The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The Fish in the Stone: Zoë Keating Reads Rita Dove’s Ode to Deep Time

The Fish in the Stone: Zoë Keating Reads Rita Dove’s Ode to Deep Time

In her arresting poem “Renascence,” Edna St. Vincent Millay elegized “the ticking of Eternity.” But while the notion of eternity has animated artists since the dawn of art, its precise ticking did not come to the forefront of scientific interest until the discovery of the first fossils — those emissaries of eternity, which revealed for the first time that the Earth was much older than previously thought. Instrumental in this new way of thinking about the age and nature of our planet were the discoveries of a self-taught Victorian fossil hunter named Mary Anning (May 21, 1799–March 9, 1847) — the first person to discover and correctly identify the skeleton of an ichthyosaur, an enormous prehistoric marine reptile.

Mary Anning

This eternal question of eternity and the larger questions it unlatches in us is what Pulitzer-winning poet and former United States Poet Laureate Rita Dove explores in her poem “The Fish in the Stone,” found in her Collected Poems: 1974–2004 (public library).

At the second annual Universe in Verse, cellist, composer, and music revolutionary Zoë Keating — whose music has powered so much of my writing over the years and who has a personal connection to Mary Anning — read Dove’s poem, immediately following NASA astrophysicist Natalie Batalha’s electrifying reading of Millay’s “Renascence.” Enjoy:

by Rita Dove

The fish in the stone
would like to fall
back into the sea.

He is weary
of analysis, the small
predictable truths.
He is weary of waiting
in the open,
his profile stamped
by a white light.

In the ocean the silence
moves and moves
and so much is unnecessary!

Patient, he drifts
until the moment comes
to cast his
skeletal blossom.

The fish in the stone
knows to fail is
to do the living
a favor.

He knows why the ant
engineers a gangster’s
funeral, garish
and perfectly amber.
He knows why the scientist
in secret delight
strokes the fern’s
voluptuous braille.

To close The Universe in Verse, Zoë Keating joined fellow readers Amanda Palmer, Sean Ono Lennon, and John Cameron Mitchell for a stunning cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” in tribute to marine biologist and author Rachel Carson, to whom the show was dedicated.

For more highlights from The Universe in Verse, savor James Gleick reading Elizabeth Bishop’s profound poem about the nature of knowledge, astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, Hedwig and the Angry Inch creator John Cameron Mitchell reading Walt Whitman, actor and activist America Ferrera reading Denise Levertov, and poet Marie Howe reading her stirring tribute to Stephen Hawking.

Published December 11, 2018




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