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A Brave and Startling Truth: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Maya Angelou’s Stunning Humanist Poem That Flew to Space, Inspired by Carl Sagan

“Out of such chaos, of such contradiction / We learn that we are neither devils nor divines…”

A Brave and Startling Truth: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Maya Angelou’s Stunning Humanist Poem That Flew to Space, Inspired by Carl Sagan

The second annual Universe in Verse — a celebration of science through poetry, and a voice of resistance against the assault on nature — opened with the poem “A Brave and Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou (April 4, 1928–May 28, 2014), which flew to space on the Orion spacecraft. I chose this poem to set the tone for the show in part because it is absolutely stunning and acutely relevant to our cultural moment, and in part because the first time I read it, it sparked in me a sudden insight into the often invisible ways in which science and poetry influence and inspire one another — into how the golden threads of thought and feeling stretch and cross-hatch across disciplines to weave what we call culture.

Angelou composed the poem for the 50th anniversary of the United Nations in 1995. In 1994, Carl Sagan delivered a beautiful speech at Cornell University, inspired by the Voyager’s landmark photograph of Earth seen for the very first time from the outer reaches of the Solar System — a now-iconic image the spacecraft took on Sagan’s spontaneous insistence before shutting off the cameras upon completion of the planned mission to photograph the outer planets.

The “Pale Blue Dot” photograph captured by the Voyager 1 (NASA/JPL)

In describing what the Voyager captured in that grainy photograph of mostly empty space, Sagan limned Earth as a “pale blue dot.” That became the moniker of the photograph itself and the title of his bestselling book published later that year, in which he wrote that “everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives” on this “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

This poetic phrase imprinted itself on the popular imagination and permeated culture in the months following the book’s publication — the months during which Angelou was composing her poem. Like all great poets, she was extremely precise and deliberate about her word choice. Mote is a rather peculiar word, particularly in this cosmic context, and I can’t help but think that by using the phrase “mote of matter” in the final stanzas, Angelou was paying tribute to Sagan and to the message of the Voyager — a message about our place in the cosmic order not as something separate from and superior to nature, but as a tiny pixel-part of it, imbued with equal parts humility and responsibility.

Reading the poem at The Universe in Verse is astrophysicist Janna Levin — a recent performer of some beautiful poetry and a member, alongside Sagan, of the tiny peer group of working scientists who write about science with uncommon poetic might. Please enjoy:

A BRAVE AND STARTLING TRUTH

We, this people, on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth

And when we come to it
To the day of peacemaking
When we release our fingers
From fists of hostility
And allow the pure air to cool our palms

When we come to it
When the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate
And faces sooted with scorn are scrubbed clean
When battlefields and coliseum
No longer rake our unique and particular sons and daughters
Up with the bruised and bloody grass
To lie in identical plots in foreign soil

When the rapacious storming of the churches
The screaming racket in the temples have ceased
When the pennants are waving gaily
When the banners of the world tremble
Stoutly in the good, clean breeze

When we come to it
When we let the rifles fall from our shoulders
And children dress their dolls in flags of truce
When land mines of death have been removed
And the aged can walk into evenings of peace
When religious ritual is not perfumed
By the incense of burning flesh
And childhood dreams are not kicked awake
By nightmares of abuse

When we come to it
Then we will confess that not the Pyramids
With their stones set in mysterious perfection
Nor the Gardens of Babylon
Hanging as eternal beauty
In our collective memory
Not the Grand Canyon
Kindled into delicious color
By Western sunsets

Nor the Danube, flowing its blue soul into Europe
Not the sacred peak of Mount Fuji
Stretching to the Rising Sun
Neither Father Amazon nor Mother Mississippi who, without favor,
Nurture all creatures in the depths and on the shores
These are not the only wonders of the world

When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule and kithless globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger
Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace
We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe

We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines

When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.

