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Lay for the Day
29th February

This anomalous date, appearing once every four years, is the anniversary of the announcement, in 1908, that solid helium had been produced in an experiment the day before. It turned out to be a mistake – the fine white snow that appeared in the laboratory flask was not helium but hydrogen. But the Dutch physicist who announced the result, Heike Kammerlingh Onnes (1853–1926, Nobel Prize 1913), went on to produce the world’s first liquid helium in his Leiden lab later that summer – which became, in the process, the coldest place the Earth had ever known.
Helium liquefies at -269C, a temperature only just above absolute zero, and even at absolute zero it does not freeze solid. It is a superfluid, flowing perpetually without friction.
Helium is an ancestor to us all: the fusion of nuclei of hydrogen atoms into helium atoms is the fuel of the sun’s fire and the source of all our energy.
* * * * *
My grandmother, Elsie Blezard, lived to be a hundred and two. This poem was written for her memorial service.

Becoming Light

One by one my memories lose their weight.
These few that are heavier – griefs
and fragments of dread
and one, both minute and massive,
that’s the rose-sc
ented globe of an instant
when a child was in a garden
– these depart more slowly
and only after many attempts.

Whether it is a heaven
they have risen into before me
around whose gate they wait
purged and sanctified and stripped of pain,
where they may be robed in white –
whether there is a heaven
I can also no longer remember.
All the ideas have floated off too
that I may once have had of such things.

They are drawn away beyond my reach
in the great gravity of brightness
sucking the sad weight from my memory;
until naked of all but the moments
I wait for the moment
when these last few sounds become silence,
these last few colours sink back
down in the rose-scented globe,
both massive and tiny,
that turns to night and folds its petals
behind me, finally closing me out,
and the scent, weighing nothing,
returns to the day it came from
and is folded once more in the grasp of a child.

I have finished my arduous forgetting.
I am becoming light.


John Gibbens
from Becoming Light

The Lay Reader: an archive of the poetic calendar

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