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“Today, Another Universe”: Jane Hirshfield Reads Her Stunning Perspectival Poem of Consolation by Calibration

Steadying solace for those times when we “go to sleep in one world and wake in another.”

“Today, Another Universe”: Jane Hirshfield Reads Her Stunning Perspectival Poem of Consolation by Calibration

It is our biological destiny to exist — and then not. Each of us eventually returns their stardust to the universe, to be constellated into some other ephemeral emissary of spacetime. Eventually, our entire species will go the way of the dinosaurs and the dodo and the Romantics; eventually, our home star will live out its final moments in a wild spin before collapsing into a white dwarf, taking with it everything we have ever known — Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and the guillotine and the perfect Fibonacci sequence of the pine cone.

Meanwhile, in this blink of existence bookended by nothingness, we busy ourselves with survival and with searching for beauty, for truth, for assurance between the bookends. The feeling of that search is what we call meaning; the people who light our torches to help us see better, who transmit our discoveries from one consciousness to another, are what we call artists. Artists are also the ones who help reconcile us to the fragility that comes with our creaturely nature and strews our search with so much suffering. Suffering — biological and psychological, in private and en masse — has always accompanied our species, as it has every species. But we alone have coped by transmuting our suffering into beauty, by making symphonies and paintings and poems out of our fragility — beauty that does not justify the suffering, but does make it more bearable, does help the sufferers next to us and after us, in space and in time, suffer less, in ways the originating consciousness can never quantify in the receiving, never estimate their reach across the sweep of centuries and sufferings.

“Perspective” by Maria Popova

Few search-artists have served as greater agents of transmutation than Jane Hirshfield — a poet of optimism and of lucidity, a champion of science and an ordained Buddhist, a poet who could write “So few grains of happiness / measured against all the dark / and still the scales balance,” a poet who can balance and steady us against those times when we “go to sleep in one world and wake in another” with her wondrous new collection Ledger (public library).

As we wake in another, searching for sense and stability, practicing the practice of life within chaos theory, I asked Jane to read for us one of the most beautiful and perspectival poems from this miraculous book — a poem of consolation by way of calibration; an invitation to broaden our perspective — scientific, temporal, and humanistic — and weigh the immediate against the eternal.

TODAY, ANOTHER UNIVERSE
by Jane Hirshfield

The arborist has determined:
senescence      beetles      canker
quickened by drought
                           but in any case
not prunable   not treatable   not to be propped.

And so.

The branch from which the sharp-shinned hawks and their mate-cries.

The trunk where the ant.

The red squirrels’ eighty-foot playground.

The bark   cambium   pine-sap   cluster of needles.

The Japanese patterns      the ink-net.

The dapple on certain fish.

Today, for some, a universe will vanish.
First noisily,
then just another silence.

The silence of after, once the theater has emptied.

Of bewilderment after the glacier,
the species, the star.

Something else, in the scale of quickening things,
will replace it,

this hole of light in the light, the puzzled birds swerving around it.

A quarter century later, the poem echoes Hirshfield’s short, stunning poem “Jasmine” from her indispensable 1997 collection The Lives of the Heart — one of the truest, most beautiful perspectives ever polished in language:

JASMINE
by Jane Hirshfield

Almost the twenty-first century” —
how quickly the thought will grow dated,
even quaint.

Our hopes, our future,
will pass like the hopes and futures of others.

And all our anxieties and terrors,
nights of sleeplessness,
griefs,
will appear then as they truly are —

Stumbling, delirious bees in the tea scent of jasmine.

Complement this fragment of Hirshfield’s altogether re-saning Ledger with other poetic masterpieces of perspective — “Singularity” by Marie Howe, “A Brave and Starling Truth” by Maya Angelou, “Immortality” by Lisel Mueller, “Cold Solace” by Anna Belle Kaufman, “The Mushroom Hunters” by Neil Gaiman, “When I Am Among the Trees” by Mary Oliver, “You Can’t Have It All” by Barbara Ras, “The Everlasting Self” by Tracy K. Smith, “Theories of Everything” by Rebecca Elson — then revisit physicist Brian Greene on the poetry of existence and the wellspring of meaning in our ephemeral lives amid an impartial universe.

