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Science Poetry

Inflection Points

A painting will react within the air,
The timescale long but resolutely strict;
I learn to my chagrin, almost despair,
And note the harm that passing years inflict. 

To H2O and CO2, paints age,
Convert o’er time; their final state is thus
The same as that for any on this stage. 
(See also: “Ash to ash and dust to dust.”)  

A sobering realization in its time;
I find a new perspective eight years on.
From songs and stories, portraits, prose, and rhyme,
The mem’ries of ancestral homes now gone…

I offer what I can the powerful play,
Take up the pen ‘gainst Time, and join the fray.

This is a non-Twitter poem, and it was a first poetic effort after many years of academic-only writing, as part of a creative writing course I was fortunate to find in Summer 2018.  The course involved daily writing prompts ranging from non-fiction to fiction and finally to poetry.  

In this particular day’s prompt, we were asked to rewrite a Shakespearean sonnet.  I found that reading a few of them and considering the strict rules of their structure helped me to frame an interesting image I’d encountered in a teaching workshop several years before.  At that point, I titled the resulting poem “From a Workshop in Walla Walla, Washington (with apologies to both “Sonnet 15” and Leaves of Grass),” wanting to be sure I credited every aspect of its provenance… perhaps to an absurd extent!

A painting will react within the air, /
The timescale long but resolutely strict, /
I learn to my chagrin, almost despair, /
And note the harm that passing years inflict.  

To H2O and CO2, paints age, /
Convert o’er time; their final state is thus /
The same as that for any on this stage. /
(See also: “Ash to ash and dust to dust.”)   

The poem, drafted in a creative writing class, references another welcome educational opportunity.  

Days after my first year of tenure-track teaching ended in 2010, I flew across the country to a wonderful workshop on Chemistry and Art, held that year in the state of Washington.  It turned out to be the restorative week I needed after the utter exhaustion of that first year.  Working with other scientists and artists, I listened to lectures and completed projects in which I considered the interdisciplinary overlap of chemistry and art more directly than I ever had before: synthesizing a solid pigment as an example of a precipitation reaction; dyeing a fabric to demonstrate interactions between the molecules of the fabric and the molecules of the dye.     

This poem originated from one particularly vivid takeaway point from an art conservation lecture: “[a] painting will react within the air.”  Any painting hanging on a museum wall is hanging in a reactive environment, since the oxygen in the air will cause oxidation reactions to occur.   (Pieces of artwork are sometimes displayed under an inert atmosphere of nitrogen gas only, to avoid these unwanted chemical reactions; certainly, factors such as temperature, lighting, and humidity are carefully controlled in a museum setting more generally.)  

When an organic compound undergoes a combustion reaction (oxidation), it is converted to water and to carbon dioxide.  The binders in oil paints are mixtures of organic compounds (containing carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen).  I had known both of these points, detachedly, for years, and yet I could point to the seat in the classroom where I was sitting when the implication truly clicked.  

The end products of a such a compound’s combustion reaction, even if that reaction doesn’t end for hundreds of years, will be water (H2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2), in terms of the molecular formulas of the thermodynamically stable, final compounds.  “[T]he timeline [is] long,” but the reaction pathway is “resolutely strict.”  In other words, the final state of a painting is not the painting… but these ephemeral reaction products, easily borne away on the air.  

I found this idea reminiscent of the “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” phrase found in religious texts and framed it here as an academic note, via the “see also” directive.  

A sobering realization in its time; /
I find a new perspective eight years on. /
From songs and stories, portraits, prose, and rhyme, /
The mem’ries of ancestral homes now gone…

An inflection point, in computational chemistry (or mathematics generally), is where the curve of the mathematical function of interest changes sign.  An inflection point, in a story, is where the plot changes direction.  These lines mark an “intra-poem” inflection point, as I shift here from my chemistry discussion to a line of thought it helped inspire.   

The Chemistry and Art workshop was in Summer 2010.  “[E]ight years on,” at the time of my 2018 writing course, I was dealing with several recent losses within my immediate and extended family.  I had found myself unable in the time immediately afterward to consider any of the family memories that had once meant so much, via so many different media: music, stories, photographs.  Meanwhile, my writing had calcified into an academic, disciplinary-jargon-informed voice in the years after college.  

This writing exercise was thus an inflection point of its own, as I found that I had finally achieved enough fluency with chemistry material to be able to write about it in a more creative way.   This in turn led easily to the more personal reflection, supported by the structure of the sonnet form.

I offer what I can the powerful play, /
Take up the pen ‘gainst Time, and join the fray.  

The closing couplet provides the more measured homage to Walt Whitman and William Shakespeare that the first, clumsy title had aimed to make abundantly clear.  Whitman’s Leaves of Grass famously queries and responds: “The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life? /  Answer. / That you are here—that life exists and identity, / That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” Shakespeare’s Sonnet 15 addresses the inevitability of Time’s arrow and the writer’s resolute effort against it: “And all in war with Time for love of you, / As he takes from you, I engraft you new.”     

I remember where I sat at the workshop when I first connected the dots about the finite lifetime of a work of art.  I remember a morning in my living room years later, as these allusions fell into systematic syllabic place alongside those images from chemistry and, finally, a tribute to my family: the strict rules of the sonnet fit the myriad puzzle pieces into a coherent image. The pertinent turn back towards creative writing has led to a rewarding routine in the years since, including the regular use of this website space.