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One Fine Day: David Byrne Performs His Hymn of Optimism and Countercultural Anthem of Resistance and Resilience with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus

“I complete my tasks, one by one. I remove my masks, when I am done..”

In the spring of 2019, when David Byrne (b. May 14, 1952) took the stage at the third annual Universe in Verse to read a science-inspired love poem to time and chance titled “Achieving Perspective,” I introduced him as one of the last standing idealists in our world — a countercultural force of lucid and luminous optimism, kindred to Walt Whitman, who wrote so passionately about optimism as a mighty force of resistance and a pillar of democracy.

Two weeks later, Byrne took the stage at the National Sawdust gala to celebrate their largehearted mission of using music as an instrument of change, as a movement toward a more beautiful and inclusive world. Accompanied by Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco and the transcendent harmonics of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus — that bright young voice of the future — he performed a coruscating version of his song “One Fine Day,” originally released in 2008 on Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, co-written with Brian Eno, and reimagined a decade later on Byrne’s Whitmanesque-spirited 2018 record turned Broadway musical American Utopia — one part of his wondrous multimedia project Reasons to Be Cheerful.

With poetic lyrics that feel both staggeringly prescient (“In a small dark room — where I will wait / Face to face I find — I contemplate,” “I complete my tasks, one by one / I remove my masks, when I am done”) and of sweeping timelessness (“In these troubled times, I still can see / We can use the stars, to guide the way / It is not that far, the one fine day”), this buoyant hymn of optimism ripples against the current of our time as a mighty countercultural anthem of resistance and resilience, worthy of Whitman.

ONE FINE DAY
written by David Byrne and Brian Eno

Saw the wanderin’ eye, inside my heart
Shouts and battle cries, from every part
I can see those tears, every one is true
When the door appears, I’ll go right through, oh
I stand in liquid light, like everyone

I built my life with rhymes, to carry on
And it gives me hope, to see you there
The things I used to know, that one fine

One fine day

In a small dark room, where I will wait
Face to face I find, I contemplate
Even though a man is made of clay
Everything can change that one fine —

One fine day

Then before my eyes, is standing still
I beheld it there, a city on a hill
I complete my tasks, one by one
I remove my masks, when I am done

Then a peace of mind fell over me —
In these troubled times, I still can see
We can use the stars, to guide the way
It is not that far, the one fine —

One fine day

Complement with Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Optimism” in a tender stop-motion animation and astrophysicist and poet Rebecca Elson’s spare, exquisite masterpiece “Antidotes to Fear of Death,” then revisit U.S. Poet Laureate and Universe in Verse alumna Tracy K. Smith performing her poem “The Everlasting Self” with an astonishing percussion ensemble at National Sawdust and join me in supporting their largehearted world-building through music.

BP

Ursa Major: Elizabeth Gilbert Reads a Poignant Forgotten Poem About the Big Dipper and Our Cosmic Humanity

A two-verse love letter to the night sky fixture which “our eyes must lean out into time to catch, and die in seeing.”

Ursa Major: Elizabeth Gilbert Reads a Poignant Forgotten Poem About the Big Dipper and Our Cosmic Humanity

For as long as we have been raising enchanted eyes to the night sky — that is, for as long as we have been the conscious, curious, wonder-stricken animals recognizable as human — we have marveled at seven bright stars outlining the third largest constellation in the Northern hemisphere, and humanity’s most beloved one. Ursa Major — Latin for “the great she-bear” — has enraptured the human imagination since before we had the words to call it the Big Dipper or the Great Bear or the Plough. In the second century, Ptolemy included it in his pioneering star catalogue — antiquity’s sole surviving major work of astronomy. In the nineteenth century, the Underground Railroad relied on it as a cosmic compass — traveling toward freedom under the cover of night, slaves were told to keep the river on one side and follow the Drinking Gourd, the constellation’s African name, for that would keep them moving northward. We have painted it on cave walls and in beloved picture-books; we have woven it into every major mythological tradition; we have seen it freckled on the forearms of our great loves. Its instantly recognizable asterism, spare and elemental, is an emissary of time itself — a blazing bridge between the ephemeral and the eternal, between the scale on which we live out our brief, impassioned human lives, and the vast cosmic scale of this unfathomable, impartial universe.

