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 that the air was heavy upon
and set 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.
That 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 exchanges the glowing child in the crib
for a lemonade jar and pickled human lung.
High on the table is the vessel of rarefied air
and cockatoo, its breast sluggish against the glass,
its wing outstretched, accusing the lovers
who’ve seen this trick a dozen times before.
They know this because he knows it.
The gray-haired man holds the stopcock
between his fingers like the stem of a cherry.
He needs only lift it for the bird to breathe.
It reminds me of Merwin’s poem where he
kills a fat pigeon on accident, commanding
it to fly, throwing it in the air that weighs
fifteen pounds per square inch, much 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
not until Torricelli weighed it against a tube of
mercury, because no element weighs anything
when weighed against itself.
You know this because I know this.
In Wright’s painting the gray-haired man stares
out of the picture, confronting the viewer.
Do you know of my work, he seems to ask.
I have found spirit itself, the blessèd pneuma.
It is elemental, Oh audience. Do you know
what that means? It means your lungs
are the bellows of your consciousness.
Body and soul are exactly the same thing.
We are the same down to the elements.
Even this cockatoo, in its pain, wretches,
for it requires the same oxygen as we do,
because it, too, turns air into life.
No different than a miracle.
You know this because you know it’s true.
The gray-haired man uses a cockatoo,
a rare sight even for the aristocrats of Derby.
Wright knew the beauty of the bird was the beauty
of tragedy, of not knowing before it’s too late,
as Merwin discovered that the fat pigeon
let himself be picked up every time until
he found it in the dovecote dead
of the needless efforts, he admits.
But I don’t know about needless because
I think I need to know what the air is,
just as Joseph Wright, who was asthmatic,
needed to know his own inflamed bronchus,
and bore witness to the experiment often
among his friends the natural philosophers.
The moment in the painting is the moment
before knowing too much. The gray-haired man,
making certain that this is what we want,
will either lift the stopcock or not,
will show us ourselves weighed against
what we can bear to know and what we cannot.