Astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt: Good Seeing
Seeking Henrietta Swan Leavitt
Astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt: Good Seeing is a long poem about the woman who discovered the means by which Hubble measured the universe. I am seeking the astronomer and person, her brilliant powers of observation and dedication to discovery. The astronomical “good seeing” refers to available dark for viewing the night sky as well as a desire for connectedness across time. Given almost no surviving correspondence, I have mined the lives of those closest to Leavitt (1868-1921) from a surrounding cast defined by family, her work at the Harvard College Observatory and her Congregational faith. By drawing on primary sources, Henrietta emerges through dialogue, letters, dreams, and invented scenes. I am not telling an old story, so much as deciding how to bring her essence alive. Who is Henrietta Swan Leavitt? From an early age, she has the character to follow through concepts with infinite curiosity--a kind of grace and determined faith. At the Harvard College Observatory, she recorded data from glass plate photographs taken in Massachusetts and Arequipa, Peru and predicted Hubble’s discovery by a decade. “Leavitt’s Law” became the standard measure. From modest to spectacular, Leavitt’s trail is obvious and hidden. “Married” to her work, Leavitt fits an Old Maid stereotype; however, this is an assumption of lack. Increasingly deaf from her early 20’s, her zeal produced revolutionary results among the community of women computers at Harvard’s Observatory. For her, the rewards for “good seeing” speak globally. Her exultant mind worked out shapes of meaning about the universe that she wanted the world to see and understand. In this work-in-progress, I am seeking a correspondence with Henrietta Swan Leavitt across time.
Dear Father and Dearest Mother, 1887
Oberlin, Ohio, September 21, 1887
Dear Father and Dearest Mother,
I write to tell you my observations. The fall feels different here--warmer, softer than the winds from Lake Erie, great tumbling clouds, sheeting rain. There are soft hills and more oak,
the edges of forest ripple along open fields, some farmed, few fallow,
rolling with golden pleasure. The buildings are brick
and I go to the Conservatory every day to practice, whether I have my tutorial or not.
I love walking down the hall and hearing music leaking into the hall when a door opens.
Loud and soft tones escape for a moment. The music building has insulation between
practice rooms and every other room is set up to harbor another kind of lesson.
Space is another guard against the interference of others making music.
I see I have written a description of a non-existent soundscape to let you know
how music is the central player in my days.
How is young Darwin doing with his piano scales, and the horn he’s so drawn to? Are the older boys helping him with his concentration? I think they can model this for him. I know Martha
has a gentle hand, but he needs their spirited opinions. Roswell knows the Schubert best,
and Kendrick, the fingering on his clarinet. Please ask them to pay attention to Darwin.
Your loving daughter,
When the sound stopped: I would have to listen for changes… Cleveland, 1887
When the sound stopped: I would have to listen for changes in sound, subterranean
drum beats, reedy threat of the rising clarinet’s notes, bassoon pulling under the sea,
the sway of violins flight and rush.
I never thought the sound would stop.
Or a combination of sounds making music would be lost, altered suddenly.
I have not lost music. I have lost parts of my hearing.
It started in a smaller way.
The fever had me in bed the summer after the year at Oberlin.
Mother was the first to know, because she entered my room without my knowing,
and the space she opened, the air shifting, had no footfall.
She saw me scour her face as if it could tell me more, as if something had collapsed.
She asked, what’s the matter, as she felt my brow for the fever which was gone.
I can’t hear you well, Mother, the air becoming cushions around me playing tricks
like light coming and going, but it was sound, undappling, spooling.
Some words, ending louder in low notes around me.
I awakened to a different world. I awakened into my own different world.
Mother sat on the bed.
She took my hands and held them pressed together inside her palms.
Mother, I did not hear you come in.
Henrietta, and she was leaning towards me, her breath was warm,
Henrietta, my dear girl, and I heard her.
I hear you, Mother.
Sometimes the fever it comes and goes and stirs the infection.
Is it in my blood? Will it leave? Is no sound my life?
I did not hear you come down the hall, the latch clicking in the door, your greeting muffled.
The sun is up. The day is here. The light is not leaving, but Mother, the music.
Is music gone?
You have had a siege, a run in the blood, for two weeks, my dear girl.
Sometimes with a fever, the hearing can go. And sometimes, return.
She does not try to tell me something that is not true.
I see in her face that she will not lie.
She has seen this before.
Henrietta, the fever has broken you are mending.
I am not the same Henrietta, I press my head into her shoulder.
She lets me encircle her, sobs descending to gravelly sputters.
You are here with me. You may not be the same, but you are here with us,
and your music is inside, always.
I feel blood rush to my head. My lungs hurt, my mouth dry, salt tears at the edges.
She strokes my head, wipes my face with her handkerchief, gives it to me.
