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Matthew Gavin Frank: Of Devils and Flowers

An outtake from the book Preparing The Ghost, a writer’s playful foray into the world of a squid photographer.

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Photo taken from the NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet Flickr.

By Matthew Gavin Frank

In 1874, when Newfoundland Reverend Moses Harvey secured and photographed, for the first time, an intact specimen of the giant squid, he finally rescued the beast from the realm of mythology and proved its existence, forever altering the ways in which we engaged the construct of the sea monster. To take the photo, Harvey transported the squid from one bay to another, and then to his home where he proceeded to drape it over his bathtub’s curtain rod so its full size could be displayed. After seeing the photograph in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, I became obsessed with tracing the logistics of Harvey’s undertaking and connecting said logistics to the peculiarities of Harvey’s personal life. I expected to get a 5,000-or-so-word essay out of it, and then over 500 pages later, I found that I had about 200 pages to cut. To flesh out the story behind the photograph, I researched the various aspects of 19th century Newfoundland that influenced Harvey and his journey from bay to bathtub and beyond. Such aspects include, but are not limited to, the period fishing equipment, politics, religious practices, and Harvey family history that informed and contextualized Moses Harvey’s obsessions. I conducted my research in conjunction with Joan Ritcey, head archivist at the Memorial University Libraries and Centre for Newfoundland Studies (the Promised Land for those seeking information about Moses Harvey and the giant squid), and Moses Harvey’s great-granddaughter (!). It was my hope that in coupling such research with lyrical meditations on the nature(s) of mythology, I may also uncover, through inquisition and analysis, a larger statement about our human need to mythologize. Eventually, I hit a wall in the writing process and had to light out for Newfoundland in order to conduct on-site research, get drunk with Harvey’s descendants, and immerse myself in what the filmmaker Werner Herzog sometimes refers to as “the voodoo of place.”

*                      *                     *

Sligo drives the old taxi, chugging like some grandfatherly steamship into the traffic, then beyond the traffic, as we make our way to Logy Bay, Newfoundland, where, in 1874, the first giant squid ever to be photographed thrashed itself to death in fishermen’s herring nets. My day-bag kicks like the abducted from the trunk, and Sligo lists for me some of his favorite mosses and liverworts I can find in Cataracts Provincial Park. “Bryum creberrimum, Cephaloziella hampeana, and Ditrichum lineare,” he may have said, “and you know what we call an illegitimate child here, boy? A moss child. Begat of the moss, eh?” The stubble pokes from his old face, needle-sharp and musked with cologne as he takes a right turn from what can only be loosely called the left lane-cum-gravel shoulder, proving that the rheumatic beast still has some fight in it, as it belches black diesel into the crestfallen crotches of the suicidal puffins.

Its body is exactly as Reverend Moses Harvey described it after he paid the fishermen ten bucks for the specimen: “immense” and “perfect.”

The outskirts of downtown St. John’s are curtained with defunct newsstands and graffiti, all tin and rust, and a grit that seems to gather in the air like a fresh kind of news, the sort of detritus that signals a rebirth by seawater after some tentacular and exaggerated apocalypse. The ocean roars and, in it, the overfished cod population desperately tries to propagate its species. The abstract tattoos on the backs of Sligo’s hands have greened in that senior-tattoo way, have become outer veins, his guts and the avenues that circulate blood to them have found their way out.

Soon, the city falls away, and we’re on a major road, cruising at over 60 kilometers per hour, which seems a visitation to the sort of speed I knew a long time ago, but have since outgrown. On the side of the road, in the fog, I swear I can see it—that 1874 giant squid braiding and unbraiding its tentacles as if hitchhiking across habitat and time, as if it had never been stuffed into a vat of brine and shipped to Connecticut for further study. Its pharynx is the size of an infant’s head, and it’s busy propelling the fog through its mantle, as it once did with the Atlantic, in a rhythm that parrots human heartbeat. Even in this waning light, I can see why its suckers are typically described as “campanulate,” meaning of a flower, meaning bell-shaped, meaning like a campanula, the bloom which lent its name to Rapunzel, the bloom from which white latex is extracted to make the gloves worn by scientists when they dissect things like the giant squid.

I want to warn it—its blood loses its ability to carry oxygen in warmer waters, resulting in suffocation.

