Atomos, World Composed: A Canonical Dialogue with Lucretius
Jessica Reed

Two thousand years ago, the Roman poet Lucretius wrote the first poem about atoms. He described in De Rerum Natura a universe of invisible, indivisible particles which composed our world, long before there was experimental evidence that atoms were real.


We are obliged to look further …
Articulate is the night, its moon and branch. Tom and I peer into the (locked) Santa Maria sopra Minerva, the church where Galileo was tried, imagining Latin questions with Italian answers. We are scratching a surface.
Everything that makes its way to the light has its material source.
Seeds of the pomegranate. Truly identical subatomic particles—neutrons, protons, and electrons—that combine to give atoms their character.
Roses bloom in early spring, grain grows in summer’s heat, grapes on their vines ripen in season in autumn … the code was there in their seeds.
Our elemental amazement: soil, body, star. We are obliged to look.
In Nature things never disappear but are resolved again to the elements that first made them.
Even the shadows of the trees, sinewy and corporeal. Doubts about the start of our world.
If matter just ceased to exist, objects might vanish without need of force to loosen the ties of their parts.
Do not touch. Only: Touch everything that makes its way to the light.
Nature does not allow things to be destroyed without some forcible blow that shatters or penetrates.
The hands are chalk. Bodies appear to wink.
These ephemeral beings are somehow replenished: They cannot—they do not—disappear into nonbeing.
Uncuttable. Once, the word atom meant. Protons and neutrons divide into quarks. Still everything in the world made of the same stuff, whether electrons or quarks or photons. There is a fundamental sameness. Rock bottom.
Matter, itself everlasting, holds them in its bonds.
We dust up our eyes with our hands, the two of us knocking on that church. Galileo must have stood right about there. Record of a moment gone. What record but this.
Things persist until some force appears, and they, disrupted, are reduced to the elements of which they were first composed.
Matter, itself: Resolved again to the elements, the strawberries seem a little painted now.


Lest you harbor still some doubts … these minuscule atoms cannot be seen by the naked eye but rather must be understood from inferences …
Dust particles inside pollen grains floating in water, trembling. Hens peck and scratch the surfaces of the world, busy peeling off layers of the Real in daily ritual while I repeat atom, atom. Elements. A drumming. Yet cloud, ocean, volcano, hands: all made of and invisible.
You cannot see the wind that roils the sea and harries the clouds across the sky’s expanses, but you do not question that it is there.
Trembling, for no apparent reason. Still, some doubts.
Nothing can touch or be touched, affect or be affected, unless it be possessed of some kind of physical body.
Long blades of grass, white asters, and foxtail in the field whipped by wind, raised bows busy stringing. You do not question it is there.
Winds infuriate lash our face and frame.
He plays the role of a man in love, and I, a fevered madwoman. It’s only atoms.
Winds unseen swamp huge ships and rend the clouds and scour the mountain tops with forest-crackling blasts.
Winds, and we’ll swap roles.
Sightless bodies sweep
My lover’s hand over my mouth. Nothing can touch or be touched.
Or think of something that time diminishes—an overhanging rock that the waves of the salt sea gnaw, but you cannot see what is lost at each occasion.
Never with the naked eye. For you, Lucretius, as for Epicurus: an argument.
Nature’s workings depend on the actions—and therefore the presence—of bodies that are not seen.
Scanning tunneling microscopes, bubble and cloud chambers, high-energy particle accelerators make your case: We can see now.
Things of the world are not clumped together in one solid mass but instead there are also voids or empty spaces.
Between moon and branch. Something that time diminishes.


 … emptiness that allows for the possible movement of things.
A long time the desert has sharpened for you, broadening its subject.
Look around at the world. However small a body is, it will have heft and substance …
One half pound, fused palate. A fist. What was once indivisible.
These things which are primal, no power can quench, for they endure, solid, stolid, unchanged.
What is light in it, leptos. What is heavy, adros. Allowing for the possible movement of things.
The bodies cannot be dissolved, destroyed by blows from without, nor pierced, nor decomposed from within, nor assailed, nor shivered.
Bare protons, boosted. Their clockwise and anticlockwise beams collide.
Without voids nothing is crushed or split in two, or shattered, or broken.
The heavy ones—protons and neutrons, made of quarks. The light ones—electrons and muons, fundamental.
There are tiny bits at the edge of what our senses perceive and can report: And there at the tiniest point, the smallest possible thing exists, without component parts, but a part of something larger.
Heft and substance. It is a region of descendings. It is a region of ascendings.
There must be some ultimate smallness, some tiny thing that cannot be further subdivided.
In the apple-sized universe of 10-35 seconds, were we, unconfigured, somehow there?
The extent and the depths of space are so great that not even the quickest lightning bolts can traverse it all …
Yes, Lucretius, and yet: entanglement, span of the visible universe, the real waters. À l’heure oú blanchit la campagne, the smallest possible thing exists.
In other words, the world is standing upon itself.
(   )


