Mary Soon Lee’s Elemental Haiku begins with an invocation—a dedication to her guru, her sensei, and to “all teachers whose lessons waken a love of the sciences.” This poetry collection of 120 poems honor the periodic table—each poem a tribute to the elements that make us, our world, and the universe. Lee is perhaps aware that she is writing a sacred text of our times, following the great tradition of the poets of Vedas and Koans. Here is a document of truth—detectable, verifiable—transmuting and changing, pervading the universe. The chart of the periodic table illustrated by Iris Gottlieb looks like a map of the stars, these secret keys seeming to hold the power to unlock the mysteries of the universe—the evolution of life, and the decay that follows mass extinctions.
Can an android dream of a metaphor, read, and truly understand a poem? Every poem must perform several heavy duties at once—provide all the subtle hints, the bountiful suggestions. Its vision of the limitations of language and our biology, our constant need to interpret the world we see, we sense, around us—through our history, memories, dreams—make this collection profoundly human.
The best way to read these haiku is to recite each poem aloud, of course, like a hymn—slowly—and let your voice vibrate the air, your body, your whole being. As you read these poems aloud, the words leap at you from the medium—memory, paper, or screen—with an elegant precision, delivering their multiple meanings, both obvious and hidden.
Is there a molecular formula for such poetry, for such a technique? How does the written text transmute when it reacts with sound? In her notes to the poem “Sodium,” Lee writes that “Sodium ions travel across nerve cell membranes, triggering the transmission of nerve impulses and thereby enabling our thoughts and actions.” Without Sodium, an essential element, our voices will stop making sense. And we will no longer be able to transform the sound waves into meaning, or reach for enlightenment through the electricity in our brains.
Lee’s notes are almost essential for a deeper, factual reading of each poem. The poetic truth contained in each haiku is often the same as the factual truth. But the function or form of poetry isn’t the same as the purpose of an equation or nugget of information. Sometimes you have to read the notes that accompany each poem before you fully understand it: the appreciation of these verses truly depends upon what and how much we know, as an intelligent species living on a planet’s surface in a dark and desolate universe.
A multiple Rhysling award winner, Lee is a master alchemist of words. Still, the alchemy of poetry is a mysterious science—there is no line for error in this endeavor. So Lee chooses and uses each word with great care. Every haiku at her hands becomes a three-line compound of truth—fact, insight—written in a five-seven-five syllable pattern. The reader or listener will either react with a sense of joy, pleasure, surprise, or shock. Or sometimes nothing at all.
Is there an order in which you should read these poems? No, but the poet wrote the poems following the logic of the periodic table, and it only makes sense to read the poems in that order.
One day in December 2016, with no grand plan in mind, I sat down and wrote a haiku for the first of these elements, hydrogen. […] Progressing in order through the periodic table, I wrote a haiku for each element in turn… 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. (pp. 1-2)
What happens, though, when we can no longer know, identify, or comprehend the given information—when facts become obsolete and stop making sense?
Lighter than water,
Empower my phone, my car.
One day, when Lithium carbonate (Li2CO3) is no longer one of the medications for bipolar disorder, how will we react to this poem? When we don’t have to use Lithium to power a phone or a car—when we don’t even have to use a phone or a car—perhaps this poem will become a relic of our past. To a future human—a posthuman—this poem will attain a mysterious quality, significant to his evolution, even if partly indecipherable and unknowable. Some of the truth it contains now will be forever beyond the future’s grasp.
Lee knows facts can change with time and discoveries, the loss of cultures and species. She writes in her brilliant introduction of a poem, “The Periodic Table of Elements”:
What we learn alters us.
What we choose to learn.
The poems in Elemental Haiku talk about everything from “electron envy” to a career in advertising (she approves of it). These are mnemonics that young scholars and adults can really enjoy, like Willie Pete for white phosphorus. Just as often, a haiku becomes a prism or a capsule of the human history and culture in three lines—“fire and brimstone” (“Sulfur” and “Chlorine”) and “bulls call from cave walls” (“Manganese”—not magnesium). Lee makes chemistry less boring or intimidating with these.
There are also surprises in store for readers—I didn’t see those dragons coming in “Chromium”—and shocking facts (“Arsenic” and “Radium,” among others). There are poems about discoveries and inventions (“Selenium,” “Curium,” and “Thulium”). There are poems that remind us of the collateral fallout from the first successful test of the hydrogen bomb (“Einsteinium” and “Fermium”); “Uranium” and “Plutonium” share the same first line—“Manhattan Project.”
Lee is especially at her best when she makes you feel sorry for Nickel (“Forged in fusion’s fire,” “demoted to coins”), and teases you as she cheekily tells you that it’s “Stockholm, not Sherlock” that gives Holmium its name. You will want to thank her for spilling the beans about Zinc. How appropriate that Zinc should clasp its neighbor, Copper, tight and become brass—used in horns, bugles, trumpets—and dance!
When you begin to see Selenium as a mother—“helping babies thrive”—and Argon as a lazy but necessary guard, you will no longer feel scared of these elements or their home, the periodic table where they belong. Not only that, but “Argon” is an excellent Taoist poem—it is both sincere and surprising, like the whole of the collection it is a part of.
If Lee was on a mission to make chemistry appealing and endearing with Elemental Haiku, she has accomplished it well. She makes the rare, common, and obscure elements of the periodic table relatable by giving each of them an interesting story, and almost a human character. As a result, Elemental Haiku is delightful and friendly—it is beautiful and illuminating. My only complaint is that it wasn’t part of my childhood, my schooling. Lee makes chemistry fun and entertaining, and that is an achievement worthy of celebration: Elemental Haiku should be handy in every chemistry classroom.