24 May 2009

"My Dearest Catherine" (Part I)

Simmons Buntin has kindly agreed to let us reproduce his series of three poems as imagined letters from Darwin to his sister Catherine when he was aboard the Beagle. They are published in his book of poems Riverfall (Salmon Poetry, Ireland, 2005). They also appeared in MIT Press's anthology on evolution and progress. Here is the first:

Letter from Charles Darwin to His Sister, Catherine

Simmons B. Buntin


21 January, 1832

My Dearest Catherine,

Passage to the Cape Verde Islands,
a minor stopover for the Beagle,
but a major one for myself.
Oh, if you could have seen my face—
the color of stitched linen at Downs
(where last I have seen either you or Susan).
How can I explain my misery at that time?
The tormenting waves, the incessant rocking,
always rising and collapsing
as my stomach did the same.
Fitzroy is a fine man,
as he would look in on me while
I lay idle at sick bay;
But Wickham, his first mate,
knew no friendship for me.
My quarters fare little better—
I share the poop cabin,
and have my drawers; the two others
(officers both) have lockers.


16 March, 1832

Finally it is Spring—
it seems as if even these vast seas
know the changes. They are richer,
though I knew well before we reached the mainland
we were there. A single leaf, a barkless twig,
a clod of saturated grass, still living—all signals.
No beauty exists in all the world
such as in these tropical lands.
In all my days of studying,
under Henslow or even Sir Adam Sedgwick,
I was never prepared for the absolute
numbers and grand diversity of life—
of species. I have been able to collect,
though I must have killed
hundreds of insects, small mammals, and birds.
(Do not worry, Catherine, I know how
you love life. These species are too numerous
for my sampling to harm.)
One butterfly must be named for you—
its wings are the majesty's blue blazoned
with scarlet, violet, and even silver.
How much it reminds me of your favorite brooch.
These lands have too many more to describe,
the brilliantly colored parrots, the gay
primates swinging on twisted branches...
Father must accuse me
of lizard-catching now, as well.

Yet in all of this beauty, one thing
remains disturbing. Here
on Bahia, on the Northeastern coast
of Brasil—chiseled into the delirious
greenness of rainforest—
man holds man captive.
Nothing plays enchanting in blood
mixing with sweat on the whip-cuts
of the negroes. Nothing enchanting
in the deep brown skin
chained with iron coils.
You must see the difference.
I collect a few specimens for knowledge,
for all—it is my passion, no man sees harm.
But these men, vulgar and cruel,
they act as if they transcend the Creator,
though He who created such solitudes
surely must not agree.

We depart for the South
in but a short while. I cannot say
I will be home soon—the Beagle
shelters my bed now, much as
the tropical canopy is secure in the mist.
You cannot know
unless you see these forests
and breathe this air...

With loving passage,
Charles


Originally published New Mexico Humanities Review.

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