That is what the English poet, novelist, playwright, and LGBT visibility trailblazer James Falconer Kirkup (April 23, 1918–May 10, 2009) celebrates in his spare and elemental poem “Ursa Major,” included in the out-of-print 1955 treasure Imagination’s Other Place: Poems of Science and Mathematics (public library) by Helen Plotz, and brought back to life at the 2020 Universe in Verse by the fount of human radiance that is Elizabeth Gilbert.

URSA MAJOR
by James Kirkup

Slung between the homely poplars at the end
of the familiar avenue, the Great
Bear in its lighted hammock swings,
like a neglected gate that neither bars admission nor invites,
hangs on the sagging pole its seven-pointed shape.

Drawn with the precision of an unknown problem
solved n the topmost classroom of the empty sky,
it demonstrates upon the inky blackboard of the night’s
immeasurable finity the focal point of light.
For though the pointers seem to indicate the pole,
each star looks through us into outer space
from where the sun that burns behind and past us
animates immediately each barren, crystal face
with ravaged brilliance, that our eyes
must lean out into time to catch, and die in seeing.

Ursa Major collectible science patch by artist Andrea Lauer for The Universe in Verse.

Complement with other shimmering fragments of The Universe in Verse — astronaut Leland Melvin reading Pablo Neruda’s love letter to the forest, astrophysicist Janna Levin reading “Antidotes to Fear of Death” by astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson, a stunning animation of Marie Howe’s poem “Singularity,” Rosanne Cash reading Lisel Mueller’s subtle poem about outgrowing our limiting frames of reference, a lyrical watercolor adaptation of Mojave American poet Natalie Diaz’s ode to brokenness as a portal to belonging and resilience, and Amanda Palmer reading “Einstein’s Mother” by former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith — then revisit Elizabeth Gilbert’s radiant, universe-postulated, life-tested wisdom on love, loss, and surviving the thickest darknesses of being.

BP

The Great Barrier Reef: Stunning 19th-Century Illustrations from the World’s First Encyclopedia of One of Earth’s Most Vibrant and Delicate Ecosystems

A symphonic hymn for our planet’s lushest underwater wonderland.

While the German marine biologist Ernst Haeckel was salving his fathomless personal tragedy with the transcendent beauty of jellyfish, having enraptured Darwin with his drawings, his English colleague William Saville-Kent (July 10, 1845–October 11, 1908) was transcending his own darkness on the other side of the globe with the vibrant, irrepressible aliveness of the Great Barrier Reef and its astonishing creatures.

Anemones from The Great Barrier Reef of Australia, 1893. (Available as a print.)

By the end of his adolescence, William had survived the unsurvivable. The youngest of ten children, he lost his mother when he was seven. While she was dying, his unscrupulous father was having an open affair with the children’s nanny, whom he went on to marry. Three more children came. Then, just before William’s twentieth birthday, his toddler half-brother disappeared from his bed in the middle of the night. His body was found in the vault of the outhouse, savaged by multiple stab wounds. His nursemaid — with whom William’s father was already having an affair — was at first arrest, then released; suspicion was diverted toward William’s sixteen-year-old sister Constance. She was detained, but released on account of favorable public opinion. A Scotland Yard detective became obsessed with the case and prosecuted her for murder five years later, eventually extracting a confession and making national headlines with true crime sensationalism. Caroline was sentenced to twenty years in prison. But many — including Charles Dickens — mistrusted the confession, having suspected the volatile, perfidious father all along. He was never brought under investigation.

William Saville-Kent

William was shaken by the inordinate share of loss, violence, and public shame he had accrued in so young a life. Taking refuge in the impartial world of science, he came to study under the great biologist and comparative anatomist T.H. Huxley, who had coined the term agnosticism and who had so boldly defended Darwin’s evolutionary ideas against the reactionary tide of opposition a decade earlier.