It’s still fresh, creased.
I take it and blow my nose, the HKS embroidery nubbly under my fingers,
the silver-gray embroidered initials. We are both Henrietta.
She tells me slowly, you may not be the same as before, but you are here with us.
You are alive.
And my music? The piano river under my fingers...
You can hear it inside. You know the way the organ penetrates the pews and vibrates
through our shoes. Your memory will let you hear music, as you read the notes, as you always have. And your hands know the keys and feel the vibrations from the pedals and piano body.
The music is alive in you.
Leaving the Conservatory of Music has been difficult, 1887
Leaving the Oberlin Conservatory of Music has been difficult.
Henrietta had been leaving for a year as she could hear
the vibration of sound dissipating. She had thought, what else can I do?
She was becoming. She was becoming another kind of listener:
I can still love music, the slippery keys, the feel– but I cannot make this my central study.
It is 1887. I am losing hearing, turning increasingly deaf, two years into my study.
Henrietta made her mind up, when Harvard opened its doors to women in 1888,
to pursue a degree from the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women:
It is an opening and a closing. My family, moving from Ohio
to father’s new parish in Beloit, I will circle back to the Cambridge streets I knew
as a child, wave-like bricks over roots near father’s Pilgrim Church in East Cambridge.
Father says my beloved uncle Erasmus will take me in. How I love news
of his engineering feats, designing the earliest Naval steam engine to cross the Atlantic.
When Henrietta heard of her uncle’s seminal work, she imagined building a warship--
how to center the engine’s weight, heavy ballast over the keel. She thought
about necessary metal--wrought iron, steel—studied rivets, and imagined the deep,
hollow clangs inside the ship, low like brass, the bass trombone perhaps.
How she would crawl inside the ship’s compartments. Such a ship!
She felt sure Uncle Erasmus would allow her to leaf through the drawings of the steam pump engine on his engineering table to test the proportions of his design,
monitoring the cylinder’s heat, gages above, the protection of the engine in layers,
and ratio of steam to move the pistons and pump the giant gear wheels.
The train lurched east from Cleveland to Boston as she dreamt of entering the ship.
She was beginning her journey on a coal-fired train across the rivers to the hills
and hardy forests descending to Boston Harbor.
She dreamt she handled cast-iron wrenches to open and shut the valves, the sound of steam, rising from the steady, coal-fired heat, as the ship crashed through the surrounding deep. Her heart rode high, as the smooth gears turned without effort locking in rocker arms
to push the cylinders up and down at clocked speed. The ship plied the waters propelling
the metal encased hull--heavy as necessary and light as spray--through the waves.
In her dream, she imagined the best outfit for the task--gloves almost to the elbow,
sturdy and flexible, a heavy apron with pockets and slots for wrenches, screwdrivers,
much like an ammunition belt. She was tall, and this helped her lunge up the gang plank, clamber down steep, grated steps. She felt the power around her—the cold metal,
brass-rimmed gages and the slap of apron against her shins.
She had a snug cap, her hair wrapped in a tight bun under it.
She was not sure, if she was seen as a young boy or a woman in her 20s.
She was free to travel between
in her dream, unfettered regardless of her sex, real or imagined.
What if she was a boy in the dream? She did not like thinking like this and not knowing.
She wanted to be a woman thinking about the means to engineer crossing great distances, rivets for strength and flexibility in the pivots and rocker arms.
Magnifying efficiency and streamlining structure,
creating relational pressure to achieve motion.
To see motion: how motion created more motion.
She was not a woman hiding as if she needed to be a man. She was a woman discovering
her thought in relation to her inventor uncle, Erasmus Darwin Leavitt.
The next morning, her uncle woke her early as planned and said, It’s time.
Let’s go to the Waterworks and see the Leavitt steam pump engine at work
topping the Brookline Reservoir and channeling water to Boston by gravity feed.
The doors will be open today for us.
I want your opinion on the design: how motion creates more motion.
Her father believed in her … 1888
Her father believed in her. She spoke to him about learning the most possible
in her time on the earth. When she heard about Harvard making a women’s college,
she was ready. He cupped her shoulders and held her firmly at an arm’s length.
Her dark blue eyes, serious as his, gleamed:
You can take the exams and you will bring your previous achievements with you, he said.
The range of subjects is demanding and specific. The requirements to enter the college
for women are the same as for men. This is what you want, is it not?
Yes father. I want to learn everything possible.
They demand sight translation in three languages. You have French, Latin and some Greek. Ordinary translation should not bother, while German may want some study.
I will be helped by its relation to English and Latin, the structural components,
prefix and suffix, and agreement of the words.
You have History of Greece and Rome; less so, the U.S. and England. And the maths: Algebra, plane geometry; physics and astronomy for the sciences!