BP

The Body Politic Electric: Walt Whitman on Women’s Centrality to Democracy

“Have I not said that womanhood involves all? Have I not told how the universe has nothing better than the best womanhood?”

The Body Politic Electric: Walt Whitman on Women’s Centrality to Democracy

“I can conceive of no better service,” Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) wrote in contemplating the mightiest force of resistance in times far more troubled than ours, “than boldly exposing the weakness, liabilities and infinite corruptions of democracy.” To Whitman, who declared himself “the poet of the woman the same as the man,” the gravest weakness of democracy was the artificial, culturally manufactured inequality of the genders, which he recognized not only as a corruption of democracy but as a corruption of nature. Equality for him, be it of the genders or the races, was never a matter of politics — that plaything of the human animal — but a matter of naturalness. Because he saw how thickly interleaved our individual dignities are, how interdependent our flourishing — saw that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” — he took it upon himself, a century and a half before his society did, to save democracy from politics, standing up for the rightful balance of dignity and power. Anne Gilchrist — the unheralded genius whom Whitman admired as “a sort of human miracle” belonging “to the times yet to come” — spoke for the epochs when she asked: “Who but he could put at last the right meaning into that word ‘democracy,’ which has been made to bear such a burthen of incongruous notions?”

Walt Whitman (Photograph by Mathew Brady, early 1860s)

Whitman threw himself at righting — naturalizing — the gender imbalance of democracy not despite his maleness but precisely because of it. At the heart of his devotion to equality was an astute insight into the paradox of power: the understanding that no socially and politically marginalized group — not even a biological majority — moves to the center solely by its own efforts; it takes a gravitational pull by those kindred to the cause who are already in relative positions of power or privilege. It was a countercultural understanding in his time, and remains a countercultural understanding in ours, its negation ahistorical: Citizens helped us immigrants obtain legal rights and protections; white women like astronomer Maria Mitchell and literary titan Margaret Fuller were on the ideological front-lines of abolition, some even on the literal front-lines of the Civil War.

Long before the term feminism wove itself into the modern lexicon, America’s most celebrated poet (though perhaps the second-greatest) became an outspoken feminist. In his 1888 poem “America” — a reading of which is the only surviving recording of his voice — Whitman eulogized his homeland as a “centre of equal daughters, equal sons.” He added this poem to his continually revised and expanded Leaves of Grass in the final years of his life, but coursing through it was the pulse-beat of a longtime conviction: As a young man, Whitman was greatly influenced by Margaret Fuller — one of the central figures Figuring — whose epoch-making book Woman in the Nineteenth Century catalyzed American women’s emancipation movement. Clippings of Fuller’s columns for the New-York Tribune, where she became the first female editor of a major American newspaper and America’s first foreign war correspondent, were found among Whitman’s papers after his death.

Nearly two decades after Fuller radicalized society, but long before her legacy helped women win the right to vote, Whitman composed a remarkably prescient essay on the obstacles to democracy, included in the indispensable Library of America volume Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose (free ebook | public library).

Art by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Insisting that no democratic society could exist in which women are not afforded the same rights as men, he wrote:

I have sometimes thought… that the sole avenue and means of a reconstructed sociology depended, primarily, on a new birth, elevation, expansion, invigoration of woman… Great, great, indeed, far greater than they know, is the sphere of women.

[…]

Of all dangers to a nation, as things exist in our day, there can be no greater one than having certain portions of the people set off from the rest by a line drawn — they not privileged as others, but degraded, humiliated, made of no account.

