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Diane Ackerman

  • I consulted the moon / like a crystal ball.

  • How shall I / celebrate the planet / that, even now, carries me / in its fruited womb?

  • The Planets / are nine dice rolling in the dark.

  • ... one thing about death — / it's hereditary.

  • Flight is nothing but an attitude in motion.

  • It's so acceptably easy for a woman not to strive too hard, not to be too adventure-crazed, not to take too many risks, not to enjoy sex with full candor ... It isn't seemly for a woman to have that much zest.

  • I don't want to get to the end of my life and find that I lived just the length of it. I want to have lived the width of it as well.

    • Diane Ackerman,
    • in Newsweek ()
  • Words are small shapes in the gorgeous chaos of the world.

  • There is no way in which to understand the world without first detecting it through the radar-net of our senses.

  • Our skin is what stands between us and the world.

  • Smell is the mute sense, the one without words.

  • We live on the leash of our senses.

  • We shelter under a warm net of kisses. We drink from the well of each other's mouth.

  • Look in the mirror. The face that pins you with its double gaze reveals a chastening secret. You are looking into a predator's eyes. Most predators have eyes set right on the front of their heads, so they can use binocular vision to sight and track their prey. ... Prey, on the other hand, have eyes at the sides of their heads, because what they really need is peripheral vision, so they can tell when something is sneaking up behind them. Something like us.

  • It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between.

  • Each night the sunset surged with purple pampas-grass plumes, and shot fuchsia rockets into the pink sky, then deepened through folded layers of peacock green to all the blues of India and a black across which clouds sometimes churned like alabaster dolls. The visual opium of the sunset was what I craved.

  • When you consider something like death, after which (there being no news flash to the contrary) we may well go out like a candle flame, then it probably doesn't matter if we try too hard, are awkward sometimes, care for one another too deeply, are excessively curious about nature, are too open to experience, enjoy a nonstop expense of the senses in an effort to know life intimately and lovingly.

  • There is a way of beholding nature that is itself a form of prayer.

  • Like love, travel makes you innocent again.

  • Adult bats don't weigh much. They're mainly fur and appetite.

  • Things that live by night live outside the realm of 'normal' time and so suggest living outside the realm of good and evil, since we have moralistic feelings about time. Chauvinistic about our human need to wake by day and sleep by night, we come to associate night dwellers with people up to no good at a time when they have the jump on the rest of us and are defying nature, defying their circadian rhythms.

  • Our sense of safety depends on predictability, so anything living outside the usual rules we suspect to be an outlaw, a ghoul.

  • One of the things I like best about animals in the wild is that they're always off on some errand. They have appointments to keep. It's only we humans who wonder what we're here for.

  • Not much is known about alligators. They don't train well. And they're unwieldy and rowdy to work with in laboratories.

  • If we mammals don't get something to eat every day or two, our temperature drops, all our signs fall off, and we begin to starve. Living at biological red alert, it's not surprising how obsessed we are with food; I'm just amazed we don't pace and fret about it all the time.

  • ... the lunging waves shook froth from their mouths like runaway horses ...

  • The coffee was strong enough to trot a mouse across.

  • ... mind is such an odd predicament for matter to get into. I often marvel how something like hydrogen, the simplest atom, forged in some early chaos of the universe, could lead to us and the gorgeous fever we call consciousness. If a mind is just a few pounds of blood, dream, and electric, how does it manage to contemplate itself, worry about its soul, do time-and-motion studies, admire the shy hooves of a goat, know that it will die, enjoy all the grand and lesser mayhems of the heart? What is mind, that one can be out of one's?

  • ... that pious fiction we call history ...

  • ... short, potbellied penguins, whose necks wobbled with baby fat, huddled together like Russian businessmen in fur coats.

  • I like handling newborn animals. Fallen into life from an unmappable world, they are the ultimate immigrants, full of wonder and confusion.

  • Life goes on, having nowhere else to go.

  • ... when you kiss me, / my flesh sambas like an iguana ...

    • Diane Ackerman,
    • "Beija-Flor," Jaguar of Sweet Laughter ()
  • ... when you kiss me, / jaguars lope through my knees; / when you kiss me, my lips quiver like bronze / violets; oh, when you kiss me ...

    • Diane Ackerman,
    • "Beija-Flor," Jaguar of Sweet Laughter ()
  • It will have to be enough / to build a congregation of poems / from what is shrouded from view ...

    • Diane Ackerman,
    • "Lady Canute," Jaguar of Sweet Laughter ()
  • A poem records emotions and moods that lie beyond normal language, that can only be patched together and hinted at metaphorically.

    • Diane Ackerman,
    • in Janet Sternburg, ed., The Writer on Her Work, vol. 2 ()
  • Poetry is an act of distillation. It takes contingency samples, is selective. It telescopes time. It focuses what most often floods past us in a polite blur.

    • Diane Ackerman,
    • in Janet Sternburg, ed., The Writer on Her Work, vol. 2 ()
  • Writing, which is my form of celebration and prayer, is also my way of inquiry.

