In Praise of Mystery: A Poem for Europa (Full Version)
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.
AL: I'm Ada Limón. And this is The Slowdown.
MK: 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.
MK: Can you describe the room to me?
AL: Yeah. 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. What are the other descriptors that you can think of?
MK: It’s… it’s sea glass?
AL: Yeah, it is sea glass, that's perfect. It's sea glass, and the carpet, all of the chairs, everything is in that color. So the room really has this beautiful, almost oceanic feel. And it's very calming. And I think that, you know, D.C. has these, this city has these huge, enormous buildings. And then sometimes you find these really special calming spaces, and this particular room has such good energy to me. Like you can just feel it.
MK: And even like looking at the Capitol, which is a building that kind of brings up, no matter what era you're thinking of, like, not calm. But the room casts a kind of calm over it, which is really remarkable.
AL: I agree. The room itself creates a space for reflection. And that's hard in any city, but especially it's hard, you know, in a place as loaded in this rich with many, many interesting histories and problems and joys as the capital of the United States.
MK: Yes. You're in a moment that deserves a lot of reflection.
AL: Yeah. Yeah, truly. And right before we started recording, and I think the listeners would like to know this was that I actually got very excited to record room tone. Because, 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 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 I see in it is how the unknown reflects us back to ourselves. And in the space that's so ripe for reflection, and in other places where you wrote the poem that are so ripe for reflection, you were tasked with a very large reflection, which is looking into the unknown and, and instead of seeing darkness, like turning it into a mirror. In talking with scientists about the project, talking so much about going into the unknown, and what it can teach us about, actually what's out there, about Europa about Jupiter. But what you were tasked to do is to say, what does 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. Yeah. And I actually think that's a big part of it, too. It's such a uniquely human endeavor. Poetry is such a uniquely human endeavor. But so is exploration. But the other thing is, is that what, 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.
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: 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. You know, you find out oh, this blade of grass. Does this and oh, actually grows better when, when bison eat this particular grass? Oh, it does this, you know, 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?
AL: And is this true? And then I think, oh, what else is true? You know, and I find that very similar in some ways to our need to explore or need to figure out how our world works. And those I think, in that way, I think arts and science are very, very connected.
MK: Arts and sciences were so interconnected, and to think of a moon named by Galileo. That was an era of the connection of art and science.
AL: Yeah, exactly. And I think the other part of that, right, is that sometimes it's hard to have hope. Sometimes it's hard to have joy, ease, all the things that we would love to have all the time. But I do think leaning into wonder, and leaning into awe and being able to, wow, what it is to be alive. What it is to experience this moment, to have a body to move through the air, you know, to walk in the world to move in the world, however we move. And to find some wonder in that, that I feel like I can always lean on. I think that that is also true when we look at, you know, we look at the sky. We look… that is like oh, that is I am in awe, you know, and I want to hold on to that because I think sometimes it's easy to feel like, oh, I have to be hopeful or upbeat or positive. And sometimes those things are not possible. But what I can be is in wonder, and I want to live like that.
MK: It surprises me often, like, how difficult awe and wonder are, they are like a practice, you have to be almost diligent about.
MK: We're in this very, very grand building, we're in a beautiful room within a grand building. And when I walk into a building like this, it's like hard for me to comprehend the grandeur and hard for me to find awe in this like, space that is so historic and also constructed with such care, and with being monumental in purpose. And part of me wonders if it's because I wasn't raised around opulence, or I just didn't come to the monumental spaces, like we went to nature. And that's a kind of opulence that everybody can have. And I kind of wonder and awe. And in the natural spaces I have to remind myself to, but it's a little easier.
AL: Yeah, you know, you and I are very similar that way, California Girls, I think that it took me a long time to find that too, in, in some human things, right? Human-made things. Because for me, it was always about the trees and the water and the ocean. And, and that's where I could find that. And I remember moving to New York, and feeling very disconnected, feeling like, oh, how am I going to find this wonder and awe here? And I found it, you know, but it was difficult. And one of the things I love about the Library of Congress is that it's surrounded by all of these incredible trees. And the landscaping outside is just beautiful. And I'm actually one of the few Poets Laureate that have their official photograph taken outside. And it was important to me because the natural world is so essential to not only who I am as a poet, but who I am as a human being. And so, you know, we kept trying to get the right photo, and we finally were like, No, it's got to be outside. And one of the only other Poets Laureate that have an official photo outside is Robert Hayden.
MK: I've realized that I have to ask you this question, because I've been asking this question a lot lately. Would you consider yourself to be a vessel or portal?
AL: That's an amazing question. Only Myka would ask this question. I don't consider myself to be either. And then what do I consider myself to be? This is interesting. I think I consider myself an animal.
MK: You’re the only person who's allowed to not give me one of the two options.
AL: I consider myself a free animal. A righteous animal.
MK: That was the most appropriate rebellion. So I've been asked that question a lot, but I realized it was irrelevant because the Clipper is a vessel by technicality. But it provides us a portal.
