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The Universe in Verse: John Cameron Mitchell Reads Walt Whitman’s Beautiful Least Known Poem

A lyrical serenade to a world we barely dare imagine and to our kinship with those creatures most different from us.

The Universe in Verse: John Cameron Mitchell Reads Walt Whitman’s Beautiful Least Known Poem

“Love the earth and sun and the animals,” Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) offered in his timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life from the original the preface to Leaves of Grass (public library | public domain). This sense of kinship with and radiant respect for every element of the universe is what rendered Whitman the poet laureate of goodwill toward one and all, human and hummingbird and humpback whale. It is also what made him an indispensable part of The Universe in Verse and its animating ethos of celebrating the science and wonder of nature through poetry.

I dedicated the 2018 Universe in Verse to marine biologist and author Rachel Carson, who thought and wrote about science and the natural world like a poet. Her career as a catalyst of the environmental movement began with her lyrical 1937 essay Undersea, which extended an unprecedented invitation to the human reader to consider the reality of life on our Pale Blue Dot from the perspective of marine creatures — creatures as unimaginably different from us as creatures can be.

Nothing like it had been done before in science — but something astonishingly kindred had been done a century earlier, in poetry.

Leaves of Grass contains a short, exquisite piece titled “The World Below the Brine,” which may well be Whitman’s least known published poem — in large part because before Carson rendered the marine world not only comprehensible but full of wonder to the human mind, it was so incomprehensible as to be almost alien, and one of our elemental human foibles is that we tend to scorn what we do not understand. And so Whitman’s stunning poem went underappreciated and practically unnoticed.

Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)
Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)

At The Universe in Verse, I enlisted the help of actor, writer, director, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch co-creator John Cameron Mitchell to change this. Prefacing his reading of this overlooked Whitman gem, Mitchell used my rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass to perform one of his “Whitman divinations” — existential questions flung across space and time at Whitman, answered by opening to a random page and imbibing the often surprisingly relevant wisdom found therein.

When Mitchell called out to the audience for one such question, poet Marie Howe offered: “How do we live brokenhearted?”

In this recording from the show, Whitman’s heart-stopping answer across the centuries appears before Mitchell’s charming reading of “The World Below the Brine.” Streaming behind him is artist Eric Corriel’s lovely site-specific video installation Water Will Be Here — a subtle, arresting reminder that unless we tend to our fragile planet far more conscientiously than we have been, the whole of it will sink below the brine as sea levels rise.

by Walt Whitman

The world below the brine,
Forests at the bottom of the sea, the branches and leaves,
Sea-lettuce, vast lichens, strange flowers and seeds, the thick tangle, openings, and pink turf,
Different colors, pale gray and green, purple, white, and gold, the play of light through the water,
Dumb swimmers there among the rocks, coral, gluten, grass, rushes, and the aliment of the
Sluggish existences grazing there suspended, or slowly crawling close to the bottom,
The sperm-whale at the surface blowing air and spray, or disporting with his flukes,
The leaden-eyed shark, the walrus, the turtle, the hairy sea-leopard, and the sting-ray,
Passions there, wars, pursuits, tribes, sight in those ocean-depths, breathing that thick-breathing air, as
      so many do,
The change thence to the sight here, and to the subtle air breathed by beings like us who walk this
The change onward from ours to that of beings who walk other spheres.

Other highlights from The Universe in Verse include Marie Howe’s stunning tribute to Stephen Hawking, astrophysicist Janna Levin’s reading of Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity inspired by Carl Sagan, a lovely papercraft stop-motion animation of Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Optimism” by artist Kelli Anderson, and actor America Ferrera’s reading of Denise Levertov’s poem about our conflicted relationship with nature.

Complement with English artist Margaret C. Cook’s rare and sensual 1913 illustrations for Leaves of Grass, then revisit Whitman on the interplay between the body and the spirit, what trees teach us about being human, his most direct reflection on happiness, and his life-advice to the young.