A century before Adrienne Rich argued for literature as a force of women’s empowerment and a form of resistance to male capitalist society, Whitman called for the creation of a new American literature that would be as much an original art form as a tool of social change. Among “the most precious of its results,” Whitman envisioned, would be “achieving the entire redemption of woman… and thus insuring to the States a strong and sweet Female Race.” Art, he resolutely believed, was the ultimate catalyst for social transformation and betterment:

The literature, songs, esthetics, &c., of a country are of importance principally because they furnish the materials and suggestions of personality for the women and men of that country, and enforce them in a thousand effective ways.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Whitman’s first serious biographer, the great nature writer John Burroughs, notes in his exquisitely beautiful and loving portrait of the poet, Whitman: A Study (public library | free ebook), that Whitman always heralded woman as man’s equal and never his plaything, property, or unpaid domestic servant, always as capable of embodying the qualities Whitman most celebrated in human nature. Burroughs wrote:

I sometimes meet women whom I say are of the Whitman type — the kind of woman he invoked and predicted… They are cheerful, tolerant, friendly, think no evil, meet high and low on equal terms; they walk, row, climb mountains; they reach forth into the actual world of questions and events, open-minded, sympathetic, frank, natural, good-natured… in short, the large, fresh, wholesome open-air natures whose ideal so completely possessed Walt Whitman.

Burroughs placed the equality of men and women as the crowning achievement of a more Whitmanesque society — the more democratic society of the future:

The more democratic we become, the more we are prepared for Whitman; the more tolerant, fraternal, sympathetic we become, the more we are ready for Whitman; the more we inure ourselves to the open air and to real things, the more we value and understand our own bodies, the more the woman becomes the mate and equal of the man, the more social equality prevails, — the sooner will come to Whitman fullness and fruition.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Whitman himself had written in Leaves of Grass:

The race is never separated — nor man nor woman
escapes;
All is inextricable — things, spirits, nature, nations,
you too — from precedents you come.

[…]

The creation is womanhood;
Have I not said that womanhood involves all?
Have I not told how the universe has nothing better
than the best womanhood?

Art by Lia Halloran for The Universe in Verse. Available as a print.

Complement with Nikola Tesla’s feminist vision for humanity, then revisit Whitman on optimism as a mighty force of resistance, what it takes to be an agent of change, how to keep criticism from sinking your soul, and what makes life worth living.

BP

Marcus Aurelius in Love: The Future Stoic Philosopher and Roman Emperor’s Passionate Teenage Love Letters to His Tutor

“Those who love less should be helped out and lavished with more.”

Marcus Aurelius in Love: The Future Stoic Philosopher and Roman Emperor’s Passionate Teenage Love Letters to His Tutor

“Who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love,” a trio of psychologists wrote in their wonderful inquiry into limbic revision and how love rewires the brain. But whom we love equally depends on who we are and who we want to become. Love, like time, is as much a function of us as we are a function of it.

An especially striking illustration of this equivalence, both for its intensity and its unexpectedness, comes from the adolescent love letters the future Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (April 26, 121–March 17, 180) to his teacher, Marcus Cornelius Fronto, collected and translated by Amy Richlin two millennia later in Marcus Aurelius in Love (public library) — a most improbable addition to history’s greatest LGBT love letters.

Fatherless since childhood, Marcus Aurelius was raised by his wealthy single mother, Domitia Lucilla. In 139, she hired Fronto — an African immigrant to Rome who described himself as “a Libyan of the Libyan nomads,” by then one of the era’s preeminent orators — to teach her eighteen-year-old son the art of rhetoric in preparation for his political career.

Across caste and rank, across twenty-some years of age difference, the two Marcuses fell in love.

For six years, until Marcus Aurelius’s socially necessitated marriage, they lived in close proximity and exchanged letters of devotion and tenderness, laced with intellectual admiration and erotic longing. Although their love was edged with danger under Roman law, it was not its same-sex nature that imperiled them — a grown man charged with seducing an adolescent male could be charged with adultery, the penalty for which was exile or death. But the seduction, if the term applies to their case at all, flowed the other way: Marcus Aurelius inundated Fronto with ardor that at first received only a timorous echo.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print)

In the preface to the collection, Richlin draws on the early Stoic philosophers’ forgotten axioms of sexuality to provide the deeper cultural context beneath the shallow reach of Roman law:

Zeno (335–263 BCE) and his successor, Chrysippus (280–207 BCE), argued that sex between human beings who have learned the proper principles of respect and true friendship is a good thing, and that the ideal society would be one in which sex was enjoyed freely, without propertarian bonds of marriage. In particular, the young person just turning toward philosophy, the prokopton, should be trained by his mentor first through a sexual relationship, which should grow into an understanding of philosophy.

