“I prefer the old fine-lined illustrations… I prefer Grimms’ fairy tales to the newspapers’ front pages,” the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska wrote in her poignant poem “Possibilities.”
Old fine-lined illustrations and classic tales that outgrim the newspapers’ front pages, twisting the grisly into the sublime, come together in a rare 1933 edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination (public library), with illustrations by the Irish stained-glass and book artist Harry Clarke (March 17, 1889–January 6, 1931), whose visionary work influenced the Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and French Symbolism movements.
Nearly a decade after I first featured Clarke’s black-and-white illustrations from an earlier edition, I walked out of the New York Antiquarian Book Fair victorious with a rare surviving copy of the 1933 edition, featuring 33 plates. Peppering the striking black-and-white line drawings and several dramatic illustrated lithographs, printed on glazed paper and pasted onto the regularly printed book — the legacy of Arthur Rackham’s innovation, which had revolutionized the business and technology of book art a quarter century earlier with his epoch-making Alice in Wonderland edition.
Clarke’s haunting, terrifying, yet lyrical illustrations become the perfect visual counterpart to Poe’s haunting, terrifying, lyrical prose. Here is a succulent bit from a fable titled “Silence”:
And the man trembled in the solitude; — but the night waned and he sat upon the rock.
Then I went down into the recesses of the morass, and waded far in among the wilderness of the lilies, and called upon the hippopotami which dwelt upon the fens in the recesses of the morass. And the hippopotami heard my call, and came, with the behemoth, unto the foot of the rock, and roared loudly and fearfully beneath the moon. And I lay close within my covert and observed the actions of the man. And the man trembled in the solitude; — but the night waned and he sat upon the rock.
Then I cursed the elements, and a frightful tempest gathered in the heaven where, before, there had been no wind. And the heaven became livid with the violence of the tempest — and the rain beat on the head of the man — and the floods of the river came down — and the river was tormented into foam — and the water-lilies shrieked within their beds — and the trees crumbled before the wind — and the lightning flashed and the thunder fell — and the rock rocked to its foundation. And I lay close within my covert and I observed the actions of the man. And the man trembled within the solitude; — but the night waned and he sat upon the rock.
What, then, of autumn — that liminal space between beauty and bleakness, foreboding and bittersweet, yet lovely in its own way? Colette, in her meditation on the splendor of autumn and the autumn of life, celebrated it as a beginning rather than a decline. But perhaps it is neither — perhaps, between its falling leaves and fading light, it is not a movement toward gain or loss but an invitation to attentive stillness and absolute presence, reminding us to cherish the beauty of life not despite its perishability but precisely because of it; because the impermanence of things — of seasons and lifetimes and galaxies and loves — is what confers preciousness and sweetness upon them.
Having spent a long stretch of life in bicultural seasonality, traveling between the California home of his octogenarian mother and the Japanese home he has made with his wife Hiroko, Iyer reflects on what the country of his heart — home to the beautiful philosophy of wabi-sabi — has taught him about the heart’s seasons:
I long to be in Japan in the autumn. For much of the year, my job, reporting on foreign conflicts and globalism on a human scale, forces me out onto the road; and with my mother in her eighties, living alone in the hills of California, I need to be there much of the time, too. But I try each year to be back in Japan for the season of fire and farewells. Cherry blossoms, pretty and frothy as schoolgirls’ giggles, are the face the country likes to present to the world, all pink and white eroticism; but it’s the reddening of the maple leaves under a blaze of ceramic-blue skies that is the place’s secret heart.
We cherish things, Japan has always known, precisely because they cannot last; it’s their frailty that adds sweetness to their beauty. In the central literary text of the land, The Tale of Genji, the word for “impermanence” is used more than a thousand times, and bright, amorous Prince Genji is said to be “a handsomer man in sorrow than in happiness.” Beauty, the foremost Jungian in Japan has observed, “is completed only if we accept the fact of death.” Autumn poses the question we all have to live with: How to hold on to the things we love even though we know that we and they are dying. How to see the world as it is, yet find light within that truth.
The sudden death of Iyer’s father-in-law focuses that existential light to a burning beam and pulls him, unseasonably, to Japan in the flaming height of autumn, to the small wooden house where his wife’s parents lived and loved for half a century. With the suprasensory porousness to life that the death of a loved one gives us, Iyer travels across time and space, to another season and another loss in the California wildfires, and writes:
Everything is burning now, though the days have lost little in clarity or warmth. The leaves are scraps of flame, the hills electric with color; as we fall into December, everything is ready to be reduced to ash. From the windows of the health club, I see bonfires sending smoke above the gas stations; I walk up through magic-hour streets and wonder how long these days of gold can last.
It still has the capacity to chill me: the memory of the flames tearing through the black hillsides all around as I drove down after forty-five minutes of watching our family home, some years ago, reduced to cinders. Death paying a house call; and then, when the house was rebuilt on its perilous ridge — where my mother sleeps right now — again and again, new fires rising all around it. One time after another, we receive the reverse-911 call telling us we have to leave right now, and we stuff a few valuables in the car, then watch, from downtown, as the sky above our home turns a coughy black, the sun pulsing like an electrified orange in the heavens.
