A review of The Darwin Poems by Emily Ballou

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Darwin Poems
By Emily Ballou
UWA Press
Paperback, ISBN 9781921401275, May 2009, $24.95aud

Though structured and presented as a kind of biography, The Darwin Poems isn’t really a biography in the traditional sense. For one thing, there’s a lot in it that is imagined, and Ballou makes that very clear. But she also takes great care to incorporate Charles Darwin’s own ‘verse’ or journal entries and letters (poetic it is too), and there’s a deep veracity to this work that makes the reader feel like this is not only as clear-sighted a perspective on Darwin as any formal, prosaic biography, but also one which goes deeper, helping us to understand Darwin as child, lover, father, friend, on the most intimate of levels. So well written and insightful is this book, that verse now seems the most natural and obvious form for biography. The progression is fast paced, and it’s a delightful struggle for the reader to move slowly enough to savour each rich and densely packed line of carefully constructed poetry, while wanting to follow fast along the biological line from birth to death.

The book is divided into seven chronological sections and 73 poems in all. The first of the sections charts Darwin’s early life from childhood to the Cambridge years. Other sections explore Darwin’s voyage aboard the Beagle, his marriage and years at Down House, parenthood and the loss of his daughter Annie, his own illness, the development of his great works, and the later years. Each section begins with a direct quote from Darwin’s notebooks or letters. While many historical books are driven by the large scale actions of its heroes, Ballou’s Darwin is developed, as Darwin’s own theories were, thorough close observation of detail. Despite the inclusion of Darwin’s own words, this is a very feminine portrait of Darwin, discovery occurring in the smallest, most intimate pockets of life. Most of the poems take on a single reference point: generally some critical moment that had a formative effect on Darwin. Take, for example, the very first poem in the book, which begins a month after his mother’s death, when Darwin was eight years old:

No amount of plunder

no collected cache of wonders could extract

the adoration he now needed

to chase away the terrible secret

growing daily within him:

the thought

that either his father was no doctor

or God was a donkey. (“The Donkey, August 1817”)

No only does the poem trace the first moment of religious doubt brought on by a death that would later be mirrored by the death of Darwin’s daughter Annie, but couples the emotion with an evocative, sensual sense of the texture of the natural world: “black beetle carapaces, crumbling butterfly wings, pads of moss,/quartz-cored rocks/he smashed open on fence posts”. This poem made me think of Joyce’s “ineluctable modality of the audible”, with its secret naturalist thrill underlying the intense sadness and confusion. It’s a powerful combination that continues throughout the book as the boy becomes man. Regardless of the pain, action, and outward progression of the poetry’s subject, each one is underscored by an intense love affair with the natural processes of life and death. This is a very personal portrait that encompasses Darwin’s wife Emma, his children, and the day to day attentions that take up most of our lives. There is humour too, in pantry lists, in jocular interchanges, in poking fun at his own odd interest in insects, or in the joyous scientific portrayal of his firstborn’s birth:

Good spec. for testing

the limits of inheritance—

& emotion in man.

I could not exactly see the heart

but felt mine skip.

Squalus Darwinii !!!

I cried

but my wife insists:

William Erasmus. (“December 27th, 1839”)

At the back of the book are extensive notes, which form a biographical backdrop to the poetry. The notes provide an interesting context for the work, bringing in a nonfiction reference point that adds depth to the more surreal intensity of the poems. I found myself reading the notes in conjunction with the poetry, and allowing both the real history and the fictional character to meld into one where the truth feels like a given. Always, throughout the book, one has the feeling that it is that deeper truth that Ballou is striving for. While The Darwin Poems is a moving biography of a man who spent his life in the pursuit of truth, in many ways it is more than a portrait of Darwin. The book poses questions that are relevant and still fresh for modern readers:

The bead of life immersed

in salt-water for forty days and forty nights

when planted, still cracks

open, pours forth

its small green life, its shootable, edible tendril,

its fingerprint of possibility.

Each poem stands alone and it is possible to read them in isolation, but whether Darwin is studying, travelling, testing hypotheses, raising children, reflecting on life and death, or dying, there is a real sense of the humanity behind the legend – something that the reader can identify with. In this portrait, within the discovery, science, and that great world changing body of work that Darwin produced, is what Ballou calls the “green need”: “I am/in the end just a body/bursting/out of its love.” The Darwin Poems is built out of that need. It’s a wonderful, beautifully written book that begs to be re-read.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of Sleep Before Evening, The Art of Assessment, Quark Soup, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Cherished Pulse and She Wore Emerald Then. She runs a monthly radio program podcast The Compulsive Reader Talks.