A version of the following was delivered by Jane Hirshfield as the 2024 Blaney Lecture on March 19, 2024.

First, my gratitude to the Academy for all it does and for the honor of asking me to give this year's Blaney Lecture, and my thanks also to each of you who listen.



In some Borgesian universe, a thesaurus of the invisible must exist, a periodic table of the imperceptible in all its weights, meanings, variations. I can't give you Borges's library; Borges himself could only point toward it. We can, though, admire together a few of his thesaurus entries. From the poem “Things That Might Have Been,” the unicorn's other horn. From “Boundaries,” a line by Verlaine I will not remember again. From “The Other Tiger,” the other tiger, the one not in this poem.

It was some time after I'd written this paragraph that I thought to remember that Borges was blind. Vision isn't made only by the eyes.

A thought of Stephen Hawking's comes also to mind: “To ask what happened before the Big Bang is like asking what happens north of the North Pole.”

Some of the things that can't be made visible:

nonexistence itself;
what cannot be even imagined;
what lives past perception.

One more invisible thing, beyond pointing: the fullness of reality itself, which does exist, but can't ever be seen. There's too much of it, in too many directions at once. And yet we keep trying to approach it. Trying with imagination, instrument, and experiment to see more, understand more; to know more precisely and feel more warmly, or more coldly, what we are already part of. Trying sometimes also to change or add something to it, however we can; or to add something, change something, in ourselves.

There's something else standing almost, not entirely, invisibly behind my wanting to look at our looking, wanting to understand better what we see and what we don't: the divisions, griefs, and kinship-blindness of our current era. How much and how quickly we need to find a way to see more, understand more, to add or subtract or change something, however we can, in the world, in ourselves.

I keep feeling that more understanding would help. I know it may not.


Art and science both begin with seeing: with observation and description, and with the pointing past the observable world that the observable world makes possible. But to see in ways that matter past the immediate moment, you need something else: to preserve perception. What's seen but not given a form retrievable to memory vanishes back into reality's blowing, invisible dust.

Roughly halfway between the discovery of the double helix and the start of the project to map everything in our own, the Human Genome Nomenclature Committee was formed, and set out some guidelines: “Ideally gene symbols are short, memorable and pronounceable... Names should be brief, specific and convey something about the character or function of the gene product(s), but not attempt to describe everything known.”1

I hear in that set of suggestions something not unlike the naming that happens inside the body of a lyric poem—a meaningful image, symbol, music, sentence, is found, to summon with memorable brevity an unsayable whole. To write or read the words that became Robert Hayden's “Those Winter Sundays” is to give something otherwise unholdable a holdable shape, a way it can be returned to and looked at more.

The namings and seeing of art and science are not the same. “Science,” a friend wrote in an email, “is a collective endeavor to learn what is true about the world no matter who we are or where we are, no matter what we would like to believe.”2 Scientific conventions for naming are meant to hold shared, specific, and also limitless meaning, available to anyone who needs to draw from or or add to science's knowing. Felis silvestris catus sets “house cat” into biology's systematic ordering: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species.

Poetry names cats differently, and looks at a cat at all for different reasons. Poetry's naming—by this I don't mean its titles—summons sometimes catness, but more usually a cat, who has some reason for being named in a poem. Here, for instance, are ten lines of Christopher Smart's cat, from a poem of over twelve-hundred of them and almost three centuries old.

For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.

What is named in these lines is the joy and specificity of being a cat. But also, because this is a poem, and poems name things beyond their immediate boundaries, there's something more. To put into the parallel structure and music of the King James Bible a description of fleas, post rubs, and kicking up behind erases the distinction between ordinary cat and the holy. We remember the poem for the cat. But the cat holds the holy.

