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Amanda Palmer’s Haunting Reading of Adrienne Rich’s Poem About Love, Perspective, and the Hubble Space Telescope

“…equations letting sight pierce through time into liberations, lacerations of light and dust…”

Amanda Palmer’s Haunting Reading of Adrienne Rich’s Poem About Love, Perspective, and the Hubble Space Telescope

“Mingle the starlight with your lives and you won’t be fretted by trifles,” the pioneering 19th-century astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science, used to tell her Vassar students — America’s first class of women astronomers and the first generation of people trained in what we now call astrophysics: the combination of mathematical physics and observational astronomy.

At the Vassar observatory, both Mitchell’s home and her classroom, she held regular “dome parties” — evenings of telescopic star-study and conversation, during which her students composed poems about whatever they were pondering astronomically.

Maria Mitchell, standing at telescope, with her students at Vassar

A century after Mitchell’s death, humanity launched into the cosmos its most ambitious and versatile instrument yet: the Hubble Space Telescope. “We saw to the edge of all there is — so brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back,” the poet Tracy K. Smith wrote in her stunning ode to this triumph of human ingenuity and perseverance, on which her father was one of NASA’s first black engineers and which she read at the inaugural Universe in Verse, held on the telescope’s twenty-seventh birthday and dedicated to Maria Mitchell’s legacy.

Smith — who has since been elected Poet Laureate of the United States — was the age of Maria Mitchell’s students when the Hubble returned its first, enthusiastically awaited images of the cosmos: grainy, fuzzy photographs that were in one sense deeply disappointing to the engineers who had labored on the instrument for years, but in another absolutely thrilling: an unprecedented glimpse of the vast unknown beckoning from the unfathomed depths of the universe.

In the decades since its launch on April 24, 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope has helped make landmark discoveries advancing our understanding of the universe and has enchanted humanity with the most beguiling images of the cosmos we have yet seen. It has shown us otherworldly glimpses of galaxies and nebulae. It has studied the light of orphaned stars to illuminate the mysteries of dark matter. It has resolved a longstanding perplexity about the growth rate of the universe and detected the first known interstellar object to visit our solar system. It has challenged us as never before to imagine what may lie beyond the horizons of our own imagination.

“Pillars of Creation,” one of the most recognizable Hubble images, depicting the interstellar gas and cosmic dust of the Eagle Nebula some 7,000 lightyears away from Earth, simultaneously creating new stars and being destroyed by the light of nearby newborn stars. (Photograph: NASA)

Fifteen years into the Hubble’s lifetime, another great poet, Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929–March 27, 2012), contemplated the existential undertones of its scientific triumphs in another stunning poem: “Hubble Photographs: After Sappho,” which musician, poetry lover, and my dear friend Amanda Palmer read in a haunting performance at the third annual Universe in Verse, held on the eve of the Hubble’s twenty-ninth birthday and benefiting the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory.

The third annual Universe in Verse. (Photograph: Walter Wlodarczyk.)

In this lovely animation created for the occasion, artist Kelli Anderson brings Rich’s words and Amanda’s voice to life with an inventive animation technique, using a vintage NASA manual to print words and galactic-textured images directly onto the archival paper.

HUBBLE PHOTOGRAPHS: AFTER SAPPHO
by Adrienne Rich (2005)

It should be the most desired sight of all
the person with whom you hope to live and die

walking into a room, turning to look at you, sight for sight
Should be yet I say there is something

more desirable:       the ex-stasis of galaxies
so out from us there’s no vocabulary

but mathematics and optics
equations letting sight pierce through time

into liberations, lacerations of light and dust
exposed like a body’s cavity, violet green livid and venous, gorgeous

—beyond good and evil as ever stained into dream
beyond remorse, disillusion, fear of death

or life, rage
for order, rage for destruction

beyond this love which stirs
the air every time she walks into the room

These impersonae, however we call them
won’t invade us as on movie screens

they are so old, so new, we are not to them
we look at them or don’t from within the milky gauze

of our tilted gazing
but they don’t look back and we cannot hurt them

Below is Amanda’s full performance, including her poetic prefatory meditation on art, science, and life:

“Hubble Photographs: After Sappho” comes from Adrienne Rich’s indispensable Collected Poems: 1950–2012 (public library). Complement it with Rich’s poem “Planetarium”, read by astrophysicist Janna Levin at the inaugural Universe in Verse, and her tribute to Marie Curie, read by Grammy-winning musician Rosanne Cash, then revisit Kelli Anderson’s stop-motion animation of Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Optimism,” celebrating nature’s astonishing, humble resilience.

