A Review of Mary Soon Lee’s Elemental Haiku, poems to honor the periodic table, three lines at a time
By Esther Santiago
Where the appreciation of science and poetry collides: A Review of Mary Soon Lee’s Elemental Haiku, poems to honor the periodic table, three lines at a time
When I was younger, I wanted to grow into becoming like the Puerto Rican author of The Pond (La Charca, originally in Spanish), Manuel Zeno Gandía, who was both a physician and a poet (he was also a novelist, a politician and a journalist). I actually began my undergraduate studies as a Biology major, and in my Junior Year I switched to English, Creative Writing. By switching majors, it does not mean that I abhor science, or I think one area of study is superior to the other. On the contrary, this appreciation for science and literature has swirled in my head and lingered in my heart for the longest time. I simply lean towards literature more.
A few weeks ago, I came across a fascinating book titled Elemental Haiku: Poems to honor the periodic table, three lines at a time by British author Mary Soon Lee. The poetry collection features one poem for each element of the periodic table (a total of 118), and the bottom of the page includes a footnote describing the element, so you learn as you read. The three line poems carry an essence of simplicity, musicality and marvelous imagery.
“Just doing your job,
holding plant cells together.
No fireworks, no fuss.”
Boron is an essential micronutrient for plants, being needed for their cell walls. One of its industrial applications is in flame-retarding compounds added to plastics.”
The book centers on science through a poetic (and at times, humorous) observation. Most of the poems are accompanied by a small lovely drawing, as shown below.
gallant protector of steel,
ready for dragons.”
My favorite poem from the collection is “Magnesium”:
“Child of aging stars,
however brightly you burn
they will not return.”
This is a book everyone can enjoy (not necessarily only STEM majors and/or Liberal Arts majors), even people who don’t usually read for entertainment. I felt immersed in the poems, eager to discover more about the elements. It is not an educational book per se, but it provides the opportunity to learn outside the classroom in a creative and engaging manner.
The Russian-American novelist, Vladimir Nabokov, once noted “a writer should have the precision of the poet and the imagination of a scientist.” For the most part, literature and sciences have been separated as two radically different subjects. Science is commonly described as a subject that relies on facts and objective data, theories and laws, in which there is no emotional influence in the works. In contrast, literature (poetry, for example) is not obligated to hold a certain structure to exist, and it holds a subjective perspective that can allude to emotions and personal expression. Usually, science courses are mostly lectured-based (to the exception of lab sessions), whereas English courses are mostly based on a discussion-led class session. However, I consider science and the arts do overlap, as both concentrations allow space for experimentation.
Elemental Haiku is a great read for when you’re on your way to class or your next commute, or when you’re taking a coffee-break from work, or relaxing on your Spring Break vacations as you wait for flowers to bloom again…
Mary Soon Lee is an award-winning poet who also writes science fiction and fantasy. Many of her works have appeared on Other of her works include: The Sign of the Dragon (2016).
Esther Santiago is the Long River Review translations editor. She can be reached at email@example.com.