    • Diane Ackerman,
    • in Sybil Steinberg, ed., Writing for Your Life ()
  • Love is the great intangible. ... Frantic and serene, vigilant and calm, wrung-out and fortified, explosive and sedate — love commands a vast army of moods. Hoping for victory, limping from the latest skirmish, lovers enter the arena once again. ... Love is the white light of emotion. ... Everyone admits that love is wonderful and necessary, yet no one can agree on what it is.

  • Love, like truth, is the unassailable defense.

  • History is an agreed-upon fiction.

  • Nothing reveals more about the inner life of a people than their arts ...

  • ... love is an act of sedition, a revolt against reason, an uprising in the body politic, a private mutiny.

  • The only and absolute perfect union of two is when a baby hangs suspended in its mother's womb, like a tiny madman in a padded cell, attached to her, feeling her blood and hormones, and moods play through its body, feeling her feelings.

  • One of the keystones of romantic love — and also of the ecstatic religion practiced by mystics — is the powerful desire to become one with the beloved.

  • Ecstasy is what everyone craves — not love or sex, but a hot-blooded, soaring intensity, in which being alive is a joy and a thrill. That enravishment doesn't give meaning to life, and yet without it life seems meaningless.

  • ... habit, a particularly insidious thug who chokes passion and smothers love. Habit puts us on autopilot.

  • ... romantic love is a biological ballet. It is evolution's way of making sure that sexual partners meet and mate, then give their child the care it needs to be healthy and make loving attachments of its own. This isn't a simple or fast process. The human brain is so complex, the mind so ingenious, that biology and experience work hand in hand. People usually undergo a series of crushes, infatuations, and loves between infancy and adulthood. They learn to make magnetic attachments, whose power they feel in their cells, in their bones. Thinking about the loved one steers their every thought, and they would die rather than break the force field of their devotion. It is as if they were two stars, tightly orbiting each other, each feeding on the other's gravity. Because nothing and no one in time or creation seems to matter more, a broken relationship rips the lining from the heart, crushes the rib cage, shatters the lens of hope, and produces a drama both tragic and predictable. Wailing out loud or silently, clawing at the world and at one's self, the abandoned lover mourns.

  • As anyone who has received or dispensed psychotherapy knows, it's a profession whose mainspring is love. Nearly everyone who visits a therapist has a love disorder of one sort or another, and each has a story to tell — of love lost or denied, love twisted or betrayed, love perverted or shackled to violence. Broken attachments litter the office floors like pick-up sticks. People appear with frayed seams and spilling pockets.

  • The brain is only three pounds of blood, dream, and electricity, and yet from that mortal stew come Beethoven's sonatas. Dizzie Gillespie's jazz. Audrey Hepburn's wish to spend the last month of her life in Somalia, saving children.

  • What is erotic? The acrobatic play of the imagination. The sea of memories in which we bathe. The way we caress and worship things with our eyes. Our willingness to be stirred by the sight of the voluptuous. What is erotic is our passion for the liveliness of life.

  • Why do so many people listen to love songs? In imaginative envy, we idealize what we don't have. The act of yearning for something transmutes it from base metal into gold. Anyway, putting a lid on sexuality inspires romance, because people are then driven to fantasize about it. Romantic love does occur in tribes where sex is freely available (particularly if one is forced to marry someone they don't prefer), but not as often and not as an institution. Denial, repression, and inhibition all feed romantic love, because people obsess about satisfying their biological drives, yet cannot avoid the confines of morality. In that climate, pop songs stoke the hottest fantasies and keep the idea of romance alive.

  • ... hope and uncertainty [are] the twin ingredients necessary for romance to thrive. ... Nothing begins with so much excitement and hope, or fails as often, as love.

  • An animal on a leash is not tamed by the owner. The owner is extending himself through the leash to that part of his personality which is pure dog, that part of him which just wants to eat, sleep, bark, hump chairs, wet the floor in joy, and drink out of a toilet bowl.

  • We like to gloat about being at the top of the food chain, but the truth is that we jumped line. Other animals are faster, tougher, stronger, better armored. What we are is mindier. Our brains indulge in a form of mischief that, for lack of a better word, we call thought. We're among the rarest of the rare not because of our numbers, but because of the unlikeliness of our being here at all, the pace of our evolution, our powerful grip on the whole planet, and the precariousness of our future. We are evolutionary whiz kids who are better able to transform the world than to understand it. Other animals cannot evolve fast enough to cope with us. It is possible that we may also become extinct, and if we do, we will not be the only species that sabotaged itself, merely the only one that could have prevented it.

  • It's animal by animal that you save a species.

  • Wonder is the heaviest element on the periodic table. Even a tiny fleck of it stops time.

  • Culture is what people invent when they have lost nature.

  • For the longest time I didn't realize I was creative — I just thought I was strange.

