Posted by: John Looker | 20 May, 2012

MERCURY

Here is another poem looking at life through work:

MERCURY

This conference – by videophones –
would stop Marco Polo in his tracks,
take the wind out of Columbus’ sails,
and has messed up meal times
in five separate time zones.           

Dinner in Shanghai
but breakfast on Wall Street.
Luncheon in London’s City
and in Frankfurt am Main. 
Tea in Mumbai.

Listen! … so what do you think?
There it is again:
the delicate sound of a glass
on a glass – a clink,
a disembodied clink!

© John Looker 2012

Mercury was the Roman god (as I understand things) of communications, travel, boundaries, trade and commerce, and a few other related activities.

You can find earlier poems in this series by clicking on the Poem Category “Looking at Life through Work”.

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Responses

  1. Hi John

    Good morning 🙂 but here now it is noon 🙂 This is the modern way of work, and everything is so much faster than in the days of Marco Polo.
    I had to look up Mercury and now I hope I have it right, it is the battery in mobile phones?
    And then the clink… 🙂 two (wine ) glasses together to seal the deal…

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  2. Ina, thank you so much for your immediate comment. I raise my glass to you: cheers!
    I hadn’t spotted the association of mercury with mobile phone batteries, but I really like that. Thank you. I had in mind something more obscure – Mercury (or Hermes) as a classical god. I have quickly added a sentence above, which I should have done initially.

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  3. I had a chuckle with your poem. At a time in the far distant past I worked for a company in a place where their weekly sales manger conference calls were at around 4 AM in my time zone. I normally sleep in my birthday suit and on those call days that is how I got on line from my home office. When the corporate office found out it caused quite a stir, particularly with the female members of the call. Thanks for the poem John, I thoroughly enjoyed it and the memories it brought back to me. By the way, I did not change my dress for any future calls so they changed the conference time to later.

    Cheers,
    Donald

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    • Wonderful story Donald! I’m so glad you told it! My poem has its roots partly in a series of telephone conferences of G8 government advisers years ago. I was in London. The Washington team had to get into their office by 7am, but our chap in the British Embassy there used to participate while having breakfast in bed.

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  4. Hi John, I’m finally getting to this. I like Ina’s interpretation. Mercury the messenger god transported to the days of videophones. This is quite different work from that by the factory worker, the farmer, the housewife, and the waitress. It has the jangling of the modern world in it, the idea that the great explorers Marco Polo and Columbus are stopped in their tracks by the speed and immediacy of a videophone sending images and voice through the air to multiple time zones. I’m afraid I’ve had some experience with this leap from the past, the movement by Mercury that is faster than the wings on his feet would allow. It seemed normal to me somehow, although at a younger age I would have thought it was magic. Is this evolution in action? The getting used to and adapting to new forms of magic that shot through the E-sphere so fast that we no longer see it as magic? Is this what our work is trending toward? More and more speed, less and less connection with the labors of Marco Polo and Columbus? What kind of beings are we becoming? This series relates us to humanity, but how can humans from distant time zones all get together face to face and talk about items on the agenda? Is that truly work that humans can do? I think they can since they do it every day. I do it. But….? John? Great poem sparking all kinds of thoughts.

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    • I’m interested to learn that you are another who has experienced this kind of international communication; it’s becoming increasingly common, I’m sure. Thanks for your thoughts on this one, Tom. I know how busy your life is, so I’m grateful for the time you give.

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  5. at first i thought this one was a bit void of emotion, but then thinking about the subject matter, that seems cleverly perfect.

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    • Thanks for your frankness, Evelyn. It’s a help to hear how a poem strikes another person and I hadn’t seen this one in those terms.
      You’ve got me thinking about well-known poems that might be seen as being sparing on emotion (and in words too). One that comes to mind is William Carlos Williams’s Red Wheelbarrow. I used to wonder why it was so popular; what was in it? I think the emotion in that big little poem is off-stage, alluded to. Perhaps that appeals to some readers more than others? To the deeply reserved? At any rate, it’s a lesson.

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  6. John: I love this poem. It takes, what is after all a rather commonplace experience (for us today), a teleconference, and transforms it into…I don’t know, some kind of a magical mystery tour around the world—or maybe it doesn’t take us on that tour. (Remember when Jules Verne could intrigue us with going around the world in 80 days?) I often think of the difference speed has made to our lives. At one time, if you actually managed to travel at 70 miles an hour, it would be a life changing event. You’d talk about it for the rest of your life. The wind, the landscape rushing by, the danger. Arthur C. Clark (of 2001: a space odyssey) talked about how any technology—if it is sufficiently advanced—appears to be magic. You capture the magic here—and the illusion.
    Let me think about form her for a moment. Three stanzas. One: fairly commonplace. Meals disturbed in five time zones. Columbus, Marco Polo would have indigestion for a month. Still, this is not the worst thing that can happen to you. Two: is that all these people do, is eat? Work, you call this work? (Well, people do call it work, and it is.) And then, three: clink. Everybody wakes up. It’s cocktail hour? What time zone did that clink come from? (The old joke applies: we always until five o’clock to start cocktail hour. It must be five some place in the world right now.) Something that we have talked about before—how the internet is transforming the way we know people—is operating here. We’re conducting business here, right? You’re drinking? Secretly drinking? The old saying: a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Our lives have become suffused with ‘a little knowledge’ of a lot of things (people).
    And it is interesting how Mercury has given us the word mercurial, and Hermes (they seem to be pretty much the same god) has given us the word hermeneutics. Could it be that while this poem seems to be mercurial, in fact it needs a considerable amount of hermeneutics?
    Well, in New York, it is getting late. Good night Ina, good night Donald, good night Thomas, good night Evelyn, and good night John.
    Clink.

