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by Lionel E. Deimel



Information about the element mercury



The stuff that made the hatter mad—

Can mercury be all that bad?


Can heavy mirror globes of light

Become a foe of thinking right?


Can sprightly silver droplets kill,

Or trim IQs to nearly nil?


Alas, the metal’s bad for lungs

And puts strange tastes upon our tongues.


It harms the kidneys and the skin

And babes, of pregnant moms, within.


Especially is it the bane

Of healthy-working nerves and brain.


So treat thermometers with care,

Lest vexing vapors foul the air.


That power plant upwind can make

A poison bath of stream or lake.


Beware that large and tasty fish

Become, when served, a risky dish.


And may your home and table be

Completely free of mercury!


To be considered a poet, one has to write poems from time to time, whether “inspired” or not. This poem resulted from the realization that my rate of output (one poem per month or so in good times) was falling below par. I had only written three poems in 2006—it was already August—and two of those were related. Yes, I had been distracted, but I had begun to wonder if I’d lost the knack. I decided I had to write a poem about
something, so I simply let my mind wander.

So why Mercury? I have no idea, but I do miss that naïve time when high school chemistry students could play with little pools of mercury without anyone’s having apoplexy over it. I even did a science project in my junior year on polarography, an analytical technique that involves the use of mercury.

I began the poem thinking of Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter. There is widespread agreement that the character in Alice in Wonderland was inspired by an occupational disease of hat makers caused by their use of mercury compounds. There is much information on the Web concerning the environmental hazards of mercury, with that of the EPA being especially extensive. Much public attention of late has been devoted to mercury levels in fish and to power plants as sources of mercury pollution. Because I was not familiar with all the hazards of mercury, I had to research the subject before I could write about it.

My poem is partly a lament that such an entertaining and beautiful material—mercury is the only elemental metal that is a liquid at room temperature—is also dangerous. I would describe it as a humorous, environmental poem, which is hardly what I set out to write—light verse with a serious message. That message, seemingly, is more timely than I knew. Shortly after I wrote it (between 8/13/2006 and 8/15/2006), I received the September 11, 2006, issue of Time, which contained an article called “Mercury Rising.” New studies, the magazine reported, show distressing mercury levels in song birds and raptors, and wetlands should be considered “mercury time bombs.” Wetlands are repositories of mercury that can release “hundreds of years’ worth of mercury that precipitated from the atmosphere” if hit by wildfire, a possibility made more likely by global warming.

I made revisions to the poem on 9/14/2006, changing the eighth and ninth couplets, which originally were:

That power plant upwind could make

A poison bank of stream or lake.


Beware that certain kinds of fish

Can make a rather risky dish.

The first of these couplets was the hardest to write. One can hardly discuss the hazards of mercury without mentioning power plant emissions, so the verse is essential, but incorporating the necessary technical information into two short lines of verse was a challenge. Readers convinced me that my first effort did not meet that challenge. The word “bank” was problematic. I used it in the sense of a store or repository, not as the land bordering a body of water. My word choice was dictated by the need for a one-syllable word, but “bank” was not the ideal one, and its proximity to “stream or lake” only confused matters. The substituted “poison bath” for “poison bank” is a trifle technical, but it works better on several levels. Note also the substitution of “can” for “could,” which mirrors tense use in the rest of the poem.

The couplet about eating fish seemed adequate when I wrote it, but a friend pointed out that “certain fish” is rather bland, which made me realize that “rather” isn’t a very colorful word either. The substituted lines are both more vivid and more informative.

— LED, 9/14/2006

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