Singularity: An Animated Ode to Our Primeval Bond with Nature and Each Other

Here’s the link to this article.

A song of praise for life and “the smallest possible once before once.”

BY MARIA POPOVA

This is the fifth of nine installments in the animated interlude season of The Universe in Verse in collaboration with On Being, celebrating the wonder of reality through stories of science winged with poetry. See the rest here.

THE ANIMATED UNIVERSE IN VERSE: CHAPTER FIVE

Whenever I am down, I think of the gladiolus.

Whenever I ache with self-referential humanity — that evolutionary miracle of complex consciousness that endows us with the capacity for reflection and rumination at the root of all sorrow — I think of the gladiolus and its primal scream of color and its two-hundred-million-year triumph, governed by insentient forces stretching back to the Big Bang that bloomed a something out of the unimaginable nothingness.

I think of the gladiolus with its mohawk of blossoms — one-sided, bisexual, belonging to nature’s nonbinary citizenry: the “perfect flowers” — most of its 300 known species native to Africa, to which we too are native. A fierce beauty named after the Latin word for sword, known sometimes as “sword lily,” linking it to the flower for which my mother was named. A blade of blossoms pollinated by tiny wasps and long-tongued bees and hawk-moths, and then by self-conscious sapiens with opposable thumbs — a chainlink of humans holding hands across the epochs from Mendel to the young Puerto Rican woman at the Manhattan flower market, those generations of horticulturalists who hybridized and cultivated the small iridescent blossoms of the wild flower to make the towering blooms of solid red and white and yellow in my Bulgarian grandmother’s garden, on my Bulgarian grandfather’s coffin.

Gladiolus by Sydenham Teast Edwards from William Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, 1790. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

I think of the gladiolus, with which we share 98% of our DNA — that delicate arrangement of atoms forged long ago when all of them, yours and mine and the sword lily’s, banged into being 13.8 billion years ago from a single source, no larger than the dot levitating over the small i, the I lowered from the pedestal of ego.

The young poet Marissa Davis celebrates the atomic spirituality in this chainlink of kinship between us and everything alive in “Singularity (after Marie Howe)” — a poem inspired by “Singularity (after Stephen Hawking),” which the gifted and golden-souled Marie Howe composed for and premiered at the second annual Universe in Verse in 2018, commemorating the recently stardust-surrendered scientist who revolutionized our understanding of the universe by illuminating what happens to a dying star as it collapses to form a singularity — the tiny point of zero radius, infinite density, and infinite curvature of spacetime at the bottom of a black hole, kindred to the Big Bang singularity at the bottom of the Beginning — that original seed from which the universe bloomed.

Marie’s “Singularity” — which was transformed into a breathtaking animated film for the lockdown livestream of the 2020 show, a film that inspired this experimental literary-animated “season” of The Universe in Verse in the interlude between live gatherings — radiated across our Pale Blue Dot, eventually reaching Marissa to spark her own “Singularity” — an exquisite ode to our primeval bond with one another and the rest of nature.

For this fifth installment in the interlude series, in an homage to the intergenerational chainlink of inspiration from which all art is born, here is Marissa’s “Singularity” animated into vibrant aliveness by English artist Lottie Kingslake and set to song by the cosmic life-force that is Toshi Reagon.

SINGULARITY
              (after Marie Howe)

by Marissa Davis

in the wordless beginning
iguana & myrrh
magma & reef              ghost moth
& the cordyceps tickling its nerves
& cedar & archipelago & anemone
dodo bird & cardinal waiting for its red
ocean salt & crude oil              now black
muck now most naïve fumbling plankton
every egg clutched in the copycat soft
of me unwomaned unraced
unsexed              as the ecstatic prokaryote
that would rage my uncle’s blood
or the bacterium that will widow
your eldest daughter’s eldest son
my uncle, her son              our mammoth sun
& her uncountable siblings              & dust mite & peat
apatosaurus & nile river
& maple green & nude & chill-blushed &
yeasty keratined bug-gutted i & you
spleen & femur seven-year refreshed
seven-year shedding & taking & being this dust
& my children & your children
& their children & the children
of the black bears & gladiolus & pink florida grapefruit
here not allied but the same              perpetual breath
held fast to each other as each other’s own skin
cold-dormant & rotting & birthing & being born
in the olympus              of the smallest
possible once before once

