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We Are Listening: Diane Ackerman’s Ode to the Search for Life Beyond Earth and Our Longing for Cosmic Companionship

We Are Listening: Diane Ackerman’s Ode to the Search for Life Beyond Earth and Our Longing for Cosmic Companionship

“We [are] a species endowed with hope and perseverance, at least a little intelligence, substantial generosity and a palpable zest to make contact with the cosmos,” Carl Sagan wrote in reflecting on the legacy of the Golden Record — the interstellar disc of human culture that sailed into the distant reaches of the cosmos aboard the Voyager spacecraft in 1977. Seven years later, the year of my birth, astronomer Jill Tarter founded SETI — an institute dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence — and Sagan, who was a major supporter of the SETI project, began writing his novel Contact. Published in 1985, it was adapted into a major motion picture twelve years later, starring Jodie Foster. In the most beautiful scene in the movie, Foster’s character, based on Dr. Tarter, peers out her spaceship window as she approaches an extraordinary alien world and gasps: “They should’ve sent a poet!”

But the seed of that lyrical sentiment was planted in Sagan much earlier, more than a decade before SETI was born. In the early 1970s, he found himself so enchanted with the work of a young Cornell poet writing scientifically accurate poems about the universe — one of which Sagan sent to his pal Timothy Leary in prison — that he offered to be her doctoral advisor. That writer was Diane Ackerman, who would go on to become a poet laureate of the cosmos.

Diane Ackerman (Photograph by Molly Walsh / Academy of American Poets, for The Universe in Verse)

Among Ackerman’s impressive body of work, spanning half a century of uncommonly beautiful poetry and prose at the intersection of science and human life, is a gorgeous ode to our longing for cosmic companionship, titled “We Are Listening” and found in her altogether resplendent 1993 volume Jaguar of Sweet Laughter: New and Selected Poems (public library).

At The Universe in Verse — the celebration of science through poetry, which gave us Amanda Palmer’s reading of Neil Gaiman’s feminist poem about science, astrophysicist Janna Levin’s reading of Adrienne Rich’s tribute to women in astronomy, musician Rosanne Cash’s reading of Rich’s homage to Marie Curie, and playwright Sarah Jones’s chorus-of-humanity tribute to Jane Goodall — Ackerman prefaced her reading of “We Are Listening” with a beautiful meditation on our enchantment with the cosmos and “the way science keeps throwing buckets of light into the dark corners of existence.” Please enjoy:

My work continues to include a lot of what people call science… I just think of it as nature… and it’s my form of celebration and prayer and very much the way that I inquire about the world. The whole adventure of being alive is an extraordinary mystery trip — the world revealing itself, and human nature revealing itself, very often thanks to the sciences, [which] are seductive and startling, and that’s always been fascinating enough to send words down my spine.

And the poem by itself:



As our metal eyes wake
to absolute night,
where whispers fly
from the beginning of time,
we cup our ears to the heavens.
We are listening

on the volcanic lips of Flagstaff
and in the fields beyond Boston
in a great array that blooms
like coral from the desert floor,
on highwire webs patrolled
by computer spiders in Puerto Rico.

We are listening for a sound
beyond us, beyond sound,

searching for a lighthouse
in the breakwaters of our uncertainty,
an electronic murmur
a bright, fragile I am.

Small as tree frogs
staking out one end
of an endless swamp,
we are listening
through the longest night
we imagine, which dawns
between the life and time of stars.


Our voice trembles
with its own electric,
we who mood like iguanas
we who breathe sleep
for a third of our lives,
we who heat food
to the steaminess of fresh prey,
then feast with such baroque
good manners it grows cold.

In mind gardens
and on real verandas
we are listening,
rapt among the Persian lilacs
and the crickets,
while radio telescopes
roll their heads, as if in anguish.

With our scurrying minds
and our lidless will
and our lank, floppy bodies
and our galloping yens
and our deep, cosmic loneliness
and our starboard hearts
where love careens,
we are listening,
the small bipeds
with the giant dreams.

“We Are Listening” was included in astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s excellent anthology of poetry about science. For more of Ackerman’s enchanting poetry and prose, see her inquiries into the evolutionary and existential purpose of deep play, the secret life of the senses, what working at a suicide prevention hotline taught her about the human spirit, and her scientifically accurate poems for the planets that beguiled Sagan.

The Universe in Verse was a celebration of science through poetry, yes, but also very much a protest against the assault on science and the defunding of the arts. Every single person involved donated their time and talent, and we donated all proceeds from the event to the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Academy of American Poets. So if you’ve been enjoying the highlights from the show, please consider returning the goodwill in kind by donating to these two wonderful bastions of truth and beauty.

Published May 8, 2017




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