It's almost captured
in the tomb of the Red Queen at Palenque
Pompeii's Villa of the Mysteries
illuminated pages in the Roman de Girart de Roussillon
St Jerome's robe in Masaccio's painting
in a Qing dynasty lacquerware box
in luscious towers of sindoor in an Indian market.
First discovered 5000 BCE in today's Turkey
costly poisonous cinnabar's status
rose around the world – its crowning glory
the unique red calligraphy ink reserved for Emperors.
In its honour, an Empress of the Song dynasty ordered
the breeding of carp "redder than flames"
solely for the imperial family. You and I were forbidden
from keeping them: paired with a precious pigment
they were not for common eyes.
The 1600s saw a brief European heyday
their metallic scales embodying good fortune:
married men gave their wives a first-anniversary
goldfish, a symbol of prosperous years to come.
The tradition vanished as they became common –
status and rarity, both lost.
Nowadays the butt of IQ jokes, the worst
prize at the fair, swallowed live for dares
– anyone can keep them. At the shop
the toddler's first pet wafts, one of many.
Watch, and you'll see fresh eyes seeing
what we all must have seen the first time:
the indescribable, ineffable essence
of pure vermilion.