Scaplings, Michael Haslam
Calder Valley Poetry, 2017 £7.00
A brief glossography
Where other collections have Notes to guide the reader through arcane references Haslam has two and half pages of engaging narrative (headed A brief glossography) exploring the vocabulary specific to his local landscape – Calder Valley – and introducing the richly inventive ways he uses this in poetry. Even the word ‘glossography’ has a magic and playfulness to it, far from the analytics of lexicography. As he tells us – ‘Those who take an interest in place-names can be too adamant in their own interpretations … My own versions combine guesswork, fieldwork and bookwork.’
He writes of words as though he is turning them over in his hands, admiring their texture and individual features, giving due attention to both meaning and possibilities. The scaplings of the title are ‘little shapes of wedge-shaped lumps of offcut’ – and handy for dry-stone walling. ‘A mytholm is a waters’ meetings’ – evidenced by two place names – ‘but there are more mytholms than this twain.’ (I long to crack open a linen-backed Ordnance Survey map to check.) ‘Meanwhile sally greenwood could be a local lass or a copse of withens (sallows).’
His method? ‘I dithered’ he tells us, ‘over whether to apply the lower-case to certain quite specific places …’ How approachable that ‘dither’ is. Many writers elevate their decision-making to a level of philosophical consideration; we mortals know it’s simply dithering. But when Haslam writes ‘I think place-names encapsulate the genius of a place’ and goes on to show the difference between the dozens of clough holes (‘a cleft, usually wooded, with a stream at the bottom of the V’) and the mere half-dozen that are actually called Clough Hole, he is revealing a poetic precision; this is what underpins his dithering.
Some words defy meaning – gorple (on Heptonstall Moor) – or single meanings, such as lumb or lum. While the common dialect meaning is a chimney, the actual meaning is a waterfall-pool; Haslam’s guesswork finds the connection – water-power, and steam-power.
Why does all this matter? As he concludes: ‘Only that it behoves the love-poet to describe the features of the beloved.’