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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

Crossing Brooklyn Ferry: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Walt Whitman’s Stunning Serenade to Our Interlaced Lives Across Space and Time

“It avails not, time nor place… What is it then between us?… It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall, the dark threw its patches down upon me also.”

Crossing Brooklyn Ferry: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Walt Whitman’s Stunning Serenade to Our Interlaced Lives Across Space and Time

How few artists are not merely the sensemaking vessel for the tumult of their times, not even the deck railing of assurance onto which the passengers steady themselves, but the horizon that remains for other ships long after this one has reached safe harbor, or has sunk — the horizon whose steadfast line orients generation after generation, yet goes on shifting as each epoch advances toward new vistas of truth and possibility.

Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) was among those rare few. The century and a half between his time and ours has been scarred by pandemics and pandemoniums, hallowed by staggering triumphs of the humanistic, scientific, and artistic imagination. We made Earth less habitable with two World Wars and discovered 4,000 potentially habitable worlds outside the Solar System. We gave all races and genders the ballot, and invented new ways of revoking human dignity and belonging. We beheld the structure of life in a double helix and the shape of civilizational shame in a mushroom cloud. We heard Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, and the sound of spacetime. But the most remarkable thing about it all, the most human and humanizing thing, is the awareness of this we as atomized into millions of individual I’s who have lived and loved and lost and made art and music and mathematics through it all.

Art by Lia Halloran for The Universe in Verse. Available as a print.

Whitman understood and celebrated this intricate tessellation of being, not only across society — “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” — but across space and time, nowhere more splendidly than in his sweeping, horizonless masterpiece “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” — a poem that opens up a liminal space where past, present, and future tunnel into one another, a cave of forgotten and remembered dreams that invites you to press your outstretched living fingers into the palm-print of the dead, into Whitman’s generous open hand, and in doing so effects, to borrow Iris Murdoch’s marvelous phrase, “and occasion for unselfing.”

At a special miniature edition of The Universe in Verse on Governors Island, devoted to Whitman’s enchantment with science, astrophysicist Janna Levin — an enchantress of poetry, a writer of uncommonly poetic prose, and co-founder of the Whitman-inspired endeavor to build New York’s first public observatory — reanimated an excerpt from “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” in a gorgeous reading emanating the elusive elemental truth Whitman so elegantly makes graspable in the poem.

from “CROSSING BROOKLYN FERRY”
by Walt Whitman

Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face!
Clouds of the west—sun there half an hour high—I see you also face to face.

Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me!
On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose,
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.

The impalpable sustenance of me from all things at all hours of the day,
The simple, compact, well-join’d scheme, myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme,
The similitudes of the past and those of the future.

[…]

Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.

It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried.

[…]

What is it then between us?
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?

Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not,
I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,
I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters around it,
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me

[…]

It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,
The dark threw its patches down upon me also,
The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious,
My great thoughts as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre?
Nor is it you alone who know what it is to be evil,
I am he who knew what it was to be evil,
I too knitted the old knot of contrariety,
Blabb’d, blush’d, resented, lied, stole, grudg’d,
Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes I dared not speak,
Was wayward, vain, greedy, shallow, sly, cowardly, malignant,
The wolf, the snake, the hog, not wanting in me,
The cheating look, the frivolous word, the adulterous wish, not wanting,
Refusals, hates, postponements, meanness, laziness, none of these wanting,
Was one with the rest, the days and haps of the rest,
Was call’d by my nighest name by clear loud voices of young men as they saw me approaching or passing,
Felt their arms on my neck as I stood, or the negligent leaning of their flesh against me as I sat,
Saw many I loved in the street or ferry-boat or public assembly, yet never told them a word,
Lived the same life with the rest, the same old laughing, gnawing, sleeping,

Play’d the part that still looks back on the actor or actress,
The same old role, the role that is what we make it, as great as we like,
Or as small as we like, or both great and small.

For other highlights from the first three years of The Universe in Verse, as we labor on a virtual show amid the strangeness of this de-atomized season of body and spirit, savor Levin reading “A Brave and Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou, “Planetarium” by Adrienne Rich, Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson and his feminist poem about the history of science, Marie Howe reading her tribute to Stephen Hawking, Regina Spektor reading “Theories of Everything” by Rebecca Elson, and Neri Oxman reading Whitman, then revisit Whitman on optimism as a mighty force of resistance, women’s centrality to democracy, how to keep criticism from sinking your soul, and what makes life worth living.

BP

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