The Universe in Verse: Sarah Kay Reads Whitman and Performs Her Splendid Song-Poem “Astronaut”
By Maria Popova
“A leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars,” Walt Whitman bellowed from the golden age of American astronomy, through which he lived wide-eyed with wonder and ablaze with a belief in the unity of everything, the interconnectedness and inter-belonging of everything — the telescopic and the microscopic, the wondrous and the wretched. A century and a half later, his soul-salving poems continue to welcome the beautiful and the terrible equally as particles of our humanity, for he knew that they were particles of his. He called himself a “kosmos”; across epochs and generations, across space and time, he continues to speak to the universe in each of us.
Whitman’s animating ethos and its cosmic inspirations were the subject of a special miniature edition of The Universe in Verse I hosted on Governors Island, titled The Astronomy of Walt Whitman — a dual celebration of the beloved poet’s bicentennial and the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory at Pioneer Works, just across the East River, which the poet himself traversed daily aboard the ferries he cherished as “great living poems.”
Among the performers was chemistry major turned poet and spoken-word maestra Sarah Kay, co-founder of Project VOICE — a wonderful initiative working with students from kindergarten to university around the world, using poetry as a portal of delight and a tool of empowerment to give young people not only a language of self-expression but a mode of self-understanding — which is, of course, the foundation of other-understanding and of all the values Whitman so cherished and celebrated in his verse: democracy, love, justice, self-acceptance, social harmony. What joy it would have been for Whitman, who so frequently addressed the poets of the future, to hear one such poet of uncommon talent channel his immortal words epochs after he returned his borrowed stardust to the universe.
#31 FROM “SONG OF MYSELF”
by Walt Whitman
I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg
of the wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef-d’oeuvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
And the cow crunching with depress’d head surpasses any statue,
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.
I find I incorporate gneiss, coal, long-threaded moss, fruits,
grains, esculent roots,
And am stucco’d with quadrupeds and birds all over,
And have distanced what is behind me for good reasons,
But call any thing back again when I desire it.
In vain the speeding or shyness,
In vain the plutonic rocks send their old heat against my approach,
In vain the mastodon retreats beneath its own powder’d bones,
In vain objects stand leagues off and assume manifold shapes,
In vain the ocean settling in hollows and the great monsters lying low,
In vain the buzzard houses herself with the sky,
In vain the snake slides through the creepers and logs,
In vain the elk takes to the inner passes of the woods,
In vain the razor-bill’d auk sails far north to Labrador,
I follow quickly, I ascend to the nest in the fissure of the cliff.
As a complement to the Whitman classic and the astronomical overtone of the show, I asked Sarah to read one of her own poems as well — a perspectival masterpiece titled “Astronaut” and found in her altogether splendid and splendidly titled poetry collection No Matter the Wreckage (public library). That she performed it hours after the first-ever all-female spacewalk only adds to the cascading loveliness of the occasion — in Whitman’s day, women could hardly walk to the opera without a male escort; how delighted he would have been, given his ardent insistence on women’s equality as a pillar of democracy and his proclamation that “the universe has nothing better than the best womanhood,” to see three female astronauts walk boldly into interplanetary space.
by Sarah Kay
I see the moon, the moon sees me. The moon sees somebody I don’t see.
God bless the moon, and God bless me. And God bless the somebody that I don’t see.
If I get to heaven before you do, I’ll make a hole and pull you through.
I’ll write your name on every star. And that way the world won’t seem so far.
The astronaut will not be at work today. He has called in sick.
He has turned off his cell phone, his pager, his laptop, his alarm clock.
There is a fat yellow cat asleep on his couch, rain against his windows,
and not even a hint of coffee in the kitchen air.
Everybody is in a tizzy.
The engineers on the fifteenth floor have stopped working
on the particle machine, the anti-gravity room is leaking,
and even the freckled kid with glasses (whose only job is to clean
out the trash) is nervous: fumbles the bag, spills a banana peel
and a paper cup. Nobody notices.
They are too busy calculating how much this will mean for lost time.
How many galaxies are we losing per minute;
and how long before the rocket can be launched?
An electron flies off the energy cloud.
A black hole has erupted.
A mother finishes setting the table for dinner.
A Law & Order marathon is starting.
The astronaut is asleep.
He has forgotten to turn off his watch,
which ticks against his wrist like a metal pulse.
He does not hear it.
He dreams of coral reefs and plankton.
His fingers find the pillowcases sailing masts.
He turns on his side, opens his eyes once.
He thinks that scuba divers must have the most wonderful job in the word.
So much water
to glide through.
For more wonders from The Universe in Verse, savor astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Whitman’s classic “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” Adrienne Rich’s “Planetarium,” and Maya Angelou’s “A Brave and Startling Truth,” which soared to the stars aboard the Orion spacecraft, then revisit Neil Gaiman’s touching poetic tribute to the Quaker astronomer who confirmed relativity and catapulted Einstein into celebrity, uniting war-torn humanity under one cosmic dome of truth.
Lovely Whitman-era portraiture by Brooklyn Tintype
Published December 17, 2019