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The Twin Root of Our Confusion and Our Power in Times of Turmoil: Muriel Rukeyser on the Wellspring of Aliveness

“Whatever has happened, whatever is going to happen in the world, it is the living moment that contains the sum of the excitement, this moment in which we touch life and all the energy of the past and future.”

The Twin Root of Our Confusion and Our Power in Times of Turmoil: Muriel Rukeyser on the Wellspring of Aliveness

It is such delicate work, such devoted work, the work of contouring the personhoods of persons who have imprinted the world with nothing less than revolutions of the mind, yet have left only faint traces of themselves as persons, unselved first by the nature of their revolutionary ideas — vast, abstract, lightyears beyond the solipsisms of the self — and then unselved again by the selective collective memory we mistake for history and its perennial failure at a foothold in the abstract beyond personhoods, beyond identities, beyond the narrow and unimaginative bounds of so-called human interest. There is quiet heroism to this work of rescuing from obscurity and erasure lives understanding which helps understand the entire eras in which they were lived and the fundaments of sensemaking the following epochs have taken as givens.

Such is the work Muriel Rukeyser (December 15, 1913–February 12, 1980) did with Willard Gibbs: American Genius (public library).

Muriel Rukeyser

Rukeyser’s own genius came abloom in the dawn of her twenties, when her debut poetry collection, Theory of Flight, earned her the Yale Younger Poets Award — America’s longest-running literary accolade. She was not yet thirty when she composed her staggering more-than-biography of the father of physical chemistry, Willard Gibbs (February 11, 1839–April 28, 1903) — this odd and world-shifting bridge figure between classical mechanics and quantum physics, celebrated as the greatest mind of the nineteenth century, lauded by Einstein as one of the most original and important thinkers America ever produced, prophesied to outlive in remembrance all of his contemporaries except perhaps Lincoln, yet almost entirely forgotten by Rukeyser’s time.

Like Eddington, Gibbs was a quiet, reserved genius — “silent, inhibited, remote,” Rukeyser tells us — queer by all reasonable deduction; he never married and lived out his life in his sister’s home. Like Newton, who accomplished the greatest leap in science within the solitude of his plague quarantine, Gibbs imagined his revolution within the chamber of the mind, within a dense solitude — “in silence, in isolation, in the years of rejection directly after the Civil War, when abstract work was wanted least of all, when the cry was for application and invention and the tools that would expand the great growing fortunes of the diamond boys.” And yet there he was, living “closer than any inventor, any poet, any scientific worker in pure imagination to the life of the inventive and organizing spirit of America.”

Willard Gibbs, 1855. (Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.)

Rukeyser’s enchantment with Gibbs became the crucible for her lifelong stewardship of the parallels between poetry and science, her astute and abiding insight into how they help hold “the giant clusters of event and meaning that every day appear” and in doing so “equip our imaginations to deal with our lives.”

Published in 1942, Rukeyser’s majestic 446-page masterwork of antierasure grew from the seed of a fascination first germinated with her poem “Gibbs,” written as WWII was beginning to cast its umbra of terror over all that is bright and beautiful in the human spirit, unpeeling from the hallways of time the image of every genius who ever lived as an irrelevance to this apotheosis of dumb destruction. It is always the poet’s task to defend the relevance of radiance, whatever its shape and subject, and so she did. From the life of Willard Gibbs, Muriel Rukeyser drew something larger, vaster, more radiant than his life, than any life — a celebration of life itself, of the living mind and its deathless imagination and the power of that imagination to irradiate the world with the wonder of possibility. It is the connective tissue of her thought, the poetic musculature of context and concept propping up the skeleton of the dead scientist’s life, that renders Rukeyser’s book a revelation from the opening page:

Whatever has happened, whatever is going to happen in the world, it is the living moment that contains the sum of the excitement, this moment in which we touch life and all the energy of the past and future. Here is all the developing greatness of the dream of the world, the pure flash of momentary imagination, the vision of life lived outside of triumph or defeat, in continual triumph and defeat, in the present, alive. All the crafts of subtlety, all the effort, all the loneliness and death, the thin and blazing threads of reason, the spill of blessing, the passion behind these silences — all the invention turns to one end: the fertilizing of the moment, so that there may be more life.

