Some people collect trainers. Other people collect stamps. Others LPs. Sir Henry Wellcome, the eccentric American entrepreneur of the 19th Century, collected medical antiquities. These included preserved shrunken human heads, South American mummies, and ancient Roman penis amulets. Also a bibliomaniac, he bought up medieval libraries, amassing a huge collection of early printed books, covering subjects as varied as the architecture of heaven, guides to making healing poultices for wounds, and advice on how to die. You can see his haul at the Wellcome Collection, the weirdest museum in London no one has heard of. It’s billed as a place “for the incurably curious”, and given its almost Carrollian atmosphere of unreality, it seems only natural that they employ a poet, whose job it is to interpret the curious objects through even curiouser verse. His name is Ezra Miles, and ARCCA spoke to him recently about the museum and his work.
N: The collection is so vast it’s difficult to know where to start. What are your must-see items?
E: All of it is great. Just get in and have a look in any room, you’ll find something interesting. I really like the crude lead mortuary crosses from 1300s London. They were probably made by prisoners, for one another after an outbreak of plague or dysentery in the extremely unhygienic prisons. There’s something touching and human about them and the stories of the people who made them, completely forgotten now of course. They resonate strongly in these Coronavirus times.
N: What’s the strangest medical antiquity on display?
E: Perhaps the early modern tobacco resuscitator. In those days health was informed by the theory of the Four Humours. This was that we were comprised of four ingredients: blood, pus, yellow bile and black bile. When they were all in correct proportions with one another you were healthy. As soon as they were out of whack you became sick. Having too much blood was a common complaint, hence the practice of blood-letting. This system also worked symbiotically with the four elements. The tobacco resuscitator kit was likely found in the 1750s, along the banks of the Thames, and was a treatment for drowning. If you’d fallen in the water and someone had managed to fish you out, they would fill you with smoke—hot and dry inside being the correct solution to cold and wet on the outside. Shockingly, the resuscitator was rectal. Imagine that. You’ve nearly drowned, somehow been saved, and all of a sudden someone is pulling your trousers down and inflating you rectally. This is where the phrase, ‘blowing smoke up your arse’ comes from. You do this to pump up someone’s ego, but if you did it to them in real life it would result in organ damage and death.
N: These early books sound weird and wonderful. Do you have a favourite?
E: There’s a German work called ‘X’, about ophthalmology—eye surgery basically—which has amazing hand coloured illustrations of different eye surgeries and diseases. Definitely not for the squeamish. It makes you feel for the poor souls afflicted with a huge swollen popped out eye back then, and the suffering they would have gone through in treating it. The book is beautiful though, the colours are still so vivid. And like everything in the museum, you can see it for free.
What are these poems you write, titled ‘The Incunabula’?
Writing a collection of poetry in response to the medieval archives was the brainchild of myself and Dr Elma Brenner, a medieval specialist at the museum. We wanted to bring these books to life. One of the ways you can do that is having an artist or poet make work in reaction to historical material. Suddenly you’ve got a pair of eyes looking through something, asking questions and examining a world that’s previously only been seen by academics and researchers. Hopefully through poetry I’ve been able to bring these books, and the stories inside them, into a whole new context.
What are some of the creepier objects you’ve written poems about?
Earlier forms of paper were commonly made from velum, which is a calf’s skin, and there was something fascinating about the idea that animals had to be sacrificed for our words. My poem ‘True Night’, is about a three-eyed calf, what would have been seen as a ‘monster’, being sacrificed to an unnamed forest god. I describe this forest spirit with his “chest lit on fire and mouth full of bats”. The father and son in the poem kill the calf as an offering. In the next poem in the collection, ‘Writing the Calf’, the same calf’s skin is then treated and turned into the page. These poems are both quite dark, and probably a bit creepy.
Where do you begin writing a poem about a three-eyed calf?
Most of my poems begin out of a phrase or image that feels exciting or propulsive in some way, then I just go from there. I knew I wanted to write about this man and his son, walking through the woods at night, looking for their pregnant cow. The initial writing is very free and expressive, then the editing process irons out and refines the details which are extraneous. It’s gradual, and very considered in one sense, and spontaneous and loose in the other.
And what is incunabula?
It refers to early printed books published before 1501. In Germany around 1440, Johannes Gutenberg began developing the printing press. His Gutenberg Bible was one of the earliest mass-produced books, and it transformed the world to a level comparable to industrialisation or the steam locomotive in the 19th Century. Suddenly, books were no longer hand written, and multiple copies could be manufactured. It transformed Europe and later the world, leading eventually to the Reformation. Incunabula means beginnings and birth, which is appropriate given the effect the printed word has had.
I hope this article will be the incunabula of people writing poems about their day job. Thank you, Ezra.