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The Universe in Verse: Regina Spektor Reads “Theories of Everything” by Astronomer, Poet, and Tragic Genius Rebecca Elson

Lyrical reflections at the crossroads of truth and meaning.

The Universe in Verse: Regina Spektor Reads “Theories of Everything” by Astronomer, Poet, and Tragic Genius Rebecca Elson

In her haunting ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, Adrienne Rich serenaded “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.” It is a peculiar meta-miracle, to fuse these complementary modes of sensemaking — mathematics, the language of truth, and poetry, the language of meaning — into something that enlarges both, expanding the horizons of beauty and understanding in the mind beholding the fusion.

This miracle is what The Universe in Verse celebrates, and no person embodies it more exquisitely than the Canadian astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson (January 2, 1960–May 19, 1999), who belonged to that rare species of genius with extraordinary talent in not just one but two, and thoroughly different, domains of creative endeavor.

The daughter of a geologist, Elson grew up as a keen observer of the natural world, spending large swaths of her childhood exploring the shores of a prehistoric lake. By the age of six, she could distinguish sandstone pebbles from limestone pebbles. By nine, she had grown besotted with the dazzling nocturnal skies of northern Canada, with the way they emanated the infinite question of what it means for the universe to be infinite, beguiled by the cosmic wonders filling that infinity. By sixteen, she was in university, falling further in love with astronomy. Her first glimpse of Andromeda, our sister galaxy, dazed her with its “delicate wisp of milky spiral light floating in what seemed a bottomless well of empty space.”

The spiral galaxy NGC 7331, located in the constellation Pegasus about 45 million light-years from Earth, discovered by William Herschel in 1784. (NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope)

At twenty-six, having completed her Ph.D. at Cambridge — Newton’s hallowed ground — Elson received a postdoctoral research fellowship at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study — Einstein’s hallowed ground — to work with the first data from the Hubble, which was about to launch later that year. But when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded before the grief-stricken eyes of the world, the horizons of space exploration darkened, the launch of the Hubble was delayed, and Elson’s research assignment vanished. Trapped in Princeton’s unwelcoming atmosphere of systemic sexism, without support and without a riveting project at hand, she found herself withdrawing as a researcher.

One thing solaced and perhaps even saved Elson as her astronomical career took this dispiriting dip — the lively Tuesday evening gatherings of poets, whose company and camaraderie she found to be “far more expansive and congenial” than the stranglehold of the scientific patriarchy. Verse opened up new frontiers of inquiry and observation — not of the universe without, but of the universe within. She came to cherish it and practice it with the same passion she had brought to astronomy.

In her twenty-ninth year, just as she began teaching creative writing at Radcliffe-Harvard during a fellowship there and became the youngest astronomer to serve on a decennial review committee in the history of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Elson was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma — a blood cancer that most commonly afflicts people in their sixties and seventies. She transmuted the brutality of the treatment into raw material for poetry — “Not outer space, just space / The light of all the not yet stars,” she writes in “Antidotes to Fear of Death” — and continued pursuing her first and greatest scientific love: galaxy formation and the study of how stars are born, live, and die.

Upon returning to Cambridge in her early thirties, with her illness in remission, Elson and her team used the deepest image of space the Hubble had ever taken to determine the limits of how much regular stars contribute to the mysterious halo of dark matter enveloping the Milky Way — a major contribution to our understanding of the universe and a bittersweet metaphor for Elson’s life and body of work, hovering in that liminal space between limit and possibility, darkness and light.

Rebecca Elson, 1987

Elson returned her stardust to the universe at only thirty-nine, leaving behind 56 scientific papers, a slender, sublimely beautiful book of poetry titled A Responsibility to Awe (public library), and the devastating question of what else a person of such uncommon genius would have given the world had chance granted her a longer life.

At the third annual Universe in Verse, I invited Regina Spektor, one of the most intensely poetic songwriters of our time, to honor Elson’s singular, tragic, transcendent genius with a lovely reading of her poem “Theories of Everything” — a meditation on our eternal struggle to discern the unfeeling laws of the universe, over which we have no control and by which we must abide, and to project ourselves onto them, creating cosmoses of beauty and meaning within their indifferent parameters, all the while ourselves remaining mere projections of these very laws.

THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
(When the lecturer’s shirt matches the painting on the wall)

He stands there speaking without love
Of theories where, in the democracy
Of this universe, or that,
There could be legislators
Who ordain trajectories for falling bodies,
Where all things must be dreamed with indifference,
And purpose is a momentary silhouette
Backlit by a blue anthropic flash,
A storm on the horizon.

But even the painting on the wall behind,
Itself an accident of shattered symmetries,
Is only half eclipsed by his transparencies
Of hierarchy and order,
And the history of thought.

And what he cannot see is this:
Himself projected next to his projections
Where the colours from the painting
Have spilled onto his shirt,
Their motion stilled into a rigorous
Design of lines and light.

A Responsibility to Awe is a breathtaking read in its slim totality.

For other highlights from The Universe in Verse, savor astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson, poet Marie Howe reading her stirring homage to Stephen Hawking, U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith reading her ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, and Rosanne Cash reading Adrienne Rich’s tribute to Marie Curie, then revisit Regina Spektor reading “The Everyday Enchantment of Music” by Mark Strand — one of the most beautiful things ever written about the power of music.

BP

Regina Spektor Reads “The Everyday Enchantment of Music” by Mark Strand

“A rough sound was polished until it became a smoother sound, which was polished until it became music.”

