Darwin


I

His holy
            slowly
                  mulled over
      matter

not all 'delirium
            of delight'
                  as were the forests
      of Brazil

'Species are not
            (it is like confessing
                  a murder)
      immutable

He was often becalmed
            in this Port Desire by illness
                  or rested from species
      at billiard table

As to Man
            'I believe Man . . .
                  in the same predicament
      with other animals'

II

Cordilleras to climb–Andean
            peaks 'tossed about
                  like the crust
      of a broken pie'

Icy wind
            Higher, harder
                  Chileans advised eat onions
      for shortness of breath

Heavy on him:
            Andes miners carried up
                  great loads–not allowed
      to stop for breath

Fossil bones near Santa Fe
            Spider–bite–scauld
                  Fever
      Tended by an old woman

'Dear Susan . . .
            I am ravenous
                  for the sound
      of the pianoforte'

III

FitzRoy blinked–
            sea-shells on mountain tops!
                  The laws of change
      rode the seas

without the good captain
            who could not concede
                  land could rise from the sea
      until–before his eyes

earthquake–
            Talcahuana Bay drained out–
                  all-water wall
      up from the ocean

–six seconds–
            demolished the town
                  The will of God?
      Let us pray

And now the Galapagos Islands–
            hideous black lava
                  The shore so hot
      it burned their feet

through their boots
            Reptile-life
                  Melville here later
      said the chief sound was a hiss

A thousand turtle monsters
            drive together to the water
                  Blood-bright crabs hunt ticks
      on lizards' backs

Flightless cormorants
            Cold-sea creatures–
                  penguins, seals
      here in tropical waters

Hell for FitzRoy
            but for Darwin Paradise Puzzle
                  with the jig-saw gists
      beginning to fit


IV

Years . . . balancing
            probabilities
                  I am ill, he said
      and books are slow work

Studied pigeons
            barnacles, earthworms
                  Extracted seeds
      from bird dung

Brought home Drosera–
            saw insects trapped
                  by its tentacles–the fact
      that a plant should secrete

an acid acutely akin
            to the digestive fluid
                  of an animal! Years
      till he published

He wrote Lyell: Don't forget
            to send me the carcass
                  of your half-bred African cat
      should it die

V

I remember, he said
            those tropical nights at sea–
                  we sat and talked
      on the booms

Tierra del Fuego's
            shining glaciers translucent
                  blue clear down
      (almost) to the indigo sea

(By the way Carlyle
            thought it was most ridiculous
                  anyone should care
      whether a glacier

moved a little quicker
            or a little slower
                  or moved at all)
      Darwin

sailed out
            of Good Success Bay
                  to carcass-
      conclusions–

the universe
            not built by brute force
                  but designed by laws
      The details left

to the working of chance
            'Let each man hope
                  and believe
      what he can'


                           from Darwin, I-V


Lorine Niedecker, Collected Works, ed. Jenny Penberthy, University of California Press, 2002.