Happy New Year’s Eve!
This is part of a series I’m working on that looks at the history of aluminum, from its discovery as a metal to its mass production. The poems are connected loosely by their shared themes, but don’t have to be read in any order.
The “You” in this poem is Napoleon III (1808-73), a very interesting, tragic figure in history, who gave Henri Étienne Sainte-Claire Deville unlimited resources to experiment with aluminum manufacturing. Napoleon was hoping to get aluminum armor for his military, but it was not meant to be.
THE PRICE OF ALUMINUM
Silver from Clay
In 1855 a kilogram cost two thousand francs,
or the average household salary for that year,
or roughly twelve ingots arranged pyramidal
and garnering rude skepticism from social elites
in the cast iron nave of a Gothic whale’s gut.
But its pleasant luster will in thrall your son,
the surface of his rattle of that softer silver,
and gold, too, with corals and diamonds decorated.
Both the child and the aristocrat hold the metal
in the same esteem, as a prop one is handed,
while you envisioned whole legions clothed
in panoplies of lightweight silver from clay,
something akin to armored knights or angels,
with no doubt yourself in command, in likeness
of Charlemagne, or perhaps uncle Bonaparte.
Things didn’t exactly turn out that way,
only a few expensive helmets, and dinnerware
for your most distinguished artist friends;
Flaubert and Delacroix get aluminum spoons,
the King of Sardinia has to make due with gold.
You always said the people should have a say.
When the Salon refused Manet’s Le déjeuner
you let the people judge for themselves (they laughed).
When you wanted to be emperor you asked
if it was okay by them (97% said it was. Okay.)
By 1870 it sells for five hundred francs a kilo.
People were coming around to the idea
like Deville knew they would, a man of vision
like yourself, for whom such visions, when pursued,
are like truths you need to unburden yourselves of.
But even you missed the warning signs.
The same plebiscite that crowned you Caesar
was the one that fell for Bismarck’s telegram,
and savagely, happily sung La Marseillaise,
demanding a war you knew couldn’t be won.
How inglorious your march to Metz
as injured troops returning from the front
jeered and rebuked their palsied emperor
wraithlike and uneasy upon his horse,
their silvery idol turning back into clay.
On your deathbed you asked whether or not
it was cowardly to have surrendered at Sedan.
Surely the people weren’t right on this point,
or else they were nothing like you’d imagined,
willing to offer up to slaughter the sons you wouldn’t.
By 1878 aluminum is just a hundred francs
and people were already impatient for Verne’s
aluminum cities of the future, and already
unsatisfied by them, another mark against
your reputation quickly souring on the branch.
That’s what happens when you make enemies
with someone like Victor Hugo. Napoléon le petit.
Was ever an emperor made naked as you were,
constrained to sell Eugénie’s aluminum jewelry,
undressed like Pentheus was torn to shreds?