June 13, 2008 The Academy Offices From the Academy Audio Archive

Mercury Rising (A Visualization)

Jena Osman

Q. Why is not the air in CITIES so FRESH, as that in the COUNTRY?
A. Because it is impregnated with the breath of its numerous inhabitants…
—from Guide to Science, 1868 by Rev. Dr. Brewer

1a.

there will be three parts.
pay attention to your breath. 
breathe deeply, 
in through your nose, 
out through your mouth. 

feel the breath in your belly and hold it, 
then release. 

when you breathe out, 
your breath becomes visible,
a mist
that you inhale through your nose 
and exhale from your mouth 
in a circle. 

you are surrounded by this mist, 
and it becomes denser, 
like a fog. 

then the fog clears 
and you are on the bank of a river. 

listen to the sound of the wide river. 

look out and see the opposite bank. 
there is a sandy beach and a forest beyond the sand. 

there is a boat with an old woman and an old man 
and without a word
they take you across to the other side. 

as they take you, you can see stones, 
clear water, 
you can hear the water against the sides of the boat. 

when you get to the sandy beach
you get out of the boat
knowing that it will be there 
for you 
when you return
and you leave the boat, the man and woman, behind.

 

1b.

there will be three parts that lead to others. pay attention to your breath. breathe deeply, in through your nose, out through your mouth. hold it, then release. you are northwest of las vegas. when you breathe out, your breath is a vapor that lifts back up and you inhale it through your nose like a circle. you are 36 million miles from the sun, small and singular. study the explosion clouds of bombs in the height of the cold war. this place is not really a place, just housing. you are on an empty street and the light is bright and hot. no atmosphere to ward off or soften impact. you pass a movie theater, a bowling alley, both now closed. you notice that one side of the street is unbearably hot and the other side has ice in its corners. the eccentric orbit rotates three times for every two revolutions. twenty newspaper boxes. you stop for a moment and listen to the air and it streams around the debris. dust carried by solar wind. hot enough to melt lead. there are voices in the distance and you walk toward them and the fluorescent lights above. a group of VIPs sit on bleachers. they watch the desert floor crater like the moon in the wake of over 900 explosions. where the surface is fractured is called "weird terrain." there are mountains, valleys, ridges. compression folds crisscross the plains. listen to the testing, the houses collapsing under the mushroom vapor, searing the skin of pigs. tidal bulges are raised by the sun. you walk past the shattered structures and mock bridges. on your right is a clearing and you go there. in the clearing is a gun turret once used to measure the atmosphere, now inhabited by birds. you ask the bird a question and it gives you an answer. you walk back into the zone of controlled space. a large iron core provides a magnetic shield against solar storms. there will always be a use for this. you stop at a barrier where you are met by a uniformed guard. there is a gun in his holster. he looks you up and down and then lets you proceed to base camp. the streets are named Buster, Teapot, Crossroad. you walk between the empty office buildings and look up at the sky, then the horizon. you see that the light has changed, and that a little time has passed.

 

1c.

In the solar system, Mercury is the planet closest to the sun. You can see it in the sky only in the morning and at sunset (in the northern hemisphere, its close to the horizon). The Greeks initially thought it was two planets and named the morning one Apollo and the sunset one Hermes. But they eventually determined it was in fact one planet, and the Romans renamed it Mercury. The planet has temperatures that range from a high of 800F to a low of -350F. It was once thought to be "tidally locked," with one side always facing the sun and one side always in darkness. This theory was debunked in the 1960s, when Mercury was proved to have an eccentric orbit. In 1974 the Mariner spaceship did a flyby and mapped almost half of Mercury's surface. In 2008, the Messenger mapped another 30%.

Mercury, Nevada is located near the Nellis Air Force Range and the Nevada Test Site. Nuclear bombs were tested above ground from 1951-1963, after which testing continued underground until 1992. The explosions in the tunnels formed craters on the desert surface. After 1992, some "subcritical" testing continued in order to "protect the safety of the U.S. nuclear stockpile." No one ever officially lived in Mercury—most of the workers commuted from Las Vegas—but sometimes they stayed overnight in the dormitories, bowled in the bowling alley, ate at the steak house. It's unclear what the site is used for now.

