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Dead Stars: Poet Laureate Ada Limón’s Stunning Love Poem to Life

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We know that the atoms composing our bodies and our brains can be traced back to particular stars that died long ago in some faraway corner of the cosmos. We know what will happen to our own atoms when we ourselves die. Still, something in us quivers with incomprehension at the notion that every single one of our capacities — love and mathematics, the bomb and the Benedictus — is the churn of discarded stardust. And yet it is precisely this fact that renders us miraculous — creatures of matter, capable of seeing beauty, capable of making meaning. This is our inheritance. This is the bright star of resurrection lighting up our exquisite aliveness.

U.S Poet Laureate Ada Limón channels this cosmic destiny of ours in her splendid poem “Dead Stars,” found in her collection The Carrying (public library) and read here by the poet herself during her altogether wonderful lecture at Portland’s Literary Arts, to which I have added the requisite benediction of Bach.

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DEAD STARS
by Ada Limón

Out here, there’s a bowing even the trees are doing.
            Winter’s icy hand at the back of all of us.
Black bark, slick yellow leaves, a kind of stillness that feels
so mute it’s almost in another year.

I am a hearth of spiders these days: a nest of trying.

We point out the stars that make Orion as we take out
      the trash, the rolling containers a song of suburban thunder.

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It’s almost romantic as we adjust the waxy blue
      recycling bin until you say, Man, we should really learn
some new constellations.

And it’s true. We keep forgetting about Antlia, Centaurus,
      Draco, Lacerta, Hydra, Lyra, Lynx.

But mostly we’re forgetting we’re dead stars too, my mouth is full
      of dust and I wish to reclaim the rising —

to lean in the spotlight of streetlight with you, toward
      what’s larger within us, toward how we were born.

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Look, we are not unspectacular things.
      We’ve come this far, survived this much. What

would happen if we decided to survive more? To love harder?

What if we stood up with our synapses and flesh and said, No.
      No, to the rising tides.

Stood for the many mute mouths of the sea, of the land?

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What would happen if we used our bodies to bargain

for the safety of others, for earth,
      if we declared a clean night, if we stopped being terrified,

if we launched our demands into the sky, made ourselves so big
people could point to us with the arrows they make in their minds,

rolling their trash bins out, after all of this is over?

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Complement with the uncommon astronomer-poet Rebecca Elson’s “Antidotes to Fear of Death” and “Let There Always Be Light (Searching for Dark Matter),” then revisit the poetic physicist Brian Greene’s Rilke-lensed reflection on how our creaturely limitations give life meaning.

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