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Book Review: The Darwin Poems by Emily Ballou

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Though structured and presented as a kind of biography, The Darwin Poems isn’t really a biography in the traditional sense. For one thing, there’s a lot in it that is imagined, and Emily Ballou makes that very clear. But she also takes great care to incorporate Charles Darwin’s own ‘verse’ or journal entries and letters (poetic it is too), and there’s a deep veracity to this work that makes the reader feel like this is not only as clear-sighted a perspective on Darwin as any formal, prosaic biography, but also one which goes deeper, helping us to understand Darwin as child, lover, father, friend, on the most intimate of levels. So well written and insightful is this book, that verse now seems the most natural and obvious form for biography. The progression is fast paced, and it’s a delightful struggle for the reader to move slowly enough to savour each rich and densely-packed line of carefully constructed poetry, while wanting to follow fast along the biological line from birth to death.

The book is divided into seven chronological sections with 73 poems in all. The first of the sections charts Darwin’s early life from childhood to the Cambridge years. Other sections explore Darwin’s voyage aboard the Beagle, his marriage and years at Down House, parenthood and the loss of his daughter Annie, his own illness, the development of his great works, and the later years. Each section begins with a direct quote from Darwin’s notebooks or letters. While many historical books are driven by the large scale actions of its heroes, Ballou’s Darwin is developed, as Darwin’s own theories were, through close observation of detail. Despite the inclusion of Darwin’s own words, this is a very feminine portrait of Darwin, discovery occurring in the smallest, most intimate pockets of life.

Most of the poems take on a single reference point: generally some critical moment that had a formative effect on Darwin. Take, for example, the very first poem in the book, which begins a month after his mother’s death, when Darwin was eight years old:

No amount of plunder
no collected cache of wonders could extract
the adoration he now needed
to chase away the terrible secret
growing daily within him:
the thought
that either his father was no doctor
or God was a donkey.
(“The Donkey, August 1817”)

Not only does the poem trace the first moment of religious doubt brought on by a death that would later be mirrored by the death of Darwin’s daughter Annie, but couples the emotion with an evocative, sensual sense of the texture of the natural world: “black beetle carapaces, crumbling butterfly wings, pads of moss, / quartz-cored rocks/he smashed open on fence posts”. This poem made me think of Joyce’s “ineluctable modality of the audible”, with its secret naturalist thrill underlying the intense sadness and confusion.


It’s a powerful combination that continues throughout the book as the boy becomes man. Regardless of the pain, action, and outward progression of the poetry's subject, each poem is underscored by an intense love affair with the natural processes of life and death. This is a very personal portrait that encompasses Darwin’s wife Emily, his children, and the day to day attentions that take up most of our lives. There is humour too, in pantry lists, in jocular interchanges, in poking fun at his own odd interest in insects, or in the joyous scientific portrayal of his firstborn’s birth:

Good spec. for testing
the limits of inheritance—
& emotion in man.

I could not exactly see the heart
but felt mine skip.

Squalus Darwinii !!!
I cried
but my wife insists:

William Erasmus. (“December 27th, 1839”)

At the back of The Darwin Poems are extensive notes, which form a biographical backdrop to the poetry. The notes provide an interesting context for the work, bringing in a nonfiction reference point that adds depth to the more surreal intensity of the poems. I found myself reading the notes in conjunction with the poetry, and allowing both the real history and the fictional character to meld into one where the truth seemed almost a given. Always, throughout the book, one has the feeling that it is that deeper truth that Ballou is striving for. While The Darwin Poems is a moving biography of a man who spent his life in the pursuit of truth, in many ways it is more than a portrait of Darwin. The book poses questions that are relevant and still fresh for modern readers:

The bead of life immersed
in salt-water for forty days and forty nights
when planted, still cracks
open, pours forth
its small green life, its shootable, edible tendril,
its fingerprint of possibility.

Each poem stands alone and it is possible to read them in isolation, but whether Darwin is studying, travelling, testing hypotheses, raising children, reflecting on life and death, or dying, there is a real sense of the humanity behind the legend – something that the reader can identify with. In this portrait, within the discovery, science, and that great world changing body of work that Darwin produced, is what Ballou calls the “green need”: “I am / in the end just a body / bursting / out of its love.” The Darwin Poems is built out of that need. It's a wonderful, beautifully written book that begs to be re-read.

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About Magdalena Ball

Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.
  • As the publisher of this exquisite volume I am thrilled to read this precise and careful review that picks up so many of its great qualities.
    The only thing better than reading this book is hearing Emily Ballou read from it and talk about her fascinating entry into this project of writing Charles Darwin.
    Thanks Maggie Ball.

  • Thanks so much Terri-ann. For those who would like to hear Emily read from The Darwin Poems live, as well as talk about the book, I’ll be interviewing her at 12pm 28 Aug Au EST at The Compulsive Reader Talks. For those who miss the show, it will be available from that date as a podcast.