April 11, 2016
Atom, Cathedral

—Jessica Reed
Posted in celebration of National Poetry Month

Make a fist, and if your fist is as big as the nucleus of an atom,
then the atom is as big as St. Paul’s, and if it happens to be a
hydrogen atom, then it has a single electron flitting about like a
moth in an empty cathedral, now by the dome, now by the altar.
                                                           —Tom Stoppard

Open your mouth, and if
your mouth is as dark
as an oil slick,
then the moths in your mouth
will wing against your teeth . . .

I only want to say one true thing.

With the moon as reference, a moth
flies straight. Perhaps our false moonlight
strips away that optical infinity,
or its search for nectar undoes it:
ultraviolet light reflected off flowers draws
the nocturnal moth.
(Either way,
it beats around near candle or lamp
in confusion, not desire.)

The poet I knew best said, There are cathedrals
we never see. So: open your mouth, make
a fist. This is physics.
To a nameless intellect we pray,
in that vast moth-filled colonnade.
Descriptive equations rise like smoke
from an altar. We witness the electronic
structure of the atom,
the tangled shapes,
the many geographies of now-by-the-dome,
assembled here
in the world’s first body.

* “There are cathedrals we never see” is from poet Tom Andrews, my mentor and friend from Purdue (1961-2001).


—Jessica Reed (Hendricks County)

This poem first appeared in Spiral Orb.

April 11 Jessica Reed photo
Jessica Reed’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in North American Review; Bellingham Review; Conjunctions; Waxwing; Tinderbox Poetry Journal; Spiral Orb; The Fourth River; Kudzu House Quarterly; and Isotope: A Journal of Literary Nature and Science Writing. She has an MFA in poetry and a BS in physics, both from Purdue University, and lives in Hendricks County with her husband and seven buff chickens.

Poetry Prompt: Metaphor from Science
Scientists often use metaphors to explain difficult concepts. Find a metaphor related to science and play around with it. See what happens when you imaginatively extend it. You might let the metaphor give birth to new metaphors, or you might contradict it with a different metaphor. In the course of your poem, does the original metaphor take on an added dimension?

Indiana Humanities is celebrating National Poetry Month by sharing a poem and prompt every day in April. Indiana Poet Laureate Shari Wagner selected these poems and wrote the prompts.

Posted In: Poetry

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