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Astronomy, Race, and the Unwitnessed Radiance Inside History’s Blind Spots

A poetic instrument for observing and redrawing the spectrum of privilege and possibility.

Astronomy, Race, and the Unwitnessed Radiance Inside History’s Blind Spots

In 1977, the poet Adrienne Rich exhorted a graduating class of young women to think of education not as something one receives but as something one claims. But what does an education mean, and what does claiming it look like, for lives and minds animating bodies born into dramatically different points along the vast spectrum of privilege and possibility which human society spans?

This question comes alive in a wonderfully unexpected and necessary way in one of the highlights of the the third annual Universe in Verse by another great poet, essayist, and almost unbearably moving memoirist: Elizabeth Alexander — the fourth poet in history read at an American presidential inauguration (she welcomed Barack Obama to the presidency with her shimmering poem “Praise Song for the Day”) and the first woman of color to preside over one of the world’s largest philanthropic foundations.

Two years after Alexander illuminated a disquieting shadow-patch excised from the hegemonic history of science with the stunning poem she read at the inaugural Universe in Verse, she returned to the stage to shine a beam of radiance on the beauty hidden in an umbral corner of the selective collective memory we call history. Following astrophysicist Janna Levin’s opening reading of a pair of short poems by two titanic contemporaries who never knew of each other’s existence — a short untitled exultation at the surreality of a solar eclipse by Emily Dickinson and “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman — Alexander read a poetic antidote to history’s erasures, celebrating the invisible visionaries who also lived and marveled at the cosmos when Dickinson and Whitman lived and marveled at the cosmos, originally published in her collection American Sublime (public library) and prefaced in the show with some contextual connective tissue by yours truly:

EDUCATION
by Elizabeth Alexander

In 1839, to enter University,
the Yale men already knew Cicero,

Dalzel’s Graeca Minora, then learned more Latin prosody,
Stiles on astronomy, Dana’s mineralogy.

Each year they named a Class Bully
who would butt heads with sailors in town.

“The first foreign heathen ever seen,”
Obookiah, arrived from Hawaii in ’09.

The most powerful telescope in America
was a recent gift to the school

and through it, they were first to see
the blazing return of Halley’s comet.

Ebeneezer Peter Mason
and Hamilton Lanphere Smith

spent all their free time at the instrument
observing the stars, their systems,

their movement and science and magic,
pondering the logic of mysteries that twinkle.

Some forty years before, Banneker’s
eclipse-predicting charts and almanacs

had gone to Thomas Jefferson
to prove “that nature has given our brethren

talents equal to other colors of men.”
Benjamin Banneker, born free,

whose people came from Guinea,
who taught himself at twenty-two (the same age

as the graduates) to carve entirely from wood
a watch which kept exquisite time,

accurate to the blade-sharp second.

Living in the same era as these astronomically enchanted men, whom Alexander so beautifully declipses from history’s shadow, was a young woman who blazed parallel trails for another section of humanity barred from higher education and discounted by the scientific establishment, and who would go on to stake her life on the conviction that equal opportunity for the life of the mind is at the center of social change.

Maria Mitchell

Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889) — to whom the inaugural Universe in Verse was dedicated and whose life furnished the initial inspiration for Figuring (from which this portion of the essay is adapted) — was twelve when she observed her first solar eclipse through a brass telescope set up in the front parlor of her modest Quaker home on the island of Nantucket. The cosmos, with its mystery governed by immutable laws of poetic precision, staggered her imagination. By fifteen, she had mastered higher mathematics, which she supplemented with an ardent love of poetry. No institution — not on the island, not on the globe — had anything further to offer her in the way of higher education for a woman. And so, at seventeen, she founded a small school of her own.

The first children who approached the teenage teacher for enrollment were three “Portuguese” girls — the era’s slang for immigrants of color, whatever their actual nationality or race. Having just witnessed a vehement outcry when the Nantucket’s public school had attempted integration the previous year, Mitchell knew that admitting students of color would cost her the support of many parents, particularly the wealthy. But when the little girl representing the trio implored for a chance to learn, Mitchell made a decision with a clarity of conviction that would come to mark her life. The three “Portuguese” children became her first scholars, soon joined by others ranging in age from six to fourteen.

