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:
‘I call [these poems] haiku, because I followed a 5-7-5 syllable pattern, and because I tried to capture something of the succinctness, the juxtaposition, the surprise of traditional Japanese haiku. But these are not the tiny, beautifully wrought haiku of Basho or Buson or Issa. There is no cherry blossom to be found, no seasonal references at all. Instead, there are the elements: their chemistry, physics, history.’
Lee shares her creative journey with us in an introductory poem written in free verse, describing how the project began one December when ‘alone, ill-equipped’, she wrote haiku for hydrogen and helium. The poem goes on to outline her progress through the familiar first few rows of the periodic table and her thirst ‘for more, for truth/ for primal facts’ that would lead, months later, to the book’s conclusion. This intellectual curiosity infuses the collection with energy and incisive authenticity.
The elements are presented according to their atomic number, beginning with hydrogen, ‘fundamental, essential’, and ending with the hypothetical element 119 which has not yet been synthesised and which, I discover, has the temporary name ununennium. Lee has a magisterial ability to impart facts clearly, concisely and engagingly. In these short poems she succeeds in conveying the distinctive characteristics of each element, their inter-relationships, their applications and their role in history, be it on a human, planetary or cosmic scale.
The haiku are accompanied by a light sprinkling of notes, just enough to provide context when needed or to impart relevant scientific information. We learn, for example, that Ming porcelain owes its blue underglaze to a cobalt pigment; that the melting point of gallium is 30o C, low enough to melt in your hand; that the half-life of bismuth is 1019 years; and that an isotope of americium is commonly used in smoke detectors. There are occasional unexpected associations, as in the haiku for barium, compounds of which are used in enemas and also in fireworks:
Let those enduring your enemas remember fireworks’ bright splendor.
In this poem, as throughout the book, Lee’s poetic craftsmanship and command of the haiku form are evident. The assonance, half-rhyme and flowing rhythm in the first two lines contrast neatly with the plosive consonants in the final line invoking the sparkling surprise of fireworks. Assonance and internal rhyme also feature in ‘Neodymium’, but in this case the mono- and duo-syllabic words generate a sonorous effect well suited to the environmental concerns implicit in the poem:
Delved from China’s mines, mixed with iron and boron. Strong magnets, high costs.
The book is as much a visual as it is a poetic delight, with its spangled cover, attractive layout and the witty illustrations by Iris Gottlieb that accompany many of the poems. Handily, an overview of the periodic table is included at the back of the book so we can see, for example, that roentgenium shares the 11th column with ‘the group of coins’, namely copper, silver and gold.
Mary Soon Lee was born in Britain and studied mathematics, computing, astronautics and space engineering before moving to Pittsburgh in the USA where she now lives and writes. Elemental Haiku opens with a dedication to the poet’s teacher Jane Angliss, ‘And to all teachers/ whose lessons waken a love/ of the sciences.’ On the basis of this beautifully crafted collection, I would place Mary Soon Lee firmly among their ranks. The book deserves a place in chemistry classrooms and on poetry shelves everywhere.
Elemental Haiku by Mary Soon Lee, 131 pp, is published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House.
The poems quoted here are reprinted with permission from Elemental Haiku: Poems to Honor the Periodic Table Three Lines at a Time by Mary Soon Lee copyright © 2019. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.
Posted on 6th February 2021.