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In a dream I saw a table where all the elements fell into place ...
Dmitri Mendeleev 

You think the elements know the difference
between the inanimate
and us? And what is the difference, really,
between a rock and the hard place
the human heart becomes, at times? 

Does carbon, for instance, care if it abides
in coal or bone, pencil tip, French kiss, redwood,
deadwood, double martini, or diamond?

Chimney smoke? Mortal breath?

Do the elements ever miss, like a hometown,
the star of their nativity? Like a manger?
Like we all miss old flames?

Do atoms harbor the memory of immaculate heat,
the way I remember the warmth and rocking
of a mother? Or imagine I do?

Is it accurate to call the outer shell of the carbon atom,
where the latches of the compounds click, welcoming?
Or just needy? Or merely tolerant of the prodigal electrons
of hydrogen, oxygen, all the other lost lambs.

Wandering atoms scratching at the door like strays
you let in for the night, who curl at the hearth
and never leave.

Or tiny exiled gods in their sparse garments of motion.

If the elements first flowered outward
like children blow the crowns of dandelions
into wishful scatter and drift, did we become,
eventually, their wish come true? So far? Or false?

When the neurons first fired, and thought leapt the synapses
of our separate skulls—was it chemistry or mythology;
evolution or intuition—that first inking of self,
like some elemental lamp rubbing itself awake? 

If metaphor is the radiant half-life
of an ever-opening mind, imagine this—

you’ve been driving all night, through night, beyond
night, drawn by loneliness, or inertia, or gravity.
There is no boredom greater than yours.

And suddenly you see, or think you see something flicker,
like the sputtering Vacancy sign of an old motel. Say carbon
is that old motel. One of the early roadside chains. Carbon 12,
let’s call it, with two inner rooms always occupied,
and four outer rooms, occasionally, briefly vacant.

And the rooms are time worn, but tidy, the retro
curtains flimsy as ash, and the owner is absent,
but too stubborn to sell, and you’ve been traveling,
dear wanderer, dear atom, literally forever ...

Remember that poem by Frost? The farmer says,
Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
they have to take you in. But his wife says, No
it’s more like something you somehow
haven't to deserve.

Imagine the carbon atom as a vintage motel, where
when you have to go there they have to take you in.
It’s not a matter of deserve. Lodge anywhere long enough
and it starts to feel like home, as every immigrant
atom in your body knows.

Mendeleev said he dreamed the order of the elements.
It’s hard to know for sure. But I do know the right sleep
can take years to fall into—blind alleys, obsessions,
outmoded maps, wrongs roads, before the mind stalls
at the limits of logic, and steps out over the edge
for the deep-dive into the sub-structures
and spell-bindings. 

Before the right dream turns darkness inside out,
and you see, or think you see, something flicker,
Vacancy reconfigured into what, for lack of a better term,
we call here and now
                                —coal or bone, pencil tip, French kiss,
redwood, deadwood, double martini, or diamond.
Such is the ruse of the material. Chimney smoke, mortal
breath, brief as the distance between darkness and wonder.


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Max Garland is the author of The Word We Used for It, winner of the 2017-18 Brittingham Poetry Prize.

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