I’ve finally finished reading Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle and wanted to post this poem from my new book, Before There Was Before. I was fascinated to learn that Darwin had planned to become a preacher when he returned from his travels, and like most of his countrymen, believed in the literal words of the bible. He was also appalled at some of the local medical treatments.
I’m Reading Darwin
On a tiny rocky island in the Atlantic,
a few months out on the Beagle, Darwin found
only two kinds of birds, the booby and the noddy,
both . . . of a tame and stupid disposition,
easily distracted and deceived—the males
couldn’t stop crabs from snatching
the flying fish they’d left near the nests
for their females. They even let
those crabs steal their chicks.
And on that island, not one plant,
not one lichen, no royal palms succeeded
by majestic plumage, succeeded
by Adam and Eve’s descendants.
Instead, just two dumb birds,
on whose feathers and skin and shit
the life of the island hinged; and a species
of fly that lived on the booby; and a tick
burrowed in noddy flesh; and a small brown moth
that fed on the feathers; and a beetle
and a woodlouse that fed on dung;
and a host of spiders, who fed on them all.
In Santa Fé, Argentina, a man splits a bean,
places the moistened bean on his sore head,
and his headache goes away.
A broken leg? Kill and cut open
two puppies, tie them on either side of the leg.
Replace doubt with a plaster!
Did Darwin despair? Or still believe
in a God who would break our chains?
On a dark night, south of the Plata,
he comforted himself with the sea’s
most beautiful spectacle . . . every part
of the surface . . . glowed with a pale light . . .
two billows of liquid phosphorus
before the ship’s bows, and in her wake . . .
a milky train.