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After Silence: Amanda Palmer Reads Neil Gaiman’s Stunning Poem Celebrating Rachel Carson’s Legacy of Culture-Shifting Courage

“Nothing is ever over / life breathes life in its turn / Sometimes the people listen / Sometimes the people learn”

“To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men,” the poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote in her piercing and prescient 1914 anthem against silence. Half a century later, these words would come to embolden one of the most revolutionary voices humanity has produced — a scientist who changed culture by writing like a poet. “Knowing what I do, there would be no future peace for me if I kept silent,” marine biologist and poet laureate of science Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) wrote to her beloved, quoting the line as she was readying to speak inconvenient truth to power — at great personal cost — in catalyzing the modern environmental movement with her 1962 book Silent Spring.

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

This stunning notion that a long-dead poet can inspire a scientist to transform an entire society inspired the inception of The Universe in Verse — the annual celebration of science through poetry, which I host each spring at Brooklyn’s wondrous nonprofit cultural institute Pioneer Works and which in turn inspired my book Figuring, where Carson is a central figure and the interleaving of art, science, love, and cultural change a central theme.

How Rachel Carson signed her letters to her loved ones. (Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)

Crowning the 2018 edition of The Universe in Verse, dedicated to Carson and her far-reaching legacy, was an original poem by Neil Gaiman, composed for the occasion to celebrate this visionary of uncommon courage and persistence — the rare gift of one genius honoring another, delivered by a third: Reading the poem was Amanda Palmer, herself an artist of radical courage and an ardent champion of poetry. Please enjoy:

AFTER SILENCE
for Rachel Carson

Seasons on seasons. The spring is signaled by birdsong
coyotes screech and yammer in the moonlight
and the first flowers open. I saw two owls today
in the daylight, on silent wings.
They landed as one and watched me sleepily.
Oh who? they called. Or how, or how who?
Then they leaned into the trunk
into the sun that shone through the tight-curled buds,
and vanished into dappled shadows
never waiting for an answer.

Like the sapling that buckles the sidewalk
and grows until it has reached its height
all of us begin in darkness. Some of us reach maturity. A few
become old: we went over time’s waterfall and lived,
Time barely cares. We are a pool of knowledge and advice
the wisdom of the tribe, but we have stumbled,
fallen face-first into our new uncomfortable roles.
Remembering, as if it happened to someone else,
the race to breed,
or to succeed, the aching need that drove our thoughts
and shaped each deed,
those days are through.
We do not need to grow, we’re done,
we grew.

Who speaks? And why?

She was killed by her breasts, by tumours in them:
A clump of cells that would not listen to orders to disband
no chemical suggestions that they were big enough
that, sometimes, it’s a fine thing just to die, were heeded.
And the trees are leafless and black against the sky
and the bats in fatal whiteface sleep and rot
and the jellyfish drift and pulse through the warming waters
and everything changes. And some things are truly lost.

Wild in the weeds, the breeze scatters the seeds,
and it lifts the wings of the pine processionary moth,
and bears the green glint of the emerald borer,
Now the elms go the way of the chestnut trees.
Becoming memories and dusty furniture.
The ash trees go the way of the elms.
And somebody has to say that we
never need to grow forever. That
we, like the trees, can reach our full growth,
and mature, in wisdom and in time,
that we can be enough of us. That there
can be room for other breeds and kinds and lives.
Who’ll whisper it:
that tumours kill their hosts,
and then themselves?
We’re done. We grew. Enough.

All the gods on the hilltops
and all the gods on the waves
the gods that became seals
the voices on the winds
the quiet places, where if we are silent
we can listen, we can learn.
Who speaks? And why?

Someone could ask the questions, too.
Like who?
Who knew? What’s true?
And how? Or who?
How could it work?
What happens then?
Are consequences consequent?

The answers come from the world itself
The songs are silent,
and the spring is long in coming.

There’s a voice that rumbles beneath us
and after the end the voice still reaches us
Like a bird that cries in hunger
or a song that pleads for a different future.
Because all of us dream of a different future.
And somebody needs to listen.
To pause. To hold.
To inhale, and find the moment
before the exhale, when everything is in balance
and nothing moves. In balance: here’s life, here’s death,
and this is eternity holding its breath.

