Adrienne Rich’s Haunting Poem About Love and the Cosmic Perspective
By Maria Popova
“Mingle the starlight with your lives and you won’t be fretted by trifles,” the pioneering 19th-century astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science, used to tell her Vassar students — America’s first class of women astronomers and the first generation of people trained in what we now call astrophysics: the combination of mathematical physics and observational astronomy.
At the Vassar observatory, both Mitchell’s home and her classroom, she held regular “dome parties” — evenings of telescopic star-study and conversation, during which her students composed poems about whatever they were pondering astronomically.
A century after Mitchell’s death, humanity launched into the cosmos its most ambitious and versatile instrument yet: the Hubble Space Telescope. “We saw to the edge of all there is — so brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back,” the poet Tracy K. Smith wrote in her stunning ode to this triumph of human ingenuity and perseverance, on which her father was one of NASA’s first black engineers and which she read at the inaugural Universe in Verse, held on the telescope’s twenty-seventh birthday and dedicated to Maria Mitchell’s legacy.
Smith — who has since been elected Poet Laureate of the United States — was the age of Maria Mitchell’s students when the Hubble returned its first, enthusiastically awaited images of the cosmos: grainy, fuzzy photographs that were in one sense deeply disappointing to the engineers who had labored on the instrument for years, but in another absolutely thrilling: an unprecedented glimpse of the vast unknown beckoning from the unfathomed depths of the universe.
In the decades since its launch on April 24, 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope has helped make landmark discoveries advancing our understanding of the universe and has enchanted humanity with the most beguiling images of the cosmos we have yet seen. It has shown us otherworldly glimpses of galaxies and nebulae. It has studied the light of orphaned stars to illuminate the mysteries of dark matter. It has resolved a longstanding perplexity about the growth rate of the universe and detected the first known interstellar object to visit our solar system. It has challenged us as never before to imagine what may lie beyond the horizons of our own imagination.
Fifteen years into the Hubble’s lifetime, another great poet, Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929–March 27, 2012), contemplated the existential undertones of its scientific triumphs in another stunning poem: “Hubble Photographs: After Sappho,” which musician, poetry lover, and my dear friend Amanda Palmer read in a haunting performance at the third annual Universe in Verse, held on the eve of the Hubble’s twenty-ninth birthday and benefiting the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory.
In this lovely animation created for the occasion, artist Kelli Anderson brings Rich’s words and Amanda’s voice to life with an inventive animation technique, using a vintage NASA manual to print words and galactic-textured images directly onto the archival paper.
HUBBLE PHOTOGRAPHS: AFTER SAPPHO
by Adrienne Rich (2005)
It should be the most desired sight of all
the person with whom you hope to live and die
walking into a room, turning to look at you, sight for sight
Should be yet I say there is something
more desirable: the ex-stasis of galaxies
so out from us there’s no vocabulary
but mathematics and optics
equations letting sight pierce through time
into liberations, lacerations of light and dust
exposed like a body’s cavity, violet green livid and venous, gorgeous
—beyond good and evil as ever stained into dream
beyond remorse, disillusion, fear of death
or life, rage
for order, rage for destruction
beyond this love which stirs
the air every time she walks into the room
These impersonae, however we call them
won’t invade us as on movie screens
they are so old, so new, we are not to them
we look at them or don’t from within the milky gauze
of our tilted gazing
but they don’t look back and we cannot hurt them
Below is Amanda’s full performance, including her poetic prefatory meditation on art, science, and life:
“Hubble Photographs: After Sappho” comes from Adrienne Rich’s indispensable Collected Poems: 1950–2012 (public library). Complement it with Rich’s poem “Planetarium”, read by astrophysicist Janna Levin at the inaugural Universe in Verse, and her tribute to Marie Curie, read by Grammy-winning musician Rosanne Cash, then revisit Kelli Anderson’s stop-motion animation of Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Optimism,” celebrating nature’s astonishing, humble resilience.
More highlights from the show can be savored here, including Amanda Palmer’s readings of Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson and his feminist history of science, both composed for The Universe in Verse.
Published April 26, 2019