Wednesday, 2 September 2020 at 16:57
Things have been rather slow over the last few lockdown months. I got out to Spurn Head over the Bank Holiday and thought, following the recent Filey Brigg sequence, I should add some more coastal poems to the blog. Here is a sequence that first appeared in Drift, (Humber Mouth Festival, 2008). The project included an anthology and a short film, with poems by David Kennedy, Christopher Reid and David Wheatley. It was David Wheatley who pointed out that the only real whale in Moby-Dick was in stately house not far away, and took me to have a look at it. The sequence later also appeared in Pilgrim Tongues (Wrecking Ball Press, 2015).
The Lord Paramount Looks Seawards
The Lord Paramount of the Seigniory of Holderness may claim any cetacean washed up on the coast from Spurn Bight to Flamborough Head. In 1825 a beached sperm whale was taken to Burton Constable Hall, where its skeleton was displayed, inspiring passages in Thomas Beale’s The Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839) and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851). In 2007, the reassembled skeleton was exhibited in the Great Hall of Burton Constable.“… in Yorkshire, England, Burton Constable by name, a certain Sir Clifford Constable has in his possession the skeleton of a Sperm Whale… Sir Clifford’s whale has been articulated throughout; so that like a great chest of drawers, you can open and shut him, in all his bony cavities…” Moby-Dick.
1. A Cabinet of Curiosities
Rhino horn, coco-de-mer, shark jaws,
tailfins, swordfish swords, sawfish saws,
quadrants, astrolabes, a huge “book camera”,
manuscripts, microscopes, a Concave Mirror
all of Twenty-Four Inches in Diameter,
antiquities, dried reptiles, thermometers,
fossils, rocks, minerals, shells, the Claw
of a Great Lobster, a Tooth-brush from Mecca,
the Leg of an Elk two Foot two Inches long,
a large Sea-Tortoise from the Isle of Ascension,
fowling pieces, a carbine with an extending butt,
perfectly balanced forty-bore hair
-triggered duelling pistols with silver escutcheon
and the motto Ubi Libertas Ibi Patria.
2. Sir Clifford’s Whale
The Lord Paramount of the Seigniory
of Holderness looks down and oversees
these bones brought in by downstairs and scullery
staff from their long exile in lean-tos, sheds,
from their chilly diasporas in glasshouse and stable,
the outhouse earth into which they’d sunk. The head,
big as a Ford Transit, has been garaged under
tarpaulin for decades. But his Lordship’s vision
is more than just this fleshless resurrection
the sun shines through; it is the huge skeleton key
to reunite drifting land with inconstant sea.
His mind ponders how blubber has bubbled off:
how bones are bars detaining nowt; how flesh,
long on the run, winks through, fugitive as light.
What’s suffered a sea-change here’s the coast itself;
turned inside out, all that is solid melts into air.
Even this thing now hugely spine and jaw
is an idea in thrall to the carnival
whose tides hold the whole of Holderness in its maw.
Forget the chance encounters of sewing-machines
and umbrellas on dissecting-tables, once more
Surrealism’s at the service of Revolution
and the elephant in this room, though not yet white,
is moving there from black. Trace its evolution
as the articulated folly of its bones
glides from sea through cetology, from a surgeon’s
prose to a Merman’s Leviathanic museum.
Misrule: now you see it, now it’s gone.
A rabblement of bones has breached the Hall;
something huge and hugely hurt has crawled
in from winter – its great wounded bawl
must have foghorned in another world – and died.
Left here, all we have’s this x-rayed sprawl.
Across the floorboards of this ancient pile,
a pile of pitted uncommon bones are spilled;
up there on pilastered walls, narwhal tusks
masquerade as unicorn horns, meanwhile
the portraits (Elizabethan, Jacobean,
in jousting armour, classically robed,
or a wild Victorian filly riding to hounds)
look down on a wrecked ossuary, smile
slyly at the carcass of this pelagic meal.