Campbell Corner Poetry Prize

The Poetry of Brian Culhane: Distinguished Entry, 2004



We never return to the same book or even to the same page, because in the varying light we change and the book changes, and our memories grow bright and dim and bright again, and we never know exactly what we learn and forget, and what it is we remember.
                                                                                  --Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading

These syllables lost:
no mouth bemoaning
their centuries' sleep
under monastic ruins,
in scrolls lost to time.
Lost, the spellbound
runes of a friar's hand,

headaches for a muzzy
scholar's brain: belated
slantings on vellum.
Crosswings of script
arc beyond book's horizon
to the primal word, un-
said, unheard, yet read.


So pages darken
as sun burns a cloister's
red violent windows where
saints drizzle from clouds.
I grasp threads of riven
conjunctions, nouns long
gone from commonrooms,

only to wholly lose
my sense of how words
follow in natural sequence.
From an oak bench,
I watch an eighty-year-old's
brilliantly white head
bow before workbook's


spidery translation.
Daylight now falls
until a lone name-stone,
interlace cross intact,
defines the coming night;
rows of gas lamps glaze
cold stone walls.

As scholarship fades,
a parallax view joins
dead words and worlds,
until fraying volumes
seem so many columns,
and scribal marks become
embellishing green shoots


climbing still to heaven,
though all paper-fine
tissue--brittle in air--
turns more itinerant
each year until gone
the way of passion plays
and hagiographies:

disorders of the pre-
Renaissance (middle, dark,
forgotten) and, hence, merely
devolved to inchoate lines
warped by ignorance (sin's
other face?) to dangle down
the page, inert signs


beyond any semiotics
of saving grace. Thrushes
sing from the outside in,
as if to say the world's
out there, out there. . . .
In stone chambers, what
faith I have in words falls

with the susurrations
of dry leaves dislodged
from spine-broken tomes.
My fingertip roams
over ancient lemmas--
involute explanations
muddle understanding.


Seen thus, the gloss (from
tongue and, by extension,
language) requires its own
diminutive shadow writ
in interstices of word
and word, forming a self-
reflexive net that ultimately

shall cover each page
with minute and minuter
cursives, triggering
an infinite regress
through leather-backed
blackness into the void
of meaninglessness.


In such labyrinths
of letters, dead reckoning
by the Word's first light
is the only way out:
a resurrection of sorts
as it must have seemed
for cathedral schools

which once sought from
marginal means the straight
path to the stars. William
of Conches' twelfth-century
Glosae super Platonem
plied constellated skies
of the Timaeus, seeking


Christian cosmology: an
acrostic balancing act's
two sun's overlap and earth's
born twice (though pagan
work is always false).
Yet, if fictions shadow forth
truth, the glossing hand

also lies, as Franciscans
early on recognized: the wit
of mendicant preachers
twisting the pure text;
whence the Middle English
glosen signifying both
"explain, interpret,"


but also "obscure truth,
disguise, embellish, gloss
over"--these meanings
fittingly self-eclipsing.
Glossing requires glossing,
the twin sun its other
darker photosphere:

an inkblack limnal
column of words' echo,
traveling through space
with a freight of churchly
wisdom and counterweight:
a barely audible hymnal
wavering from line to line.


I think of my own youth:
reading above my years,
charmed by Conrad's tone
before I had tested fear;
the Yeatsian sublime,
Lear's adamantine tears
--hermetic designs

within each turning page.
If youth's a gloss on age,
as Wordsworth thought,
forgetting, willful or not,
acts as memory's gauge;
the older, the more I've lost,
the more I search in books,


the more I know this truth:
age is a gloss on youth.
I step in no book twice
for I'm not the mind I was
even one breath ago;
here's perhaps one cause:
a trope's a rift in ice,

a fissure explication thaws,
when rime's an echoed word.
If we learn by going back
(Soe soule into soule may flow)
we also learn old laws
of entropy and wrack
when memory's disturbed.


Tonight all is prime
silence among the shelves
and stacks ranged like
important, if dismissed,
centuries, as over beeswaxed
tables the black-suited
librarian hums the time.

Visitors' hours end.
One last shuffling
professor on sabbatical
straightens tie and coat
and glances in sudden
bemusement at the stair's
stark double helix,


an ascension toward what?
rhyme? harmony? or
simply the muffled iteration
of black on white, page
upon page? I shut my eyes
envisioning a celestial
ribbon of marginalia:

a starry threshold
crossed by interlopers
for whom all parallel
lines indeed converge
in the gold-leaf skies
of deep casuistry, as
mind and text merge


on this study table's
fading oblong of quiet:
where shadows spill light
and light shadows dark;
where monks, devout
and aloof, besieged antiquity
for its one ontological

half-truth and in dim
fastnesses across Europe
wrote toward this moment
when their works would rise
through chambered light
to sun's age zero
- -word's bloom, lights out.


-- An earlier version was published in Chelsea [50, 1991]