Drawings by Children: Rosanne Cash Reads Lisel Mueller’s Subtle Poem About Growing Out of Our Limiting Frames of Reference
By Maria Popova
We parse and move through reality as multidimensional creatures in a multidimensional world. The experience of dimensions, this living fact of spatiality, may be our most direct mathematical grasp of the universe — an understanding woven into our elemental sensemaking, into our language and our metaphors: We speak of our social circles, our love triangles, our spheres of influence, the depth of our feelings, the height of our intellect, the length of our lives. But we are also quite limited by our embodied frame of reference — our experience as three-dimensional creatures in a perceptually three-dimensional world with other spatialities on scales we can’t sense has always unmoored our common-sense perception from the fundamentals of reality; it is why the notion of a spherical world that turns beneath our grounded feet as it hurtles around the Sun at more than 100 kilometers per hour was so controversial for so long, why Einstein’s concept of spacetime was so radical and revolutionary, and why we find mathematical objects like Möbius strips and Klein bottles so deliciously disorienting.
In the final stretch of the 19th century, an English theologian with a mathematical bend named Edwin Abbott Abbott composed the brilliant allegorical novella Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions — the first time the science of dimensions was discussed in popular literature, folded into a clever social satire about how much our cultural frames of reference, around gender and class and other normative lines, limit our clear view of reality and limit us as fully conscious, capable agents in that reality.
Nearly a century after Abbott, the poet Lisel Mueller (February 8, 1924–February 21, 2020) — another deep seer and scrumptiously original mind, who lived nearly a century — took up the subject with great subtlety and elegance of insight in her poem “Drawings by Children,” found in her altogether miraculous Pulitzer-winning collection Alive Together (public library), which also gave us Mueller’s lyrical wisdom on what gives meaning to our ephemeral lives.
At the 2020 Universe in Verse — the annual charitable celebration of the science of reality through poetry — Grammy-winning musician and poetic songwriter Rosanne Cash brought Mueller’s “Drawings by Children” to soulful life, accompanied by one of her own children, Jakob Leventhal — a wonderful young musician himself, quarantined home from college.
DRAWINGS BY CHILDREN
by Lisel Mueller
The sun may be visible or not
(it may be behind you,
the viewer of these pictures)
but the sky is always blue
if it is day.
the stars come almost within your grasp;
crooked, they reach out to you,
on the verge of falling.
It is never sunrise or sunset;
there is no bloody eye
spying on you across the horizon.
It is clearly day or night,
it is bright or totally dark,
it is here and never there.
In the beginning, you only needed
your head, a moon swimming in space,
and four bare branches;
and when your body was added,
it was light and thin at first,
not yet the dark chapel
from which, later, you tried to escape.
You lived in a non-Newtonian world,
your arms grew up from your shoulders,
your feet did not touch the ground,
your hair was streaming,
you were still flying.
The house is smaller than you remembered,
it has windows but no door.
A chimney sits on the gable roof,
a curl of smoke reassures you.
But the house has only two dimensions,
like a mash without its face;
the people who live there stand outside
as though time were always summer —
there is nothing behind the wall
except a space where the wind whistles,
but you cannot see that.
For other highlights from the 2020 Universe in Verse, savor astronaut Leland Melvin reading Pablo Neruda’s love letter to the forest, astrophysicist Janna Levin reading “Antidotes to Fear of Death” by the late, great astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson, Amanda Palmer reading “Einstein’s Mother” by former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, artist Ohara Hale’s lyrical watercolor adaptation of Mojave American poet Natalie Diaz’s ode to brokenness as a portal to belonging and resilience, and Marie Howe’s poem “Singularity” — a dimensional meditation on our cosmic belonging and the meaning of home, inspired by Stephen Hawking — in a stunning animated short film, then revisit the charming drawings Darwin’s children left all over the manuscript of their father’s epoch-making book and Rosanne Cash reading Adrienne Rich’s tribute to Marie Curie and the meaning of power, with a poignant personal reflection on the wellspring of creative might and how science saved her life, from the inaugural Universe in Verse in 2017.
Published April 29, 2020