Regina Spektor Reads “The Everyday Enchantment of Music” by Mark Strand

“Without music life would be a mistake,” Nietzsche proclaimed in 1889. Walt Whitman celebrated it as the profoundest expression of nature and Aldous Huxley as an expression of the “blessedness lying at the heart of things.” Philosopher Susanne Langer considered it “a laboratory for feeling and time,” whose mysterious power both eclipses and illuminates all the other arts.

Among the chorus of great writers who have extolled music’s supreme and singular power is the Pulitzer-winning poet Mark Strand (April 11, 1934–November 29, 2014) in a splendid prose poem titled “The Everyday Enchantment of Music,” included in his indispensable Collected Poems (public library).

In this recording from the annual Poetry & the Creative Mind event at Lincoln Center hosted by The Academy of American Poets, Regina Spektor — one of the great musicians of our time — brings Strand’s masterpiece to life with such loveliness and tenderness:

THE EVERYDAY ENCHANTMENT OF MUSIC

A rough sound was polished until it became a smoother sound, which was polished until it became music. Then the music was polished until it became the memory of a night in Venice when tears of the sea fell from the Bridge of Sighs, which in turn was polished until it ceased to be and in its place stood the empty home of a heart in trouble. Then suddenly there was sun and the music came back and traffic was moving and off in the distance, at the edge of the city, a long line of clouds appeared, and there was thunder, which, however menacing, would become music, and the memory of what happened after Venice would begin, and what happened after the home of the troubled heart broke in two would also begin.

Complement with Strand himself reading his stirring poem “The End” in the final months of his life and his lyrical love letter to dreams, then treat yourself to this year’s Poetry & the Creative Mind if you are in New York and join me in supporting The Academy of American Poets with a donation so that they may continue to do their noble work of making this world a little more poetic.

BP

New Music Spotlight: Regina Spektor “Far”

What Seinfeld has to do with the best new album by the best old favorite.

We’ve been enamored with semi-indie darling Regina Spektor for years. (Seeing her live at TED 2009 didn’t hurt, either.) And part of her fascination lies in the ability to reinvent herself beautifully, without losing the core of her brilliance — charmed vocals, superb piano and incredible lyrical sensibility. That’s exactly what’s happening in her new album, Far, out today.

The entire album is an absolute gem, but our favorite track has to be The Calculation — delightfully upbeat and somehow Seinfeld-like in its ability to be about nothing particularly grand while capturing the great human truths.

And in case you sit there wondering how an album could possibly be this ridiculously good, it may have something to do with the fact that Jeff Lynne — named the fourth greatest producer in music history — is behind it. Well, that and Regina Spektor’s indisputable genius.

Another highlight comes from Laughing With, a piece of open-to-interpretation commentary on the hypocrisies of our belief systems.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rov3pV9PsRI

Snag Far today and ponder existential truth to the best soundtrack there is.

BP

Figures of Thought: Krista Tippett Reads Howard Nemerov’s Mathematical-Existential Poem About the Interconnectedness of the Universe

A splendid song of praise for the elemental truth at the heart of all art, science, and nature.

Figures of Thought: Krista Tippett Reads Howard Nemerov’s Mathematical-Existential Poem About the Interconnectedness of the Universe

“A leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars,” Walt Whitman wrote in one of his most beautiful poems in the middle of the nineteenth century, just as humanity was coming awake to the glorious interconnectedness of nature — to the awareness, in the immortal words of the great naturalist John Muir, that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

A century later, Albert Einstein recounted his takeaway from the childhood epiphany that made him want to be a scientist: “Something deeply hidden had to be behind things.” Virginia Woolf, in her account of the epiphany in which she understood she was an artist — one of the most beautiful and penetrating passages in all of literature — articulated a kindred sentiment: “Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern… the whole world is a work of art… there is no Shakespeare… no Beethoven… no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”

This interleaved thing-itselfness of existence, hidden in plain sight, is what two-time U.S. Poet Laureate Howard Nemerov (February 29, 1920–July 5, 1991) takes up, two centuries after William Blake saw the universe in a grain of sand, in a spare masterpiece of image and insight, found in his altogether wondrous Collected Poems (public library), winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

Howard Nemerov

On Being creator and Becoming Wise author Krista Tippett brought the poem to life at the third annual Universe in Verse, with a lovely prefatory meditation on the role of poetry — ancient, somehow forgotten in our culture, newly rediscovered — as sustenance and salve for the tenderest, truest, most vital parts of our being.

FIGURES OF THOUGHT
by Howard Nemerov

To lay the logarithmic spiral on
Sea-shell and leaf alike, and see it fit,
To watch the same idea work itself out
In the fighter pilot’s steepening, tightening turn
Onto his target, setting up the kill,
And in the flight of certain wall-eyed bugs
Who cannot see to fly straight into death
But have to cast their sidelong glance at it
And come but cranking to the candle’s flame —

How secret that is, and how privileged
One feels to find the same necessity
Ciphered in forms diverse and otherwise
Without kinship — that is the beautiful
In Nature as in art, not obvious,
Not inaccessible, but just between.

It may diminish some our dry delight
To wonder if everything we are and do
Lies subject to some little law like that;
Hidden in nature, but not deeply so.

For more science-celebrating splendor from The Universe in Verse, savor astrophysicist Janna Levin reading “A Brave and Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou and “Planetarium” by Adrienne Rich; poet Sarah Kay reading from “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman; Regina Spektor reading “Theories of Everything” by the astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson; Amanda Palmer reading “Hubble Photographs: After Sappho” by Adrienne Rich; and Neil Gaiman’s original tributes-in-verse to women in science, environmental founding mother Rachel Carson, and astronomer Arthur Eddington, who confirmed Einstein’s relativity in the wake of a World War that had lost sight of our shared belonging and common cosmic spring.

BP

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