by Ellen Deitz Tucker
That we do not fall between
the wide-spaced atoms plotting
edge and surface in our world—
that the world itself does not
fall through us, that our bodies
can move solidly in this space,
not merely sieves—is owing
to a furious and fantastic energy
that keeps each lone electron circling
round its center, continually configuring
the area it would hold. Think
of the carousel you set to spinning
in the park. You must take care
to jump aboard before it spins
too fast. It’s mostly space between
the handle bars, but every bar
could break your arm unless you find
the blurring space between. Think
of the window fan switched on. You see
a silvery disk, not separate blades.
Then what is water? I put my hand
into the pond—it slides apart.
It must be made of different stuff.
Oh, but it’s structured just the same—
and yet not either! The water that
you drink is slippery, though every molecule
less breakable than the glass containing it.
Their dancing makes the flexibility.
Two hydrogens, one oxygen—
they hold each other by the ends
where two electrons do a double
duty, but another four
stay independent, pushing far
apart as possible without straying
from the nucleus, like a pack
of willful children circling their mother.
But on the hydrogen side they bond,
and also act as diplomats,
continually meeting other molecules
but never staying long, clasping
and unclasping hands like partners
in a contradance. While other
elements bond more rigidly, so
if you push, you can’t push through.
Yet some things float—and not
just flower cups from the laurels
round the pond, but giant logs!
Even water can support
a thing less dense, with wider space
between the molecules. Those logs
are built from tiny cubicles.
Like emptied honey combs, their sap
is gone—replaced with air. You mean,
they’re hollow, ’cause they’re dead?
Then I don’t see how Molly floats—
how she can lie there, on her back,
her arms flung out. She says it’s just
a trick of resting careful-calm.
I tried it—but I sank. She’s filled
her lungs with air. Air’s not an emptiness.
It’s atoms, orbital systems, as
I’ve said, but loosely packed, swerving
round the chambers of her lungs
like balls flung in a room. Not dense.
And yet they occupy the space.
Molly’s lungs are two balloons
that buoy her like the jacket strapped
around your chest as we canoe,
to keep you floating if the boat
should tip you out. And all these things—
the boat itself, the log, Molly,
you—are made of layered rooms,
each harboring different molecules,
each made of different atoms, spinning
each its centered dance, unceasing,
even in the fallen log,
itself a shadowed resting place
for that great snapping turtle
with its pulsing throat. In all
this whirling motion, where am I?
What makes me think—what part of me’s
—alive? The part of you that feels
the bigger dance, imagines all
the smaller ones. That can’t compel
or halt one spin. But asks the questions,
knows it floats. And that, my dear,
I can’t explain. But Molly’s right—
stay calm, and breathe. Fill up your lungs.
You’re riding on atomic energy.
Ellen Deitz Tucker works for an educational nonprofit that supports the study of American history and government. When not writing about great teachers who inspire civil conversations about our past and present, she’s often tending her native plant garden on California’s central coast.