read to the calligraphers at a farewell gathering.

I made several calligraphy friends, Diana Stetson, Rose who made a piece of my poem into a work now at the Books Arts Collection in Rochester, and the famed Mary Lou Cook.  I got to teach a gang of eight calligraphers and assign them a project to work on with their own writing, a skill that scribes often leave to others. Fourteen years passed.

This week I attended a talk by the very same Donald Jackson, in town from Wales for the museum opening of his St. John's Bible project.  For the first time in 500 years he assembled a group of scribes to hand letter and illuminate a bible.  Now, I am not a huge bible person.  I like studying torah with certain rabbinic types but it's not something I generally do.  Donald's light approach to a weighty subject won me over, at the slide show and lecture at the Lensic (thanks Frances McCain and Bob Martin) and I couldn't sleep.  The images from the book of Revelation including the inner horses of the Apocalypse, the Aids Virus, nuclear power plants, and computer generated zig zag lines portraying the human voice got under my skin, as only my skin can be gotten under. Jung's Red Book, also a masterpiece of lettering and imagery though from a very different impulse has been recently published and came to mind.

The next day I proposed to Michael that we actually go see the bible, after the bribe of a lunch of enchiladas at The Shed, red.  And the added promise of a movie afterwards.  He acquiesced and we toured the St. John's Bible show at the New Mexico Museum of History, right off the plaza.  What Jackson thought would take seven years took fourteen.  Six scribes and 1,150 velum  pages later, with 160 illuminations, the ink still drying, the bible is here. Forty pages of it on display.  Jackson said to bring a magnifying glass, so layered and detailed are the images,  Some bear the fingerprints of the artist.

The show, a world class exhibit, you need to sidle up to spend time, and come back for more time. It is displayed in a way that works for me, and encircled by New Mexico photographers from many faiths, black and white takes on sacred space and place.  Two of my favorite of many favorite moments in the show: How to deal with a forgotten line? A little graphic symbol, a bird or a bee, holds the dropped line on a pulley below the text, and indicates where it belong.  It is called "points of return."  In the entire project there were only nine.

Secondly, in 1994, and at Ghost Ranch, Donald Jackson acknowledged his dream and did a large collage which he showed to the folks at St. John's in Minnesota and on display here. When I emerged from viewing the show,  I heard that Mr. Jackson was in the cafe, but just then ran into some dear poet friends.  As we talked,  I wanted to be polite and not dis them for paparazzi invasion of privacy to this dear calligrapher. I was not sure I should really harangue him, as they wandered past and headed off downstairs.

I lost Donald and his wife, did some running around the museum and thought, maybe they are in Tom Leech's Palace Press.  He, after all, invited them and masterminded the project on this end.  As we stepped into the Palace Press offices, Tom Leech said, "I was just printing your poem. " Donald Jackson was indeed there with his wife, Mabel.  When I explained that I was a poet at Ghost Ranch from that time, you would have thought I was a long lost friend.  He said he thought he recognized me.  He recalled me, and the poets.  He never had a classical education, was trained in the craft of lettering and so loves poetry from a distance. I read him the stanza of my little poem where he was mentioned. I also mentioned the Rumi line he reminded me of, "Do something huge. Build an ark." This project is valuable not only for the magnificent work, but for the model of a man envisioning and completing.  I felt complete in getting to appreciate Donald in person, and felt the energy reciprocated.

Michael was amazed by the synchronicity.  I was amazed that I wasn't star-struck at all.  It felt the warmth of this encounter, and the fact that we never know what impressions we leave in the world.
We impressed each other, not in the sense of fame or stature, but like wax takes an imprint.  Mabel even gave me a hug.  I know now that was Jackson's only visit to the red mesa and vistas so powerful at Ghost Ranch.  I know that I must risk imposing myself on others, because he was truly happy to see me, as was I to catch them before they left.  Tom Leech too, was glad we met and introduced me as the Poet Laureate.  Just when I thought I had lost my PL mo-jo it returned.  We missed the movie, Shalom Aleichem, but since I was levitating anyhow we levitated over to friends of the Library.  My dear volunteer, Kate Oldroyd, was at the desk and I found three books I had on my mental list.  Three.
Qué milagro.

It was a perfect day for a bookish girl grown bookish woman.  Here's my poem from 1994:

In Praise of Calligraphers

For the master calligraphers gathered at Ghost Ranch

1. Seeds from Persia
and Hindustan.  The poet Rabindranath
Tagore is my calligrapher.

2. Jolly calligraphers eat alfalfa sprouts
and wander through rock canyons
refusing to write one word ghosts speak.

3.  I love calligraphers
who gather and rejoice
in fine mountain air.
They translate the joy
right off the rocks.

4.  When I come back
may I be a calligrapher
with fine hand and wild heart,
with fine hand and empty eye,
with fine hand indelible.

5.  When I wake up tomorrow
the calligraphers will be rejoicing
that morning brings light
to illuminate their manuscripts.

6.  I know nothing about calligraphers.
I have never been married to one.
And my poor penmanship makes
no excuses.  My sloppy hand is glad
that in this world, somewhere
steadiness and an edge.

 7.  When calligraphers gather
poets sleep better
and the axis of planet earth
tilts like a lower case “l.”

8.  A fine fettle of calligraphers.
The Queen of England’s calligrapher
in the hot tub at Ojo Caliente.
Cast a cold eye on life,
on death, calligraphers pass by.

9.  There is a longing I never knew
I had.  Between dancers and hand sewn
volumes, among golden pots and sleepers,
a poet wishes the hand of a calligrapher
could be grafted, gift to gift.

10. At night twenty calligraphers
dream of apples and dry leaves.
Their hands are insured against theft
like Rolls Royces.  The God that writes also writes. 
The Good hand works both ways.

11. Among twenty calligraphers
the only thing that moves
is the foot of a crow.

12. I am stealing looks
at the calligraphers
who sit in clusters
eating custard and fresh mustard.
They live my unlived life, untrod
path down a white scroll of time.

13. Kissing a calligrapher,
I once fell headlong into gesture
And stance, not sure
if I were dancing or the dance.

14.  God bless all calligraphers
and fare thee well.  May your ink ever
flow in the dark fissures of visual pleasure.


  1. lovely, joan... not only a poet, but also a master storyteller...
    love, sunny

  2. Joan, so appreciate your honesty that is there always - like when you say you weren't star struck. Your teaching at Ghost Ranch (twice I've taken) opens up these kinds of connections, so I am not surprised that these synchronicities occurred.


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