Caroline sits in Piccadilly Circus
on the steps under Anteros.
Pigeons scramble on bricks before her
and each brick has a letter. Sometimes two.
They are familiar,
the Kemiske Breve.
A man sits next to her, throws bread
from a paper bag like a hollowed out envelope,
with a red wax seal, Ørsted.
He offers it to Caroline, and they feed the birds together.
I used to wonder, he says, what it was that caused
several pieces of the same kind
to come together, cohere in unity.
Now I’m here, I wonder.
Was it love?
This is my favourite poem from my recently published collection, Chemical Letters, wherein a woman called Caroline wakes up in the periodic table. Because she’s a scientist, she promptly goes exploring. She’s able to do this because the table takes the form of an apartment block, and behind every door is a place or a time related to that element. This is the aluminium poem.
If you’ve ever been to Piccadilly Circus in London (I have!) you’ll have seen the winged statue on top of a fountain. The statue is popularly – and wrongly – called Eros, but it’s actually his brother Anteros. What’s the difference? Well, Eros is the god of erotic love, while Anteros represents returned love that’s not necessarily erotic in nature. (It was put up to commemorate a philanthropist, so you can see that Anteros is really the more appropriate of the two.)
So what’s this got to do with aluminium? Well, the Piccadilly Anteros is the first statue in the world to be made from aluminium.
Aluminium was first produced in 1825 by the Danish scientist Hans Christian Ørsted, who you can see in the poem above is sitting on the fountain steps beneath Anteros, feeding the ever-present pigeons from a bread bag shaped liked an envelope. Ørsted also happened to write a book called the Kemiske Breve – the Chemical Letters. (See where I’m going with this?) There’s a visual pun I couldn’t resist here that makes me happy: though it’s not the case in real life, the bricks around this fountain are imprinted with the abbreviations for elements… with H and He and Li, with Al for aluminium…
One of the things that Ørsted wrote about in the Kemiske Breve was cohesion. How chemistry came together, with its particles and elements and magnetic attractions. And it’s this poem that hints as to how Caroline ended up in the periodic table to begin with. A later poem indicates she’s spending her afterlife there. (It’s not just her, and it’s not the only afterlife…)
Perhaps it’s love that brings like together, says Ørsted, sitting under the statue of love returned.
Perhaps Caroline loved science so much that that love got paid back after death, so she could spend it in the company of what she loved, and those who loved it with her. Perhaps that’s Caroline’s cohesion and coming together, and Ørsted with her…
Yes, I’m a science nerd. Sue me. It’s my favourite of the chemical poems, and the part that sticks it all together. If you want to read more, maybe check out the collection?