“I am bombarded yet I stand.”
Caroline Herschel, the first professional woman astronomer, was a remarkable woman who lived a long and pathbreaking life. Her parents deemed her too ugly to marry and envisioned for her a life as a servant — she became the Cinderella of the household, tending to the domestic needs of her parents and her eleven siblings. But Herschel, though incredibly humble, had a tenacity of spirit that kept her quiet passion for the life of the mind burning. She went on to pave the way for women in science, becoming the first woman admitted into the Royal Astronomical Society — the era’s most prestigious scientific institution — alongside the Scottish mathematician Mary Sommerville (for whom the word “scientist” was coined).
Exactly 120 years after Herschel’s death, the great poet and feminist Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929–March 27, 2012) — a woman who espoused the political power of poetry and believed that “poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility” — commemorated Herschel’s far-reaching legacy of unlocking a universe of possibility for women in a beautiful 1968 poem titled “Planetarium,” found in Rich’s indispensable Collected Poems: 1950–2012 (public library).
At The Universe in Verse — my celebration of science through poetry, which also gave us Neil Gaiman’s new feminist poem about the dawn of science — astrophysicist and author Janna Levin brought Rich’s masterpiece to life in an enchanting reading:
Thinking of Caroline Herschel (1750–1848)
astronomer, sister of William; and others.
A woman in the shape of a monster
a monster in the shape of a woman
the skies are full of them
a woman ‘in the snow
among the Clocks and instruments
or measuring the ground with poles’
in her 98 years to discover
she whom the moon ruled
levitating into the night sky
riding the polished lenses
Galaxies of women, there
doing penance for impetuousness
in those spaces of the mind
‘virile, precise and absolutely certain’
from the mad webs of Uranusborg
encountering the NOVA
every impulse of light exploding
from the core
as life flies out of us
Tycho whispering at last
‘Let me not seem to have lived in vain’
What we see, we see
and seeing is changing
the light that shrivels a mountain
and leaves a man alive
Heartbeat of the pulsar
heart sweating through my body
The radio impulse
pouring in from Taurus
I am bombarded yet I stand
I have been standing all my life in the
direct path of a battery of signals
the most accurately transmitted most
untranslatable language in the universe
I am a galactic cloud so deep so invo-
luted that a light wave could take 15
years to travel through me And has
taken I am an instrument in the shape
of a woman trying to translate pulsations
into images for the relief of the body
and the reconstruction of the mind.
A curious footnote I shared at the show: When I first encountered this poem years ago, I was struck by its searing beauty, but also puzzled by why, out of all possible cosmic phenomena, Rich chose to make a particular mention of pulsars. It wasn’t until I devoured Levin’s gorgeous book Black Hole Blues that I came to suspect why: The first pulsar, which revolutionized our understanding of the universe, was discovered in 1967 — less than a year before Rich wrote the poem — by a 23-year-old astronomer named Jocelyn Bell, who was subsequently excluded from the Nobel Prize for the discovery she herself had made.
This being an Adrienne Rich poem, I’ve always taken its dedication — to Caroline Herschel “and others” — to mean “and other unsung and undersung women in astronomy.” After reading Levin’s book, I’ve come to suspect that Rich’s deliberate mention of pulsars — a completely nascent discovery at the time, and not at all common cosmic vocabulary — was a deliberate feminist bow to Jocelyn Bell (who, incidentally, went on to be an enormous champion of the common ground between poetry and science herself.)
For other beautiful readings of beloved poets’ work, hear Cynthia Nixon reading Emily Dickinson, Amanda Palmer reading Wisława Szymborska, Sylvia Boorstein reading Pablo Neruda, Jon Kabat-Zinn reading Derek Walcott, Orson Welles reading Walt Whitman, and Amanda Palmer reading E.E. Cummings, then revisit Janna Levin on the century-long quest to capture the sound of spacetime, how mathematician Kurt Gödel shaped the modern mind, why scientists do what they do, and her magnificent Moth story about the improbable paths that lead us back to ourselves.
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