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Posts Tagged ‘books’

19 FEBRUARY, 2013

Cosmic Pastoral: Diane Ackerman’s Poems for the Planets, Which Carl Sagan Sent Timothy Leary in Prison

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“I’m stricken by the ricochet wonder of it all: the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else.”

On February 19, 1974, shortly before visiting Timothy Leary in prison, Carl Sagan sent the psychedelic pioneer a letter discussing evolution, the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and the details of the upcoming visit. The postscript read:

P.S. The enclosed poem, ‘The Other Night’ by Dianne Ackermann [sic] of Cornell, is something I think we both resonate to. It’s unfinished so it shouldn’t yet be quoted publically.

But the poem was eventually finished and, along with fourteen others, included in Diane Ackerman’s 1976 poetry anthology The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral (public library) — a whimsical and wonderful ode to the universe, celebrating its phenomena and featuring a poem for each planet in the Solar System, as well as one specifically dedicated to Carl Sagan.

From “Venus”:

Low-keyed and perpetual,
a whirling sylph
whose white robe stripes
around her; taffeta
wimpled like a nun’s headcloth;
a buxom floozy with a pink boa;
mummy, whose black
sediment desiccates within; wasp-star
to Mayan Galileos;
an outpatient
wrapped in post-operative gauze;
Cleopatra in high August–
her flesh curling
in a heat mirage
lightyears
from Alexandria;
tacky white pulp
spigoted
through the belly of a larva;
the perfect courtesan:
obliging, thick-skinned,
and pleated with riddles,

Venus quietly mutates
in her ivory tower.

Deep within that
libidinous albedo
temperatures are hot enough
to boil lead,
pressures
90 times more unyielding
than Earth’s.
And though layered cloud-decks
and haze strata
seem to breathe
like a giant bellows,
heaving and sighing
every 4 days,
the Venerean cocoon
is no cheery chrysalis
brewing a damselfly
or coaxing life
into a reticent grub,
but a sniffling atmosphere
40 miles thick
of sulphuric, hydrochloric,
and hydrofluoric acids
all sweating
like a global terrarium,
cutthroat, tart, and self-absorbed.
No sphagnum moss
or polypody fern here,
where blistering vapors
and rosy bile
hint at the arson
with which the Universe began.

Hubble Space Telescope photograph taken within minutes of Mars' closest approach to Earth in 60,000 years, on Aug. 27, 2003. Click images for more

From “Mars”:

The quickest route
from Candor to Chaos
follows Coprates
(the much-travelled
Shit River), through
da Vinci and Galileo
bypassing Bliss,
many moons from Tranquility.
But, Romantics, take heart:
you can breakfast
in Syria, lunch in Sinai,
track the Nile
to its source (Nilokeras)
before dinner, and there,
making ablutions to Osiris,
win a boon to Eden,
where all four rivers
of Paradise converge,
then spend the night
in Pandora, or with Ulysses,
Proteus, or even Noah,
in the Land of Gold (Chryse)
or by the Leek-green Sea.

From “The Other Night (Comet Kohoutek)”:

Last night, while
cabbage stuffed with
brown sugar, meat and
raisins was baking in the
oven, and my potted holly,
dying leafmeal from red-spider,
basked in its antidote malathion,
I stepped outside to watch Kohoutek
passing its dromedary core through the
eye of a galaxy. But only found a white
blur cat-napping under Venus: gauzy, dis-
solute, and bobtailed as a Manx.

Pent-up in that endless coliseum of stars,
the moon was fuller than any Protestant
had a right to be. And I said: Moon,
if you’ve got any pull up there, bring me
a sun-grazing comet, its long hair swept
back by the solar wind, in its mouth a dollop
of primordial sputum. A dozing iceberg,
in whose coma ur-elements collide. Bring me
a mojo that’s both relict and reliquary.
Give me a thrill from that petrified seed.

Mars was a stoplight in the north sky,
the only real meat on the night’s black
bones. And I said: Mars, why be parsimonious?
You’ve got a million tricks stashed
in your orbital backhills: chicory suns
bobbing in viridian lagoons; quasars dwindling
near the speed of light; pinwheel, dumbbell,
and impacted galaxies; epileptic nuclei
a mile long; vampiric moons; dicotyledon suns;
whorling dustbowls of umbilical snow; milky ways
that, on the slant, look like freshly fed pythons.