Between terror and transcendence, between epochs and cultures, Iyer locates the common hearth of human experience:
“Everything must burn,” wrote my secret companion Thomas Merton, as he walked around his silent monastery in the dark, on fire watch. “Everything must burn, my monks,” the Buddha said in his “Fire Sermon”; life itself is a burning house, and soon that body you’re holding will be bones, that face that so moves you a grinning skull. The main temple in Nara has burned and come back and burned and come back, three times over the centuries; the imperial compound, covering a sixth of all Kyoto, has had to be rebuilt fourteen times. What do we have to hold on to? Only the certainty that nothing will go according to design; our hopes are newly built wooden houses, sturdy until someone drops a cigarette or match.
He time-travels once again to several years earlier, when his father-in-law had just turned ninety and Japan had just suffered one of the most devastating disasters in recorded history, to wrest from a moment of life beautiful affirmation for Mary Oliver’s Blake- and Whitman-inspired insistence that “all eternity is in the moment”:
I glance at Hiroko’s watch; later this afternoon, I’ll have to drop the aging couple at their home, and take the rented car to Kyoto Station. Then a six-hour trip, via a series of bullet trains, up to a broken little town in Fukushima, where a nuclear plant melted down after the tsunami seven months ago.
A war photographer is waiting for me there, and we’re going to talk to some of the workers who are risking their lives to go into the poisoned area to try to repair the plant, and ask them why they’re doing it. How learn to live with what you can never control?
For now, though, there’s nowhere to go on the silent mountain, and a boy who’s just turned ninety is surveying the landscape with the rapt eagerness of an Eagle Scout, while his wife of sixty years sings, “We’re so lucky to have a long life!”
Hold this moment forever, I tell myself; it may never come again.
“…scream and scream and scream until you break the back of one injustice…”
By Maria Popova
“Before I was born out of my mother, generations guided me,” Walt Whitman wrote in Song of Myself, envisioning his unborn self as the product of myriad potentialities converging since the dawn of time — “the nebula cohered to an orb” and “the long, slow strata piled” to make it possible.
A century and a half after Whitman, Ross Gay — another poet of uncommon sensitivity to our shared longings and largehearted wonderment at the universe in its manifold expressions — inverted the generational telescope and considered the future potentialities contained in his own self in his “Poem to My Child, If Ever You Shall Be,” found in his altogether magnificent 2011 collection Bringing the Shovel Down (public library). An act of imaginative projection, the poem is concerned not with the biological question of what makes a life — on that, I stand with Italo Calvino — but with the existential question of what makes life worth living: love, kindness, the devotion to justice, the unselfconscious surrender to joy, the willingness to do the difficult, delicate work of rising to our highest human potential.
If you are, or would like to place yourself, in New York City on October 26, join me for The Astronomy of Walt Whitman — a very special pop-up edition of The Universe in Verse, celebrating Whitman’s bicentennial and the endeavor to build the city’s first public observatory.
Celestial splendor bridging ancient tradition and modern science.
By Maria Popova
“I wonder that I have so long been insensible to this charm in the skies, the tints of the different stars are so delicate in their variety,” the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell marveled in her journal when she first learned to notice the different hues of the stars, almost transgressively delightful to a woman who had grown up in the Quaker tradition with its customary ban on color. To the suddenly awestruck Mitchell, the stars appeared like “a collection of precious stones” or colorful beads. How she would have relished the celestial beadwork of Native artist Margaret Nazon.
More than a century after Mitchell’s contemporary Ellen Harding Baker embroidered her stunning Solar System quilt to use as an astronomy teaching tool in an era when women had almost no access to formal education in science, and a generation after the great astrophysicist Cecilia Payne, who discovered the chemical composition of the universe, embroidered her supernova, Nazon began beading celestial objects after her partner showed her photographs of the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009 — those now-iconic images that have inspired some of our greatest poets and enchanted the popular imagination like no other visual document of science.
Against the black velvet of pure spacetime, Nazon’s intricate beadwork reaches across abstraction, across incomprehensible expanses, to make galaxies, nebulae, and constellations tangible; to render the wilderness of an impartial universe domesticated and personable. Galaxies millions of lightyears away, hundreds of lightyears wide, become intimate emissaries of spacetime on her 25×25-inch beaded canvases.
A member of the small First Nations community of Gwich’in, Nazon grew up on the banks of the Mackenzie River in Canada’s Northwestern Territories, steeped in a crafts tradition. She started beading at age 10. The early decorative flowers that began on moccasins and clothing eventually blossomed, half a century later, into the dazzling objects of deep space, rendered using a variety of beading techniques and bead sizes to create a beguiling three-dimensional tactility.
Nazon begins beading before dawn and often works all day, taking only short breaks between sessions, beading to the sound of classical music and jazz — Billie Holiday is a favorite. Her largest work, a triptych of the Andromeda Galaxy, took her some 200 hours.
Nazon marries integrity of representation with artistic interpretation, sometimes deliberately straying from the colors captured by the Hubble toward her favorite combination: blue and yellow, colors she associates with happiness and beauty.
Complement with the stunning celestial art of the self-taught 17th-century German astronomer and artist Maria Clara Eimmart, then revisit U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith’s ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, on which her father worked as one of NASA’s first black engineers, and this Hubble classic composed by Adrienne Rich a generation earlier.