Previously on The Universe in VerseChapter 1 (the evolution of life and the birth of ecology, with Joan As Police Woman and Emily Dickinson); Chapter 2 (Henrietta Leavitt, Edwin Hubble, and the human hunger to know the cosmos, with Tracy K. Smith); Chapter 3 (trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell and the poetry of the cosmic perspective, with David Byrne and Pattiann Rogers); Chapter 4 (dark matter and the mystery of our mortal stardust, with Patti Smith and Rebecca Elson).

Let There Always Be Light: Dark Matter and the Mystery of Our Mortal Stardust

(Patti Smith Reads Rebecca Elson)

Here’s the link to this article.

“For this we go out dark nights, searching… for signs of unseen things… Let there be swarms of them, enough for immortality, always a star where we can warm ourselves.”

BY MARIA POPOVA

This is the fourth of nine installments in the animated interlude season of The Universe in Verse in collaboration with On Being, celebrating the wonder of reality through stories of science winged with poetry. See the rest here.

THE ANIMATED UNIVERSE IN VERSE: CHAPTER FOUR

Months before Edwin Hubble finally published his epoch-making revelation about Andromeda, staggering the world with the fact that the universe extends beyond our Milky Way galaxy, a child was born under the star-salted skies of Washington, D.C., where the Milky Way was still visible before a century’s smog slipped between us and the cosmos — a child who would grow up to confirm the existence of dark matter, that invisible cosmic glue holding galaxies together and pinning planets to their orbits so that, on at least one of them, small awestruck creatures with vast complex consciousnesses can unravel the mysteries of the universe.

Night after night, Vera Rubin (July 23, 1928–December 25, 2016) peered out of her childhood bedroom and into the stars, wondersmitten with the beauty of it all — until she read a children’s book about the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell, who had expanded the universe of possibility for half of our species a century earlier. The young Vera was suddenly seized with a life-altering realization: Not only was there such a thing as a professional stargazer, but it was a thing a girl could do.

Vera Rubin as an undergraduate at Vassar, 1940s
Vera Rubin as an undergraduate at Vassar, 1940s

In 1965 — exactly one hundred years after Maria Mitchell was appointed the first professor of astronomy at Vassar, which Vera Rubin had chosen as her training ground in astronomy — she became the first woman permitted to use the Palomar Observatory. Peering through its colossal eye — the telescope, devised the year Rubin was born, had replaced the one through which Hubble made his discovery as the world’s most powerful astronomical instrument — she was just as wondersmitten as the little girl peering through the bedroom window, just as beguiled by the beauty of the cosmos. “I sometimes ask myself whether I would be studying galaxies if they were ugly,” she reflected in her most personal interview. “I think it may not be irrelevant that galaxies are really very attractive.”

Galaxies had taken Rubin to Palomar, and galaxies — the riddle of their rotation, which she had endeavored to solve — became the key to her epochal confirmation of dark matter. One of the most mesmerizing unsolved puzzles in astronomy, dark matter had remained only an enticing speculation since the Swiss astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky had first theorized it when Vera was five.

A generation later, a small clan of astronomers at Cambridge analyzed the deepest image of space the Hubble Space Telescope had yet captured — that iconic glimpse of the unknown, revealing a universe “so brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back” — to discern the origin of the mysterious dark matter halo enveloping the Milky Way. Spearheading the endeavor was an extraordinary young astronomer back to work during a remission of a rare terminal blood cancer ordinarily afflicting the elderly.

Rebecca Elson, 1987

Nursed on geology and paleontology on the shores of a prehistoric lake, Rebecca Elson (January 2, 1960–May 19, 1999) was barely sixteen and already in college when she first glimpsed Andromeda through a telescope. Instantly dazzled by its “delicate wisp of milky spiral light floating in what seemed a bottomless well of empty space,” she became a scientist but never relinquished the pull of the poetic dimensions of reality. During her postdoctoral work at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, Elson found refuge from the narrow patriarchy of academic science in a gathering of poets every Tuesday evening. She became a fellow at a Radcliffe-Harvard institute for postgraduate researchers devoted to reversing “the climate of non-expectation for women,” among the alumnae of which are Anne Sexton, Alice Walker, and Anna Deavere Smith. There, in a weekly writing group, she met and befriended the poet Marie Howe, whose splendid “Singularity” became the inspiration for this animated season of The Universe in Verse.

