Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Tuesday Poem: Element


He slipped into it the way a man with ruddy
cheeks and cupped hands can find himself
with an orchard.

Henry Cavendish, whose only extant portrait
is an ink sketch of him hurrying from the room,
who hesitated

in speech, and refused to meet a person’s eye,
or to stand brilliant in the public gaze, made a name
measuring the unseen.

As a man with broad back and steady eye
sizes up a wall, the elusive Cavendish
was in his element

with factitious air. He measured with precision the
constancy of the atmosphere, discovered hydrogen,
put his finger

on the freezing point of quicksilver and felt the pulse
of gravity. He gauged the phenomena of electricity
in a time of candles.

Then, out of thin air, this man who trod so lightly, who
was – even in his own home – barely there, measured
without fanfare

the density  of the Earth. 

                                                 Mary McCallum

I wrote this after helping my daughter with a science project. I was so fascinated by Cavendish I kept  researching him long after she'd stuck in her last hydrogen atom and gone to bed. For more Tuesday Poems click the quill in the sidebar. The hub poem this week is chosen by Philadelphian poet Eileen Moeller, and there's so much more besides...


LentenStuffe said...


This is stupendous, a beautiful piece of work.

Mary McCallum said...

Thank you, John.

lillyanne said...

This is a simply wonderful poem, Mary. You've made me want to find out more about him, he's so beautifully delineated in such a tenderly precise and loving way. Thank you for it. Belinda x

Vespersparrow said...

Mary, this is really a terrific piece of writing. It reads effortlessly, and the odd line breaks seem to mimic his hesitancy of speech, the inability to meet one's eye, but his wildly successive ability to 'measure the unseen' was in his element' 'put his finger' and I especially love the simplicity and straightforwardness of 'in a time of candles.'

Lovely job,

Mary McCallum said...

Thank you Belinda and Melissa, too, and John again. Went to bed after reading John's comment, woke up thinking 'stupendous'. Opened up here to find more lovely things said about 'Element' - a poem that's been sitting almost ready and then finished off yesterday for Tuesday Poem. So still, in my mind, uncertain, newborn... Really thrilling to see it's regarded as beautiful.

Claire Beynon said...

This is a fine, beautifully refined piece of work, Mary. I stand humbled and admiring. L, C

AJ Ponder said...

Great poem Mary and great choice of subject - all those Royal Society fellows were completely nuts, completely driven and completely amazing and your poem just seems to speak to his personality.

T. Clear said...

There is an airiness to this poem, a sense of weightlessness, which provides (if you will) a 'thin air' framework for the subject matter.

I love when this happens in a poem -- it's the work of someone who obviously knows what she is doing!

Kathleen Jones said...

This is a really beautiful poem Mary - you've caught the essence of the man.

Tim Upperton said...

The first stanza especially captivates me, but the whole poem is a tour de force. Envious.

Mary McCallum said...

Thank you, Claire, AJ, T-Clear, Kathleen and Tim, for all your encouraging comments... Very encouraging indeed. It is strange, isn't it, how some people step from all the stuff written about them, slough off the unecessary words and are somehow re-released by a poem... I am thinking of looking into more of these kinds of poems on historical figures. Kind of thumbnail bios.

I am wondering, Kathleen, how Henry is related to the Margaret Cavendish in the bio you wrote (and that I want to read now).

Norma McCallum said...

Darling Mary, This reminds me of my brother, your uncle Nigel: a man of few words and social graces but who has a brilliant mind. An inventor, he sees things others don't and has 'measured without fanfare' the safety of thousands of airline travellers. Love, Ma