Chemistry is one of those subjects that largely passed me by at school. The chemistry labs had their own distinctive, slightly nausea-inducing smell, our lab coats were stained and shapeless, and the teaching was uninspired. While it was with relief that I abandoned the subject at the age of sixteen, I’ve always recognised that my limited knowledge of chemistry is a gaping hole in my scientific education.
I was therefore intrigued when I chanced across Mary Soon Lee’s collection Elemental Haiku, honouring ‘the periodic table/ three lines at a time’. Could I improve my understanding of chemistry through reading poetry? And how does one convey the essential attributes of an element in three lines totalling seventeen syllables? In her foreword, Lee explains her choice of form as well as her objectives:
My granddaughter was making Christmas angels. She folded a piece of card in two, drew half an angel shape on one side, cut it out and opened the fold. Lo! – a perfect, complete angel!
My granddaughter’s angel is a neat example of reflection symmetry; one half of the shape is a mirror image of the other. This is a characteristic of many naturally occurring phenomena: a bird on the wing, the reflection of snow-dusted mountains in the still water of a loch, the hexagonal form of a snowflake. Our own bodies have approximate reflection symmetry.
Your grandmother’s, this set
of six. I imagine her, fine-boned and elegant,
serving turtle soup in these bowls. Delicate
as eggshells, they nestle in their saucers
while golden turtles drift
around their sides, motionless
against a hidden tide.
Remember how we dived with turtles
in sun-sparkled waters of the Gulf;
how you admired their leisured grace,
the slow speed of their flippers
as they flew the sea like air.
Remember how one night we watched
hatchlings splutter from their nests,
tumble down moon-
white sand to bounce
like pennies into hungry surf –
hatchlings as tiny as these bowls
that I will never use
for turtle soup.
Katrina Porteous is a poet based in Northumberland, England, who focuses ‘on the theme of ‘nature’ in its widest sense, and ‘place’ in its deepest.’ This has led her to consider some of the profound questions that have concerned philosophers, religious thinkers, scientists and writers for millennia: What is the nature of matter? What is reality? How did the Universe come into existence? What is ‘out there’, beyond the confines of our planet Earth?
Upstream in pools where the water barely flowed but for a gentle kissing of the rocks, a tremor in the mirrored clouds – water transparent as air, sprung from the mountain’s flank, too cold for bilharzia-bearing snails – we found a duiker its hide beginning to flake, its eyes glazed, its legs stiff. We tensed too, my brothers and I, in the cold shock of our discovery. I had not known death before. Not this close. This unexplained.
The sun’s heat bounced off the rocks, drew out the fragrance of the grass. Death did not belong here. Take its legs. Our feet slipping on riverbed pebbles, we dragged the duiker through the pools to where the stream began to quicken, to leap over hidden rocks, swirl in eddies against the banks. Near the precipice the river’s tug became too strong and we released the carcase to the current. It floated haphazardly, tiny hooves bumping alternately against the wavelets and the sky. We ran along the bank to where the river abandoned all containment and hurled down a vastness of rock. The duiker disappeared in that foaming plunge towards the mist-green Honde valley. Above us, white-necked ravens rode rollercoasters of air.
‘Turbulence’ was placed third in the Kent & Sussex Poetry Society Folio Competition 2020.
My late, beloved brother Martin had a globetrotting habit and a penchant for quirky and impractical gifts. On one occasion he arrived to stay with me bearing an inordinately heavy stone square, which he had seen on a trip to Italy and decided would make the perfect present for his Classics-loving, mathematically minded sister.
This poem first appeared in the Bridges 2020 Poetry Anthology (ed. Sarah Glaz), Tessellations Publishing, Phoenix, Arizona. There is a recording of Marian reading this and other poems on the Bridges 2020 Virtual Poetry Reading website.