It was then — twenty-nine and newly elected the youngest astronomer in history to serve on the Decennial Review committee steering the course of American science toward the most compelling unsolved questions — that Elson received her terminal diagnosis.

Throughout the bodily brutality of her cancer treatment, she filled notebooks with poetic questions and experiments in verse, bridging with uncommon beauty the creaturely and the cosmic — those eternal mysteries of our mortal matter that make it impossible for a consciousness born of dead stars to fathom its own nonexistence.

Rebecca Elson lived with the mystery for another decade, never losing her keen awareness that we are matter capable of wonder, never ceasing to channel it in poetry. When she returned her borrowed stardust to the universe, a spring shy of her fortieth birthday, she left behind nearly sixty scientific papers and a single, splendid book of poems titled A Responsibility to Awe (public library) — among them the staggering “Theories of Everything” (read by Regina Spektor at the 2019 Universe in Verse) and “Antidotes to Fear of Death (read by Janna Levin at the 2020 Universe in Verse).

Permeating Elson’s poetic meditations, the mystery of dark matter culminates in one particular poem exploring with uncommon loveliness what may be the most touching paradox of being human — our longing for the light of immortality as creatures of matter in a cosmos governed by the dark sublime of dissolution.

Bringing Elson’s masterpiece to life for this series is Patti Smith (who read Emily Dickinson’s pre-atomic ode to particle physics at the 2020 Universe in Verse), with animation by Ohara Hale (who animated Emily Dickinson’s pre-ecological poem about ecology in Chapter One of this experimental season of The Universe in Verse) and music by Zoë Keating (who read Rita Dove’s paleontological poem at the 2018 Universe in Verse).

LET THERE ALWAYS BE LIGHT (SEARCHING FOR DARK MATTER)
by Rebecca Elson

For this we go out dark nights, searching
For the dimmest stars,
For signs of unseen things:

To weigh us down.
To stop the universe
From rushing on and on
Into its own beyond
Till it exhausts itself and lies down cold,
Its last star going out.

Whatever they turn out to be,
Let there be swarms of them,
Enough for immortality,
Always a star where we can warm ourselves.

Let there be enough to bring it back
From its own edges,
To bring us all so close we ignite
The bright spark of resurrection.

Previously on The Universe in VerseChapter 1 (the evolution of life and the birth of ecology, with Joan As Police Woman and Emily Dickinson); Chapter 2 (Henrietta Leavitt, Edwin Hubble, and the human hunger to know the cosmos, with Tracy K. Smith); Chapter 3 (trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell and the poetry of the cosmic perspective, with David Byrne and Pattiann Rogers).

My God, It’s Full of Stars …

Here’s the link to this article. Please take time to read this masterpiece. It’s awe-inspiring, and deeply humbling.

My God, It’s Full of Stars: Henrietta Leavitt, Edwin Hubble, and Our Human Hunger to Know the Universe (Tracy K. Smith Reads Tracy K. Smith)

“…so brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back.”

BY MARIA POPOVA

This is the second of nine installments in the animated interlude season of The Universe in Verse in collaboration with On Being, celebrating the wonder of reality through stories of science winged with poetry. See the rest here.

THE ANIMATED UNIVERSE IN VERSE: CHAPTER TWO
Henrietta Swan Leavitt

In 1908, Henrietta Swan Leavitt — one of the women known as the Harvard Computers, who changed our understanding of the universe long before they could vote — was analyzing photographic plates at the Harvard Observatory, singlehandedly measuring and cataloguing more than 2,000 variable stars — stars that pulsate like lighthouse beacons — when she began noticing a consistent correlation between their brightness and their blinking pattern. That correlation would allow astronomers to measure their distance for the first time, furnishing the yardstick of the cosmos.

