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

published in ars poetica

previously published in Equivalence (La Alameda, 2003)

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