Neil Gaiman Reads Ursula K. Le Guin’s Ode to Timelessness to His 100-Year-Old Cousin
“In the vast abyss before time, self is not, and soul commingles with mist, and rock, and light.”
By Maria Popova
“Consciousness is tied to corporeality and temporality: I experience myself as existing with a body over time,” the German psychologist Marc Wittman wrote in his insightful investigation of the psychology of time. “Do you sometimes want to wake up to the singularity we once were?” poet Marie Howe asked in the opening lines of her stunning tribute to Stephen Hawking — a question that cuts to the heart of our uneasy embodied temporality. How do creatures with lifespans that rarely stretch past a century fathom cosmic scales stretching billions of years, back to the dawn of everything, when time and matter were undivided as the raw material of the universe? How does the very notion of a self, around which we orient our entire existence, hold up against such sweeps at all?
Perhaps the interplay between deep time and self is more fathomable to those perched on the overlook of life, who have lived long enough to view being and nonbeing with equal immediacy.
When my good friend and fellow poetry lover Amanda Palmer asked me to send a poem for her husband, Neil Gaiman, to read to his 100-year-old cousin, Helen Fagin — the Holocaust survivor who composed that arresting letter to children about how books save lives — I chose a poem by one of Neil’s dear friends, Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018), found in her final poetry collection, So Far So Good (public library) — one of the loveliest books of 2018.
Amanda immortalized this sweet and rather profound moment in a short video, shared here with the kind permission of everyone involved:
HOW IT SEEMS TO ME
by Ursula K. Le Guin
In the vast abyss before time, self
is not, and soul commingles
with mist, and rock, and light. In time,
soul brings the misty self to be.
Then slow time hardens self to stone
while ever lightening the soul,
till soul can loose its hold of self
and both are free and can return
to vastness and dissolve in light,
the long light after time.
A voracious reader and lifelong lover of poetry, Helen arrived in America in 1946 not speaking a word of English, then went on to earn a Ph.D. and become a professor of literature. She recently shared with me a kindred verse by her favorite American poet, Walt Whitman — a man who contemplated the paradox of the self throughout his lush body of work — which she long ago adopted as her personal motto:
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into a new tongue.
In striking consonance with the nonduality at the heart of Le Guin’s poem, the line that prefaces this passage in Whitman’s Song of Myself is “I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul.”
Complement with Whitman himself on the key to living a vibrant and rewarding life and Le Guin’s “Hymn to Time,” then revisit Amanda Palmer’s wondrous readings of two poems by Helen’s compatriot, the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska: “Possibilities” and “Life While-You-Wait.”
Published January 8, 2019