 

2a.

you take the trail into the forest, 
look up at the trees, 
the streams of light coming down through the branches. 

you walk on a bed of pine needles. 

on your left, 
a little ways off the path, 
you see a clearing where there's a small animal. 

you ask the animal a question and it gives you an answer. 
"vapor." 
you thank it for that and return to the path. 

as you walk along
you see something shiny 
and when you get closer
you see it's a key. 

you pick it up and put it in your pocket. 

further along off to the right, 
you see another clearing, 
and another small animal awaits you. 

you ask it a question. 

it gives you an answer, but it's hard to make out. 
you can sense a word forming with an 'r': 
"reality"? 
and you thank it for that. 

you return to the trail. 

 

2b.

there will be three parts that each split into three parts and those parts will break into others. pay attention to your breath as usual. a circle of vapor moves in through your nose and out through your mouth. a circle of vapor thickens into a fog and for a moment you cannot see. inhale the heavy water. crystal shards of terrigen mist allow you to move so fast, you can double back on your own time line. the line is covered in pine needles that soften the sound of your steps. you look up and the sun threads through the trees. two entwined snakes and a lyre from a tortoise shell to steal and sell for profit. on your left is a small clearing where a sparrow awaits. you approach the sparrow and ask a question. instead of an answer, you're given an assignment. you must carry a dream from the sparrow to a sleeper cell further in the woods. carry on in swift flight and syncretically combine with all the winged others: helmet, staff, sandals and such—the ones who move toward speed force. you have the power to jump time and populate the forest with temporal dupes. back on the path is a sequence of boundaries for crossing over into Arcadia. there's something shiny up ahead, a key, pick it up. you can mark speed with lines, but multiples are better. off to the right is another clearing, another small animal, perhaps a groundhog running back and forth from grass to cairn of stones. you ask it a question. it reveals and interprets. the stones of the cairn are soldered cans of speed. they write a family tree in chalk: grandson of Atlas, son of Zeus, father of Pan, godfather of Barry Allen and all of his ilk. you thank it for that and return to the trail, but the trail begins to split unmarked. you sense someone behind you. but when you turn around, there is only hum, vibration, and spin. pay attention to your breath, don't panic. you look up at the sun and bathe in its chemicals. close your eyes and listen. now open your eyes. see that there are two worlds, gold and silver, and you can run between the two of them on a thread of snow.

 

2c.

Hermes was the Greek god of boundaries, travelers, shepherds, thieves, poets, commerce, etc. He was pretty much the intermediary for any kind of exchange, transition, or crossing over—thus his role as psychopomp, leading Eurydice back to the underworld after Orpheus gave in to his fears and stole a glance. The Romans adapted him as Mercury and kept him in the same outfit: winged hat, winged sandals, winged staff. Julius Caesar remarked that Mercury was a popular god with conquered populations; they often melded his attributes with gods of their own.

The Flash was created for DC Comics in 1940 and he had numerous incarnations. The first—the Golden Age Flash—was Jay Garrick, a college student who after inhaling heavy water vapors, gained incredible speed. In public his body would vibrate so fast that his face was always blurred and no one could ever identify him. The second—the Silver Age Flash—was police scientist Barry Allen, who enjoyed reading comics about the Golden Age Flash. One day in the lab a bolt of lightening hit and he was bathed in chemicals which gave him great speed. In an homage to the first Flash, he donned a similar outfit and purpose. Eventually, he discovered that he could move so fast that he could jump time; his power became temporal. While time-traveling in the past he met the Golden Age Flash and they became fast friends. They used their time-jumping abilities to cross over into their parallel worlds. Neither Flash should be confused with the somewhat more poignant Pietro Django Maximoff, a.k.a. Quicksilver, depressed and addicted to the crystal shards of terrigen mist that jut from his chest.

 

3a.

soon you see that you're coming to the center of the forest 
and there's a wide clearing with a house there. 

it's your house 
and it's exactly the kind of house in which you would most like to live. 

you take out the key and open the door. 

you can close and lock it behind you if that makes you feel safer. 

you know that your favorite room is in the basement. 
you find the stairway and begin to go down: 
first step, second step, third. 

when you get to the bottom, 
you know which door opens to your favorite room 
and you go in there. 

in that room is exactly what you would want in a room: 
the kind of light, the temperature, everything is what you want. 

in the corner is a comfortable couch. 
you lie down on it and ask yourself what are your goals, 
what do you hope to accomplish and create. 

and you know the answers. 

eventually, you get up from the couch, out of the room, and back up the stairs. 
first step, second step, third. 

you unlock the door, let yourself out, lock the door behind you: 
you will be back.