Another naming of Felis silvestris catus is in Carl Sandburg's “Fog.”3 A cat that isn't a cat at all, yet has been made in this poem so visible that it is one.

by Carl Sandburg

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

This is a different mode of seeing and of naming: a single extended-metaphor of fewer than two dozen words. Yet in it, fog is made seen; a whole city is somehow, impossibly, made seen; and a cat. The poem is almost weightless, brief yet not quick—foglike. Its reticence carries some silence, a portion of mystery. We have no explanation for why it is here. It is also faithful to what we know of cats: they come and then go as they like, to remind us the world does. I feel, whenever I read it, one thing more: the way that this poem, by its very simplicity, makes visible its own stage magic. The trick is that something, anything—a cat, a poem, fog—can be so easily conjured out of thin air.


Next a different form of increasing the visible by naming, one joining the meeting of science's ways of naming and poetry's, shown here in three resonant phrases.

The first is a phrase less widely known: “The Invisible Present.” In 1983, freshwater zoologist John J. Magnuson saw something not entirely unseen but not recognized in the way ecological research was then being planned and funded, in short-term cycles: that changes that happen outside of certain speeds and time frames go unperceived.4 We hear but don't see a hummingbird's wings. Whether or not a galloping horse has all four hooves off the ground at once was a question that couldn't be answered until Eadweard Muybridge was able to look in 1878 with the help of a camera.5

Eadweard Muybridge, The Horse in Motion

A glacier is large, and eyes that see at the scale of a glacier don't recognize centimeters less of it per year. A river without fish is only a river without fish if you know how abundantly many once were there. To see these things and their causes, you need to change how you are looking; you need also some tool to evade immediate time, even if only a notebook and pencil. Magnuson's invisible present was the time scale of acid deposition and species' degradation, of the arrival of synthetic chemicals and plastics and their effects recognized only later.“The three or four generations in which a person's own responsibility to the planet is most clear,” he described it. The recognition is now familiar, and even so, the long-term effect of any day's choices is hard to perceive and hard to hold onto, when human brains are biased toward the present they see.6 Magnuson's phrase works on awareness the way some poems do: they preserve knowledge we can't keep in mind without help, because it is knowledge we don't want to remember. The many poems, for instance, that say, one way or another: you are going to die.

Twenty years of volunteer observations were needed to show the effect of DDT's introduction on the eggs of migratory raptors described by the second resonant phrase I want to acknowledge, Rachel Carson's 1962 Silent Spring. The title held a predicted grief so compressed, specific, and imaginable that its two words became perhaps the most consequential of the 20th century. The third resonant phrase, much the same, was coined by Carl Sagan. It joined what was until then separate, the issues of war-catastrophe and human-changed climate: “nuclear winter.”

Each of these namings held something newly perceived that needed seeing. Each led to a shift of public knowledge and public action, by having brought into broader view an idea first understood by the means and tools of science, then named with the means and tools of poetry: asking the fewest possible words to say something that matters, that without them would go unsaid or unheard.7

A poem is words that see and speak beyond their own horizon. When you hear “silent spring,” you don't need to be told birds are absent. The image has already summoned and then erased them.


I did not want to leave out of this talk that increase of seeing can be made and given name in ways other than words and symbol. Two examples:

First, Dorothea Lange's famous photograph, “Migrant Mother, Nipomo, CA, 1936.”

Dorothea Lange, "Migrant Mother, Nipomo, CA, 1936."

One definition of art: beauty that transcends the circumstances of its making, without leaving them out. This photograph is of, and not of, the past. Everything in it and that led to it continues. Migration and homelessness. The Great Depression and Dust Bowl's causes. The outcasting of workers. In it also, a mother's persistence, an artist-photographer's persistence and seeing, a camera's seeing, and the lineage of innumerable earlier set-down images naming both “Madonna and Child” and “Pieta.”

The second example is a work entirely given to making the invisible visible, John Cage's 4' 33”.






That was one passage.

Cage's iconic piece makes visible, first, that art is a condition of attention. Then: that art's attention carries with it a set of expectations, conventions, preconceptions. Then: a few aspects of human nature. Discomfort with uncertainty and confusion and with the social embarrassment of public uncertainty and confusion. Our need to frame. Our need to fill what seems empty. But because the piece keeps pointing at what it is pointing to – it has three movements, the pianist closes and opens the keyboard's lid—and because we are beings who want to solve the riddle What-is-this?—it finally makes visible: undistracted, listened-to, time, and that something is always happening inside it, if you pay attention. And that time and sound heard as music are music.


