American poet Muriel Rukeyser

American poet Muriel Rukeser, 1913-1980

Earlier this month, we posted a short “One Great Moment” piece on a dazzling line of dialog from the new-this-season Netflix movie “A Boy Called Christmas.” Dame Maggie Smith is telling three fidgety children a story. When they want to know why they have to listen, she gently scolds: “Because the universe is made of stories, not atoms.”

The post prompted a Storyboard reader to send a short email about a memory it sparked about an essay she wrote almost 20 years ago. That essay was sparked by a line in a poem that contained the line we quoted from the movie. Here it is, a three-paragraph origin story, shared with permission:

The Dame Maggie Smith “One Great Moment” spoke to me today. I loved how her character borrowed my favorite line from “The Speed of Darkness” by poet Muriel Rukeyser. Twenty years ago I did the same.

I worked in a public health lab, promoting scientists’ research but being more comfortable in the company of storytellers. I turned to personal essays for a while, including one that spun off my finding a pavement block on a pedestrian bridge engraved with “molecule.” Here’s the relevant paragraph from 2003. Thanks for the opportunity for me to walk down memory lane and reacquaint myself with those times and lines.

…”Outside my office door hangs a microscopic sign, easily overlooked. If you slow down, lean into the wall, and read the fine print you will be rewarded with a line from the poet Muriel Rukeyser. She proclaims: ‘The universe is made of stories, not atoms.’ Or molecules, I might add.”

Kathy S Zdeb
Chatham, NY

Intrigued, I did a bit more research and learned that Rukeyser, who died in 1980, was a broadband writer — poetry, plays, biographies, children’s books — and a radical political activist. She mentored an up-and-coming generation of feminist poets. And especially interesting, given the job Zdeb mentioned in her note, is that Rukeyser’s poetry often embraced science.

I’m a great believer that good stories inspire other good stories. And writers do often repeat, borrow, pass along lines and rhythms they absorb. Great care must be taken, of course, to attribute when convention, law and ethics require. But echoes happen and can inspire new, original writing and new meaning when used in a different context.

Further Reading