The young Maria Mitchell’s telescope. (Maria Mitchell Museum. Photograph by Maria Popova)

In a single large classroom, Mitchell stretched her students’ minds from Shakespeare to spherical geometry. But before she could savor the success of her school, she was offered the head librarianship of the Nantucket Atheneum — a new kind of cultural institution, named after the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom, learning, and the arts, designed as a secular gathering place to discover and discuss ideas. She was eighteen. She would not relinquish her librarianship for two decades, despite the international celebrity into which her historic comet discovery catapulted her at the end of her twenties; despite her landmark admission into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as the venerable institution’s first female member; despite becoming the first woman employed by the federal government for a “specialized non-domestic skill” as a “computer of Venus” — a one-person GPS performing complex celestial calculations to help sailors navigate the globe.

During her tenure at the Atheneum, Mitchell hosted the institution’s regular public lectures by itinerant speakers. Among them was a young man who had escaped slavery three years earlier.

Frederick Douglass

One August day in 1841, a nervous twenty-three-year-old Frederick Douglass — the same age as Mitchell — took the podium at the Atheneum to deliver his very first public address before the mixed-race audience of five hundred gathered at the island’s temple of learning for the first Nantucket Anti-Slavery Convention. “It was with the utmost difficulty,” Douglass would later recount, “that I could stand erect, or that I could command and articulate two words without hesitation and stammering. I trembled in every limb.” He proceeded to deliver a speech so electrifying that at its conclusion, the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who was waiting to take the platform next, leapt to his feet, turned to the audience, and exclaimed: “Have we been listening to a thing, a piece of property, or a man?” The chamber of the Great Hall bellowed with a resounding “A man! A man!” The man was hired on the spot as full-time lecturer for Garrison’s American Anti-Slavery Society.

Four years later, by then one of the country’s most prominent public speakers, Douglass would write in his autobiography:

I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and incur my own abhorrence. From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me within its foul embrace.

Maria Mitchell echoed this sentiment in her own diary as she was doing for women what Douglass was doing for African Americans:

The best that can be said of my life so far is that it has been industrious, and the best that can be said of me is that I have not pretended to what I was not.

Mitchell and Douglass cherished their friendship for the remainder of their parallel pioneering lives — both world-famous before they were thirty, both liberators of possibility in their present, both role models of courage and tenacity for generations to come. The year Mitchell made her historic discovery of the world’s first telescopic comet, Douglass — who in that trembling dawn of his career had calmed his nerves by taking in the cosmic perspective through her telescope — began publishing his abolitionist newspaper; he titled it The North Star in homage to the key role astronomy played in the Underground Railroad — traveling at night, slaves were told to keep the river on one side and follow the Drinking Gourd, an African name for the Big Dipper, for if they kept after the pole star, they would keep themselves moving north. In the final year of hers, the ailing Mitchell — whose childhood home had been a stop on the Underground Railroad — exerted herself to travel many miles via ferry, coach, and train for a reception given in her cherished friend’s honor.

Full recordings of the first three seasons of The Universe in Verse — a celebration of the meeting ground between science and the human spirit through the lens of poetry — are freely available to be enjoyed here.

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

Drawings by Children: Rosanne Cash Reads Lisel Mueller’s Subtle Poem About Growing Out of Our Limiting Frames of Reference

“There is nothing behind the wall except a space where the wind whistles, but you cannot see that.”

Drawings by Children: Rosanne Cash Reads Lisel Mueller’s Subtle Poem About Growing Out of Our Limiting Frames of Reference

We parse and move through reality as multidimensional creatures in a multidimensional world. The experience of dimensions, this living fact of spatiality, may be our most direct mathematical grasp of the universe — an understanding woven into our elemental sensemaking, into our language and our metaphors: We speak of our social circles, our love triangles, our spheres of influence, the depth of our feelings, the height of our intellect, the length of our lives. But we are also quite limited by our embodied frame of reference — our experience as three-dimensional creatures in a perceptually three-dimensional world with other spatialities on scales we can’t sense has always unmoored our common-sense perception from the fundamentals of reality; it is why the notion of a spherical world that turns beneath our grounded feet as it hurtles around the Sun at more than 100 kilometers per hour was so controversial for so long, why Einstein’s concept of spacetime was so radical and revolutionary, and why we find mathematical objects like Möbius strips and Klein bottles so deliciously disorienting.

