Devil’s Lake

Spring 2010 Issue

Jeffrey Thomson: Selected Periodic Table of the Elements

Hydrogen (1/1)


Helium (2/4)

voice of tightened throats

Carbon (6/12)

all that remains from the small scratch of fire on the ground

Nitrogen (7/13)

azote Lavoisier calls it (without life)—outside his window clover fields sway

Oxygen (8/16)

without it, almost all known organisms die within minutes; too much, however, is toxic, like knowledge

Neon (10/20)

after the MRI I tried to drink the taste from my mouth beneath beer signs blanked in angled afternoon sunlight

Aluminum (13/27)

summer nights—July’s misery dying down, the Cardinals on the radio—the snap of the bat and its echo, the wrenching crack of a can of beer

Sulfur (16/32)

the smell of the canal, blue fescue and the Florida sun—my grandfather shirtless and tan on the dock bones the trout we’ve caught—his quick wrists and the thin sharp knife

Chlorine (17/34)

girls beached on the sun-ruined concrete below the lifeguard stand—their copper thighs, their affected languor—

Twisted Sister unfolds from the speakers, "We’re Not Gonna Take It!"—as boys waterbox in the poisoned water

Calcium (20/40)

the cartoon flashes on the silver-threaded screen, clacking into the spokes of the empty reel, and in the dark we watch milk slide down the cut-away throat of the boy—the gulped whiteness spreads through his chest to his bones

Titanium (22/48)

Challenger burst into a spider fern of smoke above the Cape, that day, and I watched on CNN then went to class where the professor said we could leave if we wanted to—if anyone was too effected by that flowering loss to go on—no one did

Iron (26/56)

we were pitching nickels behind the cafeteria, the greased green bulk of the dumpster hiding us from the playground monitors when I called big Sean Phillips a cheat—when he hit me I stayed down as he swayed above—

he was cheating, but I was the one on the ground tasting the metal in my blood

Copper (29/64)

the nine-volt flavor of wire as I split them and strip their sheaths with my teeth—red to red, brass to black—the small speakers, the turntable (outside the wind flustering the ratty trees) and Bob Marley’s Catch a Fire crackles into the one room of my first apartment (small and greasy and over-painted) where I’m a little high in my castle of boxes

Selenium (34/79)

the moon gives no light of its own, though I can see by it the twisted path through the birches to the river crosshatched with shadow, the silver spangle of water moving over the collection of stones below the power plant, see the shadows of form and the smoke kicked out from the row of black stacks silhouetted in the summer night,

see the dark body of the world reflected in that light—toxic and necessary in
equal measure

Krypton (36/84)

hard to see the story ending well when Marlon Brando, bloated and wet-lipped, places his son in the space craft (that future so gauzy, bright and clean) and of course the planet explodes, seeding itself across the universe but this small boy is Moses for the atomic age and he is discovered in a midwest sea of reeds plowed by the smoking ship

well-fed and invulnerable, he discovers that the only things that can kill him
now are the fragments of his former life

Cadmium (48/112)

they said he was to sow the dragon’s teeth and fight the warriors of stone that grew from them, but being clever he tossed a rock among them and they turned on themselves in self-slaughter

they said he was to marry the daughter of love and war and the last time the gods were to sit down for a meal with men was at this marriage

the gods gave the couple many gifts that day (including the necklace of Harmonia that brought misfortune to whomever owned it) but the last gift they gave was the alphabet

all the stories told that night were new in a way they could never be again

Barium (56/137)

I sipped and swallowed on command, the mint flavoring added to the drink barely covering the taste of concrete and lime, then the machine’s giant mind hummed and whirred about me, the cold vibrating up from the floor beneath the ridiculous gown (I’ve kept my socks on and my wallet’s on the shelf)

day had dawned flat and gray with the white sun pasted across the horizon—I was awake too early—light swelling in the sky above the dark firs, no birds and wind-drifted snow sluiced across the black asphalt

I swallowed and swallowed and the radiation flashed through my chest and throat looking for the mass (that body within the body) they thought was there—the white bulk that glinted inside me as the lead-heavy doctor and the two technicians watched, watched and said nothing

Promethium (61/145)

from clay he molds a single shape so carefully—this one body he loves even before he has finished it, all the while his brother bakes thousands and tosses them behind him, bewildered and feathered or clawed with damp fur—that when he is finished there is nothing left (the speckled scales and gills, the spotted pelt, the fangs, all gone) and this delay leaves his creation alone and shivering in the cold so he conspires to steal fire from the chariot of the sun and carries it to earth cupped in leaves of fennel

his punishment is well known—the body that grows and grows inside him,
the daily growth and then the pain—but when Herakles is done, the eagle skewered, and he’s allowed again to join the crowd upon Olympus, Prometheus must carry with him the rock that he was chained to

Radium (88/226)

was used in self-luminous paints for watches, nuclear panels, aircraft switches, clocks, and instrument dials and, in fact, the Radium Girls, more than 100 former watch dial painters who took brushes to their mouths to shape the tips as they stroked each watch-face’s tiny hands, died—

this doesn’t mean anything, all the tests were negative, the half-life of my life spins onward—

because they ingested the paint, took the decay products (once known as radium A, B, and C, but it is now known that the disintegration of the nucleus produces other atoms, other isotopes, other fragments)

into their mouths, the wet tongues of the brushes, the taste of metal

this doesn’t mean anything

the women’s faces glowing with the small light of their brushes, the workroom kept dim so their work would show, summer sunlight creeping in from beyond the blackout shades

this doesn’t mean anything, the fragments the pieces are only half the story

they occasionally painted their nails and teeth and faces

a metal (an alkaline earth metal) that casts its own light—that’s all the metaphors for writing

this rock

this does not mean anything

the tiny whiteness spread through their mouths to their bones, this flowering, this alphabet of probability

this rock I am

the tests were negative

they died

that does not mean anything

this rock I am chained to

a photo of the author, Jeffrey Thomson JEFFREY THOMSON is the author of four books of poems, including Birdwatching in Wartime (Carnegie Mellon, 2009), winner of the 2010 Maine Book Award, and Renovation (Carnegie Mellon, 2005). He has also published an anthology of emerging poets: From the Fishouse: An Anthology of Poems that Sing, Rhyme, Resound, Syncopate, Alliterate, and Just Plain Sound Great, co-edited with Camille Dungy and Matt O’Donnel (Persea Books, 2009). He has won fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Pennsylvania Arts Commission, and, most recently, was named the 2008 Individual Arts Fellow in the Literary Arts by the Maine Arts Commission. He is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Maine Farmington. More from this issue >