As we inch closer, it waves us down with these sessile suckers, its body-tunic still bright with the slime of the deep sea, now lit orange in the streetlights. It’s longest tentacle, acetabuliferous and desperate, is downturned, and its fleshy cups milk the air and clasp together as if carrying an invisible lantern. The phantom squid appears to have been kneaded into its own flesh, which seems ornamented with psoriasis and sores from its archetypal battles with the sperm whales. Its body is exactly as Reverend Moses Harvey described it after he paid the fishermen ten bucks for the specimen, dragged it through the streets of downtown St. John’s on a horse-driven flatbed, brought it home, wedged it with a team of friends through his front door, carried it to his bathroom, draped it over his bathtub’s curtain rod, spread the carcass out like so much drapery, and took its picture: “immense” and “perfect.”

It hoists its beak to the sky, into the mist there, divining some version of the future, magnificent and doomed—its prominent place on so many menus, its dance for the camera of a stout submersible in 2013, its 21-hour voyage, coffined in a refrigerated case, from New Zealand to New York’s American Museum of Natural History, its ovaries ripped out, the eggs of which will ritualistically line the shelves of so many naturalists’ freezers, resembling bunches of grapes clinging to their their stems. Once, it must have been more ample than this, as perhaps, were the stories we told about it—how it was known as the Devil-fish before it was known as the giant squid, and routinely featured in cautionary sermons from the pulpit. Now, its three hearts commune with the fog, the peat and the sphagnum, with Sligo’s blood and mine, push for the outside, a tryst struck in the concussion between anatomy and the weather. I want to warn it—its blood loses its ability to carry oxygen in warmer waters, resulting in suffocation.

I wish I can tell him about the giant squid, but all of the words we use to describe its body suddenly feel dangerous here.

The vision evaporates when Sligo starts telling me about his tattoos, and I wonder if he believes that there’s something inherently super or mythological about something we stylize in ink, and I wish I can tell him about the giant squid, but all of the words we use to describe its body suddenly feel dangerous here, as if part of what the poet Dennis Silk would call “puppet-vocabulary”—how we use certain words as faulty tools, to make things outside of us mimic us, to create that safe distance essentially between us and us, and how once we’ve rendered the squid inanimate (by photograph, by sermon, by myth, by mist) we can reanimate it only in our memories, which, while beholden to that complex set of rules of animation, are infuriatingly animated themselves, shuffling among the junkyard’s parts, trying in vain to connect them into some sort of homogenous whole: like pain, like fear, like God, like Newfoundland, like self, like squid. Even Moses Harvey described the ways in which the giant squid pumps seawater through its body as “effete,” and described the seawater itself as “subservient.”

I come out onto the stones at Logy Bay where Moses Harvey once stood and once sneezed, with a Cadbury Crispy Crunch candy bar I bought at Breen’s Superette, probably from Breen herself, in my hand, but I see no squid, only swallow a sharp chunk of peanut flake whole and half-choke and live to tell no squid story. But Moses Harvey did. That 1874 morning-going-to-afternoon at Logy Bay, on the beach, though Moses Harvey did not notice him in the brush, there may have been a homeless man squatting over the fire he had built, just as there is such a man now, as I stand here. This man was unaware that a giant squid, and perhaps even the ocean, lie beyond the brush. He pulled the mug from the fire by its handle with a stick. He touched the mug, made of local clay and local sand, and burnt his fingertips. It was too hot to lift, so with the stick, he wedged it into the sand, bowed his lips to it and, in this way, was able to drink slowly the entire cupful of the assam tea. As ever, our mouths can handle what our hands can not. Though they often long to sense the same things, including each other, including the squid, there will be no empathy between them.

Matthew Gavin Frank is the author of the nonfiction books, Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer, Pot Farm, and Barolo, the poetry books, The Morrow Plots, Warranty in Zulu, and Sagittarius Agitprop, and two chapbooks. His essay collection/cookbook, The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food, is forthcoming November 2015 from W.W. Norton: Liveright. He teaches at Northern Michigan University, where he is the Nonfiction Editor of Passages North. This winter, he tempered his gin with two droplets (per 750ml) of tincture of odiferous whitefish liver. For health.

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