Rebecca Elson was a remarkable human being. One of the best ways to persuade those who don't know about her that she was a human treaure is to point to this obituary from 1999. Becky Elson filled her 39 years with an astonishing range of human achievement, and would have been the first to dismiss living a full human life as any kind of achievement at all. Rather life is gift to be unwrapped and enjoyed, life is a love to be embraced, living is the response of the whole being to that which is, because it is. Ten years after her death, this astronomer poet, who climbed mountains and studied stars, who played football and taught creative writing at Harvard, who played the mandolin and understood the deep harmonies earlier generations called the music of the spheres.
I came across her work in a book on science and poetry, a juxtaposition of disciplines I still find intriguing. Even the title of her published work, Responsibility to Awe, tells you something of this woman's depths - intellectual, spiritual, emotional. She exulted in the physicality of life, the mystery of matter, the joyous enigmas of existence, the unimaginable vastness of a universe still expanding away from human attempts to calculate, control and bring under the domestication of intellect. Her poetry is a celebration of human knowing, its triumphs and limits, the textured varieties of human epistemology, and amongst the ways of knowing that she respects and from which she learns, those two words "responsibility" and "awe". Our age could lose its capacity for both, so superficial and mindless in ways of life that obsess on the transient and immediate, and ignore the vast mysteries of existence in a universe like ours. To enthuse about an awesome star more likely refers to a recent gig than a response to a several billion year old source of light that populates a night sky now permanently invisible above our well lit, energy greedy urban landscape. A recovery of responsibility and awe might be initial steps in that change of mindset needed to prevent ecological catastrophe and give impetus to a humane reform of the destructive economics of irresponsibility and avarice.
Rant ended. Here's a poem that says more, much more, about what matters, and why.
From the universe
And fixed it in its column,
Named the causes of infinity,
Performed the calculus
Of the imaginary I, it seems
The body aches
To come too,
To the light,
Transmit the grace of gravity,
Express in its own algebra
The symmetries of awe and fear,
The shudder up the spine,
The knowing passing like a cool wind
That leaves the nape hairs leaping.