In the final stretch of the 19th century, an English theologian with a mathematical bend named Edwin Abbott Abbott composed the brilliant allegorical novella Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions — the first time the science of dimensions was discussed in popular literature, folded into a clever social satire about how much our cultural frames of reference, around gender and class and other normative lines, limit our clear view of reality and limit us as fully conscious, capable agents in that reality.

Nearly a century after Abbott, the poet Lisel Mueller (February 8, 1924–February 21, 2020) — another deep seer and scrumptiously original mind, who lived nearly a century — took up the subject with great subtlety and elegance of insight in her poem “Drawings by Children,” found in her altogether miraculous Pulitzer-winning collection Alive Together (public library), which also gave us Mueller’s lyrical wisdom on what gives meaning to our ephemeral lives.

One of the drawings Darwin’s children left in the manuscript of On the Origin of Species.

At the 2020 Universe in Verse — the annual charitable celebration of the science of reality through poetry — Grammy-winning musician and poetic songwriter Rosanne Cash brought Mueller’s “Drawings by Children” to soulful life, accompanied by one of her own children, Jakob Leventhal — a wonderful young musician himself, quarantined home from college.

DRAWINGS BY CHILDREN
by Lisel Mueller

1

The sun may be visible or not
(it may be behind you,
the viewer of these pictures)
but the sky is always blue
if it is day.
If not,
the stars come almost within your grasp;
crooked, they reach out to you,
on the verge of falling.
It is never sunrise or sunset;
there is no bloody eye
spying on you across the horizon.
It is clearly day or night,
it is bright or totally dark,
it is here and never there.

2

In the beginning, you only needed
your head, a moon swimming in space,
and four bare branches;
and when your body was added,
it was light and thin at first,
not yet the dark chapel
from which, later, you tried to escape.
You lived in a non-Newtonian world,
your arms grew up from your shoulders,
your feet did not touch the ground,
your hair was streaming,
you were still flying.

3

The house is smaller than you remembered,
it has windows but no door.
A chimney sits on the gable roof,
a curl of smoke reassures you.
But the house has only two dimensions,
like a mash without its face;
the people who live there stand outside
as though time were always summer —
there is nothing behind the wall
except a space where the wind whistles,
but you cannot see that.

For other highlights from the 2020 Universe in Verse, savor astronaut Leland Melvin reading Pablo Neruda’s love letter to the forest, astrophysicist Janna Levin reading “Antidotes to Fear of Death” by the late, great astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson, Amanda Palmer reading “Einstein’s Mother” by former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, artist Ohara Hale’s lyrical watercolor adaptation of Mojave American poet Natalie Diaz’s ode to brokenness as a portal to belonging and resilience, and Marie Howe’s poem “Singularity” — a dimensional meditation on our cosmic belonging and the meaning of home, inspired by Stephen Hawking — in a stunning animated short film, then revisit the charming drawings Darwin’s children left all over the manuscript of their father’s epoch-making book and Rosanne Cash reading Adrienne Rich’s tribute to Marie Curie and the meaning of power, with a poignant personal reflection on the wellspring of creative might and how science saved her life, from the inaugural Universe in Verse in 2017.

BP

Amanda Palmer Reads “Einstein’s Mother” by Tracy K. Smith

“Was he mute a while, or all tears. Did he raise his hands to his ears so he could scream scream scream.”

Amanda Palmer Reads “Einstein’s Mother” by Tracy K. Smith

The forces of chance that chisel reality out of the bedrock of possibility — this improbable planet, this improbable life — leave ghostly trails of what-ifs, questions asked and unanswered, unanswerable. Why do you, this particular you, exist? Why does the universe? And once the dice have fallen in favor of existence, there are so many possible points of entry into life, so many possible fractal paths through it — so many ways to live and die even the most ordinary life, a life of quiet and unwitnessed beauty, washed unremembered into the river of time after this chance constellation of atoms disbands into stardust. There are, after all, infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives.

