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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).


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.

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.


Spring in a Pandemic: Mary Shelley on What Makes Life Worth Living and Nature’s Beauty as a Lifeline to Regaining Sanity

“There is but one solution to the intricate riddle of life; to improve ourselves, and contribute to the happiness of others.”

Spring in a Pandemic: Mary Shelley on What Makes Life Worth Living and Nature’s Beauty as a Lifeline to Regaining Sanity

Half a century before Walt Whitman considered what makes life worth living when a paralytic stroke boughed him to the ground of being, Mary Shelley (August 30, 1797–February 1, 1851) placed that question at the beating heart of The Last Man (free ebook | public library) — the 1826 novel she wrote in the bleakest period of her life: after the deaths of three of her children, two by widespread infectious diseases that science has since contained; after the love of her life, Percy Bysshe Shelley, drowned in a boating accident.

From that fathomless pit of sorrow, on the pages of a novel about a pandemic that begins erasing the human species one by one until a sole survivor — Shelley’s autobiographical protagonist — remains, she raised the vital question: Why live? By her answer, she raised herself from the pit to go on living, becoming the endling of her own artistic species — Mary Shelley outlived all the Romantics, composing prose of staggering poetic beauty and singlehandedly turning her then-obscure husband into the icon he now is by her tireless lifelong devotion to the posthumous editing, publishing, and glorifying of his poetry.

Shelley had set her far-seeing Frankenstein, written a decade earlier, a century into her past; she sets The Last Man a quarter millennium into her future, in the final decade of the twenty-first century, culminating in the year 2092 — the tricentennial of her beloved’s birth.

Mary Shelley. Art from Literary Witches — an illustrated celebration of trailblazing women writers who have enchanted and transformed the world.

The novel’s narrator, Lionel Verney — an idealistic young man, more porous than most to both the deepest suffering of living and the most transcendent beauty of life — is the closest Mary Shelley, stoical and guarded, came to painting a psychological self-portrait. As the pandemic sweeps the world and vanquishes his loved ones one by one, Shelley’s protagonist returns home to seek safety “as the storm-driven bird does [to] the nest in which it may fold its wings in tranquillity.” There, in the strange stillness, stripped of the habitual busynesses and distractions of social existence, he finds himself contemplating the essence of life:

How unwise had the wanderers been, who had deserted [the nest’s] shelter, entangled themselves in the web of society, and entered on what men of the world call “life,” — that labyrinth of evil, that scheme of mutual torture. To live, according to this sense of the word, we must not only observe and learn, we must also feel; we must not be mere spectators of action, we must act; we must not describe, but be subjects of description. Deep sorrow must have been the inmate of our bosoms… sickening doubt and false hope must have chequered our days… Who that knows what “life” is, would pine for this feverish species of existence? I have lived. I have spent days and nights of festivity; I have joined in ambitious hopes…: now — shut the door on the world, and build high the wall that is to separate me from the troubled scene enacted within its precincts.

In consonance with Whitman — “After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains?” the American poet would ask across space and time, then answer: “Nature remains.” — Shelley’s protagonist finds the meaning of life not in the whirlwind of the human-made world with its simulacra of living but in the simple creaturely presence with nature’s ongoing symphony of life:

Let us… seek peace… near the inland murmur of streams, and the gracious waving of trees, the beauteous vesture of earth, and sublime pageantry of the skies. Let us leave “life,” that we may live.

First Signal by Maria Popova

At the height of the deadly pandemic, nature seems all the more quietly determined to affirm the resilience of life — spring arrives with its irrepressible bursts of beauty, untrammeled by human suffering and a supreme salve for it. It is by observing nature’s unbidden delirium in its littlest expression, by surrendering to its sweep, that Lionel regains his faith not only in survival but in the beauty, the worthiness of life.

A generation before the young Emily Dickinson delighted in the poetry of spring, Shelley writes:

Winter passed away; and spring, led by the months, awakened life in all nature. The forest was dressed in green; the young calves frisked on the new-sprung grass; the wind-winged shadows of light clouds sped over the green cornfields; the hermit cuckoo repeated his monotonous all-hail to the season; the nightingale, bird of love and minion of the evening star, filled the woods with song; while Venus lingered in the warm sunset, and the young green of the trees lay in gentle relief along the clear horizon.

From this open presence with the non-human world, Shelley’s protagonist extracts the essence of what it means to be human:

There is but one solution to the intricate riddle of life; to improve ourselves, and contribute to the happiness of others.