Singularity: Poet Marie Howe’s Beautiful Tribute to Stephen Hawking and Our Belonging to the Universe

“Do you sometimes want to wake up to the singularity we once were?”

When Stephen Hawking (January 8, 1942–March 14, 2018) was a young man, having already outlived the prognosis he had been given with ALS, he built on earlier theories about what happens to a dying star as it collapses to form a singularity — that tiny point of zero radius, infinite density, and infinite curvature of spacetime at the heart of a black hole. But then Hawking did something radical — he took this final death-stage and flipped the arrow of time to consider what would happen if that singularity exploded outward and began expanding. He theorized that perhaps that is how the universe was born. So began his half-century intellectual adventure that shaped the course of modern physics and changed our common understanding of why everything that is is.

Stephen Hawking (Photograph: Gemma Levine)

A crowning moment of the 2018 Universe in Verse was a tribute to Hawking’s legacy by one of the great poets of our time: Marie Howe. Because Howe is an artist extremely considered in what she releases into the world, often devoting a decade to a single poem, it was a tremendous honor to have her premiere a new poem composed for the occasion in a blink of cosmic time and inspired by her young daughter’s love of physics. Howe’s prefatory meditations are as magnificent and full of wisdom as the poem itself — please enjoy both:

by Marie Howe

          (after Stephen Hawking)

Do you sometimes want to wake up to the singularity
we once were?

so compact nobody
needed a bed, or food or money —

nobody hiding in the school bathroom
or home alone

pulling open the drawer
where the pills are kept.

For every atom belonging to me as good
Belongs to you.

There was no   Nature.    No
 them.   No tests

to determine if the elephant
grieves her calf    or if

the coral reef feels pain.    Trashed
oceans don’t speak English or Farsi or French;

would that we could wake up   to what we were
— when we were ocean    and before that

to when sky was earth, and animal was energy, and rock was
liquid and stars were space and space was not

at all — nothing

before we came to believe humans were so important
before this awful loneliness.

Can molecules recall it?
what once was?    before anything happened?

No I, no We, no one. No was
No verb      no noun
only a tiny tiny dot brimming with

is is is is is

All   everything   home

For more highlights from The Universe in Verse, savor Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity inspired by Carl Sagan, Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Optimism” in a lovely papercraft stop-motion animation by Kelli Anderson, and America Ferrera reading Denise Levertov’s poem about our conflicted relationship with nature, then revisit Hawking on the meaning of the universe.


Optimism: A Poetic Stop-Motion Celebration of Nature’s Resilience and the Persistence of Life Against All Odds

A spare and lovely ode to that which we so easily forget yet which animates the center of existence.

Optimism: A Poetic Stop-Motion Celebration of Nature’s Resilience and the Persistence of Life Against All Odds

One spring morning in 2017, walking along a San Francisco sidewalk, I was arrested by the sight of a tiny weed poking through the crevice between a concrete wall and a chain link fence, boldly blooming in its yellow gramophone blossoms. I stood there marveling at its persistence, remembering Gwendolyn Brooks’s beautiful lines: “Wherever life can grow, it will. / It will sprout out, / and do the best it can.”

Poetry was on my mind that day — I was in the final stages of composing the inaugural Universe in Verse and was on my way to meet the poet and ordained Buddhist Jane Hirshfield, whose work I had cherished for years and who had kindly contributed to the program her mighty protest poem about the silencing of science and nature.

A year passed. When I invited Jane to participate in the second annual Universe in Verse, we chose her spare and lovely poem “Optimism” for the show. Perhaps because it is thematically kindred, or perhaps because adjacent memories so often get enmeshed when encoded, it instantly reminded me of the irrepressible yellow blossoms I had seen the day Jane and I first met. I had a sudden vision of brining the poem to life in an animated stop-motion short film playing with this idea of the improbable and inhospitable environments in which life, against all odds, persists — the raw optimism of nature.

