Jake Willard-Crist: The Papyrologist

He cares for more than that they stripped a goat hide,
treated it with lye and tannin, stretched it on a rack,
scraped it with a moon-shaped blade, and chalked it

to lighten its muddy complexion. He cares for more
than ink born of lamp black and oak gall that swells
the hollow shaft of a feather or blots a sharpened twig.

He cares for more than the thick, nine-foot stalks
that climb from the banks of the Nile, are cut in strips
and laid in a cross-stitched pattern — for more than

the adhesive enzymes that seep out in the pounding
of the papyrus, that keep it supple and pendable after
millennia in the soil. He cares for more than sheaves

of papyri sewn into quires of eight sheets, and quires
sutured into codices with protective wood or clay plates.
He cares for more than the wax palimpsests of students

with tunics stretched over their knees for desks,
for more than the strategies of various amanuenses.
In his eyes there is a gleam for more than chance

discoveries of tattered tax receipts and the smithereens
of a merchant’s ledger. Even more than the grand,
unearthed Nag Hammadis he waits to dust off

that one bit of ostraca, a postherd with a fragment
of verse scribbled on hastily, hurried onto the pillow
of a lover — to see in his mind that edge on soft wool

and the soldier who stepped briefly out of the march
to toss it through an open window, before falling back
in line and joining the rush toward the obliterated past.


(First appeared in Shenandoah, Vol. 58, Number 2)