More highlights from the show can be savored here, including Amanda Palmer’s readings of Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson and his feminist history of science, both composed for The Universe in Verse.

BP

An Antidote to White Male Capitalist Culture: Adrienne Rich on the Liberating Power of Storytelling and How Reading Emancipates

“The decline in adult literacy means not merely a decline in the capacity to read and write, but a decline in the impulse to puzzle out, brood upon… argue about, turn inside-out in verbal euphoria, the ‘incomparable medium’ of language…”

“Books are key to understanding the world and participating in a democratic society,” Carl Sagan insisted at the end of his life in arguing for reading as the path to democracy. “Someone reading a book is a sign of order in the world,” wrote the poet Mary Ruefle a generation later.

Long before Sagan and Ruefle, Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929–March 27, 2012) examined the emancipatory power of reading in her preface to On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966–1978 (public library) — the indispensable collection of essays and speeches that gave us Rich on honorable human relationships and what “truth” really means.

Portrait of Adrienne Rich from the walls of the Academy of American Poets
Portrait of Adrienne Rich from the walls of the Academy of American Poets

Writing in 1978, Rich considers the gendered power dynamics of the written word:

The decline in adult literacy means not merely a decline in the capacity to read and write, but a decline in the impulse to puzzle out, brood upon, look up in the dictionary, mutter over, argue about, turn inside-out in verbal euphoria, the “incomparable medium” of language — Tillie Olsen’s term. And this decline comes, ironically, at a moment in history when women, the majority of the world’s people, have become most aware of our need for real literacy, for our own history, most searchingly aware of the lies and distortions of the culture men have devised, when we are finally prepared to take on the most complex, subtle, and drastic revaluation ever attempted of the condition of the species.

Contemplating what the television screen has displaced — a displacement of critical thinking only exacerbated by the computer and smartphone screens in the decades since — Rich presages the problem of wisdom in the age of information and writes:

People grow up who not only don’t know how to read, a late-acquired skill among the world’s majority; they don’t know how to talk, to tell stories, to sing, to listen and remember, to argue, to pierce an opponent’s argument, to use metaphor and imagery and inspired exaggeration in speech; people are growing up in the slack flicker of a pale light which lacks the concentrated burn of a candle flame or oil wick or the bulb of a gooseneck desk lamp: a pale, wavering, oblong shimmer, emitting incessant noise, which is to real knowledge or discourse what the manic or weepy protestations of a drunk are to responsible speech. Drunks do have a way of holding an audience, though, and so does the shimmery ill-focused oblong screen.

Rich condemns this unthinking mesmerism as “a culture of manipulated passivity” and casts it as a primary tool of upholding society’s age-old power structures, particularly patriarchal power. (Several years earlier, James Baldwin had reflected on how reading helped him break out of society’s racial power structure.) She contrasts this “manipulated passivity” with how women regard the world, pointing to reading and storytelling as vital tools of empowerment and emancipation:

Women’s culture, on the other hand, is active: women have been the truly active people in all cultures, without whom human society would long ago have perished, though our activity has most often been on behalf of men and children. Today women are talking to each other, recovering an oral culture, telling our life-stories, reading aloud to one another the books that have moved and healed us, analyzing the language that has lied about us, reading our own words aloud to each other. But to name and found a culture of our own means a real break from the passivity of the twentieth-century Western mind.

Illustration from The Book of Memory Gaps by Cecilia Ruiz

Arguing that “to conjure with the passive culture and adapt to its rules is to degrade and deny the fullness of our meaning and intention,” she considers what an alternative culture might look like:

To question everything. To remember what it has been forbidden even to mention. To come together telling our stories, to look afresh at, and then to describe for ourselves, the frescoes of the Ice Age, the nudes of “high art,” the Minoan seals and figurines, the moon-landscape embossed with the booted print of a male foot, the microscopic virus, the scarred and tortured body of the planet Earth. To do this kind of work takes a capacity for constant active presence, a naturalist’s attention to minute phenomena, for reading between the lines, watching closely for symbolic arrangements, decoding difficult and complex messages left for us by women of the past. It is work, in short, that is opposed by, and stands in opposition to, the entire twentieth-century white male capitalist culture.

