Monday, July 17, 2006

Poem of the Week 7/17/2006: Darwin in 1881

Darwin* in 1881

Sleepless as Prospero back in his bedroom
In Milan, with all his miracles
Reduced to sailors' tales,**
He sits up in teh dark. The islands loom.
His seasickness upswells,
Silence creeps by in memory as it crept
By him on water,*** while the sailors slept,
From broken eggs and vacant tortise shells.
His voyage around the cape of middle age
Comes, with a feat of insight, to a close,
The same way Prospero's
Ended before he left the stage
To be led home across the blue-white sea,
When he had spoken of the clouds and globe,
Breaking his wand, and taking off his robe;*
Knowledge increases unreality.
He quickly dresses.
Form wavers like his shadow on the stair
As he descends, in need of air
To cure his dizziness,
Down past the ship-sunk emptiness
Of grownup children's rooms and hallways where
The family portraits stare,
All haunted by each other's likenesses.

Outside, the orchard and a piece of moon
Are islands, he an island as he walks,
Brushing against weed stalks.
By hook and plume
The seeds gathering on his trouser legs
Are archipelagoes, like nests he sees
Shadowed in branching, ramifying trees,
Each with unique expressions in its eggs.
Different islands conjure
Different beings; different beings call
From different isles. And after all
His scrutiny of Nature
All he can see
Is how it will grow small, fade, disappear,
A coastline fading from a traveler
Aboard a survey ship. Slowly,
As coasts depart,
Nature had left behind a naturalist
Bound for a place where species don't exist,
Where no emergence has a counterpart.

He's heard from friends
About the other night, the banquet hall
Ringing with bravos--like a curtain call,
He thinks, when a performance ends,
Failing to summon from the wings
An actor who had lost his taste for verse,
Having beheld, in larger theaters,
Much greater banquet vanishings
Without the quaint device and thunderclap
Required in Act 3.**
He wrote, Let your indulgence set me free,***
To the Academy, and took a nap
Beneath a London Daily tent,
Then puttered on his hothouse walk
Watching his orchids beautifully stalk
Their unreturning paths, where each descendent
Is the last--
Their inner staircases
Haunted by vanished insect faces
So tiny, so intolerably vast.
And, when they gave his proxy the award,
He dined in Downe* and stayed up rather late
For backgammon with his beloved mate,
Who reads his books and is, quite frankly, bored.

Now, done with beetle jaws and beaks of gulls
And bivalve hinges, now, utterly done,
One miracle remains, and only one.
An ocean swell of sickness rushes, pulls,
He leans against the fence
And lights a cigarette and deeply draws.
Done with fixed laws,
Done with experiments
Within his greenhouse heaven where
His offspring, Frank, for half the afternoon
Played, like an awkward angel, his bassoon
Into the humid air
So he could tell
If sound would make a Venus's-flytrap close.
And, done for good with scientific prose,
That raging hell
Of tortured grammars writhing on their stakes,
He’d turned to his memoirs, chuckling to write
About his boyhood in an upright
Home: a boy preferring gartersnakes
To schoolwork, a lazy, strutting liar
Who quite provoked her aggravated look,
Shushed in the drawing room behind her book,
His bossy sister itching with desire
To tattletale--yes, that was good.
But even then, much like the conjurer
Grown cranky with impatience to abjure
All his gigantic works and livelihood
In order to immerse
Himself in tales where he could be the man
In Once upon a time there was a man.