The Triumph of Life by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

Writing from within the savage wastefulness of a particular moment in a world unworlded by its most destructive war yet, Rukeyser insists on the irrepressible aliveness that consecrates the present, any present, and that springs from the indivisibility of the life of the body and the life of the mind:

Spring, and the years, the wars, and the ideas rejected, the swarming and anonymous people rejected, and the slow climb of thought to be more whole, the few accepted flames of truth in a darkness of battle and further rejection and further battle. We know the darkness of the past, we have a conscious body of knowledge — and under it, the black country of a lost and wasted and anonymous world… jungle-land, wasteful as nature, prodigal.

Our living moment rides this confusion; it is torn by the dead wars; seizes the old knowledge; speeds on the imagination of the living and the dead, and passes, fertilized. But the hidden life today continues among all the silence, and in the midst of war. The hidden life of the senses, the vivid, speculative life of the mind. The man over his table, glass shine of the test-tubes reflected in the eyes; the woman staring into her thought of the child not yet born… We see, in this moment of the world, the lives of many people brought to a time of stress. The streams are challenged, all the meanings are again in question.

In a sentiment which Octavio Paz (whom Rukeyser translated) would come to echo several years later in his observation that “there is something revealing in the insistence with which a people will question itself during certain periods of its growth,” she adds:

It is at this moment that we turn… In the imaginations which tapped that energy, in the energy itself and its release, we see our power. Man*, the mystery; man, the pure force; man, the taproot of naked vision, the source himself, will look in such a moment for deeper sources, for the sources of power that can bring a fuller life to a desperate time. We cut away the old life, cutting down to the root. And the root of such power, of such invention, is in the imaginative lives of certain men and women, responding in their way and with their proper kinds of love to the wishes of history — that is, to the wishes of the people at that moment, however disguised, however premature and dark.

For Rukeyser, Willard Gibbs was one of those people; for me, the people whose lives and loves I contoured in Figuring were, and the people in whose lives and loves I have dwelt in the years since: Mary Shelley, Walt Whitman, Rukeyser herself.

Rukeyser notes that however rigorous our scholarship, it is always at bottom a presumption to attempt to “solve the personality” and reanimate the lives and worlds of the long-gone people whose work has shaped our own lives and our understanding of the world. In a passage to which I relate in the marrow of my being, she adds:

It is by a long road of presumption that I come to Willard Gibbs. When one is a woman, when one is writing poems, when one is drawn through a passion to know people today and the web in which they, suffering, find themselves, to learn the people, to dissect the web, one deals with the processes themselves. To know the processes and the machines of process: plane and dynamo, gun and dam. To see and declare the full disaster that the people have brought on themselves by letting these processes slip out of control of the people. To look for the sources of energy, sources that will enable us to find the strength for the leaps that must be made. To find sources, in our own people, in the living people. And to be able to trace the gifts made to us to two roots: the infinite anonymous bodies of the dead, and the unique few who, out of great wealth of spirit, were able to make their own gifts.

In consonance with my longtime conviction that history is not what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgment and chance, Rukeyser mourns the erasure of so many such titans of spirit from our collective selective memory, mourns their loss “through waste and carelessness,” and offers the single most poignant and precise diagnosis I have ever encountered of what ails our systems of remembrance and sensemaking, which are ultimately our systems of future-making:

This carelessness is complicated and specialized. It is a main symptom of the disease of our schools, which let the kinds of knowledge fall away from each other, and waste knowledge, and time, and people. All our training plays into this; our arts do; and our government. It is a disease of organization, it makes more waste and war.

Both in her choice of subject (a man of such singular, specialized, abstract genius) and in her treatment of it (so rigorous in scholarship, so rapturous in breadth of sentiment), Rukeyser’s Willard Gibbs stands as a bold antidote to this cultural carelessness — and falls as one, having perished out of print by these very forces, these abiding emblems of the ahistorical and segregationist impulses arising in the puerile bosom of our species, which might, just might, one day mature to outgrow. Until then, we have the poets — in the largest Baldwinian sense — to salve our collective amnesia with their bold benedictions of immortal truth.


