Antidotes to Fear of Death: Astronomer and Poet Rebecca Elson’s Stunning Cosmic Salve for Our Creaturely Tremblings of Heart
By Maria Popova
It is our biological wiring to exist — and then not; it is our psychological wiring to spend our lives running from this elemental fact on the hamster wheel of busyness and the hedonic treadmill of achievement, running from the disquieting knowledge that the atoms huddling for a cosmic blink around the shadow of a self will one day disband and return to the “aloof stars” that made them. If we still ourselves for a moment, or are bestilled by circumstance, we glimpse that fact, then hasten to avert our gaze. We go on holding it as an abstraction, an unproven theorem; go on casting spells against the proof in stone and wood and promises; go on building houses and egos, signing thirty-year mortgages, trading the forged mint of forever as contractual currency in marital vows. And then one day, some certitude fissures — in the broken surface of a split lip, a split love, a split in Earth’s quaked crust; in the slow-burning wildfire of a pandemic, smoking its way across the globe until it blazes into a shared inferno; in the cold blade of a terminal diagnosis, sudden and close to the bone. We wake up to unalloyed reality with a scream, a silence, a hollow hallelujah.
The astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson (January 2, 1960–May 19, 1999) was twenty-nine when she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma — a blood cancer that typically invades people in their sixties and seventies. Throughout the bodily brutality of the treatment, throughout the haunting uncertainty of life in remission, she met reality on its own terms — reality creaturely and cosmic, terms chance-dealt by impartial laws — and made of that terrifying meeting something uncommonly beautiful.
When she returned her atoms to the universe, not yet forty, Elson bequeathed to this world 56 scientific papers and a slender, stunning book of poetry titled A Responsibility to Awe (public library) — verses spare and sublime, drawn from a consciousness pulling the balloon string of the infinite through the loop of its own finitude, life-affirming the way only the most intimate contact with death — which means with nature — can be.
Elson’s crowning achievement in verse is the poem “Antidotes to Fear of Death,” beautifully brought to life here as a trailer of sorts for the 2020 Universe in Verse — our annual charitable celebration of the science and splendor of nature through poetry — by astrophysicist, novelist, Pioneer Works Director of Sciences, and devoted enchantress of poetry Janna Levin, with music by cellist, composer, and music revolutionary Zoë Keating based on her original soundtrack for The Edge of All We Know — the forthcoming documentary about the Event Horizon Telescope, which in 2019 captured humanity’s historic first glimpse of a black hole. (Janna works on black holes; Elson was among the select scientists tasked with studying the first images returned by the Hubble Space Telescope, that pioneering emblem of our most ambitious tool-making and our longing for intimate contact with the nature of reality.)
Janna prefaces her reading with a Bohrsian reflection on the relationship between science and poetry, between the objective and the subjective, concluding with an exquisitely insightful and exquisitely phrased observation of how the tension between these seeming dipoles can dissolve upon closer inspection:
We are all navigating an external world — but only through the prism of our own minds, our own subjective experience… The majesty of the universe is only ever conjured up in the mind.
ANTIDOTES TO FEAR OF DEATH
by Rebecca Elson
Sometimes as an antidote
To fear of death,
I eat the stars.
Those nights, lying on my back,
I suck them from the quenching dark
Til they are all, all inside me,
Pepper hot and sharp.
Sometimes, instead, I stir myself
Into a universe still young,
Still warm as blood:
No outer space, just space,
The light of all the not yet stars
Drifting like a bright mist,
And all of us, and everything
But unconstrained by form.
And sometime it’s enough
To lie down here on earth
Beside our long ancestral bones:
To walk across the cobble fields
Of our discarded skulls,
Each like a treasure, like a chrysalis,
Thinking: whatever left these husks
Flew off on bright wings.
Couple with Regina Spektor reading Elson’s “Theories of Everything” at the 2019 Universe in Verse and Janna reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity at the 2018 Universe in Verse, then join us for the livestream of the 2020 show for more beauty and consolation by calibration of perspective, featuring Neil Gaiman premiering another original poem, Patti Smith bringing Emily Dickinson to life, astronaut Leland Melvin reading Neruda’s love letter to Earth’s forests, and thirty other magnificent constellations of atoms celebrating the majesty of the universe and the irreplicable splendor of our Pale Blue Dot.
Published April 10, 2020