“A Brave and Startling Truth” was published in a commemorative booklet in 1995 and was later included in Maya Angelou: The Complete Poetry (public library).

More highlights from the second annual Universe in Verse will be released at here over the coming weeks and months. For some high points of the inaugural event, see Levin’s exquisite reading of Adrienne Rich’s tribute to women in astronomy and U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith’s ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, then savor the complete show for a two-hour poetic serenade to science.

BP

Reality, Representation, and the Search for Meaning: Argentine Artist Mirtha Dermisache’s Invented Graphic Languages

A poetic reminder that language itself is an invention — a net woven of abstraction in which we try to hold reality, only to watch it all too often slip through uncaught.

Reality, Representation, and the Search for Meaning: Argentine Artist Mirtha Dermisache’s Invented Graphic Languages

“Is language the adequate expression of all realities?” Nietzsche asked in contemplating how we use language to both reveal and conceal reality.

A century after Nietzsche, the Argentine artist Mirtha Dermisache (February 21, 1940–January 5, 2012) set out to probe the limits and possibilities of language by filling countless notebooks, letters, and postcards with text. None of it was legible.

In the 1970s, Dermisache invented an array of graphic languages, each with a distinct syntactic texture and a visual rhythm that inclines toward meaning, or the longing for meaning. The lines she composed in them — so purposeful, so fluid, evocative of a script in a foreign tongue or a cardiograph or birdsong notation — become a Rorschach test, beckoning the mind to wrest from them a message, a meaning, a representation of some private reality of thought and feeling.

These exquisite and enticing graphical texts, now collected in Mirtha Dermisache: Selected Writings (public library), radiate a poetic reminder that language itself is an invention — a net woven of abstraction in which we try to hold reality, only to watch it all too often slip through uncaught.

Sin título (Texto), no date, c. 1970s, ink on paper, from Mirtha Dermisache: Selected Writings, published by Siglio and Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018. Image courtesy of the Mirtha Dermisache Archive.
Page from Sin título (Libro), 1971, unique artist’s book, ink on paper, from Mirtha Dermisache: Selected Writings, published by Siglio and Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018. Image courtesy of the Mirtha Dermisache Archive.

Sin título (Texto), no date, c. 1970s, ink on paper, from Mirtha Dermisache: Selected Writings, published by Siglio and Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018. Image courtesy of the Mirtha Dermisache Archive.
Page from Libro No. 1, 1972, unique artist’s book, ink on paper, from Mirtha Dermisache: Selected Writings, published by Siglio and Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018. Image courtesy of the Mirtha Dermisache Archive.

Sin título (Texto), no date, c. 1970s, ink on paper, from Mirtha Dermisache: Selected Writings, published by Siglio and Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018. Image courtesy of the Mirtha Dermisache Archive.

Sin título (Texto), no date, c. 1970s, ink on paper, Mirtha Dermisache: Selected Writings, published by Siglio and Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018. Image courtesy of the Mirtha Dermisache Archive.

Sin título (Texto), no date, c. 1970s, ink on paper, from Mirtha Dermisache: Selected Writings, published by Siglio and Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018. Image courtesy of the Mirtha Dermisache Archive.

Mirtha Dermisache: Selected Writings comes from the visionary Siglio Press, which also gave us Tantra Song: Tantric Painting from Rajasthan and Everything Sings — Denis Wood’s imaginative maps for a narrative atlas of a neighborhood. Complement it with a visual history of language, then revisit Codex Seraphinianus — history’s strangest and most beautiful encyclopedia of imaginary things, written in a code language.

BP

Darkness in the Celestial Lighthouse: Virginia Woolf’s Arresting 1927 Account of a Total Solar Eclipse

“We had seen the world dead. This was within the power of nature.”

Darkness in the Celestial Lighthouse: Virginia Woolf’s Arresting 1927 Account of a Total Solar Eclipse

Two weeks after my fifteenth birthday, an otherworldly wave of darkness intercepted the sweltering August afternoon and plunged it into a surreal cool — the first total solar eclipse to sweep across Bulgaria since I was a small child. An hour earlier, the Moon’s shadow had swallowed the sun in southwest England for the first time since June 29, 1927.