Glass plate of Andromeda from the archives of the “Harvard Computers.” (Photograph: Maria Popova)

Meanwhile, a teenage boy in the Midwest was repressing his childhood love of astronomy and beginning his legal studies to fulfill his dying father’s demand for an ordinary, reputable life. Upon his father’s death, Edwin Hubble would unleash his passion for the stars into formal study and lean on Leavitt’s data to upend millennia of cosmic parochialism, demonstrating two revolutionary facts about the universe: that it is vastly bigger than we thought, and that it is growing bigger by the blink.

Art by Deborah Marcero from The Boy Whose Head Was Filled with Stars: A Life of Edwin Hubble by Isabelle Marinov

One October evening in 1923, perched at the foot of the world’s most powerful telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory in California, Hubble took a 45-minute exposure of Andromeda, which was then thought to be one of many spiral nebulae in the Milky Way. The notion of a galaxy — a gravitationally bound swirl of stars and interstellar gas, dust and dark matter — did not exist as such. The Milky Way — a name coined by Chaucer — was commonly considered an “island universe” of stars, beyond the edge of which lay cold dark nothingness.

When Hubble looked at the photograph the next morning and compared it to previous ones, he (I like to imagine) furrowed his brow, then with a gasp of revelation he (this we know for a fact) crossed out the marking N on the plate, scribbled the letters V A R beneath it, and could not help adding an exclamation point.

Edwin Hubble’s 1923 glass plate of Andromeda. (Photograph: Carnegie Observatories)

Hubble had realized that a tiny fleck in Andromeda, previously mistaken for a nova, could not possibly be a nova, given its blinking pattern across the different photographs. It was a variable star — which, given Henrietta Leavitt’s discovery, could only be so if the tiny fleck was very far away, farther than the edge of the Milky Way.

Andromeda was not a nebula in our own galaxy but a separate galaxy, out there in the cold dark nothingness.

Suddenly, the universe was a garden blooming with galaxies, with ours but a single bloom.

That same year, in another country suspended between two World Wars, another young scientist named Hermann Oberth was polishing the final physics on a daring idea: to subvert a deadly military technology with roots in medieval China and rocket-launch an enormous telescope into Earth orbit — closer to the stars, bypassing the atmosphere that occludes our terrestrial instruments.

It would take two generations of scientists to make that telescope a reality — a shimmering poem of metal, physics, and perseverance, bearing Hubble’s name.

The Hubble Space Telescope. (Photograph: NASA)

But when the Hubble Space Telescope finally launched 1990, hungry to capture the most intimate images of the cosmos humanity had yet seen, humanity had crept into the instrument’s exquisite precision — its main mirror had been ground into the wrong spherical shape, warping its colossal eye.

Up the coast from Mount Wilson Observatory, a teenage girl watched her father — who had worked on the Hubble as one of NASA’s first black engineers — come home brokenhearted. He didn’t know that his observant daughter would become Poet Laureate of his country and would come to commemorate him in the tenderest tribute an artist-daughter has ever made for a scientist-father. That tribute — the splendid poetry collection Life on Mars (public library) — earned Tracy K. Smith the Pulitzer Prize the year the Hubble’s corrected optics captured the revolutionary Ultra Deep Field image of the observable universe, revealing what neither Henrietta Leavitt nor Edwin Hubble could have imagined — that there isn’t just one other galaxy besides our own, or just a handful more, but at least 100 billion, each containing at least 100 billion stars.

MY GOD, IT’S FULL OF STARS (PART 5)
by Tracy K. Smith

When my father worked on the Hubble Telescope, he said
They operated like surgeons: scrubbed and sheathed
In papery green, the room a clean cold, a bright white.

He’d read Larry Niven at home, and drink scotch on the rocks,
His eyes exhausted and pink. These were the Reagan years,
When we lived with our finger on The Button and struggled

To view our enemies as children. My father spent whole seasons
Bowing before the oracle-eye, hungry for what it would find.
His face lit up whenever anyone asked, and his arms would rise

As if he were weightless, perfectly at ease in the never-ending
Night of space. On the ground, we tied postcards to balloons
For peace. Prince Charles married Lady Di. Rock Hudson died.

