"Mercury" is a 41-line, free-verse poem divided into three stanzas. Although the narrative is filled with highly personal images, the poem's story is told from a third person point of view which serves to universalize the poem's theme: the often mechanical struggle of a couple to achieve pregnancy, and the fragility and innate sadness of that struggle.

In the first stanza, the poet sets the scene--a couple who rely on the daily reading of the thermometer that "measures their mornings / against a brimming point" (p. 44). When the thermometer indicates that "seed / and egg might meet and link" (p. 44) the man and woman have intercourse, but all sensuality has been "banished, by this elusive / goal: the child they lack" (44).

The second stanza, which is the briefest, gives us the likewise brief coupling of this man and woman, a stanza devoid--like the compulsive act--of spontaneous love or passion. A calculated sex-cry--"Baby, / Baby"--seems to be a cry both of their present desire and of their memory of a once--passionate relationship (44). The final lines leave the woman lying rigidly in the position her doctor has prescribed.

The final stanza brings a surprise. Suddenly there is the "crack" of a bird hitting their sliding glass door--"a spray of feathers splays / it's fist on glass" (p.44). Forgetting for now the need to lie still, to enhance her own chance for pregnancy, the woman rushes to the door, remembering the house finches that have nested in their yard--a gestation perhaps at first more successful than hers. "Seed seeping / down her thighs, the woman gathers / feather by feather / the splattered down, / cupping fragments tight inside / her empty fist" (45). The bird's death, in the midst of the promise of parenthood, parallels the nothingness inside the woman's fist, the perfect metaphor (as the non--gravid uterus is the size of a woman's clenched hand) for the emptiness of her womb.


This short poem, made more emotional by the distance imposed by the poet's use of a third-person narrator, is a lovely and haunting depiction of one moment in an infertile couple's life. The mechanically dictated moment for sex, the fierce desire to do whatever might work, the deadening of sensuality--all are captured here. The surprise in the poem, the bird's death, works to bring both the woman and the reader out of the personal moment and, at the same time, leads more deeply into the realm of individual grief.

The husband seems almost a shadow figure in the poem. When the sex act is completed, he "whistles to the sink" (44), an almost jaunty retreat. The bird's death apparently goes unnoticed by him. At the poem's end, the woman is alone with what remains of the bird's once vital life.


The poem is on pp. 44-45.

Primary Source

The Red Jess


Cherry Grove Collections

Place Published

Cincinnati, Ohio


2006 (paperback)