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Grammy Award-Winning Jazz Vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant Reads Audre Lorde’s Poignant Poem “The Bees”

A fierce anthem for the alternative to destruction.

Grammy Award-Winning Jazz Vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant Reads Audre Lorde’s Poignant Poem “The Bees”

Bees hum the essential harmonics in the symphony of life — crucial pollinators responsible for our planet’s diversity, responsible for the flourishing of the entire food chain, responsible even for Earth’s resplendent colors. It is hardly a wonder that they have long moved poets, those essential harmonizers of human life, to rapture and reverie. Emily Dickinson reverenced “their velvet masonry,” Walt Whitman their “their perpetual rich mellow boom” and “great glistening swelling bodies,” and Ross Gay their murmured assurance, “saying everything is possible.”

And yet these tiny, tenacious creatures, older than us by millions and millions of years, now face the very real possibility of demise by colony collapse disorder — a direct consequence of the destructive choices we have made as a species. It is a terrifying thought, the possibility that the honey our ancestors took from them to tuck into the tombs of Egypt — a substance so miraculous that its deliciousness remains unspoiled by the passage of millennia — might outlast the entire species that makes the miracle.

It took another of humanity’s great poets to insist that against every choice of destruction, there is always the choice of creation; that against the extractionist, there is always the generative, against the exclusionary, always the inclusionary and the generous.

Audre Lorde (Photograph: Robert Alexander)

Half a century after Bertrand Russell observed that “construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power, but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it,” Audre Lorde (February 18, 1934–November 17, 1992) — a human miracle who catalogued herself as “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” and who became Poet Laureate of New York in the final year of her tragically truncated life — draws on these miraculous creatures for a delicate and powerful illustration of this counterbalance in her poem “The Bees,” originally written in 1974 and posthumously included the excellent anthology Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (public library) pollinated by poet and essayist Camille T. Dungy.

At the fourth annual Universe in Verse, Grammy Award-winning jazz vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant — whose unexampled one-woman orchestral storytelling masterpiece Ogresse, a lyrical meditation on race, otherness, belonging, and becoming, is one of the most original and breathtaking works of art I’ve ever seen — brought Lorde’s poem to life in a spare, stunning reading:

THE BEES
by Audre Lorde

In the street outside a school
what the children learn
possesses them.
Little boys yell as they stone a flock of bees
trying to swarm
between the lunchroom window and an iron grate.
The boys sling furious rocks
smashing the windows.
The bees, buzzing their anger,
are slow to attack.
Then one boy is stung
into quicker destruction
and the school guards come
long wooden sticks held out before them
they advance upon the hive
beating the almost finished rooms of wax apart
mashing the new tunnels in
while fresh honey drips
down their broomsticks
and the little boy feet becoming expert
in destruction
trample the remaining and bewildered bees
into the earth.

Curious and apart
four little girls look on in fascination
learning a secret lesson
and trying to understand their own destruction.
One girl cries out
“Hey, the bees weren’t making any trouble!”
and she steps across the feebly buzzing ruins
to peer up at the empty, grated nook
“We could have studied honey-making!”

For a conceptually kindred forgotten treasure, reach back across the epochs to George Sand’s only children’s book — a bee-inspired parable about choosing generosity and kindness over cynicism and destruction — then join me in supporting Cécile’s soulful art on Patreon and revisit Lorde on kinship across difference and the importance of unity in movements for social justice, the indivisibility of identity, and the courage to break silence.

For more highlights from The Universe in Verse, savor James Baldwin’s humanistic-scientific meditation on light and time set to song, 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, Marie Howe’s poignant poem about our inter-belonging in an animated short film, and a breathtaking choral tribute to Rachel Carson’s courage by the Young People’s Chorus of New York City and composer Paola Prestini.