Walt Whitman on What Makes a Great Person and What Wisdom Really Means

“The past, the future, majesty, love — if they are vacant of you, you are vacant of them.”

Walt Whitman on What Makes a Great Person and What Wisdom Really Means

Twenty-four centuries after Pythagoras contemplated the purpose of life and the meaning of wisdom as he coined the word philosopher to mean “lover of wisdom,” Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) contemplated the meaning of personhood and the measure of wisdom as he revolutionized the word poet to stand for “lover of life.”

Tucked toward the end of his ever-foliating Leaves of Grass is what might be his most musical poem — a sweeping thirteen-page symphony of thought and feeling and rhythm in language, undulating across three distinct thematic movements: the carefree optimism of embarking upon a new path; the transcendent self-discovery in traversing new landscapes of beauty and possibility; and the transcendence of the self in connecting with something larger than oneself: nature, time and space, love. Whitman himself considered it his “mystic and indirect chant of aspiration toward a noble life” and “a vehement demand to reach the very highest point that the human soul is capable of attaining.”

One of Margaret C. Cook’s illustrations for a rare English edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

For his remaining decades, Whitman lived in it and with it for, changing its title from the humble “Poem of the Road” in the first 1856 edition to the wanderlustful “Song of the Open Road” in 1867, fine-tuning the verses again and again, mapping the poem’s 224 lines into fifteen numbered sections by the final edition in the winter of his life.

The second movement of the lyric symphony peaks at the sixth section, erupting with Whitman’s most direct and life-tested hypothesis about what makes a great person and what wisdom really means. It augurs his hard-earned wisdom on what makes life worth living, at which he would arrive half a lifetime later while recovering from a paralytic stroke. It echoes the famous prose-meditation on the key to a vibrant and rewarding life, with which he introduced Leaves of Grass as a young man. It hums, surefooted and sonorous, as a kind of blessing song for the road of life.

Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons,
It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.

Here a great personal deed has room,
(Such a deed seizes upon the hearts of the whole race of men,
Its effusion of strength and will overwhelms law and mocks all authority and all argument against it.)

Here is the test of wisdom,
Wisdom is not finally tested in schools,
Wisdom cannot be pass’d from one having it to another not having it,
Wisdom is of the soul, is not susceptible of proof, is its own proof,
Applies to all stages and objects and qualities and is content,
Is the certainty of the reality and immortality of things, and the excellence of things;
Something there is in the float of the sight of things that provokes it out of the soul.
Now I re-examine philosophies and religions,
They may prove well in lecture-rooms, yet not prove at all under the spacious clouds and along the landscape and flowing currents.

Here is realization,
Here is a man tallied — he realizes here what he has in him,
The past, the future, majesty, love — if they are vacant of you, you are vacant of them.

Complement with Whitman on optimism as a mighty force of resistance, what it takes to be an agent of change, how to keep criticism from sinking your soul, and women’s centrality to democracy, then revisit a beautiful reading from his furthest-seeing, deepest-feeling poem.


To Believe in Things: Poet Joseph Pintauro’s Lost Love Poem to Life, Illustrated by the Radical Nun and Visionary Artist Sister Corita Kent

“You are not everything but everything could not be everything without you.”

To Believe in Things: Poet Joseph Pintauro’s Lost Love Poem to Life, Illustrated by the Radical Nun and Visionary Artist Sister Corita Kent

Unusual and unafraid to be so and in love with life, the priest turned poet and playwright Joseph Pintauro (November 22, 1930–May 29, 2018) was born and raised and annealed in New York, in the intellectual and creative ferment of the city, the city that never sleeps and always dreams. A late bloomer by every common measure, he published his first poetry collection in the gloaming hour of his thirties and married the love of his life — Greg, his partner of forty years — in the gloaming hour of life, at 81. But oh how splendidly, how fragrantly, how soulfully he bloomed.

Shortly after he resigned his work with the church in his mid-thirties, Pintauro commenced a series of wonder-smiting collaborations with artists, bringing his existentially enormous poems to life in small objects of shimmering delight that can best be described as children’s books for grownups. Four of them, illustrated by the graphic artist Norman Laliberté, he called “boxes” and dedicated to a particular emotional season of life — among them The Magic Box (autumn) and The Rabbit Box (spring).