From “Diffraction (for Carl Sagan)”:

When Carl tells me it’s Rayleigh scattering
that makes blue light, canting off molecular

grit, go slowgait through the airy jell, subdued,
and outlying mountains look swarthy, or wheat

blaze tawny-rose in the 8:00 sun, how I envy
his light touch on Earth’s magnetic bridle.

Knee-deep in the cosmic overwhelm, I’m stricken
by the ricochet wonder of it all: the plain

everythingness of everything, in cahoots
with the everythingness of everything else.

Echoing Richard Feynman’s views on science and mystery, Ackerman writes of her poetry:

I’ve always been baffled by people who write about nature only in terms of, say, junipers and cornfields, eschewing all things so-called ‘scientific,’ as if science were, per se, the spoil-sport of feeling. So wonderless a view of nature really doesn’t appeal to me; I don’t see the Universe divided up that way, into ‘The Junipers’ on the one hand and ‘The Amino Acids’ on the other.

So how did Sagan know of Ackerman? Most likely, through his second wife — the author photograph on the back of The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral was taken by artist and writer Linda Salzman Sagan, whom Carl married in 1968. The two divorced in 1981, after Sir Sagan fell in love with Annie Druyan in the course of creating the Voyager Golden Record, which Linda co-produced. Cosmic love, it seems, is always a little more complicated than the poets might wish us to believe.

Complement with the first poem published in a scientific journal, which actually turned out not to be the first.

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19 FEBRUARY, 2013

The Feminine Mystique Half a Century Later

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How Betty Friedan “pulled the trigger on history” and awakened women to the freedom to question what it means to live a full life.

In 1957, turning the corner on her own 15th college reunion, reconstructionist Betty Friedan set out to survey university graduates about their education, life after college, and general life-satisfaction. Wading through the responses, she noticed an odd, discernible undercurrent — a kind of quiet but intense unhappiness described by women in the golden age of the housewife, which Friedan termed “the problem that has no name.” On February 19, 1963, she gave shape to the problem with the landmark publication of The Feminine Mystique (public library) — a centerpiece of modern gender politics, which sparked the second wave of the feminist movement, taught generations how to be a woman, and went on to become one of the most important and influential social critiques in contemporary history. In an age when women were reduced to a fertile uterus armed with lipstick and an oven mit, it championed women’s reproductive rights, called for better education, criticized workplace laws and cultural attitudes towards childcare responsibilities and, above all, advocated for women’s right to freely explore the fundamental question of what it means to live a full life. Though many of Friedan’s ideas may appear tired and painfully familiar today, that’s precisely the point: Like every cornerstone of social science, the true feat of The Feminine Mystique was identifying, articulating, and speaking up against the problem long before the problem had permeated the awareness of our collective conscience.

Today, some dismiss the spirit of feminism as a thing of the past, a social crutch we’ve outgrown and left behind — after all, in the decades since Friedan’s landmark manifesto, the world has seen its first female president, first woman in space, first female Secretary of State, and first woman to win an Academy Award as best director. And yet, even half a century later, we still witness gobsmacking gender generalizations, gaping gender gaps in education, egregiously unequal media coverage and profiling, and enduring bias in the scientific academy. The problem, it seems, has long been named — but it is yet to be solved.

In her excellent exploration of Friedan’s legacy, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s (public library), historian Stephanie Coontz puts things in no uncertain terms:

The Feminine Mystique has been credited — or blamed — for destroying, single-handedly and almost overnight, the 1950s consensus that women’s place was in the home. Friedan’s book ‘pulled the trigger on history,’ in the words of Future Shock author Alvin Toffler.