After the world has ended
After the silent spring
Into the waiting silence
another song begins.

Nothing is ever over
life breathes life in its turn
Sometimes the people listen
Sometimes the people learn

Who speaks? And why?

Complement with “The Mushroom Hunters” — Gaiman’s magnificent feminist science poem composed for the inaugural Universe in Verse, which received the Rhysling Award for poetry — then revisit other highlights from the first two years of the show: astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, poet Marie Howe reading her stirring tribute to Stephen Hawking, science historian James Gleick reading Elizabeth Bishop’s profound poem about the nature of knowledge, U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith reading her ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, and musician Rosanne Cash reading Adrienne Rich’s homage to Marie Curie.

For another tribute to Carson from the show, put on some good headphones and watch Amanda Palmer’s stunning cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” — that iconic and bittersweet anthem of the environmental movement, inspired by the legacy of Silent Spring. For more about Carson and how her unusual private life fomented her epoch-making cultural contribution, she occupies the final and most significant portion of Figuring.

BP

The More Loving One: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads W.H. Auden’s Sublime Ode to Our Unrequited Love for the Universe

“If equal affection cannot be, / Let the more loving one be me.”

The More Loving One: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads W.H. Auden’s Sublime Ode to Our Unrequited Love for the Universe

I wrote Figuring (public library) to explore the interplay between chance and choice, the human search for meaning in an unfeeling universe governed by equal parts precision and randomness, the bittersweet beauty of asymmetrical and half-requited loves, and our restless impulse to uncover the deepest truths of nature, even at the price of our convenient existential delusions of self-importance. (More about the book here.) These are vast, thickly interwoven themes, difficult to distill in a single sentiment, so I chose two dramatically different yet complementary epigraphs to open the book — one drawn from the trailblazing 18th-century philosopher and woman of letters Germaine de Staël’s treatise on the happiness of individuals and societies, and the other from one of our civilization’s most lucid and luminous poets laureate of the human spirit: W.H. Auden (February 21, 1907–September 29, 1973).

The Auden stanza comes from his stunning poem “The More Loving One,” originally published in his 1960 book Homage to Clio (public library) — a collection of shorter poems about history, a concept Auden defines in his own epigraph for the book:

Between those happenings that prefigure it
And those that happen in its anamnesis
Occurs the Event, but that no human wit
Can recognize until all happening ceases.

History, in other words, is not the objective chronicle of events but the subjective recognition of happenings sighted in the rearview mirror of being. (This is a question I explore throughout Figuring, in the prelude to which I wrote that history is not what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgment and chance.) Auden saw history — this selective set of remembrances constructed by human intention and choice — as both counterpart and antipode to nature, in which events unfold free of intent, governed by chance and the impartial physical laws of the universe. Curiously, “The More Loving One” appears among Auden’s poems about history, but it deals with nature and the disorienting necessity of learning to love a universe insentient to our hopes and fears, unconcerned with our individual fates — perhaps the least requited love there is, as well as the largest. It is an elegy, in the classic dual sense of lamentation and celebration, for our ambivalent relationship with this elemental truth and an homage to the supreme triumph of the human heart — the willingness to love that which does not and cannot love us back.

In this recording from the Academy of American Poets’ sixteenth annual Poetry & the Creative Mind, astrophysicist and author Janna Levin reads Auden’s sublime poem, with a lovely prefatory reflection on the bittersweet seductions and consolations of our unrequited love for the universe.

THE MORE LOVING ONE
by W.H. Auden

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.

Complement with Levin’s beautiful readings of Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, Adrienne Rich’s tribute to the world’s first professional female astronomer, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s ode to time, then revisit Auden on writing, true and false enchantment, and the political power of art. For a different side to the poetics of asymmetrical yet profoundly beautiful love, savor Emily Dickinson’s electric love letters to Susan Gilbert, excerpted from Figuring.

BP

The Art-Science of Taking Perspective

A journey from the farthest cosmic horizons of reality to the depths of our poetic truth.

The Art-Science of Taking Perspective

I have been thinking a great deal lately about the notion of perspective. We speak of taking another’s perspective — an admirable moral aspiration but, in a strict sense, a physical impossibility. Even the most well-intentioned and empathetic among us are creatures invariably bound by our frames of reference, with our vantage point confined to our own corner of reality. And yet we aim, as we must, to transcend our perspectival blindnesses and see the world from different points of view — that, it seems to me, is one of the fundamental requirements of human decency and one of the great paradoxes of morality.

In such considerations, we use the word perspective in its figurative sense, but that sense — far more so than for most words — is deeply entwined with the word’s literal meaning and its history. Even the word figurative is part of the history of perspective.

Left: Galileo Galilei’s Moon drawings, 1610. Right: Thomas Harriot’s Moon maps, 1610.

This passage from Figuring traces the interleaving of art and science in the development of perspective, responsible for one of our greatest leaps in understanding the nature of reality:

Euclid’s Elements remains one of the most influential scientific texts of all time, on a par with Newton’s Principia. For centuries after Euclid’s death, his geometry remained our only model of understanding space. This breakthrough in science shaped art through the development of perspective — a technique originally called geometric figuring, which invited architecture and the figurative arts into the three-dimensional world for the first time, then through them gave back to science. Galileo’s Moon drawings were so revolutionary in large part because, trained in perspective, he depicted the topography of its mountains and craters, emanating the radical suggestion that our satellite is not a perfectly smooth orb of ethereal matter but as solid and rugged as the Earth — not a heavenly body but a material one. Mere months earlier, the English mathematician and astronomer Thomas Harriot had become the first person known to make a drawing of the Moon seen through a telescope. Untrained in perspective and ignorant of the Euclid-informed projective geometries that had made their way to Florence but not yet to England, he depicted the Moon as a dappled disc resembling an engraved medal. The genius that led Galileo to see what Harriot could not was indelibly genius loci, as much a function of his mind as of his time and place.

This question of the relationship between perspective in the scientific sense and perspective in the moral sense was recently reignited when I watched the iconic 1977 film Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames — a perspectival masterpiece that did for our understanding of scale and orders of magnitude what Edwin Abbott Abbott’s Victorian novella Flatland did for our understanding of dimensions. I had seen Powers of Ten numerous times before, but this time — perhaps because I watched it projected onto a ceiling, lying flat on my back, with an astrophysicist beside me — its genius struck a deeper chord. It belongs to that rare species of science communication that transcends the scientific and reaches into the poetic, effecting not mere explanation, not even just elucidation, but enchantment.

The film was made months after the launch of the Voyager mission, in an era infused with Carl Sagan’s poetic sensibility and ablaze with the thrill of cosmic curiosity — a time when humanity’s prosthetic eye first left our corner of the Solar System and set out for its farthest reaches, in order to view our cosmic neighborhood from a perspective other than the one allotted us by gravity. To watch Powers of Ten — and to take the telescopic perspective in any way — is to humble ourselves, to dwarf our hyperlocal human dramas against the backdrop of a far vaster reality. If only we could move through the world with the continual awareness that we are each but tiny particles of universal matter, yet we each contain entire cosmoses of physical and psychic reality — we do, as much as everyone we see as other does.

Powers of Ten ends its perspectival extension into the largest scale at 100 million lightyears from Earth, or 1024 meters — the limit of our vision in 1977. In the decades since, humanity’s prosthetic eye — our Earth-tethered instruments, our space telescopes, our data modeling — has extended beyond this horizon, further calibrating our parochial cosmic perspective. In 2009, the American Museum of Natural History teamed up with the Rubin Museum to produce a visualization of the scale of the universe, to the extent that it was then known. While it lacks the poetic enchantment of the Eames classic and ventures only into the large scales, omitting the subatomic, it offers an astounding journey to our cosmic horizon in space and time, as far as 13.7 billion years of light travel away from Earth, to regions of spacetime illuminated by the light of the baby universe — the afterglow of the Big Bang:

A visualization produced five years later, in 2014, explores more recent scientific discoveries about the largest known structures in the universe, superclusters — regions of spacetime densely packed with galaxies — and how our own home supercluster, Laniakea, fits into the biggest picture of reality we have yet painted:

But I side with Susan Sontag in the conviction that “information will never replace illumination” and with Rachel Carson in her lifelong ethos that the scientific and the poetic must converge to illuminate nature in a way that not only informs us but moves us to transcend the limitations of our vantage point. To me, far superior than any data visualization in broadening our perspective — perspective in the humanistic sense as well as the cosmic sense — is Marie Howe’s stunning poem “Singularity,” written for and performed at the second annual Universe in Verse at Pioneer Works:

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

For more perspectival masterpieces from The Universe in Verse, savor astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity inspired by Carl Sagan, actor and activist America Ferrera reading Denise Levertov’s poem about our belonging to nature, and astrophysicist Natalie Batalha’s poetic reflection on what we see when we look past the veils of our perception.

BP

The Best of Brain Pickings 2018

The splendors of the unknown, the uncertain, and the unclassifiable, truth and beauty at the intersection of poetry and science, the timeless tangles of the heart.

In this annual review, as usual, “best” is a composite measure of what I most enjoyed thinking and writing about, and what readers most enjoyed reading and sharing. It follows the annual selections of the year’s loveliest children’s books and overall favorite books.

Here is to the intellectual and spiritual electricity of the eclectic, and to a beautiful new orbit.

* * *

The Difficult Art of Giving Space in Love: Rilke on Freedom, Togetherness, and the Secret to a Good Marriage

Read the article here.

* * *

A Brave and Startling Truth: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Maya Angelou’s Stunning Humanist Poem That Flew to Space, Inspired by Carl Sagan

Read/hear the poem here.

* * *

Life, Loss, and the Wisdom of Rivers

Read the article here.

* * *

Figuring

Read the article here.

* * *

Two Hundred Years of Blue

Read the article here.

* * *

Singularity: Poet Marie Howe’s Beautiful Tribute to Stephen Hawking and Our Belonging to the Universe

Read/hear the poem here.

* * *

A Gentle Corrective for the Epidemic of Identity Politics Turning Us on Each Other and on Ourselves

Read the article here.

* * *

A Velocity of Being: Illustrated Letters to Children about Why We Read by 121 of the Most Inspiring Humans in Our World

Read the article here.

* * *

How to Grow Old: Bertrand Russell on What Makes a Fulfilling Life

Read the article here.

* * *

Kahlil Gibran on the Courage to Weather the Uncertainties of Love

Read the article here.

* * *

Zadie Smith on Optimism and Despair

Read the article here.

* * *

Nietzsche on Truth, Lies, the Power and Peril of Metaphor, and How We Use Language to Reveal and Conceal Reality

Read the article here.

* * *

Elizabeth Gilbert on Love, Loss, and How to Move Through Grief as Grief Moves Through You

Read the article here.

* * *

Against the Illusion of Separateness: Pablo Neruda’s Beautiful and Humanistic Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

Read the article here.

* * *

Emily Dickinson’s Electric Love Letters to Susan Gilbert

Read the article here.

* * *

Walt Whitman on Democracy and Optimism as a Mighty Form of Resistance

Read the article here.

* * *

Iris Murdoch on Storytelling, Why Art Is Essential for Democracy, and the Key to Good Writing

Read the article here.

* * *

Create Dangerously: Albert Camus on the Artist as a Voice of Resistance and a Liberator of Society

Read the article here.

* * *

The Hour of Land: Terry Tempest Williams on the Responsibility of Awe and the Wilderness as an Antidote to the War Within Ourselves

Read the article here.

* * *

Carl Sagan on Mystery, Why Common Sense Blinds Us to the Universe, and How to Live with the Unknown

Read the article here.

* * *

Bear and Wolf: A Tender Illustrated Fable of Walking Side by Side in Otherness

Read the article here.

* * *

Literary Witches: An Illustrated Celebration of Trailblazing Women Writers Who Have Enchanted and Transformed the World

Read the article here.

* * *

Ursula K. Le Guin on Art, Storytelling, and the Power of Language to Transform and Redeem

Read the article here.

* * *

From Euclid to Equality: Mathematician Lillian Lieber on How the Greatest Creative Revolution in Mathematics Illuminates the Core Ideals of Social Justice and Democracy

Read the article here.

* * *

Nobel-Winning Physicist Niels Bohr on Subjective vs. Objective Reality and the Uses of Religion in a Secular World

Read the article here.

* * *

Georgia O’Keeffe on the Art of Seeing

Read the article here.

* * *

Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Hymn to Time”

Read/hear the poem here.

BP

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