Hafnium, poem from the “Periodic Table of Poetry” series by Chicago poet Janet Kuypers

Hafnium

Janet Kuypers

(poem from the “Periodic Table of Poetry” series, #72, Hf)
6/27/14

I heard that the element Hafnium
is named after the literal Latin word hafnium,
which is Latin for Copenhagen,
the capital of Denmark.

And you know, I’ve been to Copenhagen,
and the one touristy thing we had to do
was go to the waterfront
to see the legendary statue
of the Mermaid on the rock,
and photograph it like every foreigner
before we left town.
So we walked to the water,
looked at the statue.
Not really sure
what’s so amazing about it;
it’s not that big,
I don’t even know the story behind it.
But everyone new to Copenhagen
should, for some reason,
check it out.

And the more I thought about it,
the more I realized that the element Hafnium
(named after the city where it was first isolated)
had a lot in common with that mermaid.
Because at first impression
(and when it was first discovered),
the element doesn’t seem to serve much of a purpose.
    Good thing, I suppose,
    since it seems so rare
    on this planet…
But as scientists looked at Hafnium more,
they realized it can form super-alloys,
which withstand very high temperatures
(which is great for parts for space vehicles),
Hafnium carbide has the highest melting point
of just two elements (and a Tungsten carbide
with Hafnium has the highest melting point).
But it’s scarcity makes Hafnium expensive –
because I heard that nuclear power plants
can pay a million dollars
just for the neutron absorbing Hafnium rods

So I guess it would make sense
why scientists consider Hafnium
as special as that little mermaid
at Copenhagen’s water’s edge.
Because things may seen benign at first,
but only when you search deeply
do you find their true value and beauty.

White Phosphorus, poem from the “Periodic Table of poetry” series by Chicago Poet Janet Kuypers

White Phosphorus

Janet Kuypers

Bonus poem from the “Periodic Table of Poetry” series, #15, P
9/30/13)

Seeing bombs from Viet Nam
and the white smoke rising —
with each bomb exploding,
I knew
that smoke…
It was Willie Pete,
white Phosphorus —
you couldn’t put it out
once it started burning.
This stuff would
destroy the forests
foreign to our
U.S. troops.

I know you can’t understand.
But I wanted you to know
that I haven’t felt close
to anyone
or anything
in years.

It sounds sick,
but seeing that footage,
seeing that white smoke
from that file footage,
it brought it all back to me.
It brought the emotions
flooding back to me
like it was yesterday.

Everything that seems
so volatile
about that war,
in a way
has become a part of me,
right down to my DNA.
You look at your tv screen
and think it makes no sense,
but…
It’s a part of me.
I know I’m old now,
I know it’s only
a small part of me,
but I know I need it.
I can’t explain why,
but I do.

When you see the destruction
of Willie Pete…
Yeah, we knew what it was,
white Phosphorus,
but all of us called it that,
it was just easier
to say it then,
but…
When you see the destruction
of that white Phosphorus,
you think of it
on some existential level,
like “oh, violence is bad,”
but when I see those
bombs going off,
and when I think of
what it was like
to live in that war,
that Willie Pete —
that white Phosphorus —
to us, that was our key
to getting through that hell.
You can’t understand,
but that
was the closest we had
to getting out alive.