On Lies, Secrets, and Silence remains an indispensable read. Complement this particular portion with Gwendolyn Brooks on the power of books, Rebecca Solnit on why we read and write, Anaïs Nin on how books awaken us from the slumber of almost-living, and Mary Oliver on how reading saved her life, then revisit Rich on the political power of poetry, how silence fertilizes the imagination, and her stunning tribute to women in astronomy.

BP

Rosanne Cash on How Science Saved Her Life, the Source of Every Artist’s Power, and Her Beautiful Reading of Adrienne Rich’s Tribute to Marie Curie

“All creative people feel that the source of their creativity comes from the same room as their deepest pain.”

Most know Marie Curie (November 7, 1867–July 4, 1934) as a trailblazing scientist — a pioneer of radioactivity, the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize, and to this day the only person to win two Nobels in two different sciences, chemistry and physics. But unbeknownst to most, she was also a woman of tremendous humanitarian heroism and courage: When WWI swept Europe, Curie, a vehement pacifist, invented and operated mobile X-ray units known as “Little Curies” — ambulances which she herself drove, treating an estimated one million wounded soldiers and civilians, using the technology her own discoveries had made possible to save innumerable lives.

It fell on another extraordinary woman, the great poet and feminist Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929–March 27, 2012), to eulogize Curie exactly forty years after the trailblazing scientist’s death in the 1974 poem “Power,” which opens Rich’s 1977 masterwork The Dream of a Common Language (public library).

Marie Curie

Another forty years later, another remarkable woman animated this double legacy of greatness — multiple Grammy winner Rosanne Cash, a musician of enormous poetic potency, a beautiful memoirist, and one of very few women inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Cash brought Rich’s masterpiece to life at The Universe in Verse — the celebration of science through poetry, which gave us Neil Gaiman’s feminist poem about science, Sarah Jones’s chorus-of-humanity tribute to Jane Goodall, and astrophysicist Janna Levin’s sublime performance of Adrienne Rich’s tribute to women in astronomy.

Prefacing her reading, Cash offered the greatest testimonial to the power of science there is — one attested to with her very life, which science saved after pseudo-science and today’s fossils of superstition imperiled it — and reflected on how Rich’s poem, while celebrating a scientist, also speaks to the deepest source of every artist’s power.

Persist and verify… The power that we abdicate to others out of our insecurity — to others who insult us with their faux-intuition or their authoritarian smugness — that comes back to hurt us so deeply… But the power we wrest from our own certitude — that saves us.

And here is the isolated poem:

POWER

Living    in the earth-deposits    of our history

Today a backhoe divulged    out of a crumbling flank of earth
one bottle    amber    perfect    a hundred-year-old
cure for fever    or melancholy    a tonic
for living on this earth    in the winters of this climate

Today I was reading about Marie Curie:
she must have known she suffered    from radiation sickness
her body bombarded for years    by the element
she had purified
It seems she denied to the end
the source of the cataracts on her eyes
the cracked and suppurating skin    of her finger-ends
till she could no longer hold    a test-tube or a pencil

She died    a famous woman    denying
her wounds
denying
her wounds    came    from the same source as her power

Rich was the only poet with two poems represented in The Universe in Verse. Devour the other one — her tribute to Caroline Herschel, the first professional woman astronomer — here, then revisit Rich herself reading her increasingly timely poem “What Kind of Times Are These?”

For other enchanting readings of beloved poets’ work, hear Amanda Palmer reading E.E. Cummings, Cynthia Nixon reading Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Boorstein reading Pablo Neruda, Jon Kabat-Zinn reading Derek Walcott, Orson Welles reading Walt Whitman, and Amanda Palmer reading Wisława Szymborska.

BP

The Universe in Verse: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads “Planetarium,” Adrienne Rich’s Tribute to Women in Astronomy

“I am bombarded yet I stand.”

