In her poem "The Miser," Ruth Padel describes a young Charles Darwin's predilection for collecting and classifying objects as a way to make "like Orpheus, a system against loss." One could say the same for the biography/memoir-in-verse, a dynamic form that allows poets to revisit the lives of their subjects through imagery, rhythm, and metaphor instead of the more rigid bounds of chronology that biographers must follow. Considering that biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs usually make a strong showing on bestseller lists, the poetic analogues to these forms deserve a wider audience and also provide an ideal introduction to newcomers wishing to dip a tentative toe into the rushing waters of poetry.
Books and documentaries about the Lewis and Clark Expedition have proven popular in recent years, but Campbell McGrath opens a new window onto this famous duo in Shannon: A Poem of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, by focusing on one of its lesser-known figures: George Shannon, an 18-year-old expedition member who became lost from the group for sixteen days. Shannon himself kept no record of what happened during his accidental sojourn on the prairie (present-day Nebraska and South Dakota), so McGrath has free reign to re-create the young explorer's shifting emotions when confronted by the immensity of the wilderness. Implementing the perfect blend of high and low diction, McGrath captures Shannon's voice without strain or pretension in a series of free verse poems, one for each day spent wandering.
Shannon's initial annoyance at having to pursue a pair of lost horses soon turns to awe in the face of a mysterious landscape; it is likely that he was the first American settler to see this part of the country, and he experiences a corresponding sense of vertigo. Indeed, McGrath portrays Shannon as a kind of secular prophet wandering in the desert. Shannon's disdain for organized religion stems from a preacher's glib assertion that Shannon's younger brother drowned because God works in mysterious ways. Later in the narrative, Shannon grapples with how a loving God could allow a boy to die, but in poem 5, he recounts a sort of holy epiphany that he once had in Kentucky when, tapping trees for syrup, he came upon a blooming tree and "beheld the shape of the thing exactly/As a revelation/In the form of an angel...That was a true & terrible fear/& near as I ever came/Or will come to believing."
When he finally becomes delirious after days without food, he has a similar experience as he notes "the river of light widening towards sunrise/this astonishment of grass, this extravagance/animals in the darkness all around me..." In a bold break from the controlled stanzas and capitalized line openings of most of the previous poems, McGrath here visually conveys a herd of buffalo stampeding across the prairie by switching to lower case and clustering the word "buffalo" in various configurations over three pages. Shannon ends this section with the declaration "I am the buffalo god, behold my kingdom," a ringing statement that cements his connection to the land in defiantly anti-theistic tones.
While George Shannon may have privately grappled with his religious doubts, Charles Darwin did so publicly in a series of ground-breaking scientific studies, most famously On the Origin of the Species. Over a hundred years later, Darwin's great-granddaughter, the acclaimed writer Ruth Padel, resurrects her forebear's doubts and their ensuing fruits in glorious language, much of it taken directly from Darwin's own writings. Returning from a five-year voyage to South America, where he developed and refined his theory of natural selection, he begins to compile his research and finds "No deity, no lutes of paradise. Only the smell of tall grass,/tissues adaptive as light from a star/and quick cells vivid to change in the struggle for life."
Padel divides Darwin: A Life in Poems into five chapters, one for each discrete stage of his life. Chapter Two, which addresses his travels on the H.M.S. Beagle, pulsates with rich, sensuous imagery that echoes Darwin's enchantment with the natural world. In a parallel to Shannon's encounter with the angelically blossoming tree, Darwin, exploring a Brazilian rainforest, has his own arboreal revelation: "Bristles of orchid leaves on every black branch/like green flames over Bibles./Botanical forms gyrate and pour/through rivers of otherworld bark/and a wrestling musculature of pure/live wood." Far from diminishing his reverence for nature, his burgeoning belief in evolution opens vistas as immense as the sparsely populated American prairies that the Lewis and Clark Expedition had mapped not long before the voyage of the Beagle.
Darwin covers its subject's life not only as a scientist but also as a devoted husband and father, and these poems in the collection prove equally resplendent and moving. In "He Ignores His Father's Advice," the renegade geologist metamorphoses into a shy yet determined suitor as he proposes to Emma. The advice that he ignores is to keep his religious doubts secret from his wife-to-be; Darwin, however, believes in total honesty, and although his agnosticism pains Emma, she sublimates her concern for his spiritual welfare to her love for him. "How Do Species Recognize Their Mate?" even frames natural selection in the context of a beautiful, unsentimental love poem. Despite the vast differences in their approaches to faith, Charles and Emma Darwin's love sustains them both through a series of difficult pregnancies, Darwin's poor health, and the death of their daughter Annie at age ten. This last occurrence in particular haunted Darwin, as he feared that marrying his first cousin may have doomed Annie to become an example of his own doctrine, "survival of the fittest."
