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A Brave and Startling Truth: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Maya Angelou’s Stunning Humanist Poem That Flew to Space, Inspired by Carl Sagan

“Out of such chaos, of such contradiction / We learn that we are neither devils nor divines…”

A Brave and Startling Truth: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Maya Angelou’s Stunning Humanist Poem That Flew to Space, Inspired by Carl Sagan

The second annual Universe in Verse — a celebration of science through poetry, and a voice of resistance against the assault on nature — opened with the poem “A Brave and Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou (April 4, 1928–May 28, 2014), which flew to space on the Orion spacecraft. I chose this poem to set the tone for the show in part because it is absolutely stunning and acutely relevant to our cultural moment, and in part because the first time I read it, it sparked in me a sudden insight into the often invisible ways in which science and poetry influence and inspire one another — into how the golden threads of thought and feeling stretch and cross-hatch across disciplines to weave what we call culture.

Angelou composed the poem for the 50th anniversary of the United Nations in 1995. In 1994, Carl Sagan delivered a beautiful speech at Cornell University, inspired by the Voyager’s landmark photograph of Earth seen for the very first time from the outer reaches of the Solar System — a now-iconic image the spacecraft took on Sagan’s spontaneous insistence before shutting off the cameras upon completion of the planned mission to photograph the outer planets.

The “Pale Blue Dot” photograph captured by the Voyager 1 (NASA/JPL)

In describing what the Voyager captured in that grainy photograph of mostly empty space, Sagan limned Earth as a “pale blue dot.” That became the moniker of the photograph itself and the title of his bestselling book published later that year, in which he wrote that “everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives” on this “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

This poetic phrase imprinted itself on the popular imagination and permeated culture in the months following the book’s publication — the months during which Angelou was composing her poem. Like all great poets, she was extremely precise and deliberate about her word choice. Mote is a rather peculiar word, particularly in this cosmic context, and I can’t help but think that by using the phrase “mote of matter” in the final stanzas, Angelou was paying tribute to Sagan and to the message of the Voyager — a message about our place in the cosmic order not as something separate from and superior to nature, but as a tiny pixel-part of it, imbued with equal parts humility and responsibility.

Reading the poem at The Universe in Verse is astrophysicist Janna Levin — a recent performer of some beautiful poetry and a member, alongside Sagan, of the tiny peer group of working scientists who write about science with uncommon poetic might. Please enjoy:

A BRAVE AND STARTLING TRUTH

We, this people, on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth

And when we come to it
To the day of peacemaking
When we release our fingers
From fists of hostility
And allow the pure air to cool our palms

When we come to it
When the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate
And faces sooted with scorn are scrubbed clean
When battlefields and coliseum
No longer rake our unique and particular sons and daughters
Up with the bruised and bloody grass
To lie in identical plots in foreign soil

When the rapacious storming of the churches
The screaming racket in the temples have ceased
When the pennants are waving gaily
When the banners of the world tremble
Stoutly in the good, clean breeze

When we come to it
When we let the rifles fall from our shoulders
And children dress their dolls in flags of truce
When land mines of death have been removed
And the aged can walk into evenings of peace
When religious ritual is not perfumed
By the incense of burning flesh
And childhood dreams are not kicked awake
By nightmares of abuse

When we come to it
Then we will confess that not the Pyramids
With their stones set in mysterious perfection
Nor the Gardens of Babylon
Hanging as eternal beauty
In our collective memory
Not the Grand Canyon
Kindled into delicious color
By Western sunsets

Nor the Danube, flowing its blue soul into Europe
Not the sacred peak of Mount Fuji
Stretching to the Rising Sun
Neither Father Amazon nor Mother Mississippi who, without favor,
Nurture all creatures in the depths and on the shores
These are not the only wonders of the world

When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule and kithless globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger
Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace
We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe

We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines

When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.

“A Brave and Startling Truth” was published in a commemorative booklet in 1995 and was later included in Maya Angelou: The Complete Poetry (public library).

More highlights from the second annual Universe in Verse will be released at here over the coming weeks and months. For some high points of the inaugural event, see Levin’s exquisite reading of Adrienne Rich’s tribute to women in astronomy and U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith’s ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, then savor the complete show for a two-hour poetic serenade to science.