Upon completing his studies, Saville-Kent received an appointment in the Natural History department of the British Museum as curator of coral. He grew enchanted with these beguiling, poorly understood creatures; he also grew bored with the museum position — he longed to do research, to contribute to the evolving understanding of these living marvels.

Corals from The Great Barrier Reef of Australia, 1893. (Available as a print.)

At twenty-five, he won a grant from the Royal Society to lead a dredging survey off the coast of Portugal, trading in the lifeless stillness of museum specimens for the coruscating aliveness of the marine world. Upon his return, he could only continue working with living species. Over the next decade, he took a series of job as various aquariums, but his imagination continued reaching for the unglassed sea.

Fishes from The Great Barrier Reef of Australia, 1893. (Available as a print.)

As Saville-Kent approached forty, his old mentor T.H. Huxley — by then the most prominent British life-scientist after Darwin’s death a year earlier — recommended him as inspector of fisheries in Tasmania. Saville-Kent left England and the dark specter of his youth for the bright open seas of the South Pacific, where he grew newly enchanted with the lush underwater wonderland of strange-shaped corals and echinoderms, frilly anemones and tentacled mollusks, fishes in colors that belong in a Kandinsky painting, creatures he had marveled at only as dead and disjointed museum specimens or segregated aquarium captives, creatures he had never imagined.

Corals from The Great Barrier Reef of Australia, 1893. (Available as a print.)

Determined to bring public awareness and awe to this otherworldly ecosystem — an ecosystem that in the century since his time has grown so gravely endangered by human activity that it might not survive another century — he authored the first popular science book on that irreplaceable underwater world. In 1893, several years before the German oceanographer published the gorgeously illustrated first encyclopedia of deep-sea cephalopods, Saville-Kent published The Great Barrier Reef of Australia: Its Products and Potentialities — a pioneering encyclopedia of one of Earth’s most luscious and delicate ecosystems, illustrated with a number of Saville-Kent’s black-and-white photographs and several stunning color lithographs by two artists, a Mr. Couchman and a Mr. Riddle, based on Saville-Kent’s original watercolors. (This, after all, was the gloaming hour of that golden age when scientists were also trained as artists, which enabled them to advance their own discoveries in sometimes epoch-making ways.)

Corals from The Great Barrier Reef of Australia, 1893. (Available as a print.)
Fishes from The Great Barrier Reef of Australia, 1893. (Available as a print.)
Trepang from The Great Barrier Reef of Australia, 1893. (Available as a print.)
Echinoderms from The Great Barrier Reef of Australia, 1893. (Available as a print.)
Alcyonaria from The Great Barrier Reef of Australia, 1893. (Available as a print.)
Molluscs and planarians from The Great Barrier Reef of Australia, 1893. (Available as a print.)
Corals from The Great Barrier Reef of Australia, 1893. (Available as a print.)
Corals from The Great Barrier Reef of Australia, 1893. (Available as a print.)
Corals from The Great Barrier Reef of Australia, 1893. (Available as a print.)
Anemones from The Great Barrier Reef of Australia, 1893. (Available as a print.)
Anemones from The Great Barrier Reef of Australia, 1893. (Available as a print.)

Complement with the self-taught artist and botanist Elizabeth Blackwell’s stunning illustrations for the world’s first encyclopedia of medicinal plants, published a century and a half earlier, and the inspiring illustrated story of the man who set out to save the world’s coral reefs with hammer and glue a century and a half later, then revisit these 19th-century tentacled wonders from the ocean depths and Haeckel’s otherworldly jellyfish.

BP

Love Beyond Label: Lisel Mueller’s Tender Poem About the Lush, Unclassifiable Bond Between Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann

A lovely antidote to “the rude, irrelevant question of our age,” the hollow assumption that “the event of two bodies meshing together establishes the degree of love.”