We learned new words for things. The decade changed.

The first few pictures came back blurred, and I felt ashamed
For all the cheerful engineers, my father and his tribe. The second time,
The optics jibed. We saw to the edge of all there is —

So brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back.

THE MAKING

Every poet is a miniaturist of meaning, building cathedrals of beauty and truth with the smallest particles of language. It is with a poet’s mindset that Brazilian graphic artist and animation director Daniel Bruson approached his contribution to The Universe in Verse. (Special thanks to On Being creative director Erin Colasacco for bringing Daniel into the project and for working with him and with composer Gautam Srikishan on making this symphonic cinepoem come alive.)

After I relayed to Daniel why I had chosen this particular poem (which Tracy read at the inaugural Universe in Verse in 2017) to illustrate the larger story of our search for cosmic truth — a search both made possible and made imperfect by our humanity — he grasped the nested layers of meaning with uncommon sensitivity, mirroring back his interpretation:

The Hubble tries to see or make sense of the Universe, the father tries to understand the Hubble, the daughter tries to make sense of the father, the decade, the world, and the poet tries to put this whole into perspective. All these efforts have to face problems of scale or distortion: something too big or small, too close or too distant, too dark or too familiar. Not to mention the original problem with the Hubble mirror.

This cascade of distortion sparked the idea “to use optics as a metaphor, to seek for these imperfect, unresolved and elusive, but also suggestive and alive images.”

Daniel set about creating his deliberately blurry cosmic animations frame by frame, painting each tiny detail onto a glass plate with nail polish, oil paint, glitter, acrylic, and other materials he mixed, scrubbed, smudged, and swirled with brushes and cotton swabs beneath the lens of a camera capturing the process of creation and destruction.

He magnified the optical enchantment by filming the vignettes through upside-down drinking glasses of various shapes and thicknesses.

In a crowning feat of ingenuity — itself a miniature masterpiece of engineering and composition — he built a tiny model of the Hubble out of cardboard, paper, and aluminum foil, dismantled it frame by frame, filmed the destruction, then reversed the footage to create the building effect. (I am reminded here of Bertrand Russell’s astute observation, made shortly after Edwin Hubble took his historic glass plate of Andromeda, that “construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power, but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it” — a truth as true of the universe itself, with its elemental triumph of something over nothing, as it is of the human endeavor to know it by building optical prosthesis of our curiosity.)

Something about Daniel’s process — the exquisite craftsmanship, the passionate patience, the tiny scale on which he made such beauty and grandeur of feeling — calls to mind Emily Dickinson and her miniature cherrywood writing desk, on the seventeen square inches of which she conjured up such cosmoses of truth, among them the poem illustrating Chapter One of this series.

Bloom: The Evolution of Life on Earth and the Birth of Ecology (Joan As Police Woman Sings Emily Dickinson)

How flowers gave rise to life on Earth and made possible the human consciousness that came to see a world “thronged only with Music.”

Here’s a link to this article.

BY MARIA POPOVA

This is the first of nine installments in the animated interlude season of The Universe in Verse in collaboration with On Being, celebrating the wonder of reality through stories of science winged with poetry. See the rest here.

THE ANIMATED UNIVERSE IN VERSE: CHAPTER ONE

Two hundred million years ago, long before we walked the Earth, it was a world of cold-blooded creatures and dull color — a kind of terrestrial sea of brown and green. There were plants, but their reproduction was a tenuous game of chance — they released their pollen into the wind, into the water, against the staggering improbability that it might reach another member of their species. No algorithm, no swipe — just chance.

But then, in the Cretaceous period, flowers appeared and carpeted the world with astonishing rapidity — because, in some poetic sense, they invented love.

Once there were flowers, there were fruit — that transcendent alchemy of sunlight into sugar. Once there were fruit, plants could enlist the help of animals in a kind of trade: sweetness for a lift to a mate. Animals savored the sugars in fruit, converted them into energy and proteins, and a new world of warm-blooded mammals came alive.

Without flowers, there would be no us.

No poetry.

No science.

