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June 5, 2009

Darwin's Life in Verse

“I found that his questions were mine, everything from ‘Why is life short?’ to ‘Why do monkeys cry?’ ”

On a visit to Cambridge last week to read her latest work, novelist and poet Emily Ballou offered that reflection on her 5 years researching the life of Charles Darwin. The result, her

emily balloubook The Darwin Poems, attempts to uncover the man behind the grand ideas that spawned evolutionary theory. The book follows the naturalist’s life from boyhood to after his death, with poems slicing through layers of Darwin’s character, exploring how his inquiring mind permeated his life’s work, his relationships, and his loss of faith in God.

“Darwin believed that the mind was a function of the body. So I wanted to talk about Darwin’s … emotional and social life, his love for Emma [his wife] and his kids, as well as how his thoughts appeared to him,” Ballou says.

Ballou, born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, first “picked up the trail” of Darwin when she moved to Australia, to the small village of Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains. Darwin passed through the village in 1836 during a stop on his seminal Beagle voyage—his path in the village is now dubbed “The Charles Darwin Walk.” Ballou would go by the path “nearly every day,” she says, and began to wonder about the naturalist on his journey: “What was he doing? How warm was it? What was he wearing?” she muses.

On a mission to find out more, Ballou traveled to Darwin’s home of Down House in Kent in the United Kingdom and to Cambridge University to scour the notes, journals, and papers he left behind. “It made a difference to see the tools he used, his scribble, the way he circled things and would go back to answer them in another hand,” says Ballou. “It gave a tangible essence to the person.” Ballou enlisted the help of Adam Perkins, curator of scientific manuscripts at Cambridge University, to analyze Darwin’s papers. She also contacted the Darwin Correspondence Project, which archives letters between Darwin and his family, and other scientists of the time, such as botanist Asa Gray.

After “immersing herself” in Darwin’s life, Ballou documented the naturalist’s musings leading up to his theories on the struggle for existence in “To be a seed”:

Late at night he imagined the dispersal of seeds
across seas, could imagine the distances
in the instances of finches
strewn by wind and wing
but how did those fragile seeds swim?
Were they carried in the guts of ducks
or trapped like bubbles in an ice floe
floating until slow snow melt released them?
Did they hook like barnacles to the wood of rafts?
And what of plants? And what of snake eggs
wholly floating, bobbing the waves
to new places? And once there, once born,
once cracked open,
how did one live on entirely foreign islands?
By wits? By chance? By sheer
stubborn determination
to be?

In “Darwin’s Noah,” Ballou ponders how a seasick Darwin on the Beagle voyage may have thought about the journey of Noah’s ark.

… On the second and third decks
the animals had begun
to eat each other.

He could hear the shrieks, the screech
the smash of fox beneath the panicked
rhino’s foot, the tiger tearing red flesh
off the deer that pressed into the corner
where a snake slowly wrapped
its black weight around a mouse
whose twitching, pink nose reddened
with sudden blood.

Noah being Noah, would have prayed.
But only for so long.
He was a man with a hefty job to do:
keep order where there was none
save some creeping pairs for posterity and deliver
his children alive, for already
the bears were beginning to claw
at the cabin door.

He vowed that if he lived to see new land
and his wife and his sons lived
and the wives of his sons lived
he would willingly build an altar
on which he would slaughter
every bird, every animal and every creeping thing
as offerings

and over time,
eat the rest.

As Darwin’s theories on evolution gained ground, he famously struggled with his belief in God—an issue that divided him and his devoutly religious wife and is documented by Ballou’s “The Sparrow”:

… When Emma played Bach’s
The Sheep May Graze Safely
he could not feel joy at her
light-hearted plucking at the notes
nor feel her relief that God was near;
he could only hear the wolf
in the field, silently stalking …

Darwin finally lost his Christian faith, a change that some have controversially attributed to his favorite daughter, Annie, dying at the age of 10. (See Mark Pallen’s blog post about the lack of evidence for this theory.) Ballou touches upon this interpretation in “Call the Black Horses”:

…You can safely put God to bed now
the way you can’t your daughter anymore.
Tuck the sheets so tight he cannot move
and lock the bedroom door.

—Claire Thomas

The Darwin Poems by Emily Ballou is published by the University of Western Australia Press and is available from Ballou’s Web site or Amazon UK.

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