Coontz sets out to tell the story of the women directly impacted by the iconic book through the countless, fervent letters they sent Friedan, seeking to understand why these women, despite the comforts and privileges of their material circumstances, felt “so anxious about their femininity and so guilty about their aspirations.” Coontz frames the necessity for such an approach, contextualizing Friedan’s work:

Many books have been written and movies made about ‘the greatest generation.’ But the subjects of these stories are almost invariably men — the army, navy, and air force men of WWII (only 2 percent of the military in that era were female); the ‘Mad Men’ of Madison Avenue who pioneered America’s mass consumer culture in the days of Eisenhower and Kennedy; the ordinary husbands and fathers who created a middle-class life for their families after the privations of the Depression and the war.

What do we know about these men’s wives and daughters? As their husbands and fathers moved into a new era, many women felt suspended between the constraints of the old sphere of female existence and the promise of a future whose outline they could barely make out. They were, as one of the women I interviewed told me, ‘a generation of intelligent women, sidelined from the world.’ Some were content to provide love and comfort when the men came home. But others felt that something was missing from their lives, though they could seldom put their finger on it.

These women — mostly white, mostly middle class — were at the eye of a hurricane. They knew that powerful new forces were gathering all around them, but they felt strangely, uneasily becalmed. …

To modern generations, these women’s lives seem as outmoded as the white gloves and pert hats they wore when they left the shelter of their homes. Yet even today, their experiences and anxieties shape the choices modern women debate and the way feminism has been defined by both its supporters and its opponents.

Friedan pulled into question the core tenets of The Century of the (male) Self and the ideals of suburban utopia:

Friedan told these women that their inability to imagine a fuller, more complete life was the product of a repressive postwar campaign to wipe out the memory of past feminist activism and to drive women back into the home. As a historian, I knew her argument ignored the challenges to the feminine mystique that already existed in the 1950s. But as I interviewed women for this book and read more about the cultural climate of the era, I came to believe that Friedan was correct in suggesting that there was something especially disorienting — ‘something paralyzing,’ as one of the women I interviewed put it — about the situation confronting women at the dawn of the 1960s. Freudian pronouncements about the natural dependence and passivity of females and the ‘sickness’ of women who are attracted to careers maybe have coexisted with sympathetic assurances that women were in fact capable and deserve equality. But such assurances only made it harder for women to figure out whether anyone besides themselves was to blame for their feelings of inadequacy.

Friedan captured a paradox that many women struggle with today. The elimination of the most blatant denials of one’s rights can be very disorienting if you don’ have the ability to exercise one right without giving up another.

Betty Friedan in junior high school

Image: Schlesinger Library, Harvard University

Still, Princeton professor and former State Department policy planning director Anne-Marie Slaughter observed in brushing up against a “rude epiphany” that feminists might have sold young women an impossible ideal and much has to change if we are, indeed, to have equal opportunity in every aspect of life. In Slaughter’s own brave and eloquent words:

A rude epiphany hit me soon after I got there. When people asked why I had left government, I explained that I’d come home not only because of Princeton’s rules (after two years of leave, you lose your tenure), but also because of my desire to be with my family and my conclusion that juggling high-level government work with the needs of two teenage boys was not possible. I have not exactly left the ranks of full-time career women: I teach a full course load; write regular print and online columns on foreign policy; give 40 to 50 speeches a year; appear regularly on TV and radio; and am working on a new academic book. But I routinely got reactions from other women my age or older that ranged from disappointed (‘It’s such a pity that you had to leave Washington’) to condescending (‘I wouldn’t generalize from your experience. I’ve never had to compromise, and my kids turned out great’).

The first set of reactions, with the underlying assumption that my choice was somehow sad or unfortunate, was irksome enough. But it was the second set of reactions — those implying that my parenting and/or my commitment to my profession were somehow substandard—that triggered a blind fury. Suddenly, finally, the penny dropped. All my life, I’d been on the other side of this exchange. I’d been the woman smiling the faintly superior smile while another woman told me she had decided to take some time out or pursue a less competitive career track so that she could spend more time with her family. I’d been the woman congratulating herself on her unswerving commitment to the feminist cause, chatting smugly with her dwindling number of college or law-school friends who had reached and maintained their place on the highest rungs of their profession. I’d been the one telling young women at my lectures that you can have it all and do it all, regardless of what field you are in. Which means I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot).