And so it did for Marcus Aurelius and his mentor-turned-paramour.

It was through the portal of intellectual reverence that the young man marched his heart into love. By the end of 139, he had already become besotted with Fronto. After receiving one of his tutor’s essays, he exults:

Should I not burn with love of you when you’ve written this to me? What should I do? I can’t stop.

Soon, the young man began addressing his beloved as “my Fronto,” unselfconsciously calling him “my number one delight,” “my dearest and most loving,” “my biggest thing under heaven,” “breath of my life.” Fronto, at first, met this ardor with considerable reserve — self-restraint, perhaps — but it was an ambivalent reserve. Aware that Marcus was being courted by another man — not uncommon practice in their time and place — and that this suitor already considered him his “He-Sweetheart,” Fronto writes:

You seem likely, dear Boy, to want to understand… why, pray, I who am not in love strive so eagerly to gain the same Things that Lovers do. So will I tell you first how that may be. By Zeus, that Fellow who is so very a Suitor was not born with a sharper Pair of Eyes than I who am no Lover, yet I in fact am sensible of your Beauty no less than the rest; I might say, more acutely so than your Suitor.

[…]

Me you approach not at your Peril, nor at the Cost of any Harm will you keep Company with me; nay, ’twill do you every Good. Indeed, Beauties are help’d and benefitted more by those who love them not, as green Shoots are help’d by the Waters. For Springs and Rivers love not green Shoots, yet in their going near and their flowing past do they make them to flower and to bloom.

Fronto’s conflicted push-pull message achieved none of the push. With the same stubborn optimism and imperviousness to adversity that would one day make him a great Stoic and a great emperor, Marcus responds:

Go ahead, as much as you like, threaten me, accuse me… with whole clumps of arguments, but you will never put off your Suitor — I mean me. Nor will I proclaim it any less that I love Fronto, or will I be less in love, because you’ve proven, and with such strange and strong and elegant expressions, that those who love less should be helped out and lavished with more.

Two millennia later, W.H. Auden would echo this sentiment in his stunning poem “The More Loving One.”

Marcus accelerates the propulsion of his undeterred ardor:

God, no, I am dying so for love of you, and I’m not scared off by this doctrine of yours, and if you’re going to be more ripe and ready for others who don’t love you, I will still love you as long as I live and breathe.

[…]

Socrates didn’t burn more with desire for Phaedrus than I’ve burned during these days — did I say days? I mean months — for the sight of you. Your letter fixed it so a person wouldn’t have to be Dion to love you so much — if he isn’t immediately seized with love of you.

And then, in a touchingly innocent closing line, he adds:

My lady mother says hello.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print)

On Fronto’s birthday, Marcus writes:

Because I love you next to my own self, I want to make a wish for myself on this day.

In an imaginative romp through the intellectual and spiritual epicenters of the ancient world, he gathers a posy of blandishments and beneficences for his beloved:

I go down to Athens, and on bended knee I beseech and beg Minerva that whatever I may ever learn about letters should above all journey from Fronto’s mouth to my heart.’ Now I return to Rome, and I call on the gods of roads and voyages with wishes that every trip I take may be with you beside me, and that I may not be worn out so frequently by such ferocious longing. In the end I ask all the guardian gods of all the nations, and Jupiter himself, who thunders over the Capitol Hill, to grant us that I should celebrate this day, on which you were born for me, along with you, and a happy, strong you.

Fronto did not remain unresponsive. “With good reason I’ve devoted myself to you,” he eventually writes, “considering your love for me, which I feel so lucky to have.” Whatever the nature and magnitude of his own feelings may have been, he makes no pretense of denying that he loves being so loved:

Good-bye, Caesar, and love me the most, as you do. I truly love to pieces every little letter of every word you.