On June 29, 1927, seven weeks after the publication of To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) was smoking a cigar on a train carriage, traveling with her husband, her beloved teenage nephews, her great love turned lifelong friend Vita Sackville-West, and Vita’s husband. Woolf recorded what she saw and felt in vivid detail, with her uncommon gift for magnifying the smallest details of life into revelations about the largest questions of what it means to be human.

virginiawoolf
Virginia Woolf

Wedged in time between astronomer Maria Mitchell’s pioneering essay describing the 1869 total solar eclipse and Annie Dillard’s classic 1979 recollection of totality, Woolf’s account crowns the canon of eclipse literature with its exquisite limning of the world both exterior and interior in the midst of this celestial otherworldliness. It was later included in A Writer’s Diary (public library) — the indispensable posthumous volume that gave us Woolf on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, the consolations of growing older, the relationship between loneliness and creativity, and what makes love last.

Writing a generation after Mabel Loomis Todd penned the world’s first popular book on the science and splendor of eclipses, Woolf begins at the beginning of the strangeness:

Before it got dark we kept looking at the sky; soft fleecy… Then we had another doze…; then here was a level crossing, at which were drawn up a long line of motor omnibuses and motors, all burning pale yellow lights. It was getting grey — still a fleecy mottled sky… All the fields were auburn with June grasses and red tasselled plants none coloured as yet, all pale. Pale and grey too were the little uncompromising Yorkshire farms. As we passed one, the farmer and his wife and sister came out, all tightly and tidily dressed in black, as if they were going to church. At another ugly square farm, two women were looking out of the upper windows. These had white blinds drawn down half across them. We were a train of 3 vast cars, one stopping to let the others go on; all very low and powerful; taking immensely steep hills… We got out and found ourselves very high, on a moor, boggy, heathery, with butts for grouse shooting. There were grass tracks here and there and people had already taken up positions. So we joined them, walking out to what seemed the highest point looking over Richmond. One light burned down there. Vales and moors stretched, slope after slope, round us. It was like the Haworth country. But over Richmond, where the sun was rising, was a soft grey cloud. We could see by a gold spot where the sun was. But it was early yet. We had to wait, stamping to keep warm… There were thin places in the clouds and some complete holes. The question was whether the sun would show through a cloud or through one of these hollow places when the time came. We began to get anxious. We saw rays coming through the bottom of the clouds. Then, for a moment, we saw the sun, sweeping — it seemed to be sailing at a great pace and clear in a gap; we had out our smoked glasses; we saw it crescent, burning red; next moment it had sailed fast into the cloud again; only the red streamers came from it; then only a golden haze, such as one has often seen. The moments were passing. We thought we were cheated; we looked at the sheep; they showed no fear; the setters were racing round; everyone was standing in long lines, rather dignified, looking out. I thought how we were like very old people, in the birth of the world — druids on Stonehenge; (this idea came more vividly in the first pale light though). At the back of us were great blue spaces in the cloud. These were still blue. But now the colour was going out. The clouds were turning pale; a reddish black colour. Down in the valley it was an extraordinary scrumble of red and black; there was the one light burning; all was cloud down there, and very beautiful, so delicately tinted. Nothing could be seen through the cloud. The 24 seconds were passing. Then one looked back again at the blue; and rapidly, very very quickly, all the colours faded; it became darker and darker as at the beginning of a violent storm; the light sank and sank; we kept saying this is the shadow; and we thought now it is over — this is the shadow; when suddenly the light went out.