BP

Maya Angelou on How a Library Saved Her Life

“A library is a rainbow in the clouds.”

Maya Angelou on How a Library Saved Her Life

“You never know what troubled little girl needs a book,” Nikki Giovanni wrote in one of her poems celebrating libraries and librarians. “Knowledge sets us free, art sets us free. A great library is freedom,” Ursula K. Le Guin asserted in her beautiful essay on the sacredness of public libraries. “When a library is open, no matter its size or shape,” Bill Moyers wrote in his introduction to this photographic love letter to public libraries, “democracy is open, too.”

But no one has articulated, nor lived, this liberating and salvational function of libraries more fully than Maya Angelou (April 4, 1928–May 28, 2014).

In the autumn of 2010, shortly before Dr. Angelou received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture — a research division of the New York Public Library — acquired her papers. She visited NYPL for a public event celebrating the occasion, during which she broke into song to illustrate the life-saving role libraries have always played in the lives of the people during the darkest of times. She went on to share the story of how a library had saved her own life as a child.

When it looked like the sun would not shine anymore
God put a rainbow in the clouds

Look at that — look at that! That’s a library — a library is a rainbow in the clouds.

We know that some, from the 19th-century, African-American lyricist and poet was inspired by a statement in the em>Genesis. In the Genesis we are told that rain persisted so unrelentingly that people thought it would never cease. And in an attempt to put the people at ease, God put a rainbow in the sky.

That’s in Genesis. But in the 19th century, some African-American lyricist, a poet — probably a woman, I don’t know — said, “No. God didn’t just put the rainbow in the sky.” We know that rainbows, suns, moons, stars — all sorts of illuminations — are always in the firmament, but clouds can so lower and lour so that the viewer cannot see the light. So God put the rainbow in the clouds themselves — in the worst of times, in the meanest of times, in the dreariest of times — so that at all times the viewer can see a possibility of hope.

That’s what a library is.

[…]

It is amazing, for me, to have been taken to a library when I was eight. I had been abused and I returned to a little village in Arkansas. And a black lady … knew I wasn’t speaking — I refused to speak — for six years I was a volunteer mute. She took me to library in the black school. The library probably had 300 books — maybe. The books were given to the black school from the white school and, often, there were no backs on the books. So we took shingles, cut them down to the size of the book, got some cotton and then pretty cloth, and covered those shingles and then laced them from the back, so that the books were beautiful. And those were the books she took me to see. She said, “I want you to read every book in this library.”

It seemed to me thousands of books. I have now, in my home in North Carolina, a library of about 4,000 books. But at that time, I thought, “Can I get to it? Will I live long enough?” I don’t say I understood those books, but I read every book, and each time I [would] go to the library, I felt safe. No bad thing can happen to you in the library.

In an interview with the New York Public Library’s Angela Montefinise to mark the occasion of the acquisition of her papers, Dr. Angelou added:

All information belongs to everybody all the time. It should be available. It should be accessible to the child, to the woman, to the man, to the old person, to the semiliterate, to the presidents of universities, to everyone. It should be open.

[…]

Information helps you to see that you’re not alone. That there’s somebody in Mississippi and somebody in Tokyo who all have wept, who’ve all longed and lost, who’ve all been happy. So the library helps you to see, not only that you are not alone, but that you’re not really any different from everyone else. There may be details that are different, but a human being is a human being.

Complement with this wonderful oral history of how libraries save lives and Mary Oliver on how reading saved her, then revisit Dr. Angelou on courage and facing evil, her moving letter to her younger self, her children’s book about overcoming fear, illustrated by Basquiat, and her abiding wisdom identity and the meaning of life.

BP

Maya Angelou on Courage and Facing Evil

“There is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic, because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing.”

In 1982, nearly a decade after their spectacular conversation about freedom, beloved poet, memoirist, dramatist, actor, producer, filmmaker, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou (April 4, 1928–May 28, 2014) and celebrated interviewer Bill Moyers traveled together to the beautiful Texas countryside to discuss the ugliest aspects of human nature at a conference titled Facing Evil. It was a subject with which Angelou, the survivor of childhood rape and courageous withstander of lifelong racism, was intimately acquainted. In a recent remembrance of his friend, Moyers shares excerpts from the 1988 documentary about the event and reflects on the timeless goodness of her spirit.

