Cecil Hemley Memorial Award - 2022
"This woman's story could have remained hidden forever . . . It makes me wonder how many other artists we might find in medieval cemeteries—if we only look."
—Christina Warinner, University of Zürich
I offer you this: jawbone of a medieval woman
with a nugget of lapis lazuli embedded in her teeth. Blue
planet in the firmament of her calcified plaque.
She licked her paintbrush. Tongued vermillion, ochre,
iron gall. Blue above all. Virgin blue. I have tasted
that mineral tang, worshipped the feel of those sable hairs
coming to a point in my mouth. And I have tasted
disappointment. Overreaching. Hubris. Too many trips
to the water jar, too heavy a hand, boring into each bright
circle until my beautiful idea dissolves into a colorless
puddle. Like history, reflecting only the brightest sun, whitest
clouds. History, shallow and opaque. But this woman.
Maybe she escaped marriage, duty, sex. Maybe she was
devout. Either way, I see her at work, a few rare
pigments lined up in ceramic jars, parchment crowded
with someone else’s calligraphic text, Book of Days,
a treatise on the sin of ambition or pride, lust or desire,
or instructions for divining a true virgin: Upon fumigation
with dock flowers, if she is a virgin she immediately
becomes pale, and if not her humor falls on the fire
and other things are said about her. Other things said
inside our very own mouths. Other falls and fires.
Selected by Ana Castillo