BP

Spell to Be Said against Hatred: Amanda Palmer Reads Poet Jane Hirshfield’s Miniature Masterwork of Insistence, Persistence, and Compassionate Courage

“Until each breath refuses they, those, them…”

Spell to Be Said against Hatred: Amanda Palmer Reads Poet Jane Hirshfield’s Miniature Masterwork of Insistence, Persistence, and Compassionate Courage

“When we come to it,” Maya Angelou beckoned in her stunning cosmic vision for humanity, “when the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate…” Then, she bent the mind in language to remind us, and only then will we have risen to our cosmic destiny — a destiny built on the discipline of never forgetting, never daring let ourselves forget, our shared cosmic belonging. “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.    Remember?” But we do forget, and so the minstrel show of hate remains with us; the curtain falls, only to rise again, as if to affirm Zadie Smith’s poignant observation that “progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.”

It is especially in times of uncertainty, in tremulous times of fear and loss, that the curtain rises and the minstrel show resumes — a show of hate that can be as vicious and pointed as the murderous violence human beings are capable of directing at one another, or as ambient and slow-seething as the deadly disregard for the universe of non-human lives with which we share this fragile, irreplaceable planet. “We don’t know where we belong,” Annie Dillard wrote in her gorgeous meditation on our search for meaning, “but in times of sorrow it doesn’t seem to be here, here with these silly pansies and witless mountains, here with sponges and hard-eyed birds. In times of sorrow the innocence of the other creatures — from whom and with whom we evolved — seems a mockery.”

How to end the mockery and the minstrel show is what poet Jane Hirshfield — one of the most unboastfully courageous voices of our time, an ordained Buddhist, a more-than-humanitarian: a planetarian — explores in “Spell to Be Said against Hatred,” a miniature masterwork of quiet, surefooted insistence and persistence. Included in the anthology Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy (public library) alongside contributions by Jericho Brown, Ellen Bass, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Robin Wall Kimmerer, it is inhaled into life here by musician, activist, fellow more-than-humanitarian, and my darling friend Amanda Palmer.

SPELL TO BE SAID AGAINST HATRED
by Jane Hirshfield

Until each breath refuses they, those, them.
Until the Dramatis Personae of the book’s first page says, “Each one is you.”
Until hope bows to its hopelessness only as one self bows to another. Until cruelty bends to its work and sees suddenly: I.
Until anger and insult know themselves burnable legs of a useless table.
Until the unsurprised unbidden knees find themselves bending. Until fear bows to its object as a bird’s shadow bows to its bird. Until the ache of the solitude inside the hands, the ribs, the ankles. Until the sound the mouse makes inside the mouth of the cat. Until the inaudible acids bathing the coral.
Until what feels no one’s weighing is no longer weightless.
Until what feels no one’s earning is no longer taken.
Until grief, pity, confusion, laughter, longing know themselves mirrors.
Until by we we mean I, them, you, the muskrat, the tiger, the hunger.
Until by I we mean as a dog barks, sounding and vanishing and
sounding and vanishing completely.
Until by until we mean I, we, you, them, the muskrat, the tiger, the
hunger, the lonely barking of the dog before it is answered.

“Spell to Be Said against Hatred” was originally published in Hirshfield’s altogether soul-resuscitating collection Ledger (public library), which also gave us the wonderful “Today, Another Universe.” Complement it with Marie Howe’s kindred-spirited poem “Singularity” and a soulful reading of Hirshfield’s splendid succor for resilience, “The Weighing,” then revisit Amanda’s enchanting readings of “When I Am Among the Trees” by Mary Oliver, “Einstein’s Mother” by former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, “Life While-You-Wait” by Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska, “Humanity i love you” by E.E. Cummings, “Hubble Photographs: After Sappho” by Adrienne Rich, and “Questionnaire” by Wendell Berry.

BP

The Osbick Bird: Edward Gorey’s Tender and Surprising Vintage Illustrated Allegory About the Meaning of True Love

A subversive Victorian-tinted infusion of romantic realism.

