954: In Praise of Mystery: A Poem for Europa

954: In Praise of Mystery: A Poem for Europa

954: In Praise of Mystery: A Poem for Europa


Major Jackson: Hi, it's Major. This June, the US Poet Laureate and former host of The Slowdown, Ada Limón, unveiled a poem that she wrote for NASA's Europa Clipper, a poem that will be inscribed in her own hand on the side of the spacecraft set for Jupiter's water moon, 1.8 billion miles away. Her work is partnered with the Message in a Bottle Project, which invites anyone to have their name etched on the microchip mounted to the outside of the spacecraft. Our producer, Myka Kielbon, met with Ada in the ceremonial offices of the Poet Laureate in the Library of Congress, to connect on this moment that merges science, art and humanity. We hope you enjoy their conversation. To listen to the full version of this interview, please visit our website at slowdownshow.org.

Ada Limón: I'm Ada Limón. And this is The Slowdown.

Myka Kielbon: And I'm Myka Kielbon, the producer of The Slowdown. Ada, tell me where we're sitting.

AL: We are sitting in what I like to call the “Oval Office of Poetry.” It is the office of the Poet Laureate. It's in the attic of the Jefferson Building, and it overlooks the Capitol. But yeah, we're in this beautiful office that has the legacy in history of all the Poets Laureate past. One of the things I love about this room is it's a very particular color. It kind of looks like mint chip ice cream. And it's very calming. 

MK: And you're in a moment that deserves a lot of reflection.

AL: Yeah, truly, and right before we started recording, I actually got very excited to record room tone. Because, and if you don't know, room tone is where you just record the silence in the room, which is, of course not silence, it's a sound. And every room has its particular musicality, whatever that is. And um… I love it. Because sometimes in busy moments of my life, room tone is the only time I get to be quiet.

MK: Our 30 second meditation break, as I call it. Thinking more about reflection, in your poem that you wrote for the Europa, what you were tasked to do is to say, what is even the act of exploration tell us about who we are as a species, but also as a society, as a humanity even.

AL: I think it's so interesting to be tasked with something so enormous. And you can… you can kind of trick yourself and be like, Oh, it's just this, this small thing, right? You can pretend it's small, but it's not. And I did have to trick myself a little bit into thinking it wasn't going to be seen by anyone. I had this moment where I thought it's just going to travel into space by itself. And that was this other thing, was like, oh, what would it feel just to write the poem for myself. And for space, Right? For Europa, and not for all of the collective moments. But I also think it's interesting for me to think about how, with the Message in a Bottle campaign, getting all of these people to actually sign on to the poem, I actually kind of love that in some ways, the poem becomes no longer mine. It's just all of ours. And it's collective, and it's communal. And that, to me, has a kind of power that is hard to find sometimes when you make art, and I like sort of dissolving behind it.

MK: I think that's something you can probably take to other work that you make, is thinking of it as something that will be quite literally cast off. It won't come back.

AL: Yeah. What makes us different in so many ways than A.I., or anything else, is that we have this sense of urgency of our life in our present moment, because we are daily confronted with our mortality. And because of that, that urgency is written into the lines, right? It's written in — all poems have that sense of mortality in them. And I think with this particular Europa Clipper spacecraft, it won't come back. And so, there's also this moment of oh, yeah, it too, is mortal in some way.

MK: That's amazing. Going back to making it small. There's the line in the poem in the last stanza that actually calls back exactly to that.

AL: It's “small, invisible worlds” — 

MK: “small, invisible worlds.” You took what is in the writing of the poem, and put it within the poem in a way that says so much. 

AL: Yeah. 

MK: And I think that that's beautiful, because the writing of the poem is much like exploration, in that every part of the journey gets you to the end, every part of the journey gets you there. 

AL: It gives you, questions just lead to more questions. And that's kind of like exploration, right? You find out one thing, and then you find out another thing. Like, anytime we learn something, it just leads to Oh, but then, what else? What else? And writing poetry is, is so much like that, you know? I think every moment when I'm writing a poem, I keep asking myself, is this true? 

MK: Hmm. 

AL: And is this true? And then I think, oh, what else is true? I do feel like I don't necessarily get visited by poems. I find them. In my body.

MK: It's through listening… 

AL: Through listening. 

MK: Through close listening.

AL: Through room tone…

MK: Yes. We've been using the word “space” a lot. And I think it's kind of a silly word. Yeah. That means many, many things, by extension of meaning… nothing. 

AL: Yeah. I love that you're saying this, because this morning, when I woke up here in DC, I opened the curtains. And there was a building across the street. And it said “SPACE” really large. And I thought, Oh, what is this space thing? And then it said, “FOR RENT.” And it really made me think about the word “space.” I really had this moment of like, Oh, Space for Rent, you know? So. So yeah, it is a strange word space. It's very interesting, because what is it?

MK: And I've always thought in conversation with poetry and The Slowdown, is that you talk a lot about how poetry has the breath built in. And in making the show, breath and silence are the same as whitespace on the page. And I'm really captivated by the broadside of the poem, because the whitespace is dark space, which, in many ways, greatly reflects what it is about. 

AL: Yeah. 

MK: And, too, that the poem is going to be engraved on the side of the craft. And an engraving is, is again, just space. It is not a text, it’s an un-text. So what again, is reflecting pure, blank, open space.

AL: Yeah. And the engraving is in my handwriting. You know, my particular way of writing includes all sorts of my own idiosyncrasies that have to do with the way that I work with speed, right? And where you need to slow down, where I need to speed up, all of that. So that also includes a sort of space.

MK: Do you think of poetry as a mystery?

AL: I do. I think life is a mystery. I used to think that I would feel better, and safer, if I could figure everything out. And then sometime, probably in my mid 30s, I thought, No, I actually feel better when I surrender to mystery. And when I think I don't know what's coming. I don't know, we can't know. And taking that breath, and living with that allows for a sense of strangeness that makes the world more wonderful to be in. It makes it ridiculous. It makes it fabulous. It makes it ugly, all those things. And I think the mystery also, is where I find humor. You know, I laugh a lot. I'm a laugher. And a lot of it is just because life is so weird. It is so weird. I think that in the making of this poem, I kept trying to imagine what it would be like for the poem, to travel into space, to travel 1.8 billion miles into space, to not arrive at its destination for five and a half years. And every time I envisioned it, I kept coming back to the earth, that it just kept bringing me back again and again, to this planet, and every time you speak to the incredible minds at NASA, they know that this planet, planet Earth, is the very best planet, the very best planet. And that's where the poem really began to get a sense of wholeness for me. 

MK: Would you like to read the poem?

AL: Poem time.

MK: It's poem time!

In Praise of Mystery: A Poem for Europa
by Ada Limón

Arching under the night sky inky
with black expansiveness, we point
to the planets we know, we

pin quick wishes on stars. From earth,
we read the sky as if it is an unerring book
of the universe, expert and evident.

Still, there are mysteries below our sky:
the whale song, the songbird singing
its call in the bough of a wind-shaken tree.

We are creatures of constant awe,
curious at beauty, at leaf and blossom,
at grief and pleasure, sun and shadow.

And it is not darkness that unites us,
not the cold distance of space, but
the offering of water, each drop of rain,

each rivulet, each pulse, each vein.
O second moon, we, too, are made
of water, of vast and beckoning seas.

We, too, are made of wonders, of great
and ordinary loves, of small invisible worlds,
of a need to call out through the dark.

“In Praise of Mystery: A Poem for Europa” by Ada Limón, © 2023, Ada Limón. Used by permission of the poet.