Some thoughts on Chemistry.
1. I’m the kid who loved Chemistry for the wrong reasons. I was dreamily somewhat interested in what we were studying, but I wasn’t very good in the lab. I probably dropped pipettes and fumbled beakers; I definitely kept pestering Mr. Kramer with laments about my inability to light a Bunsen burner. And yet I loved the names of things and their music in all that radiant and beautiful confusion. To this day, the periodic table of the elements—its rows and columns of patterned composition that still remind me of Legos—lends palpable delight in its colorful visuals of interlocking properties and the sounds that content sings: Tantalum. Xenon. Iridium. Bismuth. Neon.
It’s been a while since I’ve been in that kind of lab, but I’m still a student of composition and properties and how things are structured, even if the elements and compounds in question are more syntactical than chemical. There’s delight in mixtures that release energy, a never-ending wonder at what’s absorbed or released as language combines and recombines in musical fashion. Vowel. Consonant. Word. Phrase. Line.
2. So I’m thinking of chemistry as inquiry and making and uptake. As in, dear reader, How is it where you are?
That initial pronoun—it—presents a loaded, charged particle. It might mean mood, landscape, a climate environmental or political. It might mean the company you’re keeping or the solitude in which you’re sitting; it might feel immediate or even long-standing. And we haven’t even parsed the interactions between pronouns and states of being—is and are—both static and full of fluctuation. Throw in the adverbial ministrations of how—manner, degree, condition, and quality—and what emerges, if vague and full of vagaries, feels loaded with kinetic potential. Consider this question—how is it where you are?—a gesture toward connection, a reaching out that might have prompted any of the poems you’ll find in this issue. And if this question—an invitation to make a lab of experience and put forward the properties and composition of living and its transformations—is what pulls us to page or screen to either compose or read, it allows us to extend to each other invitations toward empathy. The lyric lets us ask how things are with ourselves and how things are elsewhere with others. Meaningful exchanges of energy via language.
3. My first two years as an undergrad, I’d walk, daily, from the North Quad of campus down to central campus, and the route, especially in a cold Ohio winter, frequently led through an indoor breezeway that ran through Kettering Hall, where Biology and Chemistry were housed. At opposing ends of the passageway was signage that demarcated doors where you could enter either realm, “Chemistry” or “Biology.” But you know kids and their love for tweaking the categorical. Above each singular word of signage, some living hand graffitied single words into phrases: “Better Living Through Chemistry” and “Better Loving Through Biology.” The additional handiwork was occasionally painted over by the college, then re-embellished by some other hand. We talk of chemistry when we talk about love, and even this physical graffiti broke and remade bonds. Sometimes the o in loving consisted of overlapping Venus and Mars symbols for male and female. In some versions, Loving featured four interlocking ‘o’s—two ♀ followed by two ♂—as a statement of plurality (even in an old-school gender-binary) that optimistically promoted multiple possibilities when it came to chemistry, love, and language. Ut chemia poesis.
So come on inside. It’s cold out. Here’s a passageway you can walk through. A portal, even. Better living and loving through the lyric. Our crew of readers and editors has assembled a range of tonalities and formal qualities, the enviable offspring of thinking mind and feeling heart. You’ll find Regan Good’s moving elegy for David Bowie, and David Mills’s re-animated voices of souls departed (part of a larger, inspiring project that involves lower Manhattan’s African Burial Ground, the largest colonial-era cemetery for people of African descent—most of them slaves). Gabriel Dozal distills our contemporary friction of words and worlds that border each other, and Ted Mathys uses the literal and figurative work of fracking to explore the fissures of consumptive urges and energies. The chemical reactions of observation morphing toward judgment can’t be captured with any more wit than when Michael Klein talks about birds, and perhaps you’ll fidget a bit with Diane Mehta as her speaker sits in with a church congregation not her own. From Farid Matuk’s exploration of racialized and sexualized value that comes with living in empire to Andrew Hemmert’s uplifting notion that some still insist on bringing the light, here are poets of our time and place: eager, like Caki Wilkinson, to troubleshoot and contemplate a busted oracle; eager, like the speaker in one of Stephanie Burt’s jeweled poems, to rise, perhaps in astonishment or even surprise. Wherever you are and whatever it’s like, dear reader, dear chemist, raise a cocktail of your choice—be it wish or huff or prayer or toast—for (as Seema Yasmin herein cites) “all of the things that helped us survive” and allow us to be present with each other.
—Michael Morse, Poetry Editor