Philosopher's Wool

Philosopher's Wool

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audio of Brian Culhane's poem, Philosopher's Wool

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Philosopher's Wool

      Some alchemists called [burned zinc] lana philosophica, Latin
      for “philosopher's wool,” because it collected in wooly tufts, while
      others thought it looked like white snow and named it ninx album.
      Wikipedia, “Zinc”

Eager alchemists
Shaking stubborn fists
At the universe
Often made things worse
For those standing by
Whose astonished cry
Could be heard through walls
As black smoke filled halls:
Is this truly wise?
What if someone dies?!
An unholy blast
Might expunge the past
When flame touched cow’s blood,
Saltpeter and mud,
Or burned base metal
In an old kettle
Until the whole room
Stank of common doom,
Of unwashed sinners
(Mere rank beginners)
Stumbling ahead
With incautious tread
On the littered floor
Where, amid the gore,
Truth was said to lie
Waiting for some dye
To imbue with gold
(As writers of old
Had said would happen)
Ordinary men.
Surely, it was thought,
Wealth was what art brought
To occult research.
From Minerva’s perch
The owl flies aslant,
Though we think it can’t,
And must hit the mark
Even in the dark.
So in alchemy
The learned set free
In a certain flame
What is zinc by name
(“Philosopher’s wool”
In an ancient school),
As such metal learns
Flight by what it burns
And drizzles down white
If the timing’s right.

A history of zinc
Hardly makes us think,
Except by way of
Likenesses to love,
Which, when heated, too
Becomes something new
As it changes shape
Under magic’s cape.
Once zinc turns to snow,
Its flight up will show
Heights lovers may fall
Should they, after all,
Succumb to that state—
A precipitate,
An alloy of pain,
A chalky gray stain—
Which whitens with flakes
What it most mistakes
To be kindred hate.
Interanimate,
Love and hate obey,
Through this very day,
Laws that come from high;
Centuries go by
And still we fail,
Still mix the pail
Of our desire,
Still look in fire
For crucible’s gold,
Though we cannot hold
Nature to account
For the wrong amount
If gold becomes zinc
And the missing link
Is thus missed again
In a dirty rain.
Zinc is wool, we’re told.
So let love be gold,
Elusive at best
Or a kind of test
Whose secret’s best kept
When salt rain is wept.