Site Meter Peculiar Susceptibility: Saltpeter

Friday, November 9, 2007


Until somewhat recently, Saltpeter was a smell-with-no-name to me, that part of the remnants of fireworks that seemed to singe the inside of my nose.

When I was a girl, it was my father on every July 4th who would position himself at the dampened Volleyball court where he and Bob would set off fireworks. I knew from early on that what they were doing - these men, one my father and one a father figure - was illegal. I can only assume that it was the general affability of Bob and Merrill that caused the Town fire department to turn its back on the display. And I knew it was dangerous, although I probably imagined it to be more risky than it actually was. I was a reader and I think that's part of the reason I was such a dramatically-inclined little person, always playing out the worst scenarios I could imagine for every situation in which I found myself.

After we had all sung the anthem (usually followed by John Prine and Phil Ochs), after we had oohed and ahed our way through the display (me with my fists balled, nails into palms), my father would find me and pick me up and his hands smelled of saltpeter.

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I've been meaning to write more about saltpeter (from which the Salpêtrière where Charcot worked took its name) for some time. The week of Guy Fawkes Day strikes me as the perfect time to do so. In 1999 on November 5, I was perched at the top of Primrose Hill with my mother and brother. We were drinking mulled wine and I was desperately hoping that none of the embers from the fireworks would fall into the Regent Park aviary.

I've had a poem milling about in the recesses of my mind that would weave together several quasi-histories of saltpeter. One is that administrators of places where lots of young men cohabitated (British public schools, naval ships, prisons) packed their meals with the stuff in the hopes to fend of excessive onanism and homosexuality. Another thread of this poem would link fireworks in Paris to the more martial history of the Salpêtrière (it was a gunpowder factory before it was a hospital). The final strand of the poem is saltpeter's use in hoodoo, which removes the substance from its typical aggressive context and uses it for self defense.

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by Renée Stout

I know. This sounds scattered, but I think there's a way of looking at each of the threads in relation to supression and sexuality.

1 comment:

Barbara said...

I think it is an interesting juxtaposition that saltpeter was believed to suppress sexual desire/performance and yet known to explode violently.