AL: Hmm, yeah, I love that. I was thinking about the theory, and play of “Duende” by Federico Garcia Lorca, and how he talks about the difference between Duende and the Muse or the Angel, as an artist. And the Muse and the Angel come from outside. And so they're visitations. And that makes you more of a, you know, that it moves through you. And the Duende is in us, it's always in us and it comes up, it's in the vessels of the blood. And that's easy. You know, you can rouse it up through yourself, but it's always there. And so I think, I think of it more as being like, oh, right, it's, what's in me, is always in me. And I say that only because 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: Well, that comes back around to something that you said last night, is that poetry and by extension, the poem that you wrote, has to include everything, which is a broad stroke that, like, I agree with. And I think that there's also a play between everything in the universe of play between like everything and space, but to think that poetry has to include everything, but everything that it includes is also within you…
AL: And that there's a sense also a tension between a reaching out and desire and a sense of wholeness and fullness and enoughness. And that tension, in my mind, is often where I find the poem.
MK: We've been using the word space a lot. And I think it's kind of a silly word.
MK: 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. Yeah, being spacey. Right, spacey space. I love it. It's one of those that I think if we looked it up in the dictionary, there would just be all sorts of you know, it just be this really long—
MK: It would go to like “F” of “G.”
AL: Yeah, yeah, 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. Yeah. And, too, that the poem is going to be engraved on the side of the craft. And then an engraving is, is again, just space. It is not a text, it’s an un-text. So it again, is reflecting pure, blank, open space.
AL: Yeah. And the engraving is in my handwriting. So there's a level in which even when we talk about breath as space, you know, my particular way of writing includes all, sort 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: It's almost like your hand needs to take a breath. Sometimes when you're writing like, Oh, my hands needs some air.
AL: Yeah, absolutely. I think about that, too, about when we talk about needing space. You know, I just need a little space. Need a little space around me. You know, that's breath too.
MK: You're like, what are you really asking for? And it's time, it's distance. But it's also care.
AL: Yeah. Yeah, it is care. Yeah.
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. And once you just give into that, like, oh, yeah, that is, this is strange. That's much better for me than thinking, Okay. Everything is organized, clear and clean, and I know what will happen in the next 30 years of my life. You know, I remember having a dear friend in Sonoma growing up, and I think we were in high school. And I was madly in love with a man, a boy, really, we were 17. And we were together for a very long time. But my dear friend, Echo said to me, I just think it would be terrible, to be in love with someone, and think you're gonna be with him for the rest of your life right now. And I remember thinking Why? like, I thought it was so great. And she was like, but then you, you're just not gonna find anyone else. Like, this is just who you're going to be with. And it was so like, incredulity, and I loved it. Because for me, it felt so great. Like, I was like, this is, this is my person. And here I was, you know, a 16 year old being like, Oh, this is my person. And she just was like, that seems so dull. And she's someone that I think has lived her life and creating a lot of mystery. She actually, she lives in Yosemite. And works for Yosemite National Park. And I think it's, I think it is, it is sort of one of those moments where she was like, Oh, I, I need to surrender to the unknown. And she taught me a lot about that.
MK: But it also sounds like what you learned was not, this isn't my person. It was to say, Yes, this is my person.
MK: And then to be okay, when you were wrong.
AL: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I wasn't okay, when I was wrong. But I, but I took a long time to get over it. And then it was okay. But you know,
MK: Got okay—
AL: You know, what, you're heartbroken at twenty? Like, it's just the worst. It did teach me I think also, how, even then learning those lessons of right, we don't know what's going to happen. We don't know what's going to happen from one day to the next. And to be reminded of that, whether it's a heartbreak or a great joy, I think is really essential to living this life in a way that yes, you plan, yes, you do your best to, you know, be safe and protect each other and, you know, live your life in a good way. But at the same time. You can't let every new thing completely derail you. You also have to let it sink in and be like, All right, this isn't about taking me off a path. It is the path. It's the path because it's happening. That's the path.
MK: And that's something that I think the work of scientists also like, can teach us too. Scientists who are a) both very funny, often very people, who also laugh a lot. But people who will pursue something, it will… b) will doggedly pursue it, knowing full well that it might not work. And that, that's still a result.
MK: But you have to, like live it out.
AL: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, I love it when people and we've talked about this before, but having, you know, waiting for an answer from the universe. And you're like, Yeah, the universe did answer you and said no.
MK: Or it said nothing.
MK: And its silence was very, very loud.
AL: Yeah. Like all of those things. You know, I feel like sometimes like you're, you're fighting to go through this thing, or like, No, this must happen. And you forget this other thing over here that's actually easier and more aligned with who you are. And I think we live a lot like that. And I think scientists do have that kind of figured out like, Oh, let me figure out like, how this works. Oh, it didn't work. Okay, then let's go over here and figure this out. I was talking to the head of the Jet Propulsion Lab. Yesterday, the director, Laurie, and she was talking to me about how when things go wrong in the building, and completing of, a spacecraft, it's exciting. It's like them at their best. Because they're like, Okay, we've got a problem. Now, let's fix it. And she the way she talked about it, as excitement as opposed to failure was really a lesson, was very interesting.
MK: How you burst something open.
MK: When there's or like, you can pull up the thread. And you can find so much more.
AL: Yeah. And I think, you know, we'd be better off if we lived our lives that way a little bit like, oh this happened, it's not to be fixed, right? It's to be figured out. And this is a lesson, and then we can fix it. 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, which is hard to do, even with me, I've great imagination, but it was still very difficult to do. 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.