Experiment with an Air Pump

Ekphrastic Poetry

After Joseph Wright of Derby, 1734-97

Joseph Wright of Derby
Experiment with the Air Pump

That night we gathered,
the white moon peeped between the skirted clouds
flooding the high-panelled room in eerie light.
Eight of us, at the great scientist Dr Wilke’s house,
a man with eyes so deep and brows so fierce,
in copper damask dressing-gown, he frightened men,
and that shock of wiry hair!

On the table such weird contraptions as I’d never seen:
an air pump made of gleaming brass, strange tubes
and liquids that gave a sulphurous glow.
I cried and hid my eyes, clasped Kitty close,
At six far braver and more curious than I.
Still I can feel the callused grip of Joshua’s
hand in comfort on my thin shoulder.

Science: an experiment, he explained,
to see if the pretty bird could fill
its gasping lungs and beat its failing wings
without the magic stuff he called oxygen.
I could not bear the thud of it snowy breast,
the rattle of its brittle beak, the scratch
of tiny claws, as it circled and circled
expiring from want of air.

Such power of life and death he had
that strange alchemical man.
I did not dare cry out ‘stop’ to save
the frightened thing.

Later, when they were finished, I asked
to hold the soft limp body, sat by
the guttering candle on the sill
and tried to close its beady current eyes
as a lick of scarlet dribbled from its beak
and felt the little bones
light as air, in my warm cupped hands.

From Everything Begins with the Skin
Published by Enitharmon 1995


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