 

3b.

there will be three parts that first appear separate but then form a connection of liquid silver. breathe deeply. in through the nose, out the mouth, release your metal breath into the air. control your emissions within the limits of law. the power plant incinerates coal and gold in particulate mist that is your breath. the volcanoes spike the atmosphere. you've come to a house of exploded debris, an emperor's tomb; he died from the pills of eternal life. your breath is carried by wind and mixes with snow, rain, dust. in your hand is a key and you unlock the door and step down into the depths. there is light streaming, a connective world with multiple paths. your breath alloys with silver, gold and tin—but not iron. so you trade your exhalations in an iron flask for a reduction of mineral cinnabar. the room is exactly as you like it: a comfortable couch in the corner, rotating liquid on a disk that silvers the mirrors, arc rectifiers. the snow, rain, and dust layer the lakes and streams and sink with your aspirations. you think about your goals and take the jump test to check your weight. the fish absorb and swim away from the lure. you measure the temperature with thermometers, barometers, thermostats. a spider bites your silver skin. you ask yourself if you are safe in an inoculation of light. the sparrow eats the spider. listen carefully. you can hear the illegal miners refining gold and silver ore. and their fishing lures: violent poison. cumulative poison. separating the fur from the pelt. the fish return your breath as liquid silver. look at yourself in the mirror. you get up and leave the room, lock the door behind you. first the tremors in the hands, then eyelids, lips, and tongue. you take the path back into the forest and walk toward the river. vivid dreams delivered, restless sleep. you pass the clearing, now on your left, but the animal is no longer there. memory loss. you send your thanks to it anyway. cough. you pass the other clearing, now on your right, and although the animal is no longer there, you send it your thanks. psychotic reactions, delirium, hallucinations. when you emerge from the forest you look up at the sky and you can see that the light has changed and a little bit of time has passed.

 

 

3c.

 

The chemical symbol for mercury is Hg, which stands for "hydrargyrum"—the Latinized Greek for "liquid silver." It's named after the Roman god Mercury, perhaps because of its liquid state—it won't stabilize into fixed form unless it's 39 degrees below zero. It runs amok. At 680 degrees, it rises in fumes. The metal was once thought to prolong life: China's first emperor went insane and died from mercury pills that he hoped would make him immortal. Mercury alloys easily with silver, tin and gold, and is often used to extract those metals from mines. But it doesn't amalgamate with iron, so an iron flask is considered safe storage. Although it's incredibly poisonous, mercury is easy to find everywhere. It's used in barometers to ascertain the weight of the atmosphere. It's used in mascara. It's also extensively used in medicine and can be found in antiseptics, antidepressants, and vaccines. When my father was just starting out as a chemist, he and his lab partners would take the mercury jump test. They marked the height of their jumps the way a parent marks the height of a growing child. If in future days you can't make the jump, it means the mercury is weighing you down. It was a heavy metal joke.

Half of the mercury in our atmosphere comes from volcanic eruptions (when Krakatoa blew its top in 1883, there was a giant spike in atmospheric mercury levels around the globe). The other half of the mercury in our air is produced primarily by power plants (particularly those that combust coal), hazardous waste incineration, and gold mining. Once the element enters the air, it falls down eventually, coating the leaves of trees and mixing with our water sources. Spiders and small fish absorb the metal easily, and these feeder creatures are then eaten by birds and larger fish. Mercury doesn't dissipate in its toxicity; rather it accumulates greater power as it works its way up the food chain. It goes in through the nose and out the mouth in a circle. When you get back to the river bank, the old woman and old man are waiting for you in their boat and they take you back across. You can see the fish in the water, and gold-colored stones. When you reach the other side you get out of the boat. You close your eyes and take a deep silver breath. You very slowly open your eyes and you are here, in this room, with the light as it is.

Copyright © 2008 by Jena Osman. From the collection The Network, reprinted by permission of the author.

Copyright © 2008 by Jena Osman. From the collection The Network, reprinted by permission of the author.

Jena Osman

by this poet

poem

There’s a voice in the room and what are you noticing. What are the sounds in the room. Is there a bell that says that the dinner is ready to be served. Is there a bird warming up outside that you are noticing. In what ways does that noticing mean anything good. Is this its own performance or part of something else