He'd quite by chance beheld the universe:
A disregarded game of chess Between two love-dazed heirs
Who fiddle with the tiny pairs
Of statues in their hands,** while numberless
Abstract unseen
Combinings on the silent board remain
Unplayed forever when they leave the game
To turn, themselves, into a king and queen.
Now, like the coming day,
Inhaled smoke illuminates his nerves.
He turns, taking the sandwalk as it curves
Back to the yard, the house, the entrance way
Where, not to waken her,

He softly shuts the door,
And leans against it for a spell before
He climbs the stairs, holding the banister,
Up to their room: there
Emma sleeps, moored
In illusion, blown past the storm he conjured
With his book,*** into a harbor
Where it all comes clear,
Where island beings leap from shape to shape
As to escape
Their terrifying turns to disappear.
He lies down on the quilt,
He lies down like a fabulous-headed
Fossil in a vanished riverbed,
In ocean drifts, in canyon floors, in silt,
In lime, in deepening blue ice,
in cliffs obscured as clouds gather and float;
He lies down in his boots and overcoat,
And shuts his eyes.

Gjertrud Schnackenberg 1982

*The English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882), who developed the theory of evolution.
** In Shakespeare's The Tempest, the magician Prospero is the usurped and exiled duke of Milan; at the play's end, he is restored to his dukedom.
*** Cf. The Tempest, 1.2.395: "This music crept by me on the waters"
* Allusion to Prospero's words: "the great globe itself / Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve / And, like this insubstantial pagent faded, / Leave not a rack behind"
**Prospero conjures up a banquet and then makes it disappear with thunder and (as in the stage direction) "a quaint device"
***Prospero's final speech, the last line of the play.
* Darwin's home
**That is, playinc chess, as in The Tempest Act 5 Scene 1
***Prospero's book of magic helped him conjure a tempest. Darwin's book On the Origin of Species (1859) was equally powerful, culturally and scientifically.

1881 was a year before Darwin's death, and so this poem is about endings. It asks us all the question: what does one do when one's greatest journey is over? When the ship is docked and he is home, all he has are the memories of islands rushing up around him. Scientific diction widens the poem's scope, while revolving changes in scale make relevant the rest of the poem and concentrate the tone (more on this later). This is a poem exploring a singular time in life: when there is nothing left to experience. Life is over but death not there. So what one has to do, this poem shows, is wait, and remember. Schnackenberg's poem distills this moment and then explores its corners and crystals, examining his life and endings.

The poem opens with Darwin's sleeplessness at night. He gets up, feels sea-sick and lonely, and walks outside. Schnackenberg immediately draws a parallel between Darwin and Prospero. It is a sound comparison; both men were once great, and accomplished that greatness overseas. Plus, Darwin looks almost exactly as I imagine Prospero - great white beard, great white brows, shadowed, brooding eyes.... The poem opens with that link, and then the line, "all his miracles / Reduced to sailors' tales." Schnackenberg insinuates that whatever wonderful thing Darwin accomplished at the Galapagos is now a collection of "sound bites," the property of others who say what they like. I am reading Kundera's Immortality now, and this seems the same idea. Our memory is inevitably given over to the public, as are our works. Now that he is home and his work published, it is no longer his. It is the public's to digest and incorporate, not his.

Memory of that work has not left. Indeed, the first stanza teems with images and memories of the trip to the Galapagos. Darwin experiences seasickness, perhaps a signal that he was so accustomed to the boat that land is sickening, or perhaps evidence that his memory of the trip is so haunting that it touches him even now. Maybe it's just a heady sense of nostalgia. This stanza uses images of loss like those throughout the poem; "broken eggs and vacant tortoise shells," "ship-sunk," and "grownup children's rooms" reflect Darwin's lost experience.

In the second stanza, the island image stands for more than just memory - it signals Darwin's solitude in Downe and lasting connection with the Galapagos. Hee is truly alone in Downe, England. Who, after all, could imagine the heights of experiment and idea Darwin reached? Being so unbearably misunderstood perhaps influences the sense that everything will "grow small, fade, disappear." With nobody to understand, perhaps the experiences are unrealized, stifled. In part, this comes from my own belief that human ideas and experiences are meant to be shared, for they are best that way. I think it holds with the throbbing nostalgia in the poem; feeling alone/misunderstood/incomplete can total to a longing for a time of solidarity/understanding/completeness.

