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Singularity: Marie Howe’s Ode to Stephen Hawking, Our Cosmic Belonging, and the Meaning of Home, in a Stunning Animated Short Film

“For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. Remember?”

“We, this people, on a small and lonely planet,” Maya Angelou begins “A Brave and Startling Truth” — her cosmic wakeup call to humanity, which flew into space aboard NASA’s Orion spacecraft and which opened the 2018 Universe in Verse, dedicated to our ecological awakening on the wings of Rachel Carson’s courageous work.

That year, Marie Howe — one of our great living poets, who awakens the creaturely conscience of the next generation in her ecopoetry class at Sarah Lawrence College — premiered a kindred poem that stilled the crowd constellating at Pioneer Works before erupting into a thousand-bodied standing ovation. While inspired by Stephen Hawking (who had just returned his stardust to the universe several weeks earlier) and titled after his trailblazing work on black holes and singularities — work that shines a sidewise gleam on the origin of everything — the poem is at bottom a stunning meditation on the interconnectedness of belonging across space and time, across selves and species, across the myriad artificial unbelongings we have manufactured as we have drifted further and further from our elemental nature. Its closing line is an invocation, an incantation, ending with a timeless word of staggering resonance today: home.

As we now stand on a profound precipice two years later — facing our deeply interconnected ecology of being on this shared cosmic home as we look back on fifty years of Earth Day built on Carson’s legacy, facing the most intimate meaning of home in our isolated shelters scattered across this “small and lonely planet” — the poem pulsates with a whole new meaning, as all great poems do in the veins of time.

And so, as a special treat for the 2020 Universe in Verse, streaming on April 25 into millions of homes around this sole shared home, I teamed up with SALT Project — a kindred clan of visual storytellers, who have won some hearts and won some Emmys with their soulful shorts ranging from book trailers to bird migration documentaries — to bring Howe’s “Singularity” to life in a transcendent short film, illustrated by paper collage artist Elena Skoreyko Wagner and featuring original music by the heroic cellist Zoë Keating, who was present in atoms at the 2018 show when “Singularity” premiered and who also composed the score for “Antidotes to Fear of Death” — the headlining miracle of a poem for the 2020 show.

It is with exuberant joy and gratitude that I share, as a special taste of the 2020 Universe in Verse, this symphony of beauty and perspective, over which so many talented women have labored with so much heart and generosity of spirit .

SINGULARITY
by Marie Howe

          (after Stephen Hawking)

Do you sometimes want to wake up to the singularity
we once were?

so compact nobody
needed a bed, or food or money —

nobody hiding in the school bathroom
or home alone

pulling open the drawer
where the pills are kept.

For every atom belonging to me as good
Belongs to you.
   Remember?

There was no   Nature.    No
 them.   No tests

to determine if the elephant
grieves her calf    or if

the coral reef feels pain.    Trashed
oceans don’t speak English or Farsi or French;

would that we could wake up   to what we were
— when we were ocean    and before that

to when sky was earth, and animal was energy, and rock was
liquid and stars were space and space was not

at all — nothing

before we came to believe humans were so important
before this awful loneliness.

Can molecules recall it?
what once was?    before anything happened?

No I, no We, no one. No was
No verb      no noun
only a tiny tiny dot brimming with

is is is is is

All   everything   home

Complement with an ink-and-watercolor animation of Mojave American poet Natalie Diaz’s gorgeous poem of brokenness and belonging and an animated adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s feminist revision of the history of science, then be sure to tune into the 2020 Universe in Verse at 4:30PM EST on April 25 for more poetic gifts of cosmic perspective, read by astrophysicists, artists, astronauts, and a portable galaxy of other radiant humans, including Patti Smith, Amanda Palmer, Elizabeth Gilbert, Debbie Millman, Brian Greene, Rosanne Cash, and Neil Gaiman.

BP

A Lifeline for the Hour of Despair: James Baldwin on 4AM, the Fulcrum of Love, and Life as a Moral Obligation to the Universe

“I have always felt that a human being could only be saved by another human being. I am aware that we do not save each other very often. But I am also aware that we save each other some of the time.”

A Lifeline for the Hour of Despair: James Baldwin on 4AM, the Fulcrum of Love, and Life as a Moral Obligation to the Universe

“Yesterday has already vanished among the shadows of the past; to-morrow has not yet emerged from the future. You have found an intermediate space,” Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of life’s most haunting hour. But what we find in that intermediate space between past and future, between the costumed simulacrum of reality we so painstakingly construct with our waking lives and reality laid bare in the naked nocturnal mind, is not always a resting place of ease — for there dwells the self at its most elemental, which means the self most lucidly awake to its foibles and its finitude.

