The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 411

“Crystals Like Blood,” a twenty-seven-line free-verse lyric, develops an analogy between mechanical processes and memory to create a synthesis of external and internal experience. Standing at the grave of a person he loved, the speaker remembers finding a fragment of stone containing red crystals. As the poem unfolds, he compares the process of extracting mercury from cinnabar to the process of memory.

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In a single two-line sentence, the first of the four verse paragraphs introduces the memory of discovering the stone containing the crystals but does not mention the present setting or the dead friend. In nine lines, the second verse paragraph describes the speaker’s picking up “a broken chunk of bed-rock” and examining it carefully, turning “it this way and that.” The weight of the stone surprises him. One face of it is brown limestone; the other contains crystals of “greenish-grey quartz-like stone” in which magenta lines appear. The verse paragraph confines itself to carefully chosen description without overtly introducing metaphors.

Repeating “I remember” from the opening of the poem, the third verse paragraph, ten lines, shifts to a time between the “long ago” discovery of the stone and the speaker’s present. During this intermediate time, the speaker had observed the mechanical process by which “mercury is extracted from cinnebar.” A spiderlike pile-driving machine hammered the stone to fragments of ore, which then moved on a conveyor belt up to an opening in a huge kiln, where the stone was heated to extract the liquid mercury.

The six lines of the fourth verse paragraph return to the present and the process of memory to introduce the unidentified “you” to whom the poem is addressed. The speaker compares the violent mechanical process of mercury production with his “living memory.” As the speaker thinks about the “you” who is dead and buried and at whose grave he is standing, memory releases in him “bright torrents of felicity, naturalness, and faith.” The living memory is thus contrasted with the dead body as the crystals contrast with the brown limestone.

The poem operates by comparisons and contrasts: between the dull limestone and the bright quartz, between brown stone and the green and red of the crystals, between the mechanical process of extracting mercury and the organic process of memory, between living memory and dead clay, between the speaker and the person or memory to whom the poem is addressed, and between the rigid beauty of naturally occurring crystals and warm, life-giving blood.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 544

“Crystals Like Blood” is written in rhythmic free verse, in which the line breaks coincide either with punctuation or with breaks in syntax. The variety in sentence lengths contributes to the conversational tone of the poem’s voice and keeps it from becoming monotonous. The unforced, asymmetrical structure of the poem suggests naturalness, in contrast with the “symmetrical” mechanism of the pile driver. The poem moves in a circle from graveside to graveside.

The conveyor in the third stanza is reiterated in the “treadmill” to which the speaker likens his memory. What at first seems to be a mixed metaphor of “torrents” produced by a treadmill is resolved in the implied image of liquid mercury flowing from the kiln. The process of memory releases “felicity, naturalness, and faith” in the speaker, just as the kiln’s fires release the quicksilver. The phrase “felicity, naturalness, and faith” uses abstract terms that convey an emotional message intellectually rather than through sensuous specifics. In fact, readers know very little of the “you” in the poem, except that the speaker draws inward sustenance from the memory of the person.

Although the poem is not rhymed in a regular pattern, the third verse paragraph is based on couplets using near rhymes (repetition of vowels or consonants), such as the long i and er sounds in “piledrivers” and “spider,” the ci in “precision” and “circle,” the long o in “force” and “ore,” and, less emphatically, the a sound in “saw” and “cinnebar,” along with the i in “high” and “kiln,” although the last is a visual rather than an auditory rhyme.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it is the paragraph about the pile-driving machine that uses the most mechanical of poetic effects, rhymed couplets, though the fact that the rhymes are not exact suggests MacDiarmid’s resistance to the machine. The machine’s “monotonous precision,” “endless circle,” and “thunderous force” all contrast with the quick “bright torrents” of feeling memory liquefied in the speaker’s imagination. The “Crystals like blood” at the beginning of the poem have come to yield the speaker’s living memory.

The alliteration of “blood in a broken stone” suggests the living memory in the clay later in the poem. The k’s in “chunk” and “rock,” as well as the g’s in “greenish-grey” and the d’s in “dappled” and “darker” subtly suggest Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse. Assonance is also a feature of MacDiarmid’s sound effects in the poem. In the opening sentence, the circularity of the poem is hinted at by the repetition of the letter o: long o’s in “ago,” “broken,” and “stone,” the diphthongs in “how,” “found,” and “blood,” and the short o in “long.” Assonance also appears in the o in “ago” and “stone” and the a in “face” and “caked.”

The line “Crystals like blood in a broken stone” is strongly cadenced, with four strong stresses (“crystals,” “blood,” “broke-,” and “stone”), in addition to the hammering alliteration. Circularity is also indicated by the “double ring of iron piledrivers.” Three of the four verse paragraphs begin with “remember,” suggesting rhythmically the repetitive hammering of the pile drivers. All these sounds compose a verbal music that seems quite natural, a subtle interplay of sound and sense without regularized meter or perfect rhyme.

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Themes