Authors on Museums: the poet Alice Oswald returns to Cirencester in search of a Roman nymph

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2013

When I was six, I went on a school trip to a museum. I don’t know where it was. I can remember only a set of steps leading round a corner. I ran down the steps and came face to face with an orang-utan. I wasn’t sure whether it was alive, but I shouted at the top of my voice and Mrs Copestakes told me off: first for running, second for shouting and third for pronouncing it “orange you-tang”. There’s nothing else I remember about the place, just the steps and the gingery tall creature (the first corpse I ever saw) looking down at me.

Since then, I haven’t been to many museums. I can’t help being depressed by the aloofness of things behind glass. There seems to be always such a deadweight of description of what is really just a long tradition (and I’m part of it) of eating and cleaning and killing and decaying. 

But a few years ago, I stepped into the Corinium Museum in Cirencester. It had been recently refurbished, so that alongside its objects I found various waxwork people in Roman clothes. Corinium was an important Roman town and there (still there) was its butcher, stuck to his cleaver, hovering over a dead chicken; a soldier, depressed and paralysed on his bunk; a family of four at odds with each other in a sitting room. Upstairs, there were graves which started grumbling when I touched a screen: "Ah, citizen! I know what you’re thinking! How did one of the locals gain so much wealth? I put those hooded cloaks on the map. Just the thing in this dreadful climate..." And here and there, under huge floating paragraphs on red boards, and looking rather pale by contrast, there were things that had been touched by Romans: a buckle, a handle, a strainer, seven copper-alloy and silver spoons, coins, pots, weights, probes, a surgical hook, a pillar, a plough.

It’s very hard to look at things. Here I am, sitting in my shed remembering the Romans, not really noticing the hard-worked figure of my biro pushing at the page. I could pause and note down its yellowness, its inky beak, its self-reliant but friendly, exhausted way of leaning on the forefinger, but it would seem pedantic and anyway the pen would simply go on being densely itself alongside my adjectives. It’s the same with spoons and hooks and buckles. All day my hands understand them, but my attention is somewhere else, normally a few hours behind or ahead of what I’m doing. The fact is, it’s impossible (except by accident) to imagine the present, which is why it’s so frustrating trying to imagine the past.

So I stepped into the Corinium Museum and I was wafting around the place, filling up with facts and exchanging the occasional glance with a paralysed butcher or soldier; not really looking at anything (at least not in the fleeting and practical way it would like to be looked at), when I came across a water nymph. She was perhaps 30 times smaller than an orang-utan but every bit as compelling.

Just to put this in context, it was 2005: the year we moved from Devon to Gloucestershire. In Devon, we’d been living by the Dart, which is a 52-mile river of the kind that drowns people: as wide as a motorway and in places about 20 feet deep. In Gloucestershire, the closest river was the Dunt, a runnel no deeper than my boots, a mere glint in a field, mostly lost in nettles. For the first month after moving, that whole landscape made me thirsty, not just with a throat thirst, but with a thirst of the eyes and the ears; which is why I recognised instantly this two-inch creature of water sealed behind glass.

She had no accompanying information, only a number and a footnote saying “Roman bone figure of a water nymph”, so I had no option but to look at her very hard. What I saw was an Iron Age, slightly damaged pocket goddess, with left arm and both lower legs missing. She had tool marks on the breast. She was smiling, looking outwards, pouring water from a spilling vase held lightly under a long-fingered hand. Her shoulders had sheen but not shine. She seemed off-guard, in charge of water but not much concerned, curved like an old moon or question mark, crippled but making light of it, no clothes, even her flesh made of bone (whose bone?), very slim, as if her weight had been worn down by water but there was no water anywhere near her. Even the little slurp tipping from her vase was made of a bone and as dry as a bone.

Photograph: "You should never look too closely at a nymph or a goddess." Alice Oswald breaks her own rule (Simon Stanmore)