For reasons of time, I'm skipping a section now, about process in science and poems. You will have to make it visible for yourselves by imagining what it says.


And now I'm skipping another section, an interlude looking at invisibility and visibility-making directly. This time, though, I'll give you the paragraph that starts it, and then the start of its turn, so you can better imagine what's missing.

Thom Gunn's The Man With Night Sweats and Marie Howe's What The Living Do belong in any bibliography of the HIV-AIDS crisis. Claudia Rankine's 2015 book Citizen brought race in this country to a different awareness; Tracy K. Smith's Life on Mars could not have been written sixty years earlier. And still, what can be new in poems, and what was new in these books' poems, isn't reducible only to subject. Wilfred Owen's “Dulce et Decorum Est” didn't counter blindness to war's existence. It stripped a kind of blindness from war's seeing.

We might ask what makes things invisible, whether in poetry or in science.

Some possibilities:
Absence - needs no explanation
Distance - what is too far, or sometimes too near
Location - the viewer looks elsewhere
Difference - what is so unfamiliar it isn't seen: the way Captain Cook's boat wasn't seen when he first arrived in Australia
Time - we've already spoken of
Immobility - perception is weighted to register, first, what is changing


Picking up the talk again now, with a section on visibility made by tools that I could not leave out, because it lets science speak for itself, in its own language.

An instrument is anything that is instrumental, that causes something to change, in the observable world or in the observing mind. In music, a piano both makes possible its own music and makes it. In poetry, Osip Mandelstam's thought comes to mind: “For an artist, a worldview is a tool or a means, like a hammer in the hands of a mason.”

One way to see more is to borrow others' seeing. To see more of the instruments of science, I asked two research scientists I know if they might describe for me a tool they've used in their work to make something visible.

First, the longer ending of the email from which I took earlier the definition of science. For anyone who may not know his work, Saul Perlmutter shared the 2011 Nobel in Physics for the discovery that the Universe's expansion is speeding up.

“It’s worth thinking about just how strongly connected everything in the world is to everything else, so that even invisible things—think dark matter and dark energy—end up giving themselves away in the surprising behavior of the visible objects they are connected to. In my own work discovering the entity we now call “dark energy,” the give-away to its existence was found in the appearance of galaxies we see at different distances from us, that show not only what things looked like when the light left that galaxy but also how much these appearances have been subsequently distorted (redshifted) by the expansion of the universe since then. The surprising behavior was that the inferred expansion of the universe appears to have been speeding up in the past seven billion years. From that, we concluded that there is an otherwise invisible entity responsible, an energy source we are calling dark energy.

Along the way to making this measurement possible, we [...] built telescopes that collect light over 10,000 times longer time intervals than our eyes do, using pupils that are a million times bigger in area than our eyes’ are. We stored billions of pixels of these images containing thousands of galaxies and used computers to compare them to the images of the same parts of the sky seen three weeks later, thus revealing the very rare, tiny—otherwise invisible—new spots of light, in just a few of these galaxies, that are in fact exploding stars, supernovae that act as our beacons to measure the distances and redshifts of those galaxies."

And because Saul is a person always thoughtful, his email went on to end by asking a question:

"But what of the entities that just happen to be completely disconnected to the visible and inferred objects in the world, so they can’t “give themselves away”? (And when I say completely disconnected I mean that their existence can’t even change the complexity of a theory that we are using.) We can never know anything about such entities, even in principle. Does this mean that our picture of reality can never be complete? Or perhaps that is our definition of “real” things—things that can be part of our reality."