I will study the summer long. Thanks to your reading to us, I have a head start
on classical history, and I will read the literature with cousin Martha.
Yes, Erasmus’ daughter will have to meet the same requirements.
Henrietta, he squeezes her hand noting her bluing, pale skin: You have done well, achieved
good standing at Oberlin. Despite receiving no credit for your two years,
nor have any of the women applicants, I understand, you have accomplished a great deal.
You play more beautifully.
Do take some time to rest, to dream, to pray. Recall the ending light through the maples
from the western facing windows on the third floor of Erasmus’ fine house.
There’s a lot to learn from those trees and their root systems, the hand of water rising
from the roots, the greening, and the birds, how they show us the shapes of the limbs in the air, and the trunk transporting moisture between the crown and central stem.
Remember the beech tree deep behind the houses on Garden Street. A presence.
The bulging, knotted limbs. The carnelian leaves, green-gold then crimson.
Carnelian from the Latin for flesh, reminding us to make the most
of the time and bring an ageless spirit.
How I miss the trees of Cambridge.
They have always been friends, haven’t they, father?
The softer earth of Ohio has its fair share.
The New England trees were my first love, she smiles. In the cold, I watched them, gathering snow in the branching places, no faces turned to the snow, but the whole body.
And we used whole bodies for firewood for the wood furnace.
Until coal came, Henrietta offered.
Yes, the concentrate. Water, fire and steam made from steady, bright coal. How that burned
so hot that the rise of steam pushed the pump engine to faster speeds
with the smallest ratios of water and fire and created passage for vessels
to cross the land, cross the Atlantic!
Oh father! Uncle Erasmus has promised to take me to the Brookline Waterworks
where the Leavitt Steam Pump Engine feeds water to the Brookline Reservoir
and then rushes to all of Boston below.
Imagine, dear child, the Leavitt Steam Pump Engine in the bay of the iron-tressled, brick building, the vibrations from the tile floor coming up through your shoes and sounding.
I see hemispheres … Cambridge, 1903
When Mother prays, I see hemispheres of her brain
pulsating, her lips touching.
I feel the space around her head, long ears, fingers in her lap.
All will be held, all will be
in the open air.
What is touch to God?
What is a hand?
I see her each morning, early, when I rise.
We will share breakfast.
She is in her rocker, throw rug under her low heels, laced shoes.
She is still. The balance point held.
I am drawn to see her pray,
eyes closed seeing.
I take my place in the doorway
in my long night dress
and adore her.
I will be listening without hearing.
I will be in the space around the entryway with her god.
I will be soft-footed, my curling toes inside thick socks, toe prints,
curving snails, whorling footsteps on the shore, filling
then washed away. I am not cold but warmed
by ocean thoughts in the doorway. I feel the great expanse of water at the harbor mouth,
my feet carrying me forward towards her in waves.
She has placed the Psalms to the side.
We will read together at the end of the day.
She will rock in her chair when I come home
from the Observatory at twilight.
Right now in the doorway, a crease between her eyes as if the trough could hold all the bright pulses of her hemispheric brain and channel the breath down and up
at the same time--silver down, gold up--like her whitening hair, silver streaked down,
gold-edged white brushed up, over the knotted
whorl at the nape of the neck.
She opens her eyes, smiles.
Mother, I say, as I gather my nightgown to be sure-footed across the floor,
folds in my fingers.
And she knows I always have a question and do not require one answer,
but many, perhaps smaller.
I come across the floor, and she takes my hands.
I can hear the sound of prayer still in the space around her.
Come sit, she says patting the stuffed chair beside her.
I go to the floral upholstery as if it is my own garden, and I gesture to my ears--
and scoop a wave from my lips, meaning we can talk at close range.
Her mouth smooths into a smile, dimples that have become thin lines going up her cheeks, down to disappear at the jawline, rivulets that speak of the flow of hard winter, soft spring,
all her children, some who died early, some later.
My father, all the voices moving the days across her face, going to Ohio, Wisconsin,
the parishes. Then back to my side in Cambridge.
I see where I could lay my hand, on the soft curtain of her face.
I watch the cheeks change, remember the flush early in the morning after father died.
Her cheeks where tears came down--some held in the trough that moved up into her skull
and did not founder, but enveloped the pulsing spheres, blood lighting the nerves.
How she held her head high always.
She sees me reading her face, my smile, her same lips.
She mimicks the second hand with her hands,
cocks her head to the clock.
I kiss her cheek. Rise to get dressed and go to work where I will read
the photographic glass plates from Peru, the southern hemisphere
under my hands, as I see hear the variable clusters pulsating before me and record
the movements, second by second in columns. I draw replicas, reversed positives,
in four, colored inks in a space the size of a postage stamp, so they can be visualized
easily from the blue-lined paper, divisions like doorways
for the stars to stand still.