I’ve been to a local flea market today and was pleased to find my eye for oddities is still quite acute. Among my treasures are: ‘Merchant Steamers and Motor Ships, a catalogue of the collection’, price 6s 0d, by one Hereward Sprat. This looks promising. I also picked up ‘Wire Splicing’, by R Scot Skirving, with a picture on the front cover worthy of Glen Jackson. ‘I have often thought, perhaps quite unjustly, that the directions given in Seamanship Manuals on the art of splicing wire were inadequate and unconvincing…’ he begins. Great stuff.
I was seduced by a fine dry-point etching of Polperro Harbour, but was unable to read the signature of the artist. It could be J Lewis Sl – something. Searching on the web for clues, I came across the name Julia Cornelius Widgery Griswold Slaughter. No, I didn’t make it up. She lived from 1850 -1905 and was an artist known for her finely detailed still life studies of natural objects – flowers, birds’ nests, fruit. Curious items abound in flea markets – maps of abandoned copper mines, dried caymen, scorpions embedded in plastic, babies’ teething rings (circa 1940) – essence of oddness, singularity, strangeness, waiting to be explored. How to pull a poem out of them though?
One poem, which won a prize, was extracted from one word I came across in a dictionary of old regional dialect words. The word was moon calf, a Cotswold term for a misbegotten creature, something not properly formed. I went on a treasure hunt then to find more words – huck-muck, queech grass, nesh and leer, hocksey, and a picture began to form of a creature – Caliban’s baby brother perhaps – left to fend for itself and alone in the world.
The spinney hid the Moon Calf
from the labouring men.
Poor creature, it was nesh and leer,
having a hunger on it. Nothing
but holly and hawthorn in the lagger
and the spiney sloe for it to feed on.
It blarted I-know-not-what-all to be fed
and comforted, lodged in the shippen
with the beasts and given care;
its mother having lately gone to glory.
Huck-muck it was, half-saved,
hameleets drawn closely wrapped
about its legs against the hocksey blowing in,
and the night air wet in fields and furrows,
under the queech-grass, bleached in the moon’s view.
The Moon-Calf bellocked on,
until finding him thus, the villagers
took him in, remarking on
the moon-white pallor of his milky skin,
pale tongue; those empty, empty eyes.