In Buckie, in the North East of Scotland, there is a small but beautifully organised museum, focused on the fishing heritage of the town. A number of years ago, I visited while on holiday in the area, and was fascinated, particularly by the enlargements of old photographs used to illustrate the lives and work of the fisher folk of the late 19th and early 20th century.
There is surely nothing more evocative than photographs from the past, that offer us a glimpse into a departed world, but one inhabited by people like ourselves, in strange clothing and unfamiliar contexts, but revealing in their faces and postures the common humanity that we share with them.
In the museum shop, postcard sized copies of some of these photographs were on sale, and, finding them irresistible, I purchased a selection. As with many holiday souvenirs, their number reduced after the return home: some lost, some torn, some marked by coffee stains. Eventually, only one, for me the most fascinating, remained, perched among other clutter on a bookshelf.
The photograph shows a young woman engaged in the work of filling a barrel, probably of herring, topping it up with brine. I found the image unsettling and spent much time imagining how the life of this young woman might have been lived.
At length, an idea crept into my mind that, some visitor to the museum, seeing the photograph, might see in its subject a similarity to someone he had known in the present day. I played around with the conceit, trying it out first of all as a framework for a ghost story. This proving unsuccessful, I used it as the basis for a poem.
The resultant work was published this month. You can read it below.
A Victorian Photograph
Over one hundred years ago this photograph
was taken; but the woman it shows might be you.
The hands, slightly too large, are unmistakable;
the narrow waist. The shawl around your head
accentuates your features: full brow and wide dark eyes,
your lips almost a smile.
I can imagine you thus occupied: the harbour side
the reek of fish, your arms glittering with scales,
your fingers numbed by the snell wind.
Such concentration, as you pour, into a barrel,
brine from a chipped enamel basin,
your clothing soiled by labour, masking your beauty;
yet you are beautiful, then, now.
And did some deckhand, trembling with joy,
love you, and come to know, as I have known,
the tender miracle of heart on heart?
First published in Marble Poetry Magazine, Issue 8, Jan. 2021
Copyright © Gordon Gibson