The Osbick Bird: Edward Gorey’s Tender and Surprising Vintage Illustrated Allegory About the Meaning of True Love

Great loves, like great works of art, live at the crossing point of the improbable and the inevitable. That, at least, has been my experience, both as a scholar of history and as a private participant in the lives of the heart. Such loves come unbidden, without warning or presentiment, and that is their supreme insurance against the projectionist fantasy that so frequently disguises not-love — infatuation, obsession, jealousy, longing — as love. But when they do come, with all the delirium of the improbable, they enter the house of the heart as if they have always lived there, instantly at home; they enter like light bending at a certain angle to reveal, without fuss or fanfare, some corner of the universe for the very first time — but the corner has always been there, dusty and dim, and the light has always been ambient, unlensed and unbent into illumination. For great love, as the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska observed in her splendid meditation on its mystery, is “never justified” but is rather “like the little tree that springs up in some inexplicable fashion on the side of a cliff: where are its roots, what does it feed on, what miracle produces those green leaves?”

That improbable and inexplicable miracle is what Edward Gorey (February 22, 1925–April 15, 2000) celebrates with his signature faux-terse tenderness and soulful oddness in the vintage gem The Osbick Bird (public library).

Written in 1969 — several years after Gorey created his now-iconic Gashlycrumb Tinies, but well before his work for PBS and his fantastical reimagining of Dracula made him a household name — it was originally published under Gorey’s own Fantod Press, whose author list included such venerated names as Ogdred Weary, Madame Groeda Weyrd, O. Müde, Mrs. Regera Dowdy, Raddory Gewe, Garrod Weedy, and the Oprah-like first-name-only Om — Gorey’s delightful menagerie of pseudonyms.

Edward Gorey by Richard Avedon (Richard Avedon Foundation)

This tiny treasure of a book, itself improbable and inevitable given its subject and its creator’s nature, lay dormant and forgotten for decades, until Pomegranate Press, heroic stewards of Gorey’s legacy, resurrected it twelve years after he became the posthumous author he had always lived as.

In spare lines and spare verses, Gorey tells the singsong story of the osbick bird — a creature of his wild and wondrous imagination — who alights one day to lonely, dignified Emblus Figby’s bowler hat, out of the blue, or rather, out of the sky-implying negative space of Gorey’s minimalist, consummately cross-hatched black-and-white worldscapes.

And then, just like that, Emblus Figby and the osbick bird commence a life together — as if life was always meant to be lived in this particular tandem; as if each of the two was written into being just to complete the other’s rhyme.

This charmingly eccentric shared life unspools in Gorey’s playful verses, evocative of Victorian nursery rhymes, and when the spool runs out, Gorey’s romantic realism takes over — the osbick bird flits out of the frame just like it had flitted into it, by that miraculous consonance of the improbable and the inevitable.

“There is grandeur in this view of life,” Darwin had written a century earlier in the final passage of On the Origin of Species — in the view that death is the very mechanism ensuring the unstoppable ongoingness of life, the fulcrum by which ever shifts into after. There is grandeur, too, in Gorey’s subversive ending. There is beauty and bravery in its counterpoint to our incomplete happily-ever-after cultural mythos and its deep-seated denial of death as an integral part of life, and therefore of love; beauty and bravery in the reminder that the measure of a great love — as of a great life — is not in the happy ending, for all endings followed to the ultimate finality are the same, but in all the happy durings.

Complement The Osbick Bird with Shell Silverstein’s tender line-drawn allegory for the simple secret of true love, then revisit Hannah Arendt on love and how to live with the fundamental fear of its loss and W.H. Auden on what it means to be the more loving one.

Illustrations © The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust courtesy of Pomegranate Press. Photographs by Maria Popova.

BP

Thrush Song: A Stunning Harmonic Tribute to Rachel Carson’s Courage by Composer Paola Prestini and the Young People’s Chorus of New York City

“All the loveliness that is in nature came to me with such a surge of deep happiness.”