The disquietude this haunted hour can bring, and does bring, is what another titanic writer and rare seer into the depths of the human spirit — James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) — explored 130 years after Hawthorne in one of his least known, most insightful, and most personal essays.

Richard Avedon and James Baldwin. (Photograph courtesy of Taschen.)

In 1964, as the Harlem riots were shaking the foundation of society and selfhood, Baldwin joined talent-forces with the great photographer Richard Avedon — an old high school friend of his — to hold up an uncommonly revelatory cultural mirror with the book Nothing Personal (public library). Punctuating Avedon’s signature black-and-white portraits — of Nobel laureates and Hollywood celebrities, of the age- and ache-etched face of an elder born under slavery and the idealism-lit young faces of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Georgia, of the mentally ill perishing in asylums and the newlyweds at City Hall ablaze with hope — are four stirring essays by Baldwin, the first of which gave us his famous sobering observation that “it has always been much easier (because it has always seemed much safer) to give a name to the evil without than to locate the terror within.”

At no time does the terror within, Baldwin argues in the third essay, bubble to the surface of our being more ferociously than in that haunting hour between past and future, between our illusions of permanence and perfection, and the glaring fact of our finitude and our fallibility, between being and non-being. He writes:

Four AM can be a devastating hour. The day, no matter what kind of day it was is indisputably over; almost instantaneously, a new day begins: and how will one bear it? Probably no better than one bore the day that is ending, possibly not as well. Moreover, a day is coming one will not recall, the last day of one’s life, and on that day one will oneself become as irrecoverable as all the days that have passed.

It is a fearful speculation — or, rather, a fearful knowledge — that, one day one’s eyes will no longer look out on the world. One will no longer be present at the universal morning roll call. The light will rise for others, but not for you.

Half a century before the physicist Brian Greene examined how this very awareness is the wellspring of meaning to our ephemeral lives and a century after Tchaikovsky found beauty amid the wreckage of the soul at 4AM, Baldwin adds:

Sometimes, at four AM, this knowledge is almost enough to force a reconciliation between oneself and all one’s pain and error. Since, anyway, it will end one day, why not try it — life — one more time?

Art from Trees at Night by Art Young, 1926. Available as a print

After singing some beautiful and heartbreaking Bessie Smith lyrics into his essay — lyrics from “Long Road,” a song about reconciling the knowledge that one is ultimately alone with the irrepressible impulse to reach out for love, “to grasp again, with fearful hope, the unwilling, unloving human hand” — Baldwin continues:

I think all of our voyages drive us there; for I have always felt that a human being could only be saved by another human being. I am aware that we do not save each other very often. But I am also aware that we save each other some of the time.

That alone, Baldwin insists, is reason enough to be, as Nietzsche put it, a “yea-sayer” to life — to face the uncertainty of our lives with courage, to face the fact of our mortality with courage, and to fill this blink of existence bookended by nothingness with the courage of a bellowing aliveness.

In a passage that calls to mind Galway Kinnell’s lifeline of a poem “Wait,” composed for a young friend on the brink of suicide, Baldwin writes:

For, perhaps — perhaps — between now and the last day, something wonderful will happen, a miracle, a miracle of coherence and release. And the miracle on which one’s unsteady attention is focused is always the same, however it may be stated, or however it may remain unstated. It is the miracle of love, love strong enough to guide or drive one into the great estate of maturity, or, to put it another way, into the apprehension and acceptance of one’s own identity. For some deep and ineradicable instinct — I believe — causes us to know that it is only this passionate achievement which can outlast death, which can cause life to spring from death.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 English edition of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. Available as a print.

And yet, so often, we lose faith in this miracle, lose the perspective we call faith — so often it slips between the fingers fanned with despair or squeezes through the fist clenched with rage. We lose perspective most often, Baldwin argues, at four AM:

At four AM, when one feels that one has probably become simply incapable of supporting this miracle, with all one’s wounds awake and throbbing, and all one’s ghastly inadequacy staring and shouting from the walls and the floor — the entire universe having shrunk to the prison of the self — death glows like the only light on a high, dark, mountain road, where one has, forever and forever! lost one’s way. — And many of us perish then.