Love Beyond Label: Lisel Mueller’s Tender Poem About the Lush, Unclassifiable Bond Between Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann

Among the handful of things I have learned about life with the calm, quiet clarity of elemental knowing is one that bears repeating: The human heart is an ancient beast that roars and purrs with the same passions, whatever labels we may give them. We are so anxious to classify and categorize, both nature and human nature. It is a beautiful impulse — to contain the infinite in the finite, to wrest order from the chaos — but it is also a limiting one: In naming things, we often come to mistake the names for the things themselves. The labels we give to the loves of which we are capable — varied and vigorously transfigured from one kind into another and back again — cannot begin to contain the richness of feeling that can flow between two hearts and the bodies that contain them. Emily Dickinson knew this intimately — the extraordinary lifelong love she shared with Susan prompted her, after decades, to exult in verse: “Title divine — is mine! The Wife — without the Sign!”

Such loves — oceanic loves, vast and deep and wholly unfathomable to any shoreline observer — are luminous private miracles undimmed by the tattling irrelevance of the public. Among those loves was that between the composer Johannes Brahms (May 7, 1833–April 3, 1897) and the virtuosic pianist Clara Schumann (September 13, 1819–May 20, 1896).

Clara and Johannes first crossed orbits in 1853, when her beloved husband — the celebrated composer Robert Schumann — encountered in the twenty-year-old Brahms a talent so uncommon and promising that he immediately set about bringing the music world’s awed attention to it, writing impassioned letters to all the leading journals and auguring the young musician’s future fame.

Brahms was intensely grateful for the famed composer’s faith. But before the mentorship could fully blossom, Schumann’s already precarious mental health plummeted. Only four months after meeting Brahms, he attempted suicide by leaping into the Rhine from a bridge. He was rescued, but never recovered — he spent the remaining two years of his life in a private psychiatric institution, savaged by hallucinations and psychoses. Clara was left to raise their seven children alone. In an era when only the rarest women had artistic careers, or any careers at all, she leaned on her musical talent, performing and touring tirelessly to feed her children and secure them an education.

It was in that period of disorientation and bereavement that Clara came to correspond with Johannes directly — at first perhaps as an extension of her husband, who had seen much of himself in his young protégé, then as something… else, something sweeping and unclassifiable, beyond the reach of our bystander imaginations — a something that, over the lifetime of tender letters that followed, became an everything. “I would gladly write to you only by means of music,” Johannes would soon be telling Clara, “but I have things to say to you to-day which music could not express.” Even music — their common language, the language capable of expressing breadths and vicissitudes of emotion no words can express — was too small to hold the universe between them.

That private vastness is what Lisel Mueller (February 8, 1924–February 21, 2020) captures with stunning elegance and generosity in her poem “Romantics,” found in her altogether indispensable collected poems, Alive Together (public library).

ROMANTICS

      Johannes Brahms and
            Clara Schumann

The modern biographers worry
“how far it went,” their tender friendship.
They wonder just what it means
when he writes he thinks of her constantly,
his guardian angel, beloved friend.
The modern biographers ask
the rude, irrelevant question
of our age, as if the event
of two bodies meshing together
establishes the degree of love,
forgetting how softly Eros walked
in the nineteenth-century, how a hand
held overlong or a gaze anchored
in someone’s eyes could unseat a heart,
and nuances of address not known
in our egalitarian language
could make the redolent air
tremble and shimmer with the heat
of possibility. Each time I hear
the Intermezzi, sad
and lavish in their tenderness,
I imagine the two of them
sitting in a garden
among late-blooming roses
and dark cascades of leaves,
letting the landscape speak for them,
leaving us nothing to overhear.

Overhear a little — ever so little, but ever so beautiful — in these tender excerpts from Clara and Johannes’s surviving letters, then pair them with a lovely picture-book about love beyond label. For more of Mueller’s penetrating insight into the lives of the heart and the mind, savor her poems about how our frames of reference limit us and what gives meaning to our ephemeral lives.

BP

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