For a second example, I asked Mimi Koehl8, a marine biologist and 1990 MacArthur Fellow, who works on biomechanics and is interested in life amid ocean-turbulence, if she could describe a tool she's used specifically to bring something invisible into seeing. Her reply came with an image of tool-made discovery:

M. Reidenbach, "odors over a coral reef." Courtesy of Mimi Koehl.

"I'm attaching a frame of a video we made, using planar laser-induced fluorescence – that's the tool – to let us see the spatial distribution of odors coming from corals. Microscopic larvae of reef-dwelling sea slugs use those odors to find the reef. Before this technique let us see on the scale encountered by microscopic animals, people thought that odors were a diffuse cloud, like smoke dispersing from a chimney. Now we know that, for these tiny animals swimming in turbulent flow, odors are not a cloud, they are on-off signals. The larvae swim through fine stripes of odor to find their home. The brightness of each pixel tells us the concentration of the odor at that exact spot, and because this is a video, we can see how it changes with time. This is an example not only of seeing the invisible, but also of trying to see on the spatial scale important to the beings and process we're trying to study."9

Our exchange was part of a decades-long conversation about the processes of science and art, and Mimi is also a person broadly thoughtful. Entirely independently but perhaps characteristic of the minds of certain scientists, her note also ended, as Saul's did, by turning to something further.

"Is there a counterpart, using different breadths of vision in poetry or art to reveal something we hadn't seen before, either because we were looking too broadly and superficially, or because we had tunnel vision and failed to see the relationship to the broader world, or a bigger idea about the small thing or narrow thought in front of our nose?"

This list of questions holds not only their substance. Reading Mimi's list, I realized there's also something to be said, in thinking of tools, about perception and grammar. That grammar itself is a tool, conducting, in all senses of that word, both how and what you can see. To change from the mind of sentence to the mind of question may be the primordial tool for seeing more10... It may be that the first question is: is there a question that might be asked here? The next: what is it?

I noticed one more thing about Mimi's note: how physical the shifted thought is in her list of questions. The mind steps back, steps closer, looks around. It is what painters do, painting, and tree pruners, and what happens in any kind of thought for which you don't yet know the answer. You look at different levels and from different angles. You turn to face a different direction. Stymied, you leave the desk and go for a walk. Then you come back and think of more and different questions.


There are kinds of knowledge, in both science and poetry, that can be made visible only by their enacting. Some results in science can only be found by running in full the process that finds them. Some poems' experience can only be had by re-reading the poem in full. Their held understanding is so embodied in their own unfolding that it's available only to procedural memory, the way that, to recall what riding a bike is like, you have to imagine riding a bike.

To give you a scientific example of this is impossible. Here are two from poetry, pieces that even their authors couldn't find names for. One is called "Untitled," the other is titled with its first line. The first is by James Baldwin, "Untitled":

          when you send the rain,
          think about it, please,
          a little?
          not get carried away
          by the sound of falling water,
          the marvelous light
          on the falling water.
          am beneath that water.
          It falls with great force
          and the light
          me to the light.

The poem speaks for itself. I will notice only how much of its saying is done visually, through the shape on the page. And how much it reminds of a Giacometti statue, standing in vertical solitude under immensity's pressure.

A second poem that can only be named by reading its own words in full is likely less familiar, by the New Zealand writer, Janet Frame, better known for her short fiction and autobiography: "I Take Into My Arms More Than I Can Bear to Hold."

[Hirshfield reads "I Take Into My Arms More Than I Can Bear to Hold" by Janet Frame.]

If I ask myself what has been named and discovered in this unparaphrasable poem, I can only answer: this poem.

There are a great many things more that I wanted to say about it—but again, for this spoken talk, they will stay invisible.

And I am also now skipping something again, a section with quotes from photographers, who think more than most about what can be seen, and about photography's ways of seeing.

And the next thing I'm skipping is a section about [POETRY AS DATA], as themselves being usable as a record of information. It came from an article that ran late last year in The Guardian, about haiku's season-words now slipping, because of climate change, out of the season they're meant to signal. You won't be hearing two haiku by Bashō. I will give you one thing, though, the last of the quotes from the section before, that leads into the section I'm skipping. It's about fiction and time and speaks, as the skipped section does, to Magnuson's idea about time and the invisible present, but seen independently and from the realm of novels.