Most scholars agree that Annie's death in 1851 had a profound impact on solidifying Darwin's religious doubts and in giving him the courage to publish ever bolder accounts of evolution that challenged the prevailing notions of "intellectual design." In "Salting the Seeds," Padel hints at this in the lines "Dawn fog dissolves/among the medlars into a wraith/you see, then lose, in the shape/of a running girl." While Darwin clearly adored his other children (Padel deftly incorporates their loving recollections of him into the later poems), he admits that Annie was his favorite, and the poems in the final section of the book all carry a sense of resigned melancholy despite the fact that he published his scientific theories to great recognition during this period. Padel's empathy with Darwin along with her literary gifts result in a powerful portrait of a man whose ideas have revolutionized the way that we view the world.
Meanwhile, in Canada, Darwin's almost exact contemporary, Susanna Moodie, was forging her own way in an alien landscape. Margaret Atwood's The Journals of Susanna Moodie distills the frontierswoman's travails as an English immigrant to Canada, conducting a three-part examination of the duality inherent in the immigrant experience. Moodie, along with her husband, immigrates in 1832, when she is 27, within the same age bracket as both Shannon and Darwin during their formative experiences. Unlike the prairie that Shannon encounters and the jungle that Darwin explores, however, northern Canada proves to be a harsh, desolate land that Moodie must learn to endure for seven years. It is a place of
"long hills, the swamps, the barren sand, the glare
of sun on the bone-white
driftlogs, omens of winter,
the moon alien in day-
time a thin refusal"
She is not rescued nor does she ever return to her homeland, instead choosing to adapt to the climate by growing "a chapped tarpaulin/skin." Eventually her "heirloom face" evolves into "a crushed eggshell/among other debris," "pocked ravines" sear her cheeks, and her "eye-/sockets [become] 2 craters..."
Eyes play prominent roles in these poems, as the following short poem that prefaces the journals shows:
"I take this picture of myself
and with my sewing scissors
cut out the face.
Now it is more accurate:
where my eyes were,
The collages that Atwood uses to punctuate these poems further illustrate this preoccupation with seeing. One striking collage depicts a wolf at the lower right of the page, shaggy and wild, mouth gaping, while diagonally opposite, in the upper left corner, we see a gentleman in aristocratic dress encircled in the midst of a snowy, frosted wasteland. In the accompanying poem, "The Wereman," Moodie imagines her husband turning into an animal when he traverses the land: "Unheld by my sight/what does he change into." The power of sight (and, by extension, insight) to change our preconceived notions of the world and its inhabitants, even those closest to us, resonates throughout the collection.
The final poem in the Journals resurrects Moodie, who died in 1885, and places her on a Toronto bus in 1969. Now a kind of sorceress who has made her peace with the land she alternately loved and hated, she wields the power to bewitch the modern reader: "Out of her eyes come secret/hatpins, destroying/the walls, the ceiling". Buried far from her native England, Moodie, via Atwood's characteristically sharp and witty voice, revels in claiming Canadian territory for her own ends and in pulling no punches about how it feels to be "nested in by the velvet immoral/uncalloused and armourless mammals" that now populate the once-wild hinterlands.
The artist Renee Rothbein also emigrated from England to North America, and after her death from cancer in 2001, her daughter, Sarah Hannah, wrote Inflorescence, a series of poems about grief, mother-daughter relationships, and the natural world that are as beautiful and varied as the botanical process that gives the collection its name. There is only one downside to Inflorescence: it is the final book written by Hannah, who committed suicide in 2007, shortly before its publication. It would be a shame if the manner of her death overshadowed the splendor of these poems; Hannah's command of form, her fluid yet controlled use of floral imagery, and her wicked sense of humor make these poems buzz with an energy that seems at odds with her early death.
Still, as Hannah writes in "An Elegy for Bells," "There are two sides to everything:/The ring and its ghost, the one/calling and the one called." In "Azrael (Angel of Death)," she conjures the subject in his many guises (lawyer, social worker, hospice nurse), but when she describes him as the lover her mother has "whored...married and divorced," the poem takes on a chillingly prescient tone: while Renee Rothbein may have died of a brain tumor, she was no stranger to suicide attempts. Indeed, Hannah writes that her mother had "always wanted/a brain tumor, some definitive (read: physical)/Disease people will breathe above a whisper". And in "Threepence, Great Britain, 1943," she creates a biography of her mother in immaculately composed tercets, revealing how Renee's "mum went funny,/Locked up and electroshocked, clamped down/On a bit to save her tongue."
Mental illness isn't the only ghostly presence in the collection, either. Section II, "In the Old House," addresses the abode pictured on the book cover, an ivy-covered cottage with three leaded windows facing out. It is a storybook house, and as in most fairy tales, it possesses a dark side. In one poem, "[t]he house does not forgive you," while in another "There is a backward world/Figured in the coldest state/of staring through the pane". "Progressive Dreaming" finds the speaker entering "the old house like a skilled burglar" and flitting through it, wraith-like, to find a dress that belonged to the woman who lived there before; the speaker knows that although the dress will fit, "it cannot be removed." Ultimately both the speaker and her mother haunt