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Elemental Haiku: Poems to honor the periodic table, three lines at a time

Elemental Haiku: Poems to honor the periodic table, three lines at a time

by Mary Soon Lee


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A fascinating little illustrated series of 118 haiku about the Periodic Table of Elements, one for each element, plus a closing haiku for element 119 (not yet synthesized).

Originally appearing in Science magazine, this gifty collection of haiku inspired by the periodic table of elements features all-new poems paired with original and imaginative line illustrations drawn from the natural world. Packed with wit, whimsy, and real science cred, each haiku celebrates the cosmic poetry behind each element, while accompanying notes reveal the fascinating facts that inform it. Award-winning poet Mary Soon Lee's haiku encompass astronomy, biology, chemistry, history, and physics, such as "Nickel, Ni: Forged in fusion's fire,/flung out from supernovae./Demoted to coins." Line by line, Elemental Haiku makes the mysteries of the universe's elements accessible to all.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781984856630
Publisher: Clarkson Potter/Ten Speed
Publication date: 10/01/2019
Edition description: Illustrate
Pages: 144
Sales rank: 294,851
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 6.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

MARY SOON LEE is an award-winning poet and fiction writer. She won the Rhysling Award and the Elgin Award, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. Her work has appeared in a wide range of venues, including Atlanta Review, Cider Press Review, American Scholar, Spillway, and Rosebud, as well as award-winning fiction and fantasy magazines Lightspeed, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Analog. Before she took up writing, she had a more analytical background, with degrees in mathematics and computer science from Cambridge University and an MSc in astronautics and space engineering from Cranfield University. Born and raised in London, she has called the United States home for twenty years.

Read an Excerpt

I can’t remember what age I was when I first learned about the periodic table, but ever since, it has been both familiar and fascinating. In the periodic table, the elements—building blocks of the universe—are marshaled in order of increasing atomic number (the number of protons in their atoms). Then the elements are laid out in rows (known as periods) and columns (known as groups) that reflect underlying atomic structure.

Dmitri Mendeleev, father of the periodic table, devised his first version in 1869. He arranged the elements so that those with similar behavior would line up, leaving gaps in the spots where no known element seemed to belong. A few years later, the first of these missing elements was discovered by Paul-Émile Lecoq de Boisbaudran, who named it gallium. Now, one and a half centuries after Mendeleev’s first version, the periodic table contains some 118 known elements, several of them discovered only in the last couple of decades.

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. Hydrogen has an atomic number of one, meaning its atoms contain just one proton, yet hydrogen is part of water and is essential to life:


Your single proton fundamental, essential.
Water. Life. Star fuel.

Having written a haiku for hydrogen, I wrote haiku for helium and lithium, the second and third elements in the periodic table. The next day, I came up with haiku for the next several elements, and the project acquired purpose. Progressing in order through the periodic table, I wrote a haiku for each element in turn. Months later, I reached the end of the periodic table, and added one final haiku for element 119, as yet undiscovered as I write this.

This book contains those haiku, together with brief notes on each one. I call them 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.

These Elemental Haiku first appeared, without the accompanying notes, in the August 4, 2017, issue of Science. They were not the first poetic take on the periodic table, and I hope they won’t be the last.

To close this introduction, here is a poem that I wrote as I neared the end of the periodic table. Unlike the haiku themselves, it’s a longer, less structured poem, reflecting on my experience writing the elemental haiku, my journey through the periodic table.

The Periodic Table of Elements 

I set out in December,
alone, ill-equipped,
but the way clear.

Hydrogen, helium,
the divided couple of the first row.

Then lithium to neon, the second row,
eight names I’d memorized in high school,
their number, nature, neighbors well known to me.

Past sodium, magnesium—
that old familiar leap across to aluminum—
from there a quick run through to argon.
The third row done, so soon.
I thirsted for more, for truth,
for primal facts. Firm. Fixed.

Potassium, calcium to the left of the landmark columns of transition metals.
The new year turned. I came to zinc,
gallium, germanium, slid on to krypton.
Stood at the end of the fourth row,
caught my breath. 

Strangers ahead.

Walked into the eternal expanse of the fifth row, its rules ordained by the powers that underpin the universe.
Physics. Chemistry.
The gods.

Rubidium, strontium,
the leaders of the fifth row.
Yttrium, zirconium, niobium, molybdenum.
The milestone of technetium: first of the radioactive elements,
their atoms randomly transmuting,
but their own original character constant as the prime numbers,
certain as arithmetic.

January almost complete before I reached xenon,
the fifth row’s right anchor,
noble, steadying, sure.

Row six.
Cesium, barium,
the lanthanides lined up beneath the main table.
Their electron configurations,
isotopes, melting points, temperaments.
What we learn alters us.
What we choose to learn. 

I spent February in the company of the thirty-two members of the sixth row.
Rhenium, osmium, iridium.
Platinum’s deep treasure.

March now,
the seventh row ahead of me,
the final partial revelations of humanity’s hard-won knowledge.
Elements summoned in laboratories,
nuclear reactors, particle accelerators by acolytes attempting to answer that which had never been answered.

beyond a door we have not opened,
the oracle of the eighth row

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