12 March 2021

#RhymeYourResearch: Carbon, You’re Key

Posted by Shane Hanlon

#RhymeYourResearch is a series of posts by poets who write poetry about science and explain their process and inspiration while also showcasing their pieces. Learn more about contributing. This week, Vanessa Adel.

I am a sociologist by training. I have also always been a writer and an artist too, participating in many writing workshops, theater performances, improvisation, and storytelling. Recently, I have been homeschooling one of my children. We got onto a geology kick while digging up various rocks on our walks in the woods. To better understand what we were finding, I read through a rocks and minerals handbook. Among other things, I came across a detailed description of the different molecular structures that carbon takes in graphite and diamonds. I was really struck by the fact that both substances are made of pure carbon, yet manifest such different material qualities.

Inspired, I did more research: this time, about the elemental properties of carbon, taking notes about carbon’s properties and its extensive role in life and matter. At this time, I was also teaching a sociology course on the climate crisis, and my students and I were talking about carbon in the context of emissions and global warming. The students in this class represented a mix of social science and physical science majors. It was a challenge to teach social science students the physical science behind climate change, and likewise, it was challenging to teach the physical scientists about the frameworks of sociology, such as theories that illuminate our understanding of power and inequality.

At a weekly writing workshop I attended at the time, I decided to put it all together: my newfound amazement at the complexity and versatility of carbon; and my desire to weave together the many kinds of knowledges that are necessary to understand the problems that drive the climate crisis, as well as its possible solutions. In the writing of this poem, carbon became a metaphor as well as a real-life driver of so many interconnected issues and dynamics. And so I imagined talking to carbon – emphasizing my awe as well as my questions; questions that I have for carbon, but also for the world and the environmental precarity we find ourselves in. 

-Vanessa Adel teaches in the sociology department at Smith College. She is writing a book on the climate crisis and lives in Northampton with her family. She can be reached at [email protected]

Carbon, You’re Key

Carbon, you’re key
Carbon, you’re queen
Carbon, you’re contradictory

Your capacity to connect
and reconfigure

Partners with everyone!
Chains and chains
of molecules
You are generous!
Sharing electrons all over the place
10 million compounds have your signature!

you embody elemental mastery
you are everywhere
the center
the middle C
the authentic stable genius
you are life
you are fluidity

Basic to my digestion
critical to my energy
breath of my ancestors
the stuff of photosynthesis
bouncing the sun’s rays
trapping heat for planetary viability.

you keep it moving.
And still.
Carbon, you’re a conundrum.

We’ve pumped more carbon dioxide
into the atmosphere
than your earthly cycles ever considered
And now?
You are death
and rigidity.

tell me this.
Are you a building block of consciousness?
Are your molecular structures
manifestations of different types of thinking?
Different ways to imagine beingness?

Diamonds, pure carbon
are the hardest naturally occurring material
known to science
Their crystal structure is adamant,
from the Greek, adamas: untamable

Does this have something to do
with a rigid manifestation of greed
and oppressive notions of hierarchy?
Choose a form:
race, gender, class
hardest inequalities known to sociology

How is it that graphite
is another one of your pure forms?
The softer stuff
made of the same element
that is you?
that is me?
The stuff of pencils
of pens that are mightier than swords
of imagining our way out of this mess
Tell me,
is global warming insurmountable?

We humans,
carbon-based forms that we are
could take a page
from you
from us
to imagine
different internal structures

Throw me a valence
and let’s see
how we might bond
in the face of apparently
rigid structures of doom.