June 2023

The Singularity

Michael Bettencourt | Scene4 Magazine

Michael Bettencourt

I assume we all have these moments in our lives when, I don't know, the machinery of meaning and purpose and struggle and cause and effect and consequence and seriousness and implacable entropy stops – just stops, stone cold stops – and into the silence comes something that cuts to the core – no, too coarse, too invasive –  something so deft and clear and fit and frank and direct and plain that brings us to tears and so to radical openness: could be anything that does it, really, but usually it is something that seems to be without guile or threat or agenda and just is in itself – a child's face, a landscape, a spray of music, colors, a gesture, a cat's purr – whatever comes to fill that silence brings comfort and surprise and delight – and even pain and sadness but of a kind that is not gut-wrenching but instead of a kind that rekindles our nerves so that they can recall how it is to feel vital and stung by newness and made giddy by their first deliveries of the world to a self shaping itself. (I am sure there is a German word for this.)

Such a moment happened when I heard a piece from a Radiolab show on Jan. 6, 2023, called "The Universe in Verse" [https://radiolab.org/episodes/universe-verse].

As usual with radio, I listened to the show while doing other things, a soothing sonic backdrop that my brain half-heard, half-grasped while I was doing whatever it was that seemed so essential at the time.

The throughline of the piece was to explore the history of the universe through a curated set of poems, from the Big Bang onward.

About six minutes in, Marie Howe, first up at bat, delivered a poem about the Big Bang that she titled "The Singularity." While she prefaced the audience about the provenance of the poem, I stopped doing whatever it was that seemed so essential at the time to be doing and listened full on. This is what she said:

    Do you sometimes want to wake up to the singularity
    we once were?
    so compact nobody
    needed a bed or food or money—
    nobody hiding in the school bathroom
    or home alone
    pulling open the drawer
    where the pills are kept.
    For every atom belonging to me as good
    Belongs to you. Remember?
    There was no Nature. No
    them. No tests
    to determine if the elephant
    grieves her calf or if
    the coral reef feels pain. Trashed
    oceans don't speak English or Farsi or French;
    would that we could wake up to what we were
    —when we were ocean and before that
    when earth was sky, and animal was energy, and rock was
    liquid and stars were space and space was not
    at all—nothing
    before we came to believe humans were so important
    before this awful loneliness.
    Can molecules remember it?
    what once was? before anything happened?
    Can our molecules remember?
    No I, no we, no one, no was,
    No verb, no noun yet
    only a tiny tiny tiny tiny dot brimming with
    is is is is is
    All. Everything. Home.

The machinery stopped. Stone cold stopped. I turned the radio off because I was crying so stoutly that I couldn't hear what they were saying (and didn't really care). Crying why? About what? I didn't know at the moment (I am not sure I know now after time passed), but I knew the three things in that poem that triggered some deep neuronal energies that immediately breached the surface to knowing.

Whitman, of course: "for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you." Who will not weep with joy upon hearing any of the good grey poet's words?

"Before this awful loneliness": humans are excellent at fending off the loneliness that comes with being a human alive, but the loneliness is never far from sitting in the front row and catcalling to the selves on the stage. The thing that Gerard Manley Hopkins is trying to describe:

    Now no matter, child, the name:
    S贸rrow's spr铆ngs 谩re the same.
    Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
    What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
    It 铆s the blight man was born for,
    It is Margaret you mourn for.

With the usual existential twist reserved for humans: the loneliness is also a reminder that we are alive (nothing dead can feel lonely) and so the kind of reminder to keep on living even if that means acquiring a deeper loneliness as the losses pile up and the earth deliquesces.

"Home": God, how humans hunger for a home, a comfortable finality, a safe and unjudgmental haven, a place a character in a play of mine calls "where the weary be at rest." Our rushed lives often unhome us, and it takes a singularity moment to stop the forward career and give us a chance to breathe, just breathe, and not worry about worrying. To be, with all the radical possibility that be offers.

This momentary silence, this singularity, is, as the words imply, brief, singular: a piercing clarity (hopefully) but not a plan of action, a strategy, a telos. But oh, what a sweet brevity, yes? The rush of a summer sun shower that sweeps the ground bare and wrings the air clean. A frightening power (I was not sure I would ever stop weeping), a blessed intensity (the weeping cleansed me of the grime of the ordinary), a fragile bluster of light (what we were born for, are).


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Michael Bettencourt is an essayist and a playwright.
He writes a monthly column and is
a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.
Continued thanks to his "prime mate"
and wife, Mar铆a-Beatriz.
For more of his columns, articles, and media,
check the Archives.

©2023 Michael Bettencourt
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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