Thursday, March 24, 2011

`A Lump of Iron Turning Into a Space Shuttle'

Only recently have I discovered the music of The Handsome Family, a husband-and-wife, Albuquerque-based duo whose sound is usually described as “alternative country,” which means nothing. The words are credited to Rennie Sparks, the music to Brett Sparks. The CD I’m listening to, Last Days of Wonder, came out in 2006, and its title is drawn from the second track, “Tesla’s Hotel Room.” The lyrics are devoted, with considerable biographical faithfulness, to the final days of Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), Serbian-born inventor, electrical engineer, rival to Edison and namesake of the Tesla coil. By the end of his life, Tesla’s longtime eccentricity had devolved into mundane madness, and he died alone in a room in the Hotel New Yorker. The CD’s title appears in three of the song’s eleven verses. Here’s the first:

“In the last days of wonder
When spirits still flew
where we sat holding hands
In half-darkened rooms”

The phrase – “the last days of wonder” – is haunting, even apart from the context of Sparks’ lyric. It suggests impending emotional and intellectual numbness, a sort of death-in-life, whether caused by trauma, drugs or hipness. We all know people too cool to be surprised, awed or dumbfounded – or at least they pretend to be. I don’t think Sparks is suggesting Tesla’s life as a scientist and engineer destroyed his capacity for wonder -- that soft-headed Romantic notion. I’ve never understood the alleged incompatibility of science and art, or science and a religious sense. Rather, at their best, all are rooted in a capacity for wonder expressed by Miroslav Holub (1923-1998), the Czech poet and immunologist. I started reading his prose collection Shedding Life: Disease, Politics and Other Human Conditions (Milkweed Editions, 1997) after reading this statement by Holub in the March 14, 2003, issue of ScienceWeek:

“Between the fifth and tenth days the lump of stem cells differentiates into the overall building plan of the mouse embryo and its organs. It is a bit like a lump of iron turning into the space shuttle. In fact it is the profoundest wonder we can still imagine and accept, and at the same time so usual that we have to force ourselves to wonder about the wondrousness of this wonder.”


ken kurp said...


Mark Athitakis said...

If you don't know it already, seek out the Handsome Family's "Amelia Earhart Vs. the Dancing Bear," which has one of Rennie Sparks' best lyrics. I can't think of a song, book, poem, etc, that captures a life-flashing-before-your-eyes moment so well.

Amateur Reader said...

I'll recommend "The Bottomless Hole," on Singing Bones, a story or parable worthy of Kleist.

Rennie Sparks has a startlingly rich imagination.