And now I’m going to give you the quote that moves from that to this next. This is the literary critic Peter Brooks, author of the iconic Reading for the Plot, but these words are from a more recent book, Seduced by Story:

"It is connected to the invisible present idea, as is the whole section you’re not hearing. “[The fictional] allows us to discover in the space of a couple of hours what it would take us years to learn in life—or that we might not learn at all since the profound changes in life are hidden from us by the slowness of their process. The heart changes in life; that is our worst sorrow; but we know this change only in reading... Fiction alone provides a recovery of meaning from passing time, and fictional beings are crucial to the project because their eyes allow us to see the meanings of temporal change.”

Now I'm skipping another section, this one about the mind of HYPOTHESIS, SPECULATION, INVENTION, AND PLAY in science and poetry. You will not be hearing about the hypothesis that dolphins, sperm whales, and other cetaceans experience the world as “we,” not as “I.” You also won’t be hearing Aga Shahid Ali's poem, “Stationery.”


The next part of this talk will, forgive me, be a bit of a shaggy dog story. I keep it in because it was so hard for me to figure out, and because it embodies something so central to this talk— what is made seeable only by science's more objective naming and what is made seeable only by the name-ways of poems and story. But it is also, and mostly, about what happens in the moment that something invisible becomes visible. What lets you see, not what, but that you have seen.

There's an emotion that comes with discovery, a feeling that tells you you've made one. It is humanly central, and it is frequent. You see it crossing the faces of babies when some difficult, puzzling problem is finally figured out, and the larger thing is now inside the small one.

Yet its thesaurus is oddly patchy.

In the literal thesaurus—the physical-book one, organized by Roget into concepts and realms of experience—the names scatter between entries that feel either too much of the mind or too much without it. Some entries have to do with physical perception, and fall under “Organic Matter.” Most appear under “Intellect.” “Insight”—a word that for me begins to signal the emotion of discovery as well as its recognition – is under “Intellect,” in the sub-category “Formation of Ideas”; something feels, for me, missing. The feeling's more emotional qualities of “wonder” and “astonishment” appear in “Personal Emotion,” which feels right—but those words, without other context, point primarily toward experiences that have no aspect of solved puzzle. Discovery itself, Roget's puts firmly into the mind, and most of the sub-entries under it name it objectively, from the outside, not by how it is felt. James Joyce named the sense of felt discovery created by certain kinds of short story, “epiphany.” Roget allocates that to “Religion.”

And then, none of these words felt to me exactly what I wanted a name for. Something close to wonder, but only if it's made hybrid, including both its verb-sense of inquiring into (“I wonder if...”) and its noun-sense of tender amazement. Roget keeps them separate.

The experience of felt recognition begins in a child, a research friend told me, around the time they turn one. That explains one source of language's limitation: words often stumble at describing things that exist in us before they do. She also confirmed that in cognitive research, experience that falls between cognition and emotion is understudied, exactly because it is hard to study.11

I finally arrived at two words that do hold the experience of felt discovery. In its stronger version, “Eureka!” In the mildest form it can take and still be discovery: “Huh!” These are words closer to poetry than science—they name by enacting the experience they describe—and lie somewhere between guttural vocalization and language.

I became curious about “Huh!,” what the name might be for what it is. When I asked friends, the first task was to sort through its multiple meanings. There is the “Huh?” that means question, or “say again?”; the “Huh” that means skepticism – “Really?”; the “Huh!” of simple surprise. The “Huh” I was after is the one I came to call “penny drop,” a name in itself so peculiar, its very existence is a sign of how hard it is to speak of these things. Some trace it back to 1930s newspaper vending machines and gas meters, others to 16th-century candles being used as clocks.

I did know that “Huh!” is the type of word labelled interjection. A category too broad. And I knew that one of its synonyms is available only in writing: the exclamation point that tells you words are to be heard as intensified, as excitement.

An Australian linguist finally give me the name I'd been hunting.