What then? A generation after Little Prince author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry composed his beautiful manifesto for night as an existential clarifying force for the deepest truths of the heart, Baldwin offers:

But if one can reach back, reach down — into oneself, into one’s life — and find there some witness, however unexpected or ambivalent, to one’s reality, one will be enabled, though perhaps not very spiritedly, to face another day… What one must be enabled to recognize, at four o’clock in the morning, is that one has no right, at least not for reasons of private anguish, to take one’s life. All lives are connected to other lives and when one man goes, much more goes than the man goes with him. One has to look on oneself as the custodian of a quantity and a quality — oneself — which is absolutely unique in the world because it has never been here before and will never be here again.

Baldwin — whom U.S. Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks described as “love personified” in introducing his last public appearance before his death — wedges into this foundational structure of soul-survival the fact that in a culture of habitual separation and institutionalized otherness, such self-regard is immensely difficult. And yet, he insists with the passion of one who has proven the truth of his words with his own life, we must try — we must reach across the divides within and without, across the abysses of terror and suspicion, with a generous and largehearted trust in one another, which is at bottom trust in ourselves.

Art by from Little Man, Little Man — James Baldwin’s only children’s book, written to foment his own young nephew’s self-regard.

Echoing his contemporary and kindred visionary Leonard Bernstein’s insistence that “we must believe, without fear, in people,” Baldwin adds what has become, or must become, the most sonorous psychosocial refrain bridging his time and ours:

Where all human connections are distrusted, the human being is very quickly lost.

More than half a century later, Nothing Personal remains a masterwork of rare insight into and consolation for the most elemental aches of the human spirit. For a counterpoint to this nocturnal fragment, savor the great nature writer Henry Beston, writing a generation before Baldwin, on how the beauty of night nourishes the human spirit, then revisit Baldwin on resisting the mindless of majority, how he learned to truly see, the writer’s responsibility in a divided society, his advice on writing, his historic conversation with Margaret Mead about forgiveness and responsibility, and his only children’s book.

BP

Brokenness as Belonging: “lake-loop” by Mojave American Poet Natalie Diaz, in a Stunning Animated Short Film by Artist Ohara Hale

“Every story is a story of water.”

Brokenness as Belonging: “lake-loop” by Mojave American Poet Natalie Diaz, in a Stunning Animated Short Film by Artist Ohara Hale

In February 2019, Lake Erie became a person. After local residents banded together to compose a visionary bill of rights for the lake’s ecosystem, defending its right “to exist, flourish, and naturally evolve,” it was granted personhood in the eyes of the law. It was an ancient recognition — native cultures have always recognized the animacy of the land — disguised as a radical piece of policy. It was also the single most poetic piece of legislation since the landmark 1964 Wilderness Act, which defined a wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

And yet even the boldest visions for a more just and inclusive world, even the most aspirational endeavors to restore natural rights to those previously disenfranchised by culture, are inevitably bounded and blinded by their era’s unconscious and unquestioned givens. To have man stand for the whole of humanity was one such unquestioned blindness in 1964 (most brilliantly questioned a decade later by Ursula K. Le Guin), even though by then women had been legal citizens of the United States for nearly half a century. In fact, even the 19th Amendment that granted women legal personhood — one of the greatest legal triumphs in the history of this civilization, making women persons 100 years before a lake became one — cracked open just one of the Russian nesting dolls of exclusion that line the scales of justice: The 19th Amendment didn’t include Native American women, who didn’t become legal persons until 1924; their electoral votes continued to be excluded via various loopholes in the law over the decades that followed.

Natalie Diaz. (Photograph: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

How that nesting doll of exclusions breaks open into the living reality of this Earth, how it breaks into becoming, into belonging, is what Mojave American poet and MacArthur fellow Natalie Diaz — an artist exploring the permeable membrane between language and landscape — explores in her stunning, sweeping poem “lake-loop,” commissioned for the New York Philharmonic’s inspired Project 19 initiative and originally published in The Academy of American Poets’ lifeline of a newsletter, Poem-a-Day.

She writes of the impetus for the poem:

Part of the San Andreas fault runs along the Mojave Desert. We see and feel the fault, it has always been a part of Mojave stories and geography. We have always existed with it — in rift — part land. We are land’s action, maybe. I am always wondering and wandering around what it means to be part of this condition, in shift. What it means to embrace discontinuity, to need it and even to need to cause it in order to be — depression but also moving energy. The necessary fracturing of what is broken. The idea of being made anything or nothing in this country — “to be ruined before becoming” — the idea that this country tried to give us no space to exist, yet we made that space, and make it still — in stress, in friction, glide and flow, slip and heave. We are tectonic, and ready.

When Natalie kindly lent her poem and her voice to the 2020 Universe in Verse, I could think of no artist more perfect in bringing its spirit to visual life than Ohara Hale.

Ohara Hale (Photograph: Christopher Honeywell)

The month that Lake Erie was coming alive in the eyes of the law, Ohara — a Montreal-based illustrator, poet, animator, children’s book author, musician, and largehearted lover of this living world — was swallowed by a geothermal vent while hiking in Iceland.

She survived, with her body badly damaged but her singular, buoyant soul intact. In those first rawest days, as she surrendered her burned flesh to the caring hands of doctors and nurses, her spirit plunged into a larger surrender — into the deeper, unfathomed psychological and emotional burn of life, personal and collective — a sudden and powerful portal of empathy into the pain of others, of all that is alive; and, from there, into the transcendent beauty of all that is alive.

Throughout her long convalescence, skin grafts, the disorienting miracle of learning to walk again, the staggering joy of the first warm shower after the agony upon her last contact with water, all Ohara had to say about the experience was that Mother Earth had just given her an extra warm, extra close hug — a testament to an extraordinary spirit in an experience that would have embittered most, eager as we human animals are to point blamethirsty fingers. “And anyways,” Ohara tells me, “how can anyone ever be upset at her, the great mother of us all, the Earth?”

It is with tremendous pleasure and gratitude that I offer, as a special preview of the 2020 Universe in Verse, this countercultural braid of beauty and resilience by two remarkable women. Tune in at 4:30PM EST on April 25 for more celebrations of the wonder, splendor, and science of life by a constellation of other remarkable humans.

LAKE-LOOP
by Natalie Diaz

        , because there was yet no lake


into many nights we made the lake

        a labor, and its necessary laborings

to find the basin not yet opened

in my body, yet my body — any body

wet or water from the start, to fill a clay

, start being what it ever means, a beginning —

the earth’s first hand on a vision-quest

wildering night’s skin fields, for touch

        like a dark horse made of air

, turned downward in the dusk, opaquing

a hand resembles its ancestors —

the war, or the horse who war made

        , what it means to be made

to be ruined before becoming — rift

        glacial, ablation and breaking

lake-hip sloping, fluvial, then spilled —


I unzip the lake, walk into what I am —

        the thermocline, and oxygen

, as is with kills, rivers, seas, the water

        is of our own naming

I am wet we call it because it is

a happening, is happening now


imagined light is light’s imagination

a lake shape of it

        , the obligatory body, its dark burning

reminding us back, memory as filter

desire as lagan, a hydrology —

        The lake is alone, we say in Mojave


, every story happens because someone’s mouth,

a nature dependent — life, universe

        Here at the lake, say

, she wanted what she said

        to slip down into it

for which a good lake will rise — Lake

which once meant, sacrifice

which once meant, I am devoted


        , Here I am, atmosphere

sensation, pressure

, the lake is beneath me, pleasure bounded

a slip space between touch and not

slip of paper, slip of hand

        slip body turning toward slip trouble

, I am who slipped the moorings

        I am so red with lack


to loop-knot

or leave the loop beyond the knot

        we won’t say love because it is

a difference between vertex and vertices —

the number of surfaces we break

enough or many to make the lake

        loosened from the rock

one body’s dearth is another body’s ache

        lay it to the earth


, all great lakes are meant to take

        sediment, leg, wrist, wrist, the ear

let down and wet with stars, dock lights

distant but wanted deep,

        to be held in the well of the eye

woven like water, through itself, in

and inside, how to sate a depression

if not with darkness — if darkness is not

        fingers brushing a body, shhhh

, she said, I don’t know what the world is


I slip for her, or anything

, like language, new each time

        diffusionremade and organized

and because nothing is enough, waves

each an emotional museum of water


left light trembles a lake figure on loop

        a night-loop

, every story is a story of water

        before it is gold and alone

before it is black like a rat snake

I begin at the lake

, clean once, now drained

        I am murkI am not clean

everything has already happened

always the lake is just up ahead in the poem

, my mouth is the moon, I bring it down

lay it over the lake of her thighs

        warm lamping ax

hewing water’s tender shell

slant slip, entering like light, surrounded

into another skin

        where there was yet no lake

yet we made it, make it still

to drink and clean ourselves on

For other tastes of what is coming at the 2020 Universe in Verse, savor astrophysicist Janna Levin reading “Antidotes to Fear of Death” by the late, great astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson and Amanda Palmer reading “Einstein’s Mother” by former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, then find more of Ohara’s buoyant spirit in her art and more of Natalie’s in her gorgeous new book, Postcolonial Love Poem (public library).

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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