Thrush Song: A Stunning Harmonic Tribute to Rachel Carson’s Courage by Composer Paola Prestini and the Young People’s Chorus of New York City

In 2019, the New York Philharmonic commissioned composer and force of nature Paola Prestini — co-founder of National Sawdust, that visionary locus of possibility for world-building through music — to compose an original piece for their multi-season Project 19 initiative, celebrating the centennial of the 19th Amendment. Inspired by the stories of the remarkable unsung women in Figuring, she reached out to me to write the words. I chose a moment that occurs some 485 pages into the book — a moment small and private, but enormous in its symbolic significance and cultural reverberations.

In January 1962, after a decade of incubation and four years of methodical research, Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) turned in the manuscript for what would become Silent Spring — the epoch-making catalyst of the modern environmental movement, making ecology a household word and invitinig the human imagination to consider how intricately, vulnerably interleaved nature’s ecosystems are. Carson, by then savaged by cancer, knew that speaking such inconvenient truth to power would come at grave personal cost. It did: She was soon assaulted by government and industry, her scientific credibility attacked on the basis of her biology, with the crude weapon of gender. But she moored herself to what she had articulated to the love of her life, Dorothy Freeman, at the outset of her courageous endeavor:

Knowing what I do, there would be no future peace for me if I kept silent.

Rachel Carson (Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)

When Carson turned in the manuscript that cold January night, she tucked her newly adopted son Roger into bed, kissed him good night, took her beloved black cat Jeffie into the study, shut the door behind her, and put on her favorite Beethoven violin concerto. “Suddenly,” she recounted the evening to Dorothy the next day, “the tension of four years was broken and I let the tears come.” She told Dorothy:

Last summer… I said I could never again listen happily to a thrush song if I had not done all I could. And last night the thoughts of all the birds and other creatures and all the loveliness that is in nature came to me with such a surge of deep happiness, that now I had done what I could — I had been able to complete it — now it had its own life.

Carson never lived to see its life in the world, but her work inspired the creation of Earth Day and the led to the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Paola Prestini (Photograph: Brigitte Lacombe)

Paola transfigured this moment into a gorgeous piece for soprano and orchestra, titled “Thrush Song.” After it premiered with the New York Philharmonic, I invited her to adapt it for a chorus of young people as part of the 2020 Universe in Verse, celebrating 50 years of Earth Day. (Days after David Byrne read a poem at the 2019 edition of The Universe in Verse, I had been awed by the National Sawdust performance of his countercultural hymn of resistance and resilience, accompanied by a coruscating chorus of young people; I was also haunted by Carson’s moving message to the next generations — to the Greta Thunbergs she never lived to meet.)

Paola Prestini’s working sketch for the New York Philharmonic project

Paola reimagined “Thrush Song” as a wondrous harmonic serenade to Carson’s courage, working with a constellation of young women from the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, rehearsing and performing remotely in a world stilled and stunned by a global pandemic — a poignant meta-testament to Carson’s legacy: the revelation of how intimately connected we are to one another and to the rest of nature through the intricate, complex, delicate web of biological and ecological relationships weaving the tapestry of being.

The result, which many in the live Universe in Verse audience welcomed as the crowning glory of the nearly four-hour show, is now available for all the world to cherish, with a deep bow of admiration and gratitude to Paola and the remarkable women of the Young People’s Chorus, and special thanks to Debbie Millman for the lovingly hand-lettered lyrics.

Complement with a Carson’s birdsong notation set to music by singer-songwriter Dawn Landes and Neil Gaiman’s poetic tribute to Carson’s courage, written for the 2018 Universe in Verse, then revisit other highlights from the show’s four-year archive: a stunning animated adaptation of Marie Howe’s poem about our cosmic inter-belonging, James Baldwin’s ecological-humanistic wisdom set to song, astronaut Leland Melvin reading Pablo Neruda’s love letter to the forest, and Neil Gaiman’s subversive feminist celebration of science and the human search for truth, in a tactile animated short film.

BP

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