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How mercury is got

October 4, 2013

In my haphazard quest to become acquainted with a wider expanse of twentieth century poetry, I’ve recently come across the work of the Scottish poet “Hugh MacDiarmid” (the pseudonym of C.M. Grieve).

I was drawn in by the title of his long poem “A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle,” the full text of which I intend to eventually locate and read. And I still think that’s a wonderful title, drawing together the bawdy, the folkloric, the allegorical, and who knows how many other levels of significance. But I must admit that his use of Scots dialect in that poem (as in most of his poems) can make it difficult for me to appreciate him. Use too much dialect, and if the reader doesn’t himself speak it, the poetic interplay of sound and sense loses out to the meaningless babble of listening to a foreign language. Entertaining, but not poetry. If I want that, I can listen to Silly Wizard–plus, there, I get fiddles.

But that doesn’t mean MacDiarmid’s a bad poet, just that his Scots poems aren’t easily accessible and I haven’t yet put in the effort. Luckily, he has English language poems as well. I particularly like the elegy “Crystals Like Blood”:

I remember how, long ago, I found
Crystals like blood in a broken stone.

I picked up a broken chunk of bed-rock
And turned it this way and that,
It was heavier than one would have expected
From its size. One face was caked
With brown limestone. But the rest
Was a hard greenish-grey quartz-like stone
Faintly dappled with darker shadows,
And in this quartz ran veins and beads
Of bright magenta.

And I remember how later on I saw
How mercury is extracted from cinnabar
—The double ring of iron piledrivers
Like the multiple legs of a fantastically symmetrical spider
Rising and falling with monotonous precision,
Marching round in an endless circle
And pounding up and down with a tireless, thunderous force,
While, beyond, another conveyor drew the crumbled ore
From the bottom and raised it to an opening high
In the side of a gigantic grey-white kiln.

So I remember how mercury is got
When I contrast my living memory of you
And your dear body rotting here in the clay
—And feel once again released in me
The bright torrents of felicity, naturalness, and faith
My treadmill memory draws from you yet.

I like it, but I don’t quite trust it. It’s not the analogy drawn, it’s the rhetoric of that last paragraph. It’s that “Felicity, naturalness, faith,” sounds rather sentimental. And that the phrase “My treadmill memory” too faintly recalls the “monotonous precision” and “tireless, thunderous force” of the inhuman extraction machine. MacDiarmid could have explored the way our transformation of the dead into memory can be too-powerful and too-monotonous, to the point of being distorting, but for whatever reason, he didn’t. Perhaps because he’s a materialist and so only speaks of the dead in terms of memory, and so doesn’t want to acknowledge that that isn’t really enough. Nor that we do it more for our own benefit than for that of the dead. Nevertheless, the analogy compels. And in fact I think all these more disturbing aspects of the analogy are there in the precise, disinterested language he uses, up until the last paragraph.

The conceit reminds me, in fact, of the clay turned into immortal diamond at the end of Hopkins’ “That nature is a Heraclitean fire and on the comfort of the Resurrection” (and hence counts as a transformation into eternity). Yet mercury is very different from a diamond. Not hard and dry and bright, rather flowing and dangerous. But still a metal. Incidentally, cinnabar, the ore from which mercury is extracted, is also used in the making of vermilion.

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