Ekphrasis – poetry about a work of art, but in this case, very specifically about the marginalia of mediaeval manuscripts. The fantastical creatures doodled in the margins and at the bottom of pages by monks who may have been bored, or may have wanted to keep the readers interested, or who simply could not help themselves. This prompt took me to the Mappa Mundi, which is not a manuscript, but which contains fantastical creatures, but also human beings doing monstrous things.
Here lies a bridge between belief and certainty.
Around the bridge, that graceful arch,
stretches fantastical and strange terrain.
Who drew this map – this world
of savage gods and monsters?
Maybe a man who, rigid in his daily prayer,
shut up in that fastness on the hill,
spent his days in terra incognita living
a life of imagination, terror and discovery,
Certainty took him from cloister to chapel;
imagination took him everywhere.
Here, the Sciapoi – each holds his leg aloft,
its giant foot a shield from heat of noon;
the Blemmyes with no heads: they speak
like lawyers – through their bellies;
the Troglodytes, cave dwellers, snake eaters,
maybe artists too, of hunt and Auroch and
strange people with the skulls of birds;
Cynocephali with the heads of dogs.
He drew such monsters, their misshapen dignity,
such beautiful deformity – awash with magic.
He knew that monsters do exist,
too few in number to be truly dangerous.
More dangerous, the monsters who believe
and hate and act without asking questions –
who cannot imagine what might be,
who travel at night, without a guide.