Here is the relevant section of Nicholas Evans's email:12

Now, on to 'huh'! There is an interesting grammatical category in some languages – called 'mirative' – which expresses the quality of surprise 'hey, I just found this out/became aware of it'. The term was coined in studies of some Balkan languages (like Albanian), then an article by Scott Delancey at University of Oregon argued that this was what a particular suffix in Tibetan did – there's been some controversy about that, but I think it's certainly a clear category in other languages (like Kurtöp in Bhutan, which Gwen Hyslop has written about). There's just a whisp of a mention of it in my own book near the bottom of p. 79 (Tibetan, and Tsafiki) but not enough to really make it clear – if you do a search on 'mirativity' you'll find more. If you ever go through Chicago I'll put you in touch with a dear colleague, Victor Friedman, a Balkan specialist of great linguistic sensitivity, who I'm sure you would have interesting discussions with about this. Anyway, those are just some of the languages where you do this in the grammar. But as you wrote, we can do this in English with 'huh', 'hey!', 'Eureka!' and other devices.

For your other, deeper question, whether it should be labeled as an experience of emotion or of cognition—I'm a fan of Antonio Damasio's book Descartes' Error, I think mirativity inhabits one of the cracks between knowing and feeling, since discovering what you didn't know until just this second, and now understand, is like feeling the sun rise on a new day. And after re-reading the last sentence, I realized yet another way English holds mirativity: when we say something 'dawns on you.' A metaphor signal of the mirative.

Mirativity! At last.

There are a few other things about this email worth noticing. One is how much it embodies the looking and language of science. Nick was able to name objectively, from the outside, an experience recognizable to any child, but one I hadn't been able to find a way to categorize at all, without having a word for it. That needed a linguist. And yet by the email's end, wanting to convey the fullness of what he was saying, a linguist turns to the language and subjective seeing of poetry: “Like feeling the sun rise on a new day.” And by doing that, comes to another metaphor-name that holds the feeling of insight.

What I take from this, remembering also Saul Perlmutter's and Mimi Koehl's emails earlier: one tool for increase of seeing is to simply continue looking, writing, or talking. To give thought time to keep going and see where else it might go.

I've put in this email in full for another aspect of science's seeing that's visible in it. The note speaks not one person's knowledge, but of what exists in a larger community of discovery, and its history—work done by one person showed this, by another, showed that. Knowledge is acknowledged as being made by a community, its discoverers are cited. And then also in this email is the knowledge that knowledge is made by conversation: I'm told the next person to talk to. This goes back to the opening words of the definition of science Saul Perlmutter sent me: “Science is a communal activity...” A truth is something both made and agreed on by many.

It may be only because I'd struggled so long with my question of “Huh!” that reading Nicholas Evans's reply was for me so mirative an experience. “Mirativity! What a marvelous concept! And how astonishing to think of a meaning that can be set equally into grammatical case, punctuation mark, or word!” Something both invisible to me and puzzling in how very hard it was to see clearly, had at last become visible to me, by its naming.

This now-found word led to one more “Huh!” I turned to another tool for looking at language from the outside: Partridge's Etymology. Mirativity's Latin roots are in variations of the mir found in “admiration,” “miracle,” and “mirror”: to look, to wonder, to see, and, earlier yet, mir finds its root in the proto-Indo-European smeiros, from smei, to smile. “I see!” is another synonym for felt discovery. As is also the smile on the face the baby, after solving his problem.

The happiness of seeing runs through this talk. To come back to the visual metaphor of understanding as a thing emerging from smiling, having set out by wondering about “huh!”, was for me, again, an experience mirative. Something that had been there to see but I hadn't.


Now, to return to poetry's naming: Seamus Heaney's “Postscript.” 

[Hirshfield reads "Postscript" by Seamus Heaney.]