No music.

Darwin could not comprehend how flowers could emerge so suddenly and take over so completely. He called it an “abominable mystery.” But out of that mystery a new world was born, governed by greater complexity and interdependence and animal desire, with the bloom as its emblem of seduction.

In 1866, the young German marine biologist Ernst Haeckel — whose exquisite illustrations of single-celled underwater creatures had enchanted Darwin — gave that interdependence a name: He called it ecology, from the Greek oikos, or “house, and logia, or “the study of,” denoting the study of the relationship between organisms in the house of life.

A year earlier, in 1865, a young American poet — a keen observer of the house of life who made of it a temple of beauty — composed what is essentially a pre-ecological poem about ecology.

Emily Dickinson at seventeen. (Amherst College Archives & Special Collections)

She had awakened to the interdependent splendor of the natural world as a teenager, when she composed a different kind of ecological poem: In a large album bound in green cloth, she painstakingly pressed, arranged, and labeled in her neat handwriting 424 wildflowers she had gathered from her native New England — some of them now endangered, some extinct.

This herbarium — which survives — became Emily Dickinson’s first formal exercise in composition, and although she came to reverence the delicate interleavings of nature in so many of her stunning, spare, strange poems, this one — the one she wrote in 1865, just before Ernst Haeckel coined ecology — illuminates and magnifies these relationships through the lens of a single flower and everything that goes into making its bloom — this emblem of seduction — possible: the worms in the soil (which Darwin celebrated as the unsung agriculturalists that shaped Earth as we know it), the pollinators in the spring air, all the creatures both competing for resources and symbiotically aiding each other.

And, suddenly, the flower emerges not as this pretty object to be admired, but as this ravishing system of aliveness — a kind of silent symphony of interconnected resilience.

To bring Emily Dickinson’s masterpiece to life is a modern-day poet of feeling in music — also a keen observer of the house of life, also a passionate lover of nature, also an emissary of aliveness through art.

She is a composer, a multi-instrumentalist classically trained as a violinist, and above all a singer and writer of songs with uncommon sensitivity to the most poetic dimensions of life.

Here is Joan As Police Woman with Emily Dickinson and the centuries-old pressed flowers from her actual herbarium.

BLOOM
by Emily Dickinson

Bloom — is Result — to meet a Flower
And casually glance
Would cause one scarcely to suspect
The minor Circumstance
Assisting in the Bright Affair
So intricately done
Then offered as a Butterfly
To the Meridian —
To pack the Bud — oppose the Worm —
Obtain its right of Dew —
Adjust the Heat — elude the Wind —
Escape the prowling Bee
Great Nature not to disappoint
Awaiting Her that Day —
To be a Flower, is profound
Responsibility —

HOW WE MADE IT

Every true artist is a miniaturist of grandeur, determined to make every littlest thing the very best it can be — not out of egoic grandiosity but out of devotion to beauty, devotion paid for with their time and thought, those raw materials of life. When I invited the uncommonly gifted and uncommonly minded Joan As Police Woman to bring the poem to life in a typical Universe in Verse reading, this true artist instead transformed it into a soulful song — an homage that would have gladdened the poet, who in her teenage years took regular music lessons and practiced piano for two hours a day, and who grew up to believe that, in its most transcendent stillness, the world is “thronged only with Music.”

From the start, I envisioned using the teenage poet’s herbarium — a forgotten treasure at the intersection of art and science, one of my favorite discoveries during the research for the Dickinson chapters of Figuring — as the raw material for the animation art. Having collaborated on a handful of previous animated poems, I invited Ohara Hale — artist, musician, poet, illustrator, animator, maker of nature-reverent children’s books, choreographer of beauty and feeling across a multitude of art-forms — to work her visual magic on the poem-song.

In a small wood cabin at the foot of a Spanish volcano, she set about reanimating — in both senses of the word — Emily Dickinson’s spirit through her herbarium.

