I’ve been obsessed with this painting by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-97) for the last few weeks. I love the use of chiaroscuro in general, and I love how Wright has used it to deify the scientific experiment. I’ve also been reading Boynton’s Beginnings of Modern Science, a collection of the early letters and essays showing the development of major scientific fields of study. I am always in awe of our curiosity and ingenuity as a species.
This poem is also dedicated to Artschaft, whose excellent art criticism has exposed me to lots of new art and artists. I encourage you to have a look at her work.
An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump
And Boyle said let there be the element
primitive and perfectly unmingled body
made of no others nor of each other mixt
of one and only one kind making all things.
I know this because they know this.
And Torricelli saw the air was heavy upon
and set forth to weighing it, proclaiming
We live at the bottom of a great sea of air
surely nature does not abhor a vacuum.
so Boyle commissioned one.
In those days
they called it a pneumatic engine, it was
Robert Hooke who made it to specification
and with it suffocated many a lark and finch.
Upon greater exsuction of air one bird began
manifestly to droop and appear sick, was taken
with irregular convulsions as are wont to be
observed in poultry with their heads wrung off.
I know this because they know this.
The same spectacle Joseph Wright of Derby
committed to oil-on-canvas a hundred years later
when the air pump was a gimmick for dinner parties,
a spell of gray-haired men in velvet robes des chambres.
See how they gather closely by candlelight such
as Geertgen illuminated his Nativity at night,
Wright exchanging the glowing child in the crib
with a lemonade jar and pickled human lung.
Standing on the table is the vessel of rarefied air
and cockatoo, its sluggish breast against the glass
pressed, its wing outstretched, accusing the lovers
who’ve both seen this trick a dozen times before.
The gray-haired man holds the stopcock
between his fingers like the stem of a cherry
he only needs lift it for the bird to breathe.
It reminds me of Merwin’s poem where he
kills a fat pigeon by accident, commanding
it to fly, throwing it in the air that weighs
fifteen pounds per square inch, heavier
than fat pigeons. So that is what he is.
I know this because he knows it.
They didn’t used to think air weighed anything
until Torricelli weighed it against a tube of
mercury, because no element weighs anything
when weighed within itself.
Jean Rey knew that.
The doctor from Bergerac wrote to the sieur Brun
explaining why tin and lead weighed more after
they’d been fired. Do you know why that is?
Neither did anyone else.
Not until a hundred years later when Lavoisier
declared there was no such thing as a phlogiston,
for he understood what it meant to burn air;
he named that element oxygen that forms a calx.
You know that now because I know that.
In Wright’s painting the gray-haired man stares
out of the picture, confronting its observer.
Do you know of my work, he seems to ask.
I have found spirit itself, the blessèd pneuma.
It is elemental, dear audience.
Do you know
what that means? It means your lungs
are the bellows of your very consciousness.
Body and soul are exactly the same thing.
We are the same down to the elements.
Even this cockatoo, it is in pain, it wretches
because it requires the same oxygen as us,
because it, too, turns air into life.
No different than a miracle.
You know this because you know it’s true.
At least that’s how Wright painted it. Something
like two hundred years later Kurt Vonnegut
said that artists were like canaries in a coal mine.
Miners used to send canaries into mineshafts
each morning before heading down themselves
making sure nothing poisonous had seeped in.
They would keel over, the canaries, their singing
would shrink down the tunnels so the miners
knew whether or not it was safe to come in,
the birds being as necessary to the miners as
those who gave their lives to Boyle’s experiments
or served to entice the audience in Wright’s work.
The gray-haired man has chosen a cockatoo
a rare sight even for the English elite of Derby.
Wright knew to use the beauty of the bird
and that its beauty was the beauty of tragedy
as Merwin discovered the fat pigeon would
let himself be picked up every time until
he found him in the dovecote dead
of the needless efforts.
But I don’t know because I think I need to know
what the air is, because that is what I am.
It’s why the gray-haired man is looking at you
because Wright was asthmatic and needed to know
his own inflamed bronchus.
We know this because they didn’t always know.