I have derived a number of meanings for Palimpsest.
The Romans adapted the word from the Greek where its meaning was “to rub out” or “to rework”. At that time the medium used for writing was vellum or papyrus. Vellum was animal membrane that was scraped, smoothed and dried. It was both scarce and expensive. When a new document or painting was to be created, it was often the practice to take previously used velum, wash and scrape it so that it could be reused. Much ancient history was lost to this method. Modern technology has allowed us to look “beneath” these more recent works and uncover gems of greater antiquity.
I have adopted Palimpsest as the name for my collection of work. I find it apt and suitable in a number of ways. I acknowledge that there is nothing that I have to say about anything that hasn’t been said before and probably with more eloquence. I work in the medium of words and most of them have been around for a long, long time. I rearrange and juxtapose them in a slightly different order for an effect or to suit my purpose. So when you get right down to it, I’m a plagiarist, not by choice but by necessity. My pieces then are a Palimpsest laid over the work of others. It’s hard to be original.
Palimpsest also describes my process where I develop and overlay a structure on the idea or inspiration that occurred to me. What appears on the page is just the surface, a covering over what lies beneath and imparting meaning to what lies within. Sometimes it is rambling prose while at others it may be poetry or something else entirely. It may have rhyme. It may have metre. But the shape has purpose and gives an overlay to what lies within.
Just as the scribes and artists of long ago would take a canvas and layer new strokes over the old, or even scrape off the pigments to create something new, I will revisit poetry or prose that I wrote long ago. I may be dissatisfied with it or find it trivial or trite, but still find a kernel of truth or beauty that is worth exploring again. This new thing becomes something new placed over the old.
The act of editing before I publish makes the work a type of Palimpsest. The original may not even be discernible, but it’s there below the surface. A word here, a punctuation mark there. The original remains but its form and shape are subtle, hard to distinguish. The old becomes new again.
Then there is the matter of truth and beauty. I try to ensure that these qualities are at the heart of my work. It may not be obvious and if so, that is a failure on my part. However, if you scrape off that surface of nouns and verbs, these two things are the original vellum. It’s where I start and where I hope to end.
I first came across the word in Dicken’s “A Tale Of Two Cities”. We are invited to look into a stereoscope with London in one lens and Paris in the other. The conclusion has less to do with the cities than with the characters they produce.Look beneath sophisticated London and we find brutal, dissolute Paris.
Scratch a Sydney Canton and we find a Charles Darnay.
Not so dissimilar after all.
Each a product of their time and place.