Aside from loneliness, this stanza treats mortality and memory. The islands saturate Darwin's thought. His ideas from his expeditions saturate his thought. The word "different," key in the discovery of the origin of species, pulses through lines 33-35, and yet even this recedes. Like "a coastline fading from its traveler," the experience fades, is pushed back by time and Nature, which brings all things to an end. For Darwin, the journey is everything, providing not only the core of his work, but the framework on which he understands his life. Only that journey ending could make mortality real.

Indeed, the voyage was so enormous in his life that anything else seems paltry. Darwin evades attending an awards ceremony. Schnackenberg compares him to "an actor who has lost his taste for verse, / Having beheld, in larger theaters, / much greater banquet vanishings." This again recalls Prospero, as does the request "Let your indulgence set me free." Those are Prospero's last lines, and some of the last Shakespeare himself ever wrote. Layering three seminal figures in Western imagination under one goodbye deepens it and lends an already-nostalgic term another coat of nostalgia. Schnackenberg also emphasizes the importance of his journey with the paltry activities he fills his later years with. Like backgammon. The only part of his life that retains some of the magic of his Galapagos trip is his experimentation with orchids. There, the scale zooms in and out, for the faces are "so tiny, [and] so intolerably vast" just as "the seeds gathering on his trouser legs / are archipelagoes" in stanza 2. The quick shifting of perspective is characteristic of his connection with the past, perhaps because of the radical flashes of insight from something as small as a bird beak or a beetle's shell could reveal such fundamental truths about the earth.

The fourth stanza - by far the longest - is almost a rant. After only one upswell of scientific nostalgia, Darwin takes control of the emotion. With more force than before, he says, "Done with fixed laws, / Done with experiments," and proceeds to appreciate something of his life: his son, an "awkward angel." Darwin goes so far as to denounce scientific prose, denounce "that raging hell / of tortured grammars writing on their stakes." Perhaps reminded of youth by his son, Darwin instead turns to memoirs, hoping to appreciate a different part of his life. He recognizes the goodness of his youth, the funness of mischief and mayhem. Gasp! Fun! Not in this nostalgia-soaked poem. But these memories turn out to be healing for Darwin, for he loses his earlier romantic illusions about the past and looks candidly at his vision of the world.

It is a world of infinite possibilities, and infinitely unrealized ones. Like Miranda and Ferdinand's chess game, it has endless closed developments and well-intentioned but distracted orchestraters. This metaphor either signals a sort of abstracted god, or the benign, lucky ramble of nature. The luck comes through in the pawns-to-royalty metaphor, for even the little lost pieces are "meant to be," in a way. This is Darwin's last thought before he feels he can turn back to the bedroom. What, then, is comforting about it? It seems to be the clearest view of his understanding of the world. Perhaps also he may leave it because, as for Prospero before him, the game is in someone else's hands. So long as he has a hold on his own life - through his memoir, through the fidelity of his memories, through his final lingering experiments, through his children - it is comforting to release the weight of the world into someone else's hands.

And so he journeys back once again, this small journey mirroring his larger one from the Galapagos to his home. He is ready to settle into dreamland, a magical place recalling Prospero's islands where the creatures, Ariel-like, jump from tree to tree in their efforts to stay alive. And that is the way of things - a constant shifting, leaping from island to island, and responsibility for present and understanding of the past flits from person to person, from era to era. We experience this in our own lives, the inevitable ebb and flow of nostalgia, of annoyance, of clarity, and eventually of returning. There is always a leaving, and things are never quite what they were, but is this not somehow the beautiful part? The poem hums with love as Darwin lays down on his pillow, old and restful, giving his consciousness to the motions of time.

So after everything, this poetic journey, what are we to do with greatness when it ends? What can we do, the poem replies, but set it free. Let the earth move on and lay down your head content to join where billions of others have gone. The world keeps turning, those young lovers sit at their chess-board, humming and moving the pieces as one species turns over its time to the other.

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