Ohara composed all the creatures — the bee, the caterpillar, the butterflies, the human hand — from fragments of the poet’s centuries-old pressed flowers: digitized, restored, retraced by hand, and atomized into new life-forms. Individual petals, leaves, and stamens make the wings, body, and antennae of each butterfly. Layers of petals, sepals, and anthers stripe and behair the body of the bee. A large leaf folds unto itself to shape the hand that wrote this poem and nearly two thousand others — poems that have long outlived the living matter that felt and composed them, poems that have helped generations live.

Strewing the animation are words from the poem, hand-lettered by the polymathic Debbie Millman in a style based on surviving museum samples of Emily Dickinson’s handwriting from the period in which she composed the herbarium.

In a lovely way, the art mirrors the music it serves. Joan’s composition is itself a time-traveling masterwork of layering: voice upon keys upon strings, feeling-tone upon feeling-tone, classical heritage beneath thoroughly original sensibility — all of it so consonant with the central poetic image, all of it “so intricately done,” all of it a triumph of that “profound responsibility” we have to the ecosystem of art and ideas abloom in the spacetime between Emily Dickinson and us.

It has been an honor to collaborate with these uncommonly gifted women on honoring an uncommonly gifted artistic ancestor and celebrating our common evolutionary ancestry with all life-forms in nature.

The Universe in Verse–introduction to the 2021-2022 season

I encourage you to travel with me throughout the universe over the next few weeks. We should go ahead and thank Maria Popova and her many connections for what they’ve been up to.

Here’s how Maria describes this marvelous ‘spaceship’ she calls “The Universe in Verse.”

An annual charitable celebration of the wonder of reality through stories of science winged with poetry, born in 2017 as part celebration of life and part protest against the assault on science, nature, and reality — that is, on life — in the era of “alternative facts” and vanishing environmental protections.  

Maria Popova

Here’s a link to the following article. I’d encourage you to save it. I’ll try to post something from this multi-year journey every few days.

ANIMATED INTERLUDE SEASON (2021-2022)

The Universe in Verse was born in 2017 as part celebration of the wonder of life and the splendor of reality, and part protest against the assault on science and nature — that is, on life and reality — in the era of “alternative facts” and vanishing environmental protections. An act of resistance and an act of persistence. Fierce insistence on the felicitous expression of nature in human nature, with our capacity for music and mathematics, for art and hope.

Spring after spring, it remained a live gathering and a labor of love. Then, in the gatherless disorientation of the pandemic, I joined forces with my friends at On Being to reimagine the spirit of The Universe in Verse in a different incarnation — a season of perspective-broadening, mind-deepening, heart-leavening stories about science and our search for truth, enlivened by animated poems with original music: emblems of our longing for meaning.

Carrying the animations are stories about relativity and the evolution of flowers, about entropy and space telescopes, about dark matter and the octopus consciousness, illustrated with poems new and old, by Emily Dickinson and Richard Feynman, by W.H. Auden and Tracy K. Smith, by Marilyn Nelson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, brought to life by a human constellation strewn across spacetime and difference: twenty-nine largehearted artists, musicians, writers, scientists, and other weavers of wonder, who have poured their time and talent into this improbable labor of love. The total distance between them exceeds the circumference of the globe. Half a century stretches between the youngest and the eldest.

Among them are Yo-Yo Ma, Joan As Police Woman, David Byrne, Sophie Blackall, Amanda Palmer, Janna Levin, Ohara Hale, Maira Kalman, Debbie Millman, Toshi Reagon, Daniel Bruson, Zoë Keating, Garth Stevenson, Sy Montgomery, Jherek Bischoff, Edwina White, James Dunlap, Marissa Davis, Tom McRae, Topu Lyo, Gautam Srikishan, Lottie Kingslake, Kelli Anderson, Liang-Hsin Huang, and Patti Smith.

Released over the course of the season, each of the nine chapters begins with a science story and ends with an animated poem chosen to illuminate the scientific fact with the sidewise gleam of feeling. Two of the poems (including the one in the opening chapter) are set to song, and seven are soulful readings scored with original music by a different composer. Each miniature totality is brought to life by a different performer and shimmers with visual magic by a different artist. Each is a portable cosmos of gladness at the chance-miracle of aliveness: all of us, suspended here in this sliver of spacetime, with our stories and our poems and each other.


Highlights from the previous seasons can be seen here.