I enlisted the imaginative help of artist, designer, papercraft engineer, and my longtime collaborator Kelli Anderson — a wrester of wonder from ordinary objects and creator of the wondrous This Books Is a Planetarium — and sent her a photograph of the little yellow weed that had germinated the idea, inviting her to explore this concept with her masterly paper engineering.

Kelli Anderson: “Optimism” process.
Kelli Anderson: “Optimism” process.
Kelli Anderson: “Optimism” process.

Kelli poured tremendous time, thought, and craftsmanship into creating a set of delicate, exquisitely engineered paper weeds, then setting them to “grow” in various real-world urban environments around Brooklyn — crawling along a brick wall, sprouting through concrete, blooming in a pavement crack — to the sound of Jane reading her splendid poem and a cello score by Zoë Keating, who was also part of The Universe in Verse. The resulting short film is a collaborative labor of love, celebrating a simple truth we so easily forget, yet a truth that animates the center of existence:

by Jane Hirshfield

More and more I have come to admire resilience.
Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam
returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous
tenacity of a tree: finding the light newly blocked on one side,
it turns in another. A blind intelligence, true.
But out of such persistence arose turtles, rivers,
mitochondria, figs — all this resinous, unretractable earth.

“Optimism” appears in Jane Hirshfield’s altogether spirit-quenching Each Happiness Ringed by Lions: Selected Poems (public library).

Find more highlights from The Universe in Verse here, including actor and activist America Ferrera reading Denise Levertov’s poem about our conflicted relationship with nature and astrophysicist Janna Levin reading of Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, inspired by Carl Sagan, then revisit Zadie Smith on optimism and despair.


This Book Is a Planetarium: A Pop-Up Masterpiece Translating the Laws of Physics into Playful and Poetic Tangibility

From light to time, magical hands-on demonstrations making concretely comprehensible the abstract forces and phenomena we experience but cannot ordinarily touch.

This Book Is a Planetarium: A Pop-Up Masterpiece Translating the Laws of Physics into Playful and Poetic Tangibility

In her stunning poem “Planetarium,” Adrienne Rich wrote of translating “pulsations into images for the relief of the body and the reconstruction of the mind.” Poetry itself is the work of such mind-reconstructing translation, its images making comprehensible the most ineffable pulsations of thought and feeling. So is science, translating the abstractions of sensation and perception into a relief of concrete truths.

Occupying the embodied space between poetry and science is This Book Is a Planetarium (public library) by Brooklyn-based artist and designer Kelli Anderson — a wondrous pop-up masterpiece that translates the laws of physics, from light to time, into magical hands-on demonstrations that make tangible and concretely comprehensible the abstract forces and phenomena we experience daily but cannot ordinarily touch.

Using nothing but paper and human ingenuity, Anderson — a poet of prototyping and a virtuosic explorer of the wonders hidden in everyday things — demonstrates the principles at the heart of cryptography in a decoder ring, the science of sound in a papercraft musical instrument and a pop-up speaker, the measurement of time based on Earth’s orbital period in a perpetual calendar.

Place a smartphone inside the pop-up planetarium and it will illuminate the annual rotation of constellations in the night sky. Slip a piece of paper into the spiralgraph sleeve and press a pencil down into the gear-wheel to produce the irregular but mathematically predictable line known as an epicycloid.

Accompanying each lyrical pop-up delight is a succinct explanation of the science behind it and why it works.

Here is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the book and the marvelous mind from which it sprang:

This Book Is a Planetarium is immeasurably delightful in its totality, an achievement of elaborate engineering that feels somehow as spare and precise as a poem. Complement it with a very different pop-up masterpiece about the ultimate forces of life by Japanese artist Katsumi Komagata and a vintage pop-up book about the life of Leonardo, whose dual enchantment of art and science Anderson carries on into the twenty-first century.


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