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    • Funny you should mention Jules Verne; one of the titles I toyed with was “Round the World in Eighty Seconds”.
      And I like your observation about Hermes. He also got considered for incorporation in the title – but I hadn’t made the connection with hermeneutics. I seem to have made the piece more obscure than I intended (must try harder!).
      Thanks for stopping up late to make these comments, Jim. “Cheers!”

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  7. I love the way this poem moves both within the stanzas and as a whole. In the first stanza, it’s a pretty marked contrast between epic action (of the past) and contemporary concerns; the epic actors seem even bigger than legend in the hyperbole of the logic: they would not of course be stopped in their tracks; but in our hubris, and our sense that all history leads “up” to this technological moment, we’d like to think so, or actually can’t think otherwise, so bound we are by the conventions of progress. In the second sentence, linear time is stopped and place supplies the moving parts; as in the first stanza, this one partakes of the pleasure inherent in surprising lists. In the final stanza, the ironies become the context for a question to the reader: is making sense of the fragile “clink” yet another way to extol the power of the present: the global “deal.” Or does the sound-track cast the whole thing in an almost bewildering perspective. We are, after all, listening to “the world” — or several spots on the the glob — but what we are privileged to hear is “clink.” It is “glass on glass” and so quite fragile and perhaps ephemeral and even a tad narcissistic. Now put that ambiguous “clink” in the whole moving picture, starting with the images of ancient empire, moving through global capitalism (where place is consumed, erased, by “communications”), and finally ending, as a declension, in that mere sound (which may have dire consequences for the planet). The poet plays with “scale” in a delightful way. It can be summed up in the idea of “embodiment”: moving from the flesh & blood of the great Renaissance men, moving through the collapse of distance via technology (one of the readers indicating how Skype turns the table on the anonymity and leaves him very much with an exposed body), and then to the “disembodied clink.” There’s great wisdom in this light-as-a-feather poem.

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    • I’ve been wondering how to do justice to your analysis, Tom. This poem is a slight thing, but I wanted to keep hold of two notions running through this group of poems: the passage of history & the expanse of the globe. I hoped that the three stanzas (on which you & Jim have commented), although brief, would achieve some forward movement and that the ending would leave ideas in the air. I do reflect on the comments that you, and others, offer.

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  8. John, it truly is amazing how modern technology has changed us, our work – and our society. I still can’t get over how it can be a bright sunshiny afternoon in one place and close to midnight somewhere else – and yet two people are both “here” – in “real time” (is there such a thing?) People can touch across the world – different zones, but it’s all “now”. Thank you for this one!

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    • Yes, and it is still changing of course, rapidly, and who knows what lies just ahead?

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  9. Hi John,

    I find myself wryly smiling at your poem.
    The very thought of videophones appalls me.
    I can sit here on a Sunday morning still in my pyjamas, unshaven, hair uncombed and look forward to a day of gentle slobbery.
    Why on earth would I want to appear on anyones videophone?
    And would they want me to?

    David

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  10. I am reading a strange book called “Dead Lines,” by Greg Bear, and this poem gave me the same kind of chills the book has been giving me. I am truly beginning to understand that maybe we have finally turned the corner into Insanity ‘R Us. A man in Miami ate the face off another man a couple of days ago. I live in a small town, well, small city, and out of seven days of the daily newspaper there are usually three days of incest molestation reported. I apologize, I know your poem was about the videophone phenomenon, but somehow it reminded me of this strange book I am reading about ghosts who really should be ghosts at all, but they can’t completely get through to the other side and finally and truly die. Okay. I’m gone now.

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    • Yes, it’s a strange world and sometimes certainly the news is chilling. As you say, on one level this poem is about the videophone phenomenon, but there were other things going on in my own mind and I hoped anyone reading it might find that too – so thank you for sharing your reactions.

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  11. I wonder what those ancient gods would think of our fast and furious modern world? Most of them would probably be heard to utter a modern term: “I think I’ve been replaced by a machine!” Love the humor in this.

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  12. This is cool, John. Very engaging. I find myself thinking of the business of the getting of the work done in a speediness of time-fashion across the nowness and thenness of clinking disembodimentnesses!

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