Poets for Science
Global Gallery

Mendeleev’s Mandala



A house afire, or rather
his mother’s glass factory, actually,
and under the smolder the child Dmitri
understood that he would reject the 4 elements
of water, earth, air, and fire to insist on an order
no one else noticed, like a secret 27th letter of
the alphabet, a chemical koan. It would take
many train rides, his flesh (carbon, hydrogen,
phosphorous) pressed to the window (silicon,
oxygen) before he could dream chemistry
out of chaos and into a grid, and with the gall
of gallium, leave     spaces     for what was still
missing. What less could he do, a boy who saw
his father go blind, his mother lose everything,
a child whose siblings numbered maybe 13, perhaps
14, no one knew which (but the sum is the secret
27), number of the element cobalt, which
Mendeleev in his table (less manual than mandala)
switched with nickel, seeing, despite atomic weight,
to which family it truly belonged. Once he’d deciphered
the hidden matrix of matter, codex for the elixir of
existence, once he’d proven there are no spare parts,
he set out to show it’s all spare parts. For refusing
haircuts and trimmed beards, for riding with the
peasants in 3rd class, for marrying 2 women
at once, even the czar forgave him. The chaos
he’d once chastened he now chased, his own
odyssey of periodicity, a conservation of
confusion. A mind this aligned must be
ransomed by entropy eventually: every fact/
(ory) is finally equal parts glass, equal parts
fire, which is to say: all fire, all beginnings.

*Dmitri Mendeleev (1834-1907) was the discoverer (or inventor, depending upon your viewpoint) of the Periodic Table of Elements. In fact, several scientists developed similar tables of elements around the same time, but Mendeleev’s insight in using his to predict the existence of elements that had not yet been discovered (among other insights) made his table the most widely accepted and praised. The form of this poem (the eight-line stanzas and the periodic format) echo the “Law of Octaves” expounded in an earlier arrangement of elements by John Newlands, as well as Irving Langmuir’s later octet theory of valence. Other characteristics of the Periodic Table are embedded in the format of this poem.

Originally published in Thrush Poetry  Journal, March 2012 edition, https://www.thrushpoetryjournal.com/march-2012-jessica-goodfellow.html

Republished in Mendeleev’s Mandala, Mayapple Press, 2015