But Pintauro’s most inspired collaboration, both poetically and aesthetically, was with the artist, designer, printmaker, pop art pioneer, and unstoppable force of social justice Sister Corita Kent (November 20, 1918–September 18, 1986). Entirely self-taught, she became one of the most innovative silkscreen artists of the 1960s and 1970s, suffusing her stunning prints with messages of solidarity with the civil rights and environmental movements of the era, messages of peace and harmony and love — love, as the poet Elizabeth Alexander might say, and did say half a century later, “beyond marital, filial, national, love that casts a widening pool of light.”

In 1968, the year she left the order and moved to Boston, Corita cast her widening pool of light around Pintauro’s debut poetry collection, To Believe in God, which unspooled a “trilogy of beliefs,” proceeding with To Believe in Man in 1970 and culminating with the out-of-print treasure To Believe in Things (public library) in 1971.

Corita — whose now-iconic “Rules for Students and Teachers” have inspired generations of artists, including John Cage — went, like Beyoncé, by her first name only, so that the spines of the living treasures read Pintauro / Corita.

Pintauro’s poem itself is an uncommonly beautiful, buoyant, and largehearted celebration of life — of the ecstatic improbability of it, the self-enlarging and unselfing interconnectedness of it, the luminous fulness of it across the entire spectrum of joys and sorrows.

With a feeling-tone evocative of Marie Howe’s superb “Singularity,” the poem opens the way it ends — by bridging science and the human spirit:

Millions of years ago, there
was blackness,
pure and beautiful Nothing. There
was no thing
in it, no star, no wind,
no light, no word, no broken heart.

But a time came when perfect,
restful Nothing
was to vanish forever. Something was
about to be.

Suddenly, there it was. Something,
all alone,
king of everything. Killer of ancient,
beautiful Nothing. There was
a silence.

…till Nothing screamed a death
scream and
that scream is still screaming, an
expanding ring into the universe
that will never end.

Nothing is dead…

Like any great work of art, the poem makes the personal the portal into the universal, into the beautiful bittersweet dance of life and death. Nested in the narrative sweep as wide as spacetime are a handful of poignant vignettes pinned to particular moments in time from a particular life. With exquisite subtlety, Pintauro captures his dying mother’s hopeless, hopeful cosmic bid against mortality:

My sister was told to do her typing away from the
rest of us,
where it wouldn’t disturb us.

We did our homework at the dining-room table while
our mother crocheted big white stars according to plan
on the
instruction sheet. When she finished one, she would tie
the yarn and flatten the star on the table: “Look boys,
that makes eleven.”

We looked up, as bored by the stars as our
homework. We
were too young to understand, she had
decided between
dying and making a bedspread and her stars were
all very

We went to bed those nights with Julius Caesar on
our minds,
with Napoleon, Spartacus, photosynthesis, zinc,
names of all the rocks of the earth and of
the constellations.
All that knowledge inside us, we fell asleep,
assured that
there are forty million mornings in unheard-of places.

While she lay awake, vaguely wishing there
were angels
who would accept the coming of a new bedspread into
the universe,
in exchange for her life.

Recently, I was going through the junk of the cellar
and I
found the bedspread. It was torn and unraveled
and stuffed
into an old pillowcase.

My sister recalls washing it once, and adding too
much bleach
to the machine. When she took it from the dryer, it
fell apart in her hands.

Radiating from these verses that celebrate the vibrant aliveness of the Earth — the minerals that form “the hills and the mountains” and are also “the substance the hills and mountains stand upon”; the “red hanging begonias” that “parachute onto twinkling grass”; the ice of February — is a reminder that these living miracles exist with us, not for us. Echoing Rachel Carson’s courageous countercultural insistence that “the real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife,” Pintauro issues a poetic admonition against the American hubris of proprietorship and extractivism:

Mr. Griswold owns all the property in America.
…but the trees never heard of him.
He owns the property except
the daylilies don’t understand
they are growing in
his dirt, and
the dirt doesn’t know
the difference

