When We Were Fearsome

Are atoms made of lots of circles? is the first thing my small son says when he wakes up. My mind swims around, trying to remember if molecules are bigger than atoms. In models of atoms, when they show what they look like, there are lots of circles, I say.
The new chair of women’s studies at my alma mater is a man. He writes me without using my professional title to ask what I’ve been up to since graduation. His work, the letter says, has been mentioned on NPR.  
Quarks? I think, imagining electrons swimming in circles around neutrons.  
Before bed, I tell my son a story about when he was a small bear living with his bear family in a remote part of the forest. I describe the white snow, the black branches, the brightness of the cardinal on a top branch who greets him when he leaves his cottage. This is meant to be lulling. 
Bears hibernate in winter, he says. Do you want to be hibernating? I say. No! he is seized by a narrative impulse, his little body trembles with it. Tell how I could turn into a polar bear when I was cold and into a fearsome desert bear when I got hot! Tell how surprised everyone was.
I tell all about it, the fearsomeness and the changing fur. How he once sat there half-polar and half-desert bear, sipping hot cocoa with marshmallows by the cozy fire.  
In the morning, I leave my son at school. I am dissatisfied with how they greet him. The teachers do not know of his powers. His fearsome magic. Have a good day, I say, kissing his crown. Have a good Friday at home, he says, following me to the door. Have a good shopping trip. 
At home I straighten my bed, turn it down, and slip back in. I lie very still, with pillow levees on either side of my body. My son is safe at school... I think. Most likely safe at school… I try not to think about what the ER doctor said, what machine guns do to human organs. I only tremble a little bit.  
A molecule, an atom, a particle, a quark, I think. A mourning dove calls, and it is lulling. Particle was the word that I forgot.  
This is what I’ve been up to since graduation.

Copyright © 2018 by Joanna Penn Cooper. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 5, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.

About this Poem

“There is nothing like having an inquisitive five-year-old to make a person realize the limits of her scientific knowledge, and there is nothing like staying up too late reading about our society’s violence to make her forget the facts she does know. (In fact, I believe nuclei was the word I meant in this poem and not neutrons.) The past couple of years have been especially trying for many of us. My hope is that being a poetic witness to my own attempts to make sense of life during this time is one form of resistance, one way of reaching toward solidarity."

—Joanna Penn Cooper