The Universe in Verse: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads “Planetarium,” Adrienne Rich’s Tribute to Women in Astronomy

Caroline Herschel, the first professional woman astronomer, was a remarkable woman who lived a long and pathbreaking life. Her parents deemed her too ugly to marry and envisioned for her a life as a servant — she became the Cinderella of the household, tending to the domestic needs of her parents and her eleven siblings. But Herschel, though incredibly humble, had a tenacity of spirit that kept her quiet passion for the life of the mind burning. She went on to pave the way for women in science, becoming the first woman admitted into the Royal Astronomical Society — the era’s most prestigious scientific institution — alongside the Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville (for whom the word “scientist” was coined).

Exactly 120 years after Herschel’s death, the great poet and feminist Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929–March 27, 2012) — a woman who espoused the political power of poetry and believed that “poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility” — commemorated Herschel’s far-reaching legacy of unlocking a universe of possibility for women in a beautiful 1968 poem titled “Planetarium,” found in Rich’s indispensable Collected Poems: 1950–2012 (public library).

At The Universe in Verse — my celebration of science through poetry, which also gave us Neil Gaiman’s new feminist poem about the dawn of science — astrophysicist and author Janna Levin brought Rich’s masterpiece to life in an enchanting reading:

PLANETARIUM

Thinking of Caroline Herschel (1750–1848)
astronomer, sister of William; and others.

A woman in the shape of a monster
a monster in the shape of a woman
the skies are full of them

a woman    ‘in the snow
among the Clocks and instruments
or measuring the ground with poles’

in her 98 years to discover
8 comets

she whom the moon ruled
like us
levitating into the night sky
riding the polished lenses

Galaxies of women, there
doing penance for impetuousness
ribs chilled
in those spaces    of the mind

An eye,

    ‘virile, precise and absolutely certain’
    from the mad webs of Uranusborg

                                            encountering the NOVA

every impulse of light exploding

from the core
as life flies out of us

    Tycho whispering at last
    ‘Let me not seem to have lived in vain’

What we see, we see
and seeing is changing

the light that shrivels a mountain
and leaves a man alive

Heartbeat of the pulsar
heart sweating through my body

The radio impulse
pouring in from Taurus

    I am bombarded yet    I stand

I have been standing all my life in the
direct path of a battery of signals
the most accurately transmitted most
untranslatable language in the universe
I am a galactic cloud so deep    so invo-
luted that a light wave could take 15
years to travel through me    And has
taken    I am an instrument in the shape
of a woman trying to translate pulsations
into images    for the relief of the body
and the reconstruction of the mind.

A curious footnote I shared at the show: When I first encountered this poem years ago, I was struck by its searing beauty, but also puzzled by why, out of all possible cosmic phenomena, Rich chose to make a particular mention of pulsars. It wasn’t until I devoured Levin’s gorgeous book Black Hole Blues that I came to suspect why: The first pulsar, which revolutionized our understanding of the universe, was discovered in 1967 — less than a year before Rich wrote the poem — by a 23-year-old astronomer named Jocelyn Bell, who was subsequently excluded from the Nobel Prize for the discovery she herself had made.

This being an Adrienne Rich poem, I’ve always taken its dedication — to Caroline Herschel “and others” — to mean “and other unsung and undersung women in astronomy.” After reading Levin’s book, I’ve come to suspect that Rich’s deliberate mention of pulsars — a completely nascent discovery at the time, and not at all common cosmic vocabulary — was a deliberate feminist bow to Jocelyn Bell (who, incidentally, went on to be an enormous champion of the common ground between poetry and science herself.)

For other beautiful readings of beloved poets’ work, hear Cynthia Nixon reading Emily Dickinson, Amanda Palmer reading Wisława Szymborska, Sylvia Boorstein reading Pablo Neruda, Jon Kabat-Zinn reading Derek Walcott, Orson Welles reading Walt Whitman, and Amanda Palmer reading E.E. Cummings, then revisit Janna Levin on the century-long quest to capture the sound of spacetime, how mathematician Kurt Gödel shaped the modern mind, why scientists do what they do, and her magnificent Moth story about the improbable paths that lead us back to ourselves.

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