Cerium, “Periodic Table of Poetry” poem by Chicago poet Janet Kuypers


by Janet Kuypers

from the “Periodic Table of Poetry” series (#58, Ce)
including the poem “Jumping from the Skyline to the Clouds”

Joining commuters driving
toward the Chicago Loop,

I watched majestic skyscrapers
frame the skyline,

as I witnessed over Lake Michigan
early morning clouds —

thin at the top, each cloud looked
like a snow-capped mountain,

framing this flat-land city, and
surrounding the skyscraper skyline…

But all those clouds
were only formed in the mornings

by the early morning weather,
pulling water daily from Lake Michigan.

When the water from the lake
is warmer than the dew point,

water rises until the air is cold enough
so that lake water forms those clouds.

But the thing is, Lake Michigan
is more than hydrogen and oxygen —

at times they even warn the public
to not go into the unsafe water

(the same water Chicago filters
for everyone to shower in, or drink).

So I checked some of the studies
on what foreign compounds

Lake Michigan actually contains —
at times you can find everything

from cadmium, mercury, lead or zinc,
to copper, chromium, even selenium.

That list included harmful elements,
but the numbers that were really

off the charts came from Cerium.
Cerium acts like calcium

in the human body, and you can
find a lot of Cerium in tobacco plants —

and with Cerium’s moderate toxicity,
prolonged exposure can lead to

itching, heat sensitivity or skin lesions.
And wait a minute, Cerium can

spontaneously ignite if the air
is hot, and you may be thinking

that if Cerium’s in water it should
be safe, but water can’t be used

to stop a Cerium fire, since Cerium
reacts with water to make hydrogen gas.

Well, if Cerium fire fumes are toxic,
then so much for Lake Michigan being

good for you — even when Chicago
has multiple water purification plants.

Because Cerium in the water
that forms those morning clouds

is one thing, but no matter the toxicity
of Cerium, remember that us humans

are over seventy percent water.
With all the compounds

that Cerium goes into,
it’s probably best if Cerium’s left

to it’s industrial uses, instead
of working it’s way in our water…

And besides, it’s nice to think
that those beautiful morning clouds

framing the Chicago skyline
with snow-capped mountains

are actually more than just hydrogen
and oxygen, because every once

in a while, look at that morning sky.
Because in just the right way,

a little Cerium
can really go a long way.

Astatine poem by Janet Kuypers


Janet Kuypers

from the “ Periodic Table of Poetry” series (#085, At)
(with references to the poem “Fantastic Car Crash”, 7/3/98)

Everything shatters with you, you know.
I am left picking up the pieces
after dealing with only fractional amounts of you.

I’ve only been able to infer what you’re like
by knowing your brethren, as everyone around me
and all the gapers gawk, as the decay grows.

In your twisted way, you come from the decay
of others… And what do you leave in your wake?
More radioactive destruction, as all around you

slows down to stare, until your instability
corrodes you down to the basics in the world.
And yeah, what was left of you after you were gone

was so much more stable that you were,
but it was only after so much of your destruction
that you left blood dripping down to the street.

So, all I can think is that this continual decay
is your contribution, this radioactive
short-term flash of decay, is you.

I’ve tried to learn, I’ve tried to study these
microscopic parts of you to make sense of you…
But whether or not you ever leave enough,

well, from what you’ve shown me, I have to keep
reminding myself that despite your destruction,
despte this decay of yours, I have to keep going.

Because, when it comes to you,
when it comes to what you do…
This happens all the time.

Arsenic poem by Janet Kuypers


Janet Kuypers

from the “ Periodic Table of Poetry” series

Just the name sounds poisonous.
I know it’s an element
in the Periodic Table,
but this odorless, tasteless demon
can work its way into our water
and eventually kill us
from the inside out.

And the thing is, Arsenic
occurs naturally everywhere,
and we even use this poison
as a wood preservative,
it’s even used in paints, dyes, metals,
drugs, soaps. And even more frightening
for all you meat eaters,
high arsenic levels are in
animal feeding operations.

We seem to hunt down ways
to kill ourselves,
don’t we.

I read about Arsenic poisoning
and Napoleon’s death.
Breathing it in or ingesting it,
Dukes to Kings were poisoned…
Even impressionist painters
used the pigment Emerald Green
which contained Arsenic, causing
diabetes, blindness, neurological disorders.

Scary stuff, this Arsenic.

So then I heard NASA announce
that Arsenic-based life forms
were discovered on Earth.

Strange stuff, this Arsenic.

I mean, how could something that kills
actually help produce life?
How could this happen?

Okay, go back to my science book:
in order for life to exist,
we need these six elements:
and sulfur.
So, where does Arsenic
fit into the picture?

Well, it looks like NASA scientists
were trying to see if any bacterium
could ever live
in an Arsenic-flooded environment.
So they went to
Mono Lake, California,
to see if anything could thrive
with a surplus of salts
and excesses of Arsenic.

So, in that elemental sextet of life,
they pulled out phosphorus,
to see what any bacteria species
might do.
Lo and behold,
the extremophilic species GFAJ-1
just decided to use Arsenic
instead of phosphorus,
and with all the Arsenic around them,
the bacteria thrived quite well.

And the name “GFAJ-1”
actually stands for
“Give Felisa a Job”.
So I guess it’s not hard to believe
that in their search
they we able to find
even more bizarre life in California
than we were used to.

And Mono Lake has always had
a productive ecosystem.
And many bacteria can tolerate
the high levels of arsenic,
or even take it in their cells.
But they just now proved,
that when starved of phosphorus,
some species could even grow
with Arsenic.

Perplexing stuff, this Arsenic.

I don’t know if we want to create
Arsenic life forms here on Earth,
but knowing this is possible
increases the probability
of finding life elsewhere in the universe.

Spooky stuff, this Arsenic.

And who knows,
Arsenic in place of phosphorus on Earth
may date back to the origin of life,
where it may have occurred
in arsenic-rich hydrothermal vents.

this speculating
about Arsenic.

And Darwinism may show
that species can adapt to survive —
I mean, we have found that bacteria
can adapt to artificially stringent
environmental conditions.

And who knows, maybe the NASA claim
that arsenic had been incorporated
into the backbone of DNA is not
ultimately true, I mean, Arsenic
just stepped in for the missing phosphorous,
so there may be no Arsenic in the DNA at all.
So give NASA a break,
they’re trying…
Because scientifically supported
statements or not,
it’s nice to know
that we’re looking at all possibilities
when looking for what is ultimately
good for life in this universe.