The Spring 2020 timing of this writing endeavor merits an epilogue of sorts. The COVID-19 pandemic was in evidence elsewhere in the world from the limerick project’s start but did not affect my day-to-day responsibilities until mid-March. By that point, I had been working on these brief essays for a while, scheduling each to post a few weeks after its writing.
It was evident after spring break that my late-semester experience would be significantly different from my early-semester experience. At the same time, I’d written “ahead” several blog entries, so that posts were scheduled through early April. I was reluctant to edit those pieces. I was likewise reluctant to interrupt what had become a diverting writing habit to focus on late-breaking, superfluous reporting on what it was like to shift abruptly to teaching chemistry remotely (in one, unsurprising word: difficult).
Ultimately, I opted to continue staring resolutely at one STEM-themed limerick at a time, producing 280 (or so) words of explanatory prose about its five lines, with only occasional allusions to the surrounding temporal context. What may have seemed like obtuse monotony was a considered response; I share here my rationale in case it would ever be useful to anyone else.
A central theme of chemistry is the link between molecular structure and function. Generally, chemists consider how adjustments to a molecule’s composition will impact its reactivity, but the same idea echoes across disciplines in resonant, moving ways. (One such echo is Mrs. Whatsit’s beautiful discussion of the sonnet as a metaphor for one’s life in Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time: “You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you.”)
Structure also enables function in terms of my writing. The three constraints I described in the most recent entry (National Poetry Month, the Year of the Periodic Table, and Twitter’s character limit) together provided my 2019 project’s form, which in turn facilitated its inspiration. This Spring 2020 exercise was likewise “periodic” in its own structure: returning to each daily theme from April 2019; building on each short poem with a slightly longer explanation.
Along those lines, I will finish where this particular project began, with the Periodic Table of the Elements. Mendeleev constructed his periodic table via an understanding of elements in two dimensions, as I wrote about in my initial limerick discussion several weeks ago: what are the elements’ weights (later refined as atomic numbers), and what are their chemical properties? In this case, function informed structure: understanding the elements’ chemical behaviors helped Mendeleev to build his famous diagram.
A few years ago, multiple medical emergencies struck my family simultaneously, and it has taken much of the intervening time to regain my equilibrium. For many years, my academic research didn’t provide much solace; neither did unfocused writing. But in the overlap of these two “dimensions” of chemistry and poetry, I finally found enough of a framework to yield a creative routine’s structure and purpose: a foothold with which to begin. That practice has provided stability and function in this historically challenging spring, and I will continue with it in the weeks and months ahead.