“Misreading Darwin” by Chris Anderson

Chris Anderson


He lived not only his own life,
he lived also in the lives of others.
—Janet Browne,
Charles Darwin

I. Chemistry, the Cultural Approach

We didn’t have to do experiments, we just had to think about them,
and that’s my method still.
I don’t like specimens. I like shelving. Not collecting but collections.
The way Darwin said he abhorred the sea, every wave and slap,
the whole five years, but loved his tiny cabin beneath the poop deck,
with its nooks
and crannies and clever drawers, though of course
he was really out there, too, scrambling over rocks and skinning iguanas.
He could do it all: geology, zoology, botany.
Back home in County Kent he spent the mornings in his study
surrounded by his books and instruments.
He loved to write on foolscap. Sometimes a sentence. Sometimes a word.
He wasn’t an atheist. He was just very, very slow.
He was polite.
I am the vine, you are the branches, as Buzz Aldrin said from the moon,
after the Eagle landed.
But this was off-mic, of course. He was quoting Jesus.


II. Cartoon Eyes

Darwin wrote sitting on a chair
with a board spread across his lap.

He was always sending his children out
to collect beetles and report on the pigeons,
and he was always asking farmers
what they had seen and what they knew,
and shopkeepers, and the postman.

Anybody. He was interested.

I have a laptop, of course,
and so I often write in chairs.
Yesterday what I saw was a bushtit
fluttering in the ivy,
and when I went to investigate
I saw that it couldn’t fly anymore.
It was injured and hiding.

It looked right at me, blinking
the two black dots of its eyes,
and as it blinked
nothing else on its body moved.
It was otherwise still.

I think it knew me.
I think it knew it was dying.


III. Addendum to My First Poem about Darwin

When I say that Darwin wasn’t an atheist
I just mean that he seems like such a nice man.
He was shy. He was sad. He was flatulent—
that’s why he always excused himself after dinner.
He spent eight years studying barnacles,
everything about them, until he was the world’s expert
on barnacles, all the different kinds,
with all their hard shells and their soft, creamy bodies.
He loved to walk in his garden,
admiring the trees, but only at the appointed time.
His house was the ship and his wife
was the captain and he was the voyager,
alone with his thoughts every day, filling page after page.
The children told time by the creak of his door—
though they were always racing in, too,
stealing a rock or a feather, and he let them,
and sometimes he played with them or took them
in his arms and kissed them on the ears,
and when his little Annie died he so forgot himself
in a letter to a friend he called her a little angel.
An angel. He just couldn’t believe
she was gone. He just wasn’t thinking.


IV. On the Surface

Darwin married his cousin, Emma,
and later came to love her dearly.

I met Barb in the band—she played the drums
and I played the clarinet—
and I loved her from the start.

After their second child died, the youngest,
a boy, Darwin bought a billiard table.
He researched it thoroughly first
and bought the best, and he liked to play
as he was thinking,
banking shots off the soft, velvet edges.

My brother and I used to play pool
down at Gazebos, in a shadowy corner
beneath a big hanging light,
the felt a brilliant, emerald green,
but I never sat at the bar until a week
after Barb and I were married.

I’d just turned twenty-one and Dad
bought me a beer
and we sat and talked. It was surreal.
It just didn’t seem possible.
Everything was still on the surface.


V. My Mystery Bird

At Nestucca once I saw a Swainson’s Thrush sing,
but I had to live there first, for a month, in the alder above the bay.
It was chilly and damp in the morning, and I was very lonely,
but I had my little coffee pot, and my Post-it-Notes
flew like flags, and finally I saw it happening, early one evening,
lit by the sun, the way they tip back their heads
and let the song pour forth, their soft throats bubbling.
Now there’s this mystery bird in my neighbor’s yard across the street,
singing in the blackberries. It could be
a Black-throated Gray Warbler, or a Hermit Warbler, or even
a Townsend’s, but there’s no way to know unless I actually see it,
unless I can stand on the road and wait,
looking into the thorns, while the cars drive by and the world goes on,
and I do. Minutes at a time. I want to see this one, too.
The way my brother says he feels the wine slide down his throat
when he drinks from the cup at mass.
The way he says he can feel it: that warmth. That burning.

from Rattle #64, Summer 2019


Chris Anderson: “I’ve been reading a lot lately about science and religion and about environmental theology, and that led me to Darwin and to this wonderful biography by Janet Browne. It’s so beautifully written, and Darwin comes out of it as such a fascinating English-country gentlemen. I found myself oddly identifying with him, even though—and then exactly because—I realized that in the poems I started to write, in this sequence, I was getting him wrong, sort of turning him into a believer when he wasn’t. That became the theme of the sequence. Darwin became a way for me to explore the border between science and religion in myself.” (web)

Rattle Logo