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How to Eat an Apricot: Diane Ackerman on Art, Science, and Wonder

How to Eat an Apricot: Diane Ackerman on Art, Science, and Wonder

In his meditation on the complementarity of how art and science reveal the world, Schopenhauer likened science to “the innumerable showering drops of the waterfall, which, constantly changing, never rest for an instant,” and art to “the rainbow, quietly resting on this raging torrent.” Two centuries later, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her splendid case for subjectifying the universe: “Science describes accurately from outside, poetry describes accurately from inside. Science explicates, poetry implicates. Both celebrate what they describe.”

That cascading celebration of science through art animates the poetry of Diane Ackerman, who returned to The Universe in Verse for a second year to read her ravishing poem “The Consolation of Apricots,” found in her 1998 poetry collection I Praise My Destroyer (public library).

Prefacing her reading, Ackerman reflected on how the intuitive sense that art and science are complementary rather than contradictory shaped her life, her work, and her orientation of being:

Ever since I was a child, I wanted to be a nature poet — it’s just that what I meant by “nature” included everything from quarks to exoplanets to water bears and neurons. Science and art both seem to be throwing buckets of light into the dark corners of existence, and I was enthralled. It didn’t make sense that we would be separating science and art, or that we would be separating nature and human nature. It seemed like we should be taking the universe literally — as one verse.


Wonder is the heaviest element in the periodic table of the heart. Even a tiny piece of it can stop time.

Savor the full prefatory reflection on art, science, and wonder, along with this feast of a poem, in this recording from the show:

by Diane Ackerman

Especially in early spring,
when the sun offers a thin treacle of warmth,
I love to sit outdoors
and eat sense-ravishing apricots.

Born on sun-drenched trees in Morocco,
the apricots have flown the Atlantic
like small comets, and I can taste
broiling North Africa in their flesh.

Somewhere between a peach and a prayer,
they taste of well water
and butterscotch and dried apples
and desert simooms and lust.

Sweet with a twang of spice,
a ripe apricot is small enough to devour
as two hemispheres.
Ambiguity is its hallmark.

How to eat an apricot:
first warm its continuous curve
in cupped hands, holding it
as you might a brandy snifter,

then caress the velvety sheen
with one thumb, and run your fingertips
over its nap, which is shorter
than peach fuzz, closer to chamois.

Tawny gold with a blush on its cheeks,
an apricot is the color of shame and dawn.
One should not expect to drink wine
at mid-winter, Boethius warned.

What could be more thrilling
than ripe apricots out of season,
a gush of taboo sweetness
to offset the savage wistfulness of early spring?

Always eat apricots at twilight,
preferably while sitting in a sunset park,
with valley lights starting to flicker on
and the lake spangled like a shield.

Then, while a trail of bright ink tattoos the sky,
notice how the sun washes the earth
like a woman pouring her gaze
along her lover’s naked body,

each cell receiving the tattoo of her glance.
Wait for that moment
of arousal and revelation,
then sink your teeth into the flesh of an apricot.

Complement with physicist and novelist Alan Lightman on the sympathies between creative breakthrough in art and science and Hannah Arendt on the differences between how art and science illuminate the human condition, then revisit Ackerman’s lovely poem about our cosmic curiosity from the inaugural Universe in Verse.

For other highlights from the second annual event, see poet Marie Howe’s stunning tribute to Stephen Hawking, astrophysicist Janna Levin’s reading of Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, a lovely papercraft stop-motion animation of Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Optimism” by artist Kelli Anderson, Hedwig and the Angry Inch co-creator and original star John Cameron Mitchell reading Walt Whitman’s serenade to the seas, and actor America Ferrera’s reading of Denise Levertov’s poem about our conflicted relationship with nature.

Published June 5, 2018




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