    • Diane Ackerman,
    • in Writer's Digest ()
  • I think that very often younger writers don't appreciate how much hard work is involved in writing. The part of writing that's magic is the thinnest rind on the world of creation. Most of a writer's life is just work. It happens to be a kind of work that the writer finds fulfilling in the same way that a watchmaker can happily spend countless hours fiddling over the tiny cogs and bits of wire. ... I think the people who end up being writers are people who don't get bored doing that kind of tight focus in small areas.

    • Diane Ackerman,
    • in Writer's Digest ()
  • So before I start work on a book, I'm like a pregnant mole — I obsessively tidy and order my closets and everything in my study. Because there's such a cascade of images and ideas that I'm grapping with mentally, I couldn't also be in a chaotic setting.

    • Diane Ackerman,
    • in Writer's Digest ()
  • Life becomes a lot simpler for a creative person when he or she finds the routine that works best. ... get in the habit of going through the routine every day, and on some of those days, you're going to be lucky and have done some good work. ... Go to your study, close the door, invent your confidence.

    • Diane Ackerman,
    • in Writer's Digest ()
  • If cynicism is inevitable as one ages, so is the yearning for innocence. To children heaven is being an adult, and to adults heaven is being children again.

  • Who would drink from a cup when they can drink from the source?

  • Horses have made civilization possible.

  • There are truths that can only be learned when you're dancing in chains.

  • Floating slowly above landscape and civilization, through the fathoms of sky one is left breathless in a world that's curiously silent but for the shaken blankets of the wind and the occasional sighs of hot air. What a treat to stroll through the veils of twilight, to float across the sky like a slowly forming thought. Flying an airplane, one usually travels the shortest distance between two points. Balloonists can dawdle, lollygag, cast their fate to the wind, and become part of the ebb and flow of nature, part of the sky itself, held aloft like any bird, leaf, or spore. In that silent realm, far from the mischief and toil of society, all one hears is the urgent breathing of the wind and, now and then, an inspiring gasp of hot air.

  • Our problem with religion today is that it is mainly nonreligious. We have lost the distinction between a true religious experience and belonging to an organized religion. A religious experience is mystical and wholly subjective; it doesn't include other people. It isn't a set of traditions, laws, dogma, and ruling hierarchies, which leave no room for personal revelations — precisely the sort of moments felt by the founders of the religion. That sense of being stirred by powerful unseen forces, accompanied by a great spiritual awakening, in which life is viewed by fresh eyes, has been replaced, in many cases, by the emotionless, repetitious, and mundane.

  • ... the biggest threat to the religious experience may well come from organized religion itself.

  • I hate the fearful trimming of possibilities that age brings.

  • ... poetry had everything to teach me about life.

  • Poetry reminds us of the truths about life and human nature that we knew all along, but forgot somehow because they weren't yet in memorable language.

  • Because poets feel what we're afraid to feel, venture where we're reluctant to go, we learn from their journeys without taking the same dramatic risks.

  • Variety is the pledge that matter makes to living things.

  • Home is where the heart is, we say, rubbing the flint of one abstraction against another.

  • Adventure is not something you travel to find. It's something you take with you, or you're not going to find it when you arrive.

    • Diane Ackerman,
    • in Los Angeles Times ()
  • [On gardens:] I think they're sanctuaries for the mind and spirit. ... It's easy to feel wonder-struck in a garden, especially if you cultivate delight.

    • Diane Ackerman,
    • in Los Angeles Times ()
  • Choice is a signature of our species.

  • I don't want to be a passenger in my own life.

    • Diane Ackerman
  • Play is an activity enjoyed for its own sake. It is our brain's favorite way of learning and maneuvering.

  • A kiss is like singing into someone’s mouth.

  • Wonder is a bulky emotion; when it fills the heart and mind there's little room for anything else.

  • Gardens don't just please the senses, they satisfy one's need for calm, privacy, balance, and stability; they allow one, no matter how weak or disenfranchised, to impose an order on the chaos and govern living things.

  • ... life doesn't require you to choose between reason and awe, or between clearheaded analysis and a rapturous sense of wonder. A balanced life includes both.

  • One of the fascinating paradoxes of being human is that we are inescapably physical beings who yearn for transcendence.

  • ... according to many religions, life began and ends in a garden. Creating an earthly paradise connects the two and offers a timelessness drenched in sensual pleasure.

  • Living things tend to change unrecognizably as they grow. Who would deduce the dragonfly from the larva, the iris from the bud, the lawyer from the infant? Flora or fauna, we are all shape-shifters and magic reinventors. Life is really a plural noun, a caravan of selves.

  • Nurturing, decisive, interfering, cajoling, gardeners are eternal optimists who trust the ways of nature and believe passionately in the idea of improvement.

  • My philosophy is: Forget winning, cultivate delight.

  • Countless birds seem to be auditioning for their jobs. Large glossy crows sound as if they're gagging on lengths of flannel. Blackbirds quibble nonstop from the telephone wires, where they perch like a run of eighth notes.

Diane Ackerman, U.S. poet, writer

(1948)