There is one way more to think about this idea of “making the invisible visible,” which has to do with our lives' relationship to uncertainty, mystery, and unknowing. In science, making visible is the goal. To increase what can be reliably known to be true allows you to build a Webb telescope, trace the cosmos's history, live on this planet perhaps more lightly and at less expense to its other beings. Art is the realm that gives us a way to acknowledge that uncertainty, unknowing, and mystery are not experiences that can be—or should be—entirely solved. The emotion Einstein felt most profound was the presence of mystery. The invisible is a reservoir we don't want completely to empty.

In myths, fairy tales, folk tales, one being is hidden inside another. a prince inside a frog, a selkie in the body of a human woman. Daphne is turned into a tree, Arachne into a spider. Proteus—the god who gave proteins their names—enacts the shapeshifting that runs through every culture's stories. A Noh play's ghost, Ovid's Metamorphoses: the tropes tell us that nothing is fixed, tell us that whatever our eyes first see may not be all that's there to be seen. (Here, I must recommend Kenneth Koch's poem, “One Train May Hide Another,” which takes its title from a railroad crossing sign in Kenya. It was too long to read in this talk. Please do find it.) Under the world's visible surface, there is always another version of the story, another point of view, another invisible understanding to be found. That all our stories are provisional, partial, is an understanding scientists hold fast to. In science, a truth is hypothesis not yet disproven.

The pleasure of the Necker Cube optical illusion – the drawn box you can see angled either in one direction or another, and move back and forth in your mind, but not ever see both ways at once – is its reminder that we can be fooled, that our vision is multiple and malleable, and its hidden motto might be: “It depends.” Or, if you are a scientist: “Is that so?”

Necker Cube

For me, this is a source of enormous hope.

We, who want so very much to make things visible, want also the ungraspable and invisible to exist. To know it is there, housing in one room its stories of unseen spirits and ghosts; in another, drawings by Escher; in another, the stories of Borges, in another, the immeasurability of the possible— the promise that there will always be something more to invent or to see.

In her nineties, the Polish poet Julia Hartwig summoned this part of invisibility's meaning in a poem of four-lines. 

[Hirshfield reads "Feeling the Way" by Julia Hartwig. Read the full poem in this essay by John and Bogdana Carpenter.]

I've known this poem for almost twenty years, but until reading it during this talk's writing, never paid much attention to something that was always there to be seen: that its title names the way a person moves when they cannot see. This poem holds not only what I had always found in it, the promise of what is still possible. It holds also a way to trust the world's present and the world's future, even in times we may find ourselves in complete darkness.

Thank you very much.


back to Blaney Lecture

1 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7494048/
2 Saul Perlmutter, Nobel astrophysicist, personal email.
3 This poem is known by anyone of my generation. I don't know if it's still given to children.
4 Magnuson, J. J., C. J. Bowser, and A. L. Beckel. 1983. The invisible present: long term ecological research on lakes, L & S Magazine, University of Wisconsin, Madison Fall 1983: 3-6.
5 Conversely, the limited speed-range of our brain and senses is what lets the individual frames of film become the seemingly seamless experience of a “motion picture.”
6 For more on the brain's bias towards the immediate, see Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).
7 The collaboration between a recognition made by science and its naming in a way that draws on the language powers of poems was perhaps not accidental: each appeared first in a publication read by the public.
8 https://ib.berkeley.edu/people/faculty/koehlm
9 In a follow up email I asked to understand better this study's importance. The reply: The question being addressed was how larvae know to stop swimming and sink, landing only where the coral they eat lives, and the hypothesis was that the signal was odor. They wanted to know how that works. And then, why the question matters at a larger level: “Where marine larvae recruit onto the sea floor is enormously important ecologically, for two reasons. 1) it is one of the critical factors that determines which sites in the ocean are inhabited by which species of animals, and 2) the species composition of the ecological community of organisms living together at a site then determines the other players in its food web.”
10 In poetry, the word “you” turns its poem toward the intimate. Third person grammar creates some sense, even in a poem, of the objective. Christopher Smart's cat and Carl Sandberg's fog feel to the reader observed, not created.
11 Alison Gopnik, private conversation March 3, 2024.
12 Nicholas Evans, personal email, December 11, 2023.