Every once in a very long while, chance deals a life out of the ordinary, islanded in the rapids of collective memory as one of lasting and profound legacy — a life that has seen far beyond the horizon of its own creaturely limits, into the deepest truths of the universe. Such lives are exceedingly rare — think how few of the billions of humans who ever lived are remembered and studied and revered a mere hundred years hence, how few the Euclids and Shakespeares and Sapphos.

Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879–April 18, 1955) lived one such life. Yet in such rare lives, the shimmering public contribution eclipses the private darknesses of life’s living, filling the opacity with our guesses, some generous and some not, none of which verifiable. We hardly know ourselves, after all — we can never really know who anyone is in their innermost being, much less how they came to be that way: What was the rarest genius like as a child — one among many in a classroom, in a city, in a civilization? What troubled and thrilled the pliant young mind, that neural bundle of pure potential about to burst into genius?

Art by Vladimir Radunsky from On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne

That is what Pulitzer-winning poet Tracy K. Smith takes up in a short, stunning poem titled “Einstein’s Mother” — a preview of the fourth annual Universe in Verse, streaming worldwide on April 25, 2020. (Smith, whose father worked on the Hubble Space Telescope as one of NASA’s first black engineers, read her gorgeous ode to our longing to know a universe we might never fully know at the inaugural Universe in Verse, shortly before being elected Poet Laureate of the United States.)

Tracy K. Smith (Photograph: Rachel Eliza Griffiths)

Smith writes:

I’ve often heard that Albert Einstein struggled as a child. He came to language late, was unsuited to the classroom setting. And yet, in the narrative of Einstein’s life, his genius is often tied to the difficult or confounding features of his child self. My poem bears witness to the occasional challenges of motherhood. Sometimes narratives like Einstein’s offer me hope; more often, I fear they urge me toward a kind of magical, and potentially counterproductive, thinking.

Originally published in the Academy of American Poets’ wondrous lifeline of a newsletter, poem-a-day, “Einstein’s Mother” is read here by Amanda Palmer in the company of her own bundle of pure human potential, with original music by the generous and talented multi-instrumentalist Jherek Bischoff — a quilt of collaboration across the fabric of spacetime Einstein revealed, as the three of us found ourselves scattered tens of thousands of kilometers across the globe in our respective quarantine quarters while stitching The Universe in Verse together.

EINSTEIN’S MOTHER
by Tracy K. Smith

Was he mute a while,
or all tears. Did he raise
his hands to his ears so
he could scream scream
scream. Did he eat only
with his fists. Did he eat
as if something inside of him
would never be fed. Did he
arch his back and hammer
his heels into the floor
the minute there was
something he sought.
And did you feel yourself
caught there, wanting
to let go, to run, to
be called back to wherever
your two tangled souls
had sprung from. Did you ever
feel as though something
were rising up inside you.
A fire-white ghost. Did you
feel pity. And for whom.

Join us for the 2020 Universe in Verse, livestreaming around the world on April 25, for more poems celebrating the science of the universe, the people who make it, and the questions we live with, read by a glorious human constellation, including Neil Gaiman, Patti Smith, Elizabeth Gilbert, Rosanne Cash, astronauts, artists, astrophysicists, and other rare makers of meaning and seekers of truth.

Complement with another preview of the 2020 Universe in Verse — astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson’s sublime poem “Antidotes to Fear of Death,” read by the poetic astrophysicist Janna Levin — then sit back and savor the full recording of the 2019 Universe in Verse (which closed with a poem titled “Einstein’s Daughter”) and Amanda’s soulful readings from universes past: “The Mushroom Hunters” and “After Silence” by Neil Gaiman, originally composed for the 2017 and 2018 shows, and “Hubble Photographs: After Sappho” by Adrienne Rich from the 2019 show.

BP

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