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"The Learn'd Astronomer on the Radio"
Winner of the Marica and Jan Vilcek Prize for Poetry, 2013
Selected by Mark Doty
The title of your poem refers to “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” by Walt Whitman, a poem that, besides being widely read and anthologized, also made an appearance on AMC’s TV show Breaking Bad. How do you anticipate your readers relating to the title? And do you have any comments on the continued relevance of Walt Whitman’s poem?
I have yet to watch Breaking Bad (I know, I know!), so this Whitman cameo is news to me—delightful news.
I think a lot of people associate Whitman with his long poems, particularly “Song of Myself.” But he also has so many of these little lyric gems: this one, which stages two versions of the lone human trying to understand the cosmos, is easy for 21st-century readers to get. If, like me, you were completely riveted by the NASA livestream of the Mars Curiosity Rover landing, you are still in the position of the speaker of “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” Watching every scientist in that high-tech room burst into laughter and tears at the same time was the technology-enhanced version of “gliding out” of the lecture hall to appreciate the stars.
My poem finally came together when I hit on the title, because it gave me permission to incorporate phrasing from Whitman into my lines. I couldn’t find an effective ending until I stole the phrase “perfect silence” for the last stanza.
Can you tell a bit about the idea of using the doppelganger? It’s a very moving way to imagine a healthy version of the mother in the poem.
I actually did hear a radio program about this—it was a story on Radiolab, which is one of my favorite things on the planet. The hosts were trying to wrap their heads around the profound implications of an infinite universe (if that is what we in fact occupy). The scientist described the inevitability of having a cosmological twin for your extremely finite body. This idea haunted me: at the time, my mother was sinking deeper into dementia, and we could barely communicate with each other. She became seriously ill when I was in my early 20s—right around that time when we realize our parents really, truly were fully autonomous human beings before we were born, if that makes sense. I kept thinking about the questions I would have asked as a teenager if I’d had any idea that she wouldn’t be able to answer them a decade later. Somehow, the Radiolab episode sparked this fantasy in which our doppelgängers got to have those conversations and interactions our “originals” couldn’t.
Your bio notes that you are working on a collection titled Aphasia, which deals with illness, grief, and the loss of language. Will “The Learn’d Astronomer…” be part of this work? How do you view the relationship between poetry and the medical world?
Yes, “The Learn’d Astronomer…” is currently the final poem in that manuscript. My mother developed aphasia along with her dementia, which made her illness even more heartbreaking: she loved language. In fact, she introduced me to poetry when I was a kid, reading aloud to me from a giant American literature anthology. When I first started writing these Aphasia poems, she’d lost the ability to initiate conversation or to speak full sentences. It was so hard to tell what was going on inside her head: was her cognition as severely impaired as it seemed, or was the aphasia not allowing her to articulate her inner thoughts? One of the great gifts of my life is that she was able to wish me happy birthday the year she died. I hadn’t heard her say more than one word at a time in months, but she managed to say both words on my birthday. It was indescribably moving.
I think poetry and medicine have a lot to say to each other. There are many wonderful poems about illness and health, of course, and I think medical providers and patients ought to read them. I’m excited, moreover, about the recent developments of medicine and literature, narrative medicine, and the like as intellectual fields and institutional practice. I think poetry and fiction allow you that rarest experience: temporary entry into another person’s self. That commerce between author and reader can have profound ethical consequences. One of my poetic heroes, Muriel Rukeyser, described an ideal “poetry of the meeting place;” I think that the medical world should make use of that meeting place.
What is your biggest challenge as a writer?
The honest answer is discipline. One of the consequences of helping with caregiving for so long is that it can be hard to carve out time that is truly mine. Even after my mother died, and I didn’t have to wait for the next family crisis to come, I had a hard time prioritizing my own (creative and practical) needs. I’m still climbing out of that, in many ways.
Which writers have influenced you? What are you currently reading?
I’ve already mentioned two of my biggest influences, Whitman and Rukeyser. I discovered Adrienne Rich when I was about 16 and sometimes I feel like some version of her actually lives in my head and would show up on an MRI. Mark Doty, who was the judge for this contest, was also a great influence on me even before I began writing about illness.
I’m currently obsessively reading Natasha Trethewey and Tracy K. Smith. Life on Mars is phenomenal and I have been very tempted to force a copy on each of my friends.