Total eclipse of the sun, observed July 29, 1878, at Creston, Wyoming Territory
Total eclipse of 1878, one of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s groundbreaking astronomical drawings

In a sentiment Annie Dillard would echo half a century later in recounting how “the sun was going, and the world was wrong,” Woolf speaks to that profound, disquieting wrongness in which an eclipse washes our ordinary expectations of the world, our elemental givens of sensorial and perceptual reality:

We had fallen. It was extinct. There was no colour. The earth was dead. That was the astonishing moment; and the next when as if a ball had rebounded the cloud took colour on itself again, only a sparky ethereal colour and so the light came back. I had very strongly the feeling as the light went out of some vast obeisance; something kneeling down and suddenly raised up when the colours came. They came back astonishingly lightly and quickly and beautifully in the valley and over the hills — at first with a miraculous glittering and ethereality, later normally almost, but with a great sense of relief. It was like recovery. We had been much worse than we had expected. We had seen the world dead. This was within the power of nature.

My photographs of the 2017 total solar eclipse in Oregon.

In consonance with Rachel Carson’s assertion that “there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity,” Woolf reflects on how such displays of nature’s might arrest us into an acute awareness of our fragile, complex humanity:

One felt very livid. Then — it was over till 1999. What remained was the sense of the comfort which we get used to, of plenty of light, and colour. This for some time seemed a definitely welcome thing. Yet when it became established all over the country, one rather missed the sense of its being a relief and a respite, which one had had when it came back after the darkness. How can I express the darkness? It was a sudden plunge, when one did not expect it; being at the mercy of the sky; our own nobility; the druids; Stonehenge; and the racing red dogs; all that was in one’s mind.

A Writer’s Diary is replete with Woolf’s stunning insight into phenomena across the full spectrum of existence. Complement this particular portion with Maria Mitchell’s guide to how to watch a solar eclipse, then revisit Woolf on the nature of memory and the existential value of illusion.

BP

Walt Whitman’s Advice to the Young on the Building Blocks of Character and What It Takes to Be an Agent of Change

“Go, dear friend, if need be give up all else, and commence to-day to inure yourself to pluck, reality, self-esteem, definiteness, elevatedness…”

“In the long run,” Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in considering how we bring about social change, “there is no more liberating, no more exhilarating experience than to determine one’s position, state it bravely, and then act boldly.” A generation after her, Albert Camus examined what it really means to be a rebel and asserted that the true rebel is not one who aims to destroy the existing order of things but one who “says yes and no simultaneously.” And yet the hardest project of self-actualization is that of discerning what to accept and what to reject — of the world and of ourselves — as we build the architecture of our character and stake out our stance in relation to our obstacles and aims.

Long before Camus and Roosevelt, Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) took up these questions in Leaves of Grass (public library | public domain) — the 1855 masterpiece that nearly broke his career before making it.

Although the preface to the original edition contains Whitman’s timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life, tucked toward the end is a short poem titled “To a Pupil,” which captures in three spare verses his most concentrated and consecrating advice to the young — wisdom on the path to self-actualization, the essential discipline of personhood, and what it takes to be an effective agent of social change.

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

TO A PUPIL

Is reform needed? is it through you?
The greater the reform needed, the greater the Personality you
need to accomplish it.

You! do you not see how it would serve to have eyes, blood,
complexion, clean and sweet?
Do you not see how it would serve to have such a body and soul
that when you enter the crowd an atmosphere of desire
and command enters with you, and every one is impress’d
with your Personality?

O the magnet! the flesh over and over!
Go, dear friend, if need be give up all else, and commence to-day
to inure yourself to pluck, reality, self-esteem, definiteness,
elevatedness,
Rest not till you rivet and publish yourself of your own Personality.

Art by Marianne C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

Leaves of Grass remains a life-expanding trove of existential vitality. Complement this particular fragment with more abiding advice to the young from Seamus Heaney, a Whitman of our time, and from Cecilia Payne, who set out on her career as a pioneering astrophysicist on the centennial of Whitman’s birth, then revisit Whitman on what makes life worth living, the interplay between the body and the spirit, what trees teach us about being human, and his most direct reflection on happiness.

BP

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