Poetry can be found everywhere. Something Joan McGavin made quite clear in her presentation at this month’s Hampshire Writers’ Society meeting.
An assignment for the Creative Writing PHD, centring on the study of Phrenology, had her trawling through a rather large collection of death masks! The masks are the property of the Hampshire Cultural Trust and it is believed were owned by the surgeon at HM Winchester Prison whose father was Giles King Lyford; Jane Austen’s doctor during her final illness.
Pre-dating photography, some of these masks are the only remaining evidence of what the person looked like. They led Joan to question our everyday issues and, when borrowing one, to witness and note the effects it had on passers-by. The death masks often look so strange because the subjects have had their heads shaved so as to show the shape of the skull more clearly.
“With no hair, they tend to look even odder!” Joan says.
Still, when discussing poetry, we like to pigeonhole it.
Two of the masks inspired particular poems – the subjects both executed for murder. The first was used in an exhibition of the subject in Edinburgh’s Anatomical Museum. The Second featured on a ‘poster presentation’ at an archaeology and anatomical sciences-run conference at the University of Southampton this year, called “Skeletons, Stories and Social Bodies”.
Enjoy and just before you go; a note from Joan: “Don’t have nightmares!”
|Baby Face||Death Masks|
|Even his name’s too cute,
too childish –
John Amy Bird Bell –
to suggest a murderer.
And here’s his death mask:
complete with eyelashes
and almost dimples,
especially on his right cheek;
the skull shaven
for the phrenologist’s hands.
I read somewhere
about “flaxen curls”.
He was fourteen years old.
It’s said he was brass-necked
Even his name’s too
|To see it you must cradle it up
and out of its bubble-wrap swaddling
into the room’s light
where you’ll compare the marks left
and wonder at the detail in the moulding:
Posed on its smooth, round plinth
You catch yourself glancing past,
or you’ll start talking to it,
smear some life into it.
Report by Lisa Nightingale