March 14, 2007

Recipe for Paper

Send legal briefs, failed attempts at love
letters and other confidential documents
through a shredder,

soak over night in a warm bath,

scoop handful of wet paper
into kitchen blender add
boiled daffodil stems,

mashed into a pulp, then blend
black tea leaves, garlic
or onion skin,

translucent stains
of color,

pulp until smooth as oatmeal
in a plastic tub combine
one part pulp to 3 parts water

A closely guarded secret for centuries until the T’ang Dynasty, when on the banks of the Tarus River, Islamic warriors overtook a caravan traveling on the Silk Road, spiriting Chinese prisoners away to Samarkand. Their lives spared in exchange for sharing their secret with the Western world. Samarkand fast became a paper-making capital and the practice of slaughtering three hundred sheep to make a single sheet of parchment hide quickly became a thing of the past.

The addition of crushed spices creates a textured surface to the paper, as do crumbled tea leaves, coffee grounds, and dried flowers. When a freshly pulled sheet of paper is pressed beneath a warm steam iron, the fragrance of these organic materials is slowly released into the air.

Before the invention of paper the sutras were incised into cave walls, verses from Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching painted on silk. In ancient China, Tsai L’un, Director of the Imperial Office of Weapons and Instruments, won the favor of the emperor. By pounding the branches of mulberry trees and husking bamboo with a wooden mallet, Tsai L’un discovered the method of separating plant filaments into individual fibers. Mixed with water and poured into a vat, a bamboo screen was submerged into the suspension. The tangled mass floating to the water’s surface and trapped on top of the mold resulted in a thin layer of interwoven fibers. Drained, pressed, and hung to dry, the birth of “Tsai ko-shi.”

The history of paper contained within a mulberry bark and seed, the paper on which these words are printed.

The poet should consider this story with care throughout the years.

—Shin Yu Pai
previously published in Equivalence (La Alameda, 2003)

Posted by dwaber at March 14, 2007 12:44 PM