The Universe in Verse: Bill T. Jones Performs Poet Ross Gay’s Ode to Our Highest Human Potentialities
By Maria Popova
“Before I was born out of my mother, generations guided me,” Walt Whitman wrote in Song of Myself, envisioning his unborn self as the product of myriad potentialities converging since the dawn of time — “the nebula cohered to an orb” and “the long, slow strata piled” to make it possible.
A century and a half after Whitman, Ross Gay — another poet of uncommon sensitivity to our shared longings and largehearted wonderment at the universe in its manifold expressions — inverted the generational telescope and considered the future potentialities contained in his own self in his “Poem to My Child, If Ever You Shall Be,” found in his altogether magnificent 2011 collection Bringing the Shovel Down (public library). An act of imaginative projection, the poem is concerned not with the biological question of what makes a life — on that, I stand with Italo Calvino — but with the existential question of what makes life worth living: love, kindness, the devotion to justice, the unselfconscious surrender to joy, the willingness to do the difficult, delicate work of rising to our highest human potential.
Legendary choreographer and New York Live Arts artistic director Bill T. Jones, subject of the inspiring forthcoming documentary Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters, stole the show with his electrifying performance of Gay’s poem at the third annual Universe in Verse — please enjoy:
POEM TO MY CHILD, IF EVER YOU SHALL BE
by Ross Gay
—after Steve Scafidi
The way the universe sat waiting to become,
quietly, in the nether of space and time,
you too remain some cellular snuggle
dangling between my legs, curled in the warm
swim of my mostly quietest self. If you come to be —
And who knows? — I wonder, little bubble
of unbudded capillaries, little one ever aswirl
in my vascular galaxies, what would you think
of this world which turns itself steadily
into an oblivion that hurts, and hurts bad?
Would you curse me my careless caressing you
into this world or would you rise up
and, mustering all your strength into that tiny throat
which one day, no doubt, would grow big and strong,
scream and scream and scream until you break the back of one injustice,
or at least get to your knees to kiss back to life
some roadkill? I have so many questions for you,
for you are closer to me than anyone
has ever been, tumbling, as you are, this second,
through my heart’s every chamber, your teeny mouth
singing along with the half-broke workhorse’s steady boom and gasp.
And since we’re talking today I should tell you,
though I know you sneak a peek sometimes
through your father’s eyes, it’s a glorious day,
and there are millions of leaves collecting against the curbs,
and they’re the most delicate shade of gold
we’ve ever seen and must favor the transparent
wings of the angels you’re swimming with, little angel.
And as to your mother — well, I don’t know —
but my guess is that lilac bursts from her throat
and she is both honeybee and wasp and some kind of moan to boot
and probably she dances in the morning —
but who knows? You’ll swim beneath that bridge if it comes.
For now let me tell you about the bush called honeysuckle
that the sad call a weed, and how you could push your little
sun-licked face into the throngs and breathe and breathe.
Sweetness would be your name, and you would wonder why
four of your teeth are so sharp, and the tiny mountain range
of your knuckles so hard. And you would throw back your head
and open your mouth at the cows lowing their human songs
in the field, and the pigs swimming in shit and clover,
and everything on this earth, little dreamer, little dreamer
of the new world, holy, every rain drop and sand grain and blade
of grass worthy of gasp and joy and love, tiny shaman,
tiny blood thrust, tiny trillion cells trilling and trilling,
little dreamer, little hard hat, little heartbeat,
little best of me.
Complement with Maya Angelou’s letter to the daughter she never had and this lovely French picture-book imagining a better world from the perspective of a yet-unborn child, then revisit other highlights from The Universe in Verse: astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Angelou’s “A Brave and Startling Truth,” Regina Spektor reading “Theories of Everything” by astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson, Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson, poet Marie Howe reading her tribute to Stephen Hawking, and Rosanne Cash reading Adrienne Rich’s tribute to Marie Curie.
If you are, or would like to place yourself, in New York City on October 26, join me for The Astronomy of Walt Whitman — a very special pop-up edition of The Universe in Verse, celebrating Whitman’s bicentennial and the endeavor to build the city’s first public observatory.
Published October 10, 2019