But, ultimately, at the heart of Friedan’s message with The Feminine Mystique lies a tireless insistence on the freedom to find one’s purpose and do meaningful work as the bedrock of what it means to be human:

The only way for a woman, as for a man, to find herself, to know herself as a person, is by creative work of her own.

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18 FEBRUARY, 2013

Illustrator Sophie Blackall on Subversive Storytelling, Missed Connections, and Optimism

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What Aldous Huxley’s misogyny has to do with children’s books, darkness, and modern love.

Australian illustrator Sophie Blackall remains best-known for her warm, wistful, and whimsical Missed Connections: Love, Lost & Found (public library) — a visual paean to modern love by way of illustrated Craigslist missed connections, which you might recall as one of the best art and design books of 2011. If you live in New York, you’ve likely seen and admired her heart-warming subway artwork; and if you have a taste for obscure children’s books by famous adult authors, you might know and love her Aldous Huxley adaptation, one of more than thirty children’s books she has illustrated.

In a recent episode of her fantastic Design Matters show, Debbie Millman talks to Blackall about the difference between an artist and an illustrator, what makes children’s storytelling particularly exciting, the origin and afterlife of the missed connections project, and more. The interview is excellent in its entirety, but here are some favorite excerpts:

On the challenges of illustrating Aldous Huxley’s only children’s book, handling its rather misogynistic undertones, and hiding a few secret jokes for the reader to find:

On darkness and optimism, echoing Maurice Sendak’s faith in children’s ability to handle the subversive, and the essence of Blackall’s work:

SB: I think children are pretty subversive creatures.

DM: It’s interesting: It’s subversive in the way that The Wizard of Oz is subversive — there’s a subtext. And that subtext has to do with love, and longing, and loss, and pain. But I guess, for me, there seems to be an innate optimism that doesn’t feel dark — yes, there’s darkness in the work, but I always get the sense that the light overcomes that darkness. … You can create a brush stroke that somehow defines wistfulness. But in that ability to see that wistfulness, I can’t help but feel understood — which … then gives me a great sense of joy.

On the curious, serendipitous genesis of the Missed Connections project:

The [missed connections] listings were intriguing because they mixed the natural desire to make a first impression and the very human need to get a second chance.

But the most tender, moving, and poetic of the stories will stop your breath:

The Whale at Coney Island

— M4M — 69

(Brooklyn/Florida)

A young friend of mine recently acquainted me with the intricacies of Missed Connections, and I have decided to try to find you one final time.

Many years ago, we were friends and teachers together in New York City. Perhaps we could have been lovers too, but we were not. We used to take trips to Coney Island, especially during the spring, when we would stroll hand in hand, until our palms got too sweaty, along the boardwalk, and take refuge in the cool darkness of the aquarium. We liked to visit the whale best. One spring, it arrived from its winter home (in Florida? I can’t remember) pregnant. Everyone at the aquarium was very excited — a baby beluga whale was going to be born in New York City! You insisted that we not miss the birth, so every day after class, and on both Saturday and Sunday, we would take the D train all the way from Harlem to Coney Island.

We got there one Saturday as the aquarium opened and there was a sign posted to the glass tank. The baby beluga had been born dead. The mother, the sign read, was recovering but would be fine. We read the sign in shock and watched the single beluga whale in her tank. She was circling slowly. Neither of us could speak. Suddenly, without warning, the beluga started to throw herself against the wall of the tank. Trainers came and ushered us out. We sat on a bench outside, and suddenly I felt tears running down my face. You saw, turned my face towards yours, and kissed me. We had never kissed before, and I let my lips linger on yours for a second before I stood up and walked towards the ocean.

It was too much — the whale, the death, the kiss — and I wasn’t ready.

Forgive me — I don’t think I ever understood what an emptiness you would create when you left and I realized that that kiss on Coney Island was the first and the last.

Are you out there, dear friend?

If so, please respond. I think of you, and have thought of you often, all of these years.

The full interview is well worth a listen:

For related goodness, subscribe to Design Matters on iTunes, treat yourself to Missed Connections, and watch this wonderful Etsy artist profile of Blackall:

Donating = Loving

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