Packing up your life to make it look better to other people is one of the dreariest of jobs. Also back-breaking, irritating and illuminating of things you don’t want illuminated. Like a piece of baseboard molding that a puppy once cut his teeth on, or a corner ceiling leak from a neighbor’s fire three years ago, likely beyond the statute of limitations. But our real estate broker in Brooklyn had scheduled an open house on the last Sunday in April.
So, after weeks of this kind of labor and with much of it still undone, it was unreasonable of me to suggest getting groomed—or even finding a comb—to go to a poetry event in Red Hook, Brooklyn, a place that has never seen the technological advancement of the subway system, on the eve of said open house. But never mind, we went, giving up a prime parking space to make the 12-minute drive across Brooklyn to the old dock area—now hipster haven—that is Red Hook.
Poetry events don’t usually draw sell-out crowds on Saturday nights, but this was the exception. I was grateful to my friend, the artist Penelope Cake, for having had the foresight to obtain tickets weeks in advance. Signs along the sidewalk read, “Poetry event sold out—No standing room, No waiting list.” I wish I had thought to nab one of those for posterity.
Pioneer Works is the brainchild of the artist Dustin Yellin, a name that was familiar to me for his recent installation of life-size resin sculptures at the theater that is home to the New York City Ballet. In 2010, Yellin bought the enormous empty brick warehouse that became home to Pioneer Works, a non-profit meant to “foster multidisciplinary creativity in the arts and sciences.”
The crowd this night was at capacity. Over a thousand people gathered to experience the program billed as the “Universe in Verse.” Maria Popova, the force of nature behind BrainPickings.org and the co-creator with astrophysicist Janna Levin of Universe in Verse (the name alone is a wordsmith’s dream), hosted the evening. Poised and eloquent, she “speaks in paragraphs” as one of the presenters noted. If you read as much as she does, you might too.
The format of the evening had poets and writers and musician/songwriters and actors and astrophysicists reading the works of other poets. Natalie Batalha, research astronomer at NASA, read an excerpt from Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Renascence,” and the singer Amanda Palmer read an original poem written for the occasion by her husband, the author Neil Gaiman. The program, a fundraiser for the Natural Resources Defense Council, was dedicated to Rachel Carson, author of “The Silent Spring” and catalyst of the modern environmental movement.
Robin Wall Kimmerer, a scientist (and poet) at the Andrews Experimental Forest in Oregon, recalled that her fourth-grade teacher told her, “You can’t be a scientist and a poet. You’re going to have to choose.” She chose to be both. The “Andrews,” as it is called by its scientists, has a program designed to bring together poets and scientists at this old-growth forest to make a literary and scientific map of the forest over the next 200 years.
When the audience was polled by one presenter who asked if we believed the now-accepted singularity theory of the universe, only a small fraction of mostly male (my husband included) hands went up. No matter, the evening took us out of our little entropic existence for an evening of exploration in verse of our existence in the larger entropy of the universe.