Dawn McGuire

On the Usefulness of the Parts

There’s a sociopathic streak on my father’s side
which I try to put to good use, as when
I presented the made-up letter from the made-up Dean
to Sir John Something at the British Library.

I was in my best clothes, pressed jeans and tattersall,
shined combat boots that sunk into the Ardabil carpet
sent by the Shah of Oman. A cooperative spike of light
from the window gleamed at the gold seal.

I had steamed it off a financial aid document, glued
it to the letter attesting to the scholarship far beyond
my years, requesting that the Library kindly
accommodate my groundbreaking research.

I left the office escorted by Sir Something’s
mousey minion with the key to Special Collections.
She stood in the corner, I suppose she thought discreetly,
visibly wringing her hands as I took the manuscript.

She was curved like a half-parenthesis;
I wondered if she’d get a humpback later on. But then
I opened the manuscript and forgot her imminent kyphosis.
It was a translation of one of the books of Galen,

progenitor of scientific method, physician
to Marcus Aurelius. He went by what he saw
(once diagnosed the proud, stoic emperor
with overindulgence). The Roman Empire

collapsed before his works were translated to Latin,
preserved only by Arab scholars through the West’s Dark Age.
The particular text—does it matter? Eavesdropping like that
on eternity. I was nineteen. I couldn’t read a word of Arabic.

But the milky sweet smell of the vellum, twelve hundred
years, warm as the breath of a suckling calf—
I forgot my family, my failings, my
contingency—this, my only threshold—

which is how I remembered every word.