This poem came out of the June 5, 2012 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by prompts from marina_bonomi and wyld_dandelyon. It belongs to The Steamsmith series, and you can read more about that on the Serial Poetry page. Among the things I researched for this poem were amber, ambergris, cigar boxes, jade, and the jade furnace.
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An Amazing Carriage of Amber and Jade
Maryam found herself fascinated
by the respective qualities of amber and jade.
The lore of alchemy held that
amber was a sort of guardian spirit for Europe,
mined in the German Confederation
and washed up on shores from Norway to Russia.
In alchemy, the yellow stone was called jantar, (1)
useful in gathering and storing
either electrical or solar energy.
Then there was its odd partner anbar, (2)
commonly called ambergris, from the bowels of whales,
useful for making all manner of alchemical spirits.
Their chemical structure inclined them to work together.
Conversely, jade was considered
to be the guardian spirit for Asia,
mined near the Yangtze and Yarkand rivers
and, more recently, in Burma.
In alchemy, the green stone was called yu, (3)
useful in stabilizing or maintaining processes,
making everything go smoothly.
Then there was the famous jade furnace,
an Asian equivalent of the Arabic athanor
that allowed precise temperature control.
The two types of amber interacted
as efficiently as a rocking-beam engine;
and if that was a rocking-beam engine,
then jade was a millwheel,
solid and even in every motion.
The challenge, Maryam discovered, lay in
convincing amber and jade to work together.
They got along about as well
as Great Britain and China,
which was to say,
when one of them worked
the other one would not
or if they both worked at the same time
they tended to tear everything apart between them.
Maryam had studied the discoveries
of historic alchemists from the West and the East.
It helped that she understood the major languages
such as Greek and Latin and Arabic.
She was not yet fluent in Chinese
but was determined to learn it.
She reviewed the schematics
for the Amber Sunroom
and the Jade Dragon Engine
(both of which worked but were ridiculously expensive).
She examined the plans
for the Mechanical Jamberee
(which did not work at all)
and the Grand Amber and Jade Apparatus
(which worked for five minutes before blowing up Berlin).
Then she noticed that most of the models
were quite small, which kept the components
in close proximity to each other --
likely an effect of their expense.
The sole exception was
the Grand Amber and Jade Apparatus --
but most of that consisted of precious metal settings
surrounded by practical metal gears,
with the core components crammed into a housing
not much larger than a cigar box.
So Maryam began experimenting with things
that could be used to harness the energies
of amber and jade while keeping them
separated by a discreet and reasonable distance
so as to form a reliable engine.
First she discovered that amber stayed the most stable
when contained in resinous woods such as pine,
while jade responded best when bounded by bamboo.
Then she figured out the interactions of the metals.
Jade would only run smoothly
with the base metals of lead or tin,
since they all had single atoms of the elements.
Amber would only behave with gold or silver,
since the precious metals both had doubled atoms of aether, (4)
and it was also necessary to match
the doubled pyra of jantar with that of gold (5)
and the doubled hudor of anbar with that of silver. (6)
In between went gears and beams
of copper and iron,
and gauges measured by mercury,
the practical metals mediating
between the base and the precious metals
with their doubled atoms of aether
but singular rhizomata. (7)
By this point Maryam had developed
a good working theory of the
alchemical interface between amber and jade,
complete with proofs for the individual rules.
What she did not have was a complete working device,
and nobody would care much for her theories
without a spectacular demonstration
all clad in gears and gauges and glittering displays.
So Maryam wrote to her friends
in various far-flung places and promised them
contributor credit and copies of her notes
if they would help her to obtain materials.
From the Baltic Sea she got
slabs of pressed amber and nuggets of natural amber.
From the Indies she got chunks of ambergris.
From China she got blocks of fine green jade.
She spent weeks tooling all the parts and assembling
an Amazing Carriage of Amber and Jade.
It bore a riding box of pale golden pine
with seats cushioned in green velvet.
The top of the box held panels of jantar
to gather the powerful rays of the sun
and the ambient electricity from the air,
framed by tubes full of anbar.
The engine block carved from a piece of yu
rested on the front in a lattice of bamboo.
Everything was connected by splendid array
of machinery comprising all seven exalted metals
gleaming and whirring dramatically,
complete with a copperplate listing on the door
that featured all the participating alchemists.
The Carriage progressed upon its four wheels
with perfectly smooth motion, even over
London's notorious cobblestone streets.
It made an impressive presentation
before the Steamsmith Guild,
backed by Maryam's elegant proofs
about the interactions of supporting materials
to mediate between amber and jade.
It was a professional coup,
but alas, hopeless on the commercial side
due to the costly materials --
and Maryam, having solved the puzzle
of East meeting West in an engine,
grew bored with the whole endeavor
and wanted to work on something new.
So Maryam drove to Buckingham Palace
and delivered the Amazing Carriage of Amber and Jade
to Queen Victoria as a slightly early birthday present.
A visibly impressed chauffer took charge of it
(and its handwritten instruction manual)
to place in the royal carriage house.
When the Carriage reappeared
in the birthday parade at the end of May,
Maryam declared the project a resounding success.
* * *
In the alchemical lore of nether-Earth, a majority of terms come from Greek. However, materials first discovered or heavily developed in other lands may retain their names from different languages, as is true for several things featured in this poem.
1) Jantar is the Slavic word for fossilized amber stone, probably deriving from the Phoenecian word jainitar meaning "sea-resin."
2) Anbar is the Arabic word for ambergris, a substance produced by the digestive system of whales. Historically, it was considered equivalent or related to the stone amber, which is where that word came from.
3) Yu is the Chinese word for jade.
4) Aether is the element of Quintessence, and the origin is Greek.
5) Pyra is the element of Fire, and the origin is Greek.
6) Hudor is the element of Water, and the origin is Greek.
7) Rhizomata is the Greek word for "roots." It refers to the four elements of aer (Air), ge (Earth), hudor (Water), and pyra (Fire).
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