Mr. Griswold
the deer
the chipmunks
   who trespass

to believe in the wind is to know

there are things we harvest which no man plants
in our sails
our hair, in sea
shells our ears,
the wind is
why there is music no man made
in our rooms
when october makes love
to the house.
The wind is why
the screen door
speaks to you now and then and why
it is true
when they are abandoned, barns will
moan and there is crying
on the fire escape
when no one is there.

long live the little greek diner
on first avenue near the 59th
street bridge

the greek there sells fresh fish
and fresh string beans, rice pudding
and homemade coffee for
ninety cents
because he’s old and his wife
is gone and he can’t sleep mornings.
he goes to the fulton fish market
to watch the sun come up, besides
the fresh fish there is cheaper
than frozen
he smells greece on the fish and
he feels
his childhood when he cleans them.

All of Pintauro’s poetry is essentially love poetry. Harmonizing the cosmic and quotidian scales of his verse-meditations is a subtle and symphonic love poem, evocative of that exquisite passage from the diaries of Albert Camus: “If those whom we begin to love could know us as we were before meeting them … they could perceive what they have made of us.” Pintauro writes:

long live our avoidance
of the quadrillion probabilities
of our non-existence

i am not who i was
i am not going to be who i was going to be
you changed all that

you are not who you were
you are not going to be who you were going to be
i changed all that

what is, is… and cannot at the same time, not be.
what was, was… and cannot,
not have been. so you see my love

we are us
we are us now and we shall never have been
not us.

who are we going to be?
we are going to be who we never would have been
without each other.

Rising above the human love poem is a grand orchestral love poem to life, improbable and temporal and transcendent life — life in which, as the great naturalist John Muir observed a century before Pintauro, “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” These verses close the miraculous To Believe in Things:


… but remember,
everything is not every
possible thing
everything is only all
there is here and now

there will be more than there is.

you are not everything
but everything
could not be
everything without


The Secret Life of Trees: Stunning Sylvan Drawings by Indigenous Artists Based on Indian Mythology

Reverie and reckoning with our relationship to nature between the branches and the birds.

The Secret Life of Trees: Stunning Sylvan Drawings by Indigenous Artists Based on Indian Mythology

Ever since we climbed down from the trees, we have been looking up to them to understand ourselves and our place in the universe. “Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree,” Hermann Hesse wrote a century ago in his sublime sylvan love letter, affirming that “when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy.”

Centuries, millennia before Hesse — before Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Prize for her courageously enacted conviction that “a tree is a little bit of the future,” before scientists uncovered the astonishing language of trees, before Western artists saw in tree silhouettes a Rorschach test for what we are — the indigenous artists and storytellers of the Gond tribe in central India have been reverencing the secret lives of trees as portals into the inner life of nature, into the wildness of our own nature, into a supra-natural universe of myth and magic.

The Tell-Tale Tree

A decade after the Indian artisan community and independent publisher Tara Books created the astonishing handmade masterpiece The Night Life of Trees — intricate portraits of tree-spirits based on ancient Gond mythology, painted by three of the most celebrated living Gond artists and silk-screened by hand using traditional Indian dyes — these wondrous sylvan visions come ablaze anew in a set of black-and-white prints, consummately detailed and alive, silk-screened on handmade paper made of locally sourced cotton waste.

The Antler Tree
The Leaf Tree

The prints, like everything Tara Books make, support their community of artists, craftspeople, and storytellers, some of whom are illiterate, many self-taught, most women, and all devoted to the preservation and celebration of the ancient folk art traditions that have rooted numberless generations into a reverence of the natural world and our relationship with it.

The Allegory Tree
The Blackbird Tree

Leap across epochs and cultures to complement these visual venerations with Mary Oliver’s prayerful tree poem and Pablo Neruda’s prose serenade to the forest, then revisit other treasures from Tara Books: Sun and Moon, a collection of Indian celestial myths illustrated by ten of the country’s finest indigenous artists; Creation, a visual cosmogony of origin myths by one of the Gond artists behind The Night Life of Trees; Waterlife, an exquisite illustrated encyclopedia of marine creatures from Indian folklore; Beasts of India, a bestiary of indigenous animals depicted in various tribal traditions; and the boundlessly gladsome Hope Is a Girl Selling Fruit.


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