This is what happens in air, or the gleaming light of the sun.
It is only air resistance that prevents raindrops from striking the ground at unsafe speeds. An invisible friction at the big top of the visible, tangible world.
 … to join and attune their individual motions.
Mercury pools and gathers into its metallic self. Of the world and in it. What Tom might have said. Questions in one language, answers in another.
Take that as an image for how the atoms dance or are tossed around in the empty void … the busy dance of motes in the air, for such turmoil shows the secret of unseen motion in all matter.
Suspensions. Counterpoint. This is what happens in air.
This restlessness is what they inherit.
Or in the gleaming light of the sun. As if blue or smooth or salty.
But the atoms which are solid and single cannot be divided, they move exceedingly quickly.
The busy dance of motes in the air. Punctuated. A kind of textured quiet.
 … atoms, as they are carried down through the void by their own weight do not proceed in an absolutely unswerving line …
One voice, interrupting another. Solid and single. Lucretius and Epicurus. Galileo in Latin, Galileo in Italian.
Objects fall through an unresisting void.
A world exclusive in its metrical fog. Occasion for nature.


The mind is delicate, fragile, and made of tiny particles.
Expressions in volcanic glass. Tom and I struggled. I mailed medication to Rome.
There is also something else, mysterious and nameless, and nothing in the world is diaphanous as this.
Wires pinned to a surface. These are fasteners, holding stars together.
This substance is hidden away in the body’s recesses, deep but vital—tiny, scanty elements that carry the force of our mental powers …
Constellations disband; we perceive invisible wires stretching. The mind is delicate.
Think of when there is dust that has settled upon your skin, or chalk perhaps,
or mist at night, or a spider web that you neither see nor feel.

Numbers, exceeding the space the world has for them. A tightening of the fingers.
 … or a feather.
Once we gave up seeing the substance that clothed things, the airy concept beneath. Nothing in the world diaphanous as this.
Think of mosquitoes’ footsteps that go for a time unnoticed, but then they approach where one of those spirit atoms is lodged and you begin to feel it, as the atoms come together and leap apart in their unending, vital dance.
Webs of chalk, somewhere past the atmosphere. Our contact with the real.
 … smaller than atoms of flowing water, or cloud, or smoke … With the mind and spirit in such turmoil, there is incoherent raving.
Premature, the troubled light in the river. Most elementary idea, for a time unnoticed. The shape of the earth, the history of my hands, an unnecessary hypothesis, what slides on a frozen lake. An atom is lodged and you begin to feel it.


Let us consider the nature of things immortal—absolutely solid and unaffected by blows, allowing nothing to penetrate them or split them.
“A screw loose”: the fibers of the world tied to my mind.
Do spirits have eyes? Or hands?
How else would they know where they are?

Tremor. A light outside swerves, nothing to penetrate or split. It is only the ends of the world’s fibers I know.
The void persists forever, because space is unaffected by blows it cannot receive.
The world-stuff, nothing to liken it to. Eyes? Hands? Sewing white thread into stone and convinced of the symbolic character of physics.
I mean the entire universe itself, the sum of all things.
This word, reality, a caught thing, the very small part of the world the land is.
With what other part of ourselves do we experience madness?
Laws resolve one viewpoint, then another. Lucretius, you console me. There is discipline and trembling upon the waters.
And even if we suppose that some kind of awareness does persist, it won’t be our awareness.
Reality, where fish live so deep they have lights in their heads. With what other part of ourselves?
In all that endless time with all the motions of matter, try to imagine what the atoms have done and been.
Suppose an element common to other consciousnesses, among the bones.
The atoms danced away from the life that was and then, by chance, some happened again to reassemble …
In this corner, somehow less formal than the others?
Finally, in the dark, you can handle an object
and feel the shape and texture that you recognize as the same as what it had in the light.