Mary Shelley

Complement with Rebecca Elson’s stunning poem “Antidotes to Fear of Death,” Shelley’s contemporary Elizabeth Barrett Browning — a trailblazing poet who was dealt an inordinate share of suffering and who made of it inordinate beauty — on what makes life worth living, and the story of how young Isaac Newton’s plague quarantine fomented humanity’s greatest leap in science, then revisit the gorgeous advice on life Shelley’s mother, the trailblazing political philosopher and founding feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, never lived to give her daughter, having died in giving her birth.


The Universe in Verse 2019: Full Show

“Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.”

Each spring, I join forces with my friends at Pioneer Works for an improbable idea that began in 2017 and has taken on a life of its own: The Universe in Verse — a charitable celebration of the science and splendor of nature through poetry.

The third annual Universe in Verse at Pioneer Works. April 23, 2019. Photograph: Walter Wlodarczyk.

With our sleeves rolled up and sweat-soaked in preparation for the 2020 virtual edition (“trailer” here), and with the world stunned and stilled and looking to fill the blur of days under quarantine with something of substance and succor, we have released the full recording of the 2019 show, celebrating the 100th anniversary of Sir Arthur Eddington’s historic eclipse expedition to Africa, which confirmed relativity and catapulted Einstein into celebrity. “Dear Mother, joyous news today,” Einstein wrote upon receiving word of the results, which revolutionized our understanding of the universe and shaped the course of modern physics. The scientific triumph was also a heartening, humane moment — just after the close of World War I, a pacifist English Quaker, who had refused to be drafted in the war at the risk of being jailed for treason, and a German Jew united humanity under the same sky, under the deepest truths of the universe. An invitation to perspective in the largest sense.

The show — an evening of poems, music, and stories about eclipses, relativity, spacetime, and Einstein’s legacy, featuring readings by musicians David Byrne, Regina Spektor, Amanda Palmer, Emily Wells, and Josh Groban, astrophysicists Janna Levin and Natalie Batalha, poets Elizabeth Alexander and Marilyn Nelson, actor Natascha McElhone, theoretical cosmologist and jazz saxophonist Stephon Alexander, comedian Chuck Nice, choreographer Bill T. Jones, On Being host Krista Tippett, and the inimitable Neil Gaiman reading an original poem generously composed for the occasion — was a monumental labor of love, with every single person involved donating their time and talent, and all proceeds from the tickets benefiting Pioneer Works’ endeavor to build New York’s first-ever public observatory, a dome of possibility for future Eddingtons and Einsteins.

Both the costly production and this recording were made possible entirely by donations. Please enjoy — and if it gives you some perspective, some relief, perhaps even some rapture, do consider supporting this labor of love with a donation to Pioneer Works to offset some of the costs, help us build that dome of possibility, and make future universes possible.

Find the complete show and the full poem playlist below:

  1. “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman and poem #1397 by Emily Dickinson, read by Janna Levin
  2. “Education” by Elizabeth Alexander, read by the poet herself
  3. “Hubble Photographs: After Sappho” by Adrienne Rich, read by Amanda Palmer
  4. “Theories of Everything” by Rebecca Elson, read by Regina Spektor
  5. “A Solar Eclipse” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, read by Natascha McElhone
  6. Musical interlude: Amanda Palmer
  7. “As If to Demonstrate an Eclipse” by Billy Collins, read by Chick Nice
  8. “Achieving Perspective” by Pattiann Rogers, read by David Byrne
  9. “The Shampoo” by Elizabeth Bishop, read by me
  10. Musical interlude: Regina Spektor
  11. “Research” by Cecilia Payne, read by Natalie Batalha
  12. “Faster Than Light” by Marilyn Nelson, read by the poet herself
  13. “Explaining Relativity” by Rebecca Elson, read by Stephon Alexander
  14. “Poem to My Child, If Ever You Shall Be” by Ross Gay, read by Bill T. Jones
  15. “After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics” by W.H. Auden, read by Josh Groban
  16. “Figures of Thought” by Howard Nemerov, read by Krista Tippett
  17. “In Transit” by Neil Gaiman, read by Neil Gaiman
  18. “Einstein’s Daughter” by Jennifer Clement, read by Emily Wells
  19. Musical finale: Emily Wells

You can find the full recordings of previous seasons, and livestream details for the upcoming show, on this page.

ALSO: My friends at Pioneer Works have just launched their own newsletter, delving into their archives to deliver some of the world’s fiercest and most fertile minds — scientists and artists, Nobel laureates and Pulitzer-winning authors — in conversation and contemplation at the edge of our search for truth and our hunger for meaning, straight to your inbox. Be a pioneer and give it a try — I promise it will be spare and wonderful.


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