DARWIN, A Life in Poems, by Ruth Padel, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.
Ruth Padel has written a brilliant book. It is a historical biography written in poetry with side notes. The titles are worth the price of the book. They are printed in CAPITAL LETTERS. She said that she gave up tenure in 1985 to write poems.
Padel has a poem called, ON ASKING A MUSEUM GUARD TO DRAW THE CURTAIN BEFORE TITIAN’S VENUS . She says that Darwin went to see it in the museum, though the one he saw may be a copy. She writes that “the museum hung curtains over paintings of nudes to protect the modesty of women visitors.” Indeed! All this information is in a very small font running down a column on the left side of the page. Meanwhile, on the poem’s right, she is drawing you into the eyes of this youth, Darwin, as he comes into his sexuality:
Her sudden body. Bare vellum, horizontal:
thighs crossed and lower knee flexed
below the upper calf. He knows the lines by heart:
her fingers curving down and nesting – he can’t see the tips….
The next poem, A DESPERATE WAY TO AVOID PAYING YOUR TAILOR describes how he signs on the H.M.S. Beagle. His job is to attend the captain as “a gentleman companion, naturalist, and savant, for a survey of South America.”
He pulls away from a career in medicine, SLIDING GIDDILY OFF INTO THE UNKNOWN with the notes printed on the poem’s right this time: “They finally left [Plymouth harbor] on 27 December, 1831. Darwin continued to be badly seasick throughout the five years’ voyage.” Five years, seasick!!@?! Padel is descended from Darwin, and with a persistent eye for detail about his life, pulls us onto the deck of the ship, into the jungle, and captures his delight in the dizzying new sights. On Cape Verde Island he sees his first tropical vegetation. LIKE GIVING A BIND MAN EYES
He’s standing in Elysium. Palm feathers, a green
dream of fountain against blue sky, Banana fronds,
slack rubber rivlets, a canopy of waterproof tearstain
over his head. Pods and racemes of tamerind.
Follicle, pinnacle; whorl, bole, and thorn….
There are Darwin’s passions; shooting guns, collecting specimens, his beloved family – and his pain; injustice, the abuse of one human by another, and later the death of his children and his terrible illness from a tropical insect bite that tormented him the rest of his life.
…Now it’s lunatic farting, vomit, stomach-and -whole
body ache. These midnight demons, weeping and shakes,
must have organic origin – like everything.
Tears streak the greying stubble on his cheeks….
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Richard Holmes from the Guardian (British Press) writes, “She has evolved a new species of biography …This is not a mere collection, but a complete miniature biography, told through linked but highly individual poems, a selection of visionary moments: snapshots, epiphanies, symbolic fragments. For biographers, this itself is a challenging revelation of economy and selection.
And from The Economist, posted on her website: “Why does this book work so well? Why are poems a good way of illuminating a life such a Darwin’s? Padel has caught the quintessence of the man’s character as if in a butterfly net.”
For further information –New York Times review, by Charles McGrath, April 17, 2009: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/18/books/18pade.html?ref=arts