Physics, a symposium of worlds presented to different minds. All we see: the wick in the flame.
The sun … its unbearable brightness.
The world twists and rights itself in each lit mind.
Brightness is much stronger than darkness, more mobile, and made of finer elemental pieces.
Statements made by the bleary-eyed must be true or false.
What we call our shadow is air deprived of light.
Handle an object. Touch its unbearable brightness.


We move, and the spot we have left fills up again.
Amplitudes of bronze.
What we took to be our shadow is what persisted and followed us along—
but these are a series of shadows, with new rays being blocked and then filling up the space.

Bells of the external world line and unline. And the spot we have left fills up again.
The little puddle there in the street is no more than a finger’s depth and yet …
City and sky yawn into it. What persisted.
Delivering not words rather the ghosts of language.
A finger’s depth and yet drawn to scale.


Consider now the air, which, at every hour, changes itself in numberless ways …
What earthworm and lime have to do with the atomic purr of the natural world.
Heavy earth, the mud of creation.
What Queen Anne’s Lace has to do with the colliding protons of the natural world.
Ether above the breezes, invulnerable to storms and tempests …
What worn hands and children have to do with the teraelectron volts of the natural world.
The ether glides with an unchanging and tranquil sweep on high …
What spinach seeds and manure have to do with the glued nuclei of the natural world.
Its movement slow and unswerving, like the Black Sea’s constant current.
What rotting Brandywine tomatoes have to do with the matter-antimatter annihilation of the natural world.
What we know about other parts of nature all of which works in the same way with the same laws,
What little bluestem has to do with the electron hum of the natural world.
not only here on earth but up in the sky …
What goose eggs and the ground after a frost have to do with the whole fermionic cry of the natural world.


But faulty thinking leads men astray.
Not composed of dry light.
A cloud, pregnant with lightning fully formed in its belly is struck by a wind …
Articulate is the moon. Who has spoken to you?
You can sometimes watch them form, the innocuous wisps that collect.
Consider the air, at every hour, changing itself in numberless ways.
Allow your mind to range widely over all the distant quarters of the universe and remember how great is the sum of things.
Trembling. Pregnant cloud, all that collects.
When an alien sky sets itself in motion, it creeps along like a cloud or a mist and it brings on changes corrupting our own skies and making them like itself.
We, unconfigured in the metrical fog. The sum of things.
Other signs: dementia, depression, terror, rage …
Troubling, airy hypothesis. Corrupting our own skies.
And some went out of their minds and could not remember their own names.
Other signs: the world’s fibers becoming symbolic.


We can hope one day to understand more of what is clearly coherent and rational and true.
Discipline upon the waters. We swim with lights in our heads.
Whether the weight is part of the body itself, rather than something alien and external …
Bleary-eyed and rational and true: Tom and I and a podium for Galileo.
The spirit, light as it is, sustains the body for all its weight, because they are knit into one.
Corners, formal and otherwise. A weight, alien and external.
Sun and moon … their light faint or obstructed so that the unsuspecting world is covered in darkness as these bodies appear to wink and then, with open eye, gaze again upon us.
In this chambered pomegranate: dark red theorems.
And it leaves us filled with doubts … the walls of the firmament give way to endless strains of restless motions.
Assembled here in the world’s first body.
We learned to maintain the dizzying heights upon which we now find ourselves perched.
Endless strains of restless motions, the unsuspecting world. Material source.

Material in italics—Lucretius’s voice—comes from David Slavitt’s translation (De Rerum Natura/The Nature of Things: A Poetic Translation, University of California Press, 2008).

“The strawberries seem a little painted now”—Wallace Stevens.

“Discipline and sadness upon the waters”—Virginia Woolf.

“The human understanding is not composed of dry light”—Francis Bacon.

À l’heure oú blanchit la campagne”—Victor Hugo.

Jessica Reed’s poetry has appeared in Conjunctions:64, Natural Causes, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Spiral Orb, Kudzu House Quarterly, The Fourth River, and Isotope: A Journal of Literary Nature and Science Writing. This is a selection from her manuscript on atoms, World, Composed.