Transcribed highlights below:

On the history of evil:

Throughout our nervous history, we have constructed pyramidic towers of evil, ofttimes in the name of good. Our greed, fear and lasciviousness have enabled us to murder our poets, who are ourselves, to castigate our priests, who are ourselves. The lists of our subversions of the good stretch from before recorded history to this moment. We drop our eyes at the mention of the bloody, torturous Inquisition. Our shoulders sag at the thoughts of African slaves lying spoon-­fashion in the filthy hatches of slave-ships, and the subsequent auction blocks upon which were built great fortunes in our country. We turn our heads in bitter shame at the remembrance of Dachau and the other gas ovens, where millions of ourselves were murdered by millions of ourselves. As soon as we are reminded of our actions, more often than not we spend incredible energy trying to forget what we’ve just been reminded of.

And yet Angelou was nothing if not a champion of the human spirit and its highest potentiality for good. She reflects on how refusing to speak for five years after being raped as a child (“I won’t say severely raped; all rape is severe,” Angelou notes in one of her characteristically piercing asides) shaped her journey:

To show you … how out of evil there can come good, in those five years I read every book in the black school library. I read all the books I could get from the white school library. I memorized James Weldon Johnson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. I memorized Shakespeare, whole plays, fifty sonnets. I memorized Edgar Allen Poe, all the poetry — never having heard it, I memorized it. I had Longfellow, I had Guy de Maupassant, I had Balzac, Rudyard Kipling — I mean, it was catholic kind of reading, and catholic kind of storing.

[…]

Out of this evil, which was a dire kind of evil, because rape on the body of a young person more often than not introduces cynicism, and there is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic, because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing. In my case I was saved in that muteness… And I was able to draw from human thought, human disappointments and triumphs, enough to triumph myself.

Angelou’s most soul-expanding point is that courage — something she not only embodied but also championed beautifully in her children’s book illustrated by Basquiat — is our indelible individual capacity and our shared existential responsibility:

We need the courage to create ourselves daily, to be bodacious enough to create ourselves daily — as Christians, as Jews, as Muslims, as thinking, caring, laughing, loving human beings. I think that the courage to confront evil and turn it by dint of will into something applicable to the development of our evolution, individually and collectively, is exciting, honorable.

For more of Angelou’s remarkable spirit, revisit her 1973 conversation with Moyers, her moving letter to her younger self, and her timeless meditations on home and belonging and identity and the meaning of life.

BP

Maya Angelou’s Beautiful Letter to Her Younger Self

“Be courageous, but not foolhardy.”

“You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all,” the late and great Maya Angelou (April 4, 1928–May 28, 2014) told Bill Moyers in their extraordinary 1973 conversation.

The theme of home and belonging is central to Angelou’s work — to her spirit — and is also at the heart of her beautiful contribution to Ellyn Spragins’s 2006 anthology What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self (public library), which also gave us Naomi Wolf’s spectacular no-bullshit letter to her younger self.

Angelou writes:

Dear Marguerite,

You’re itching to be on your own. You don’t want anybody telling you what time you have to be in at night or how to raise your baby. You’re going to leave your mother’s big comfortable house and she won’t stop you, because she knows you too well.

But listen to what she says:

When you walk out of my door, don’t let anybody raise you — you’ve been raised.

You know right from wrong.

In every relationship you make, you’ll have to show readiness to adjust and make adaptations.

Remember, you can always come home.

You will go home again when the world knocks you down — or when you fall down in full view of the world. But only for two or three weeks at a time. Your mother will pamper you and feed you your favorite meal of red beans and rice. You’ll make a practice of going home so she can liberate you again — one of the greatest gifts, along with nurturing your courage, that she will give you.

Be courageous, but not foolhardy.

Walk proud as you are,

Maya

Two years later, in 2008, Angelou would revisit the theme of home and belonging in her breathtaking letters to the daughter she never had.

What I Know Now features more contributions by such extraordinary women as Madeleine Albright, Roz Chast, and Ingrid Newkirk. Complement this particular gem with Maya Angelou on identity and the meaning of life

BP

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