While researching science poems a few months ago, I came across this book by Ruth Padel, Darwin, A Life in Poems. Ruth Padel is the great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin and this is her book-length telling of his life in verse, content based primarily on family stories and his letters.
I was interested in this book for two reasons: one, Padel is known for her poetic writing about science; two, concerning a project I'm working on, I was interested to see how she would present the biography of a famous figure in verse using a long series of short poems.
The poems in this book are fluid and straightforward, yet they manage to draw out the irony and weighty points inherent in each step of Darwin's life. If I was expecting some epic tour de force, the poems are much more subdued, quiet and purposeful.
From "The Miser"
'Stones, coins, franks, insects, minerals and shells.'
Collect yourself: to smother what you feel,
recall to order, summon in one place,
making, like Orpheus, a system against loss.
From "How Do Species Recognize Their Mate"
They meet, spread wings, display those peacock eyes,
that special patch of feathers, a flash or bar of black,
gold, iridescent blue, so the neurons, synaptic terminals
and brain may recognize the I belong with you.
My favorite poems were "He Reads That the Membrane in a Goldfinch Egg is Proof of Divine Design," "On the Propagation of Mistletoe" (on a search for love), "The Free Will of an Oyster," "He Leaves a Message on the Edge," and "The Pond Spirit."
For some reason I can't quite pin down, the book reminded me of another of my favorite poets, Canadian Anne Carson. Maybe it has something subliminally to do with the Queen (as Padel is British) or the paperback packaging or the books' fonts. Maybe it's their shared diction of reserve, particularly unAmerican. I'm not at all sure. Although Padel is far less cryptic and academic than Carson. I love reading Anne Carson, although my lack of knowledge about classical literature makes me feel like much of the content is over my head. What I do manage to harvest from the pieces gives me good food.
My first purchase was The Autobiography of Red and I remember reading it during my first depressing weeks in Los Angeles in March of 2002, months after 9/11 on the dreary back porch of a slum house in an area of Playa del Rey called The Jungle which overlooked the wetlands and the marinas of Marina del Rey. It was part of a dreary season in LA and I sat in the morning out on the concrete with a glass of water and escaped into in her long lines.
Years later I had moved to Mar Vista in the neighborhood cornered by the Sepulveda and Venice Boulevards living the occasional party life (whenever I was coerced by my roommate to do so) when I picked up The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. I read the tale of a broken marriage while I was experiencing my own online-induced dating dramas.
This fall I read Glass, Irony and God, one section which weaves a breakup story with tales of Emily Brontë.
Publishers Weekly describes Carson this way:
I think what I respond to is her exploding dissection of the mind with explanations of the heart. And that she's a writer I trust in some way, that I can relinquish the need to constantly understand and instead allow myself to float through a kind of innocent intake.
From "The Glass Essay"
Why keep watching?
Some people watch, that's all I can say.
There's nowhere else to go,
no ledge to climb up to.
The swamp water is frozen solid.
Bit of gold weed
have etched themselves
on the underside of the ice like messages.