Plucked from antiquity when the manuscript was discovered in 1815, and reanimated by Richlin’s painstaking scholarship despite missing pages, illegible handwriting, and untranslatable sentiments, the forty-six letters collected in Marcus Aurelius in Love radiate a testament to an elemental fact I have observed elsewhere: The human heart is an ancient beast that roars and purrs with the same passions, whatever labels we may give them. We are so anxious to classify and categorize, both nature and human nature. It is a beautiful impulse — to contain the infinite in the finite, to wrest order from the chaos, to construct a foothold so we may climb toward higher truth. It is also a limiting one, for in naming things we often come to mistake the names for the things themselves. The labels we give to the loves of which we are capable — varied and vigorously transfigured from one kind into another and back again — cannot begin to contain the complexity of feeling that can flow between two hearts and the bodies that contain them.

For a further testament across time and space, savor Emily Dickinson’s electric love letters to Susan Gilbert and Herman Melville’s passionate epistolary longing for Nathaniel Hawthorne, then revisit the grown Marcus Aurelius, his wisdom having ripened under Fronto’s formative sun, on the key to living with presence and how to begin each day with unassailable serenity.

BP

The Poetics of Outer Toughness and Inner Tenderness: Gorgeous 19th-Century Engravings of Cacti

A succulent serenade to the elegant geometry of spiny splendor.

The Poetics of Outer Toughness and Inner Tenderness: Gorgeous 19th-Century Engravings of Cacti

Among the oddities of my childhood in communist Bulgaria was my mother’s collection of cacti. Against the chipped grey concrete of our apartment building, these improbable emissaries of another climate from another world stood as spiked sentinels of a fantastical optimism at the portal to another life.

Each winter, we brought the entire ensemble — dozens of them, all kinds of shapes and sizes and species — indoors; each summer, we carefully arranged them back on the tiny balcony overlooking the grey parking lot. My mother even tried her hand at grafting, without much success — but I vividly remember my astonishment at seeing the thick spiny skin open into the softest, most succulent flesh I had ever seen — softer than the inside of the cucumbers from my grandmother’s garden, moister than the vermillion interior of my thumb the time I pressed it into the knife’s blade accidentally flipped upside down.

I loved their geometric elegance, the splendid shock of their rare blossoms, their quiet resilience. I felt a deep affinity with these strange, otherworldly creatures — the child who also had to learn to thrive on being underwatered, the child longing for thick-skinned spiny armor to protect the inner succulence from the intemperate climate and violent dust-storms of its local environment. (Many years later, well into adulthood, I would discover and fall in love with a charming children’s book embracing this very metaphor.)

Mammillaria Elephantidens. Available as a print.

Imagine, then, my delight at chancing upon the forgotten 1841 gem Illustrations from a Descriptive Iconography of Cacti by the French botanist Charles Antoine Lemaire (November 1, 1800–June 22, 1871), who spent his entire personal and professional life under the enchantment of cacti, dying in poverty and without renown despite his voluminous publications and the number of genera he named, including the famed Christmas Cactus. (A plant, as it happens, about a hundred million years older than Christ.) His successor at the horticultural journal Lemaire edited for the last seventeen years of his life lamented that “posterity will esteem M. Lemaire more highly than did his contemporaries.” May we so do.

Echinocactus sellowianus. Available as a print.

His 1841 classification of cacti features a dozen beautifully colored and detailed engravings of some of the most notable species, which I have restored, digitized, and made available as prints, with proceeds benefiting The Nature Conservancy.

Echinocactus pentacanthus. Available as a print.
Echinocactus horizontalinus. Available as a print.
Echinocactus pectiniferus. Available as a print.
Echinocactus astrophytum myriostigma. Available as a print.
Echinocactus gibbosus. Available as a print.
Echinocactus concinnus. Available as a print.
Echinocactus coptonogonus. Available as a print.
Echinocactus hexaedrophorus. Available as a print.
Mammillaria Erecta. Available as a print.
Echinocactus horizontalinus. Available as a print.

Complement with the poetic physicist Alan Lightman on how a rare night-blooming cactus reconciles us to the universe, then revisit poet and painter Rebecca Hey’s gorgeous illustrations for the world’s first encyclopedia of trees, published in Lemaire’s era, and Elizabeth Blackwell’s trailblazing illustrated botany of medicinal plants from the previous century.

BP

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