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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.

by Lisel Mueller


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.


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.


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.


The Cosmic Miracle of Trees: Astronaut Leland Melvin Reads Pablo Neruda’s Love Letter to Earth’s Forests

“Anyone who hasn’t been in the Chilean forest doesn’t know this planet. I have come out of that landscape, that mud, that silence, to roam, to go singing through the world.”

The Cosmic Miracle of Trees: Astronaut Leland Melvin Reads Pablo Neruda’s Love Letter to Earth’s Forests

“Today, for some, a universe will vanish,” Jane Hirshfield writes in her stunning poem about the death of a tree a quarter millennium after William Blake observed in his most passionate letter that how we see a tree is how we see the world, and in the act of seeing we reveal what we are: “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way,” he wrote. “As a man is, so he sees.”

If a single tree is home to a miniature universe of life, and if we are learning with wide-eyed wonder that a tree is not a self-contained world but a synaptic node in a complex cosmos of relationships in constant and astonishing communication with other nodes, relationships that weave the fabric of earthly life, what does it make us — what does it reveal about our character, as a planetary people and a civilization — to watch the world’s forests vanish in flames before our eyes, in wildfires so ferocious as to be visible from space?

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

A century after Walt Whitman turned to trees as our wisest moral teachers and a generation before Wangari Maathai defended them with her life in a movement of moral courage that won her the Nobel Peace Prize, the Nobel-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (July 12, 1904–September 23, 1973) — one of humanity’s furthest-seeing and lushest-minded artists — shone a gorgeous sidewise gleam at an answer by way of celebration rather than lamentation in a passage from his Memoirs (public library), posthumously published in English the year the Voyager spacecraft captured that poetry-fomenting first glimpse of our Pale Blue Dot seen from far away. (Translated from the Spanish by Hardie St. Martin, this treasure of a book is now — unfathomably, tragically, a civilizational embarrassment — out of print.)

At the 2020 Universe in Verse, celebrating fifty years of Earth Day, astronaut and poetry-lover Leland Melvin — one of a fraction of a fraction of a percentage of humans in the history of our species to have left this rare planet, to have seen its forests and its intricate living web of relationships from the cosmic perspective, and to have returned loving it all the more passionately — breathed new life into Neruda’s forgotten words with a soulful reading of that passage:

Under the volcanoes, beside the snow-capped mountains, among the huge lakes, the fragrant, the silent, the tangled Chilean forest… My feet sink down into the dead leaves, a fragile twig crackles, the giant rauli trees rise in all their bristling height, a bird from the cold jungle passes over, flaps its wings, and stops in the sunless branches. And then, from its hideaway, it sings like an oboe… The wild scent of the laurel, the dark scent of the boldo herb, enter my nostrils and flood my whole being… The cypress of the Guaitecas blocks my way… This is a vertical world: a nation of birds, a plenitude of leaves… I stumble over a rock, dig up the uncovered hollow, an enormous spider covered with red hair stares up at me, motionless, as huge as a crab… A golden carabus beetle blows its mephitic breath at me, as its brilliant rainbow disappears like lightning… Going on, I pass through a forest of ferns much taller than I am: from their cold green eyes sixty tears splash down on my face and, behind me, their fans go on quivering for a long time… A decaying tree trunk: what a treasure!… Black and blue mushrooms have given it ears, red parasite plants have covered it with rubies, other lazy plants have let it borrow their beards, and a snake springs out of the rotted body like a sudden breath, as if the spirit of the dead trunk were slipping away from it… Farther along, each tree stands away from its fellows… They soar up over the carpet of the secretive forest, and the foliage of each has its own style, linear, bristling, ramulose, lanceolate, as if cut by shears moving in infinite ways… A gorge; below, the crystal water slides over granite and jasper… A butterfly goes past, bright as a lemon, dancing between the water and the sunlight… Close by, innumerable calceolarias nod their little yellow heads in greeting… High up, red copihues (Lapageria rosea) dangle like drops from the magic forest’s arteries… A fox cuts through the silence like a flash, sending a shiver through the leaves, but silence is the law of the plant kingdom… The barely audible cry of some bewildered animal far off… The piercing interruption of a hidden bird… The vegetable world keeps up its low rustle until a storm chums up all the music of the earth.

Anyone who hasn’t been in the Chilean forest doesn’t know this planet.

I have come out of that landscape, that mud, that silence, to roam, to go singing through the world.

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

Complement with poet and painter Rebecca Hey’s lovely illustrations for the world’s first encyclopedia of trees, Mary Oliver’s radiant poem “When I Am Among the Trees” radiantly read by Amanda Palmer, the uncommonly wonderful picture-book The Forest, and the poetic nature writer Robert Macfarlane — who also read at the 2020 Universe in Verse — on how trees illuminate the secret of true love, then savor other highlights from this poetic celebration of the science and splendor of nature: a sublimely beautiful animation of Marie Howe’s stirring poem about our cosmic belonging and the meaning of home, inspired by Stephen Hawking; 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 and Universe in Verse alumna Tracy K. Smith; and artist Ohara Hale’s lyrical watercolor adaptation of Mojave American poet Natalie Diaz’s ode to brokenness as a portal to belonging and resilience.


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 .

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.

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.


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.

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).


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