It was Richie McCaffery’s spoon-winning collection that started it.
In Spinning Plates there are two spoon poems, and they started me thinking about spoons and how much I’ve always liked them. Here’s the second of Richie’s pair:
At the jumble sale I found a silver spoon,
a deserter from a service, left pearl black
after years of clammy hands, feeding its mystery
with runic markings all along its tapered handle.
Home and high from silver polish fumes
I revealed under the muck a tiny gilded bowl,
a Midas trick which pleased you, but jarred me.
The thought of what truth someone was forced
to swallow, to need so fine a spoon as that.
It’s a dark poem in terms of thought, but it wasn’t the thought but the spoon itself that stayed with me, the “tiny gilded bowl” and the “runic markings . . . along its tapered handle”.
In my teens I collected spoons. Not antique or deeply interesting spoons, to tell the truth, but the sort of tea-spoons you get on holiday with a little enamel plaque stating the name of the resort. I must have gathered about thirty or forty of these souvenirs, but they disappointed. They tarnished horribly, didn’t clean up well, and were spindly things, meant for display, not use. The enamel bits came unstuck. What I wanted was a runcible spoon, those beautiful little creations designed for slices of quince (I had never seen a quince either).
Somewhere along the road I abandoned the spoon collection. However, I must have retained a feeling for spoons, albeit repressed. In my kitchen drawer I had, until recently, two plainish apostle spoons, abandoned in a cupboard by the previous owner, and a large, well-worn silver tablespoon with initials on the handle. When I set up house in straitened circumstances nearly twenty years ago, I acquired cutlery from Barnardos or Oxfam, and it included four dessert spoons and four soup spoons, heavy ones, and they are silver-marked (Walker & Hall, which is Sheffield 1901, according to the little flag picture). I bought them to use, not to ‘collect’, and used they have been, ever since. I don’t know about these things, you understand, I just like them. I like them because of the weight and the feel of their tradition of use. I even like the way they wear, with little scratches and scrapings.
Back to the spoon poems. In Acumen 74, there was another one. This time by Hilary Menos, a poet of distinction if ever there was one. And here it is:
Here I am, again, in these auction rooms
browsing the silverware section for old spoons.
Jam spoons, salt spoons, teaspoons with wrythen knops
(a mint boxed set complete with sugar nips),
a George III shell-bowled sauce ladle,
a silver christening spoon with nail-head finial,
a dozen apostle spoons, each saint with his emblem
finely wrought at the tip of a grooved stem,
even repoussé berry spoons—Victorian bling—
each one a perfect treasure. All these darlings
laid out like pale corpses on velvet or silk
or rubber-banded tightly, shank to shank,
begging me to buy them, no matter how dear,
and tuck them up at home in my cutlery drawer.
Hilary took me back to my own spoons, to look more carefully (which is one of the things art does, of course). Wrythen knops—the ornamental knob at the top of a spoon handle is a ‘knop’, and if it’s twisted, it’s a wrythen knop. Other kinds of design are finials (which is also the name of the journal of the silver spoon club of Great Britain, no less). And repoussé? That’s when the bowl of the spoon has fruit or another design worked into it.
I always knew about apostle spoons, in the same way I knew about shepherd’s purse and coltsfoot. Somebody taught me to recognize these things before I was old enough to know I was learning. But the apostle spoons I grew up with were very ordinary: I didn’t know a true set was rare, and that it should have all thirteen of the apostles, each with a separate attribute. Every apostle carries something, often the instrument that led to his death.
And so the Master (Christ) carries a cross or orb. St Peter has a sword or key. St Andrew carries a cross. St James bears a pilgrim’s staff, St John the cup of sorrow. St Philip also has a staff, but perhaps not a pilgrim’s. St Bartholomew has a knife, St Thomas a spar. St Matthew has an axe or halbert, St James the less a fuller’s bat (the implement once used for beating and cleaning wool and, according to tradition, also for finishing off poor James). St Jude has a square (perhaps with an image of Jesus on it) and St Simon Zelotes a long saw. St Judas (poor old Judas) carries a bag of money.
On holiday in October, I found myself in a ‘vintage’ shop. Vintage is a new kind of shop, it seems to me—one up on a junk shop but three down from antiques. The shop had masses of spoons, all shapes and sizes, and beautifully cleaned up by the owner. I bought three little ones, and I bought them because of the spoon poems. I sent one of them to Hilary, the other two to other close friends, one of whom was in hospital. Hilary sent me a link to the Rachel Ross gallery, which made me look at my spoons even harder, and cherish them more.
A couple of weeks ago, my ill friend (she has advanced lung cancer) sent me a little parcel—or perhaps her daughter sent it. Inside was a silver spoon, and a note: “It’s Danish, 1930’s, we’d call it a caddy spoon, the Danes call it a compote spoon. I used it for fresh raspberries and strawberries—please treasure it.” Which I will. And I will use it.
Something has started. When I should be doing other things, I have been buying inexpensive spoons on Ebay, a new form of displacement activity. When my purchases arrive I clean them and polish them and put them carefully away, some in the cutlery drawer and some in the glass-fronted cupboard in a glass jug.
I gave away my two original apostle spoons to someone who needed luck, and I like to think they bring that. But I’ve acquired more. I don’t think they are very apostle-like. The creatures at the top of several look like death’s-heads to me and remind me of some of the Freemasonry symbols you see on gravestones. Others carry what looks to me like a book, but perhaps it’s St Jude with a square. Or perhaps it’s just a spoon maker who doesn’t know his St James the greater from St James the lesser.
In Richie McCaffery’s first spoon poem, the one I didn’t quote above, he talks about the “little lost things” that are “the detritus of distress”, a poignant reference. But such things are not always lost. Sometimes they are found. Sometimes they are right under our noses, waiting for us to pick them up to eat a boiled egg. To tilt sugar grains into tea. In such tiny and honourable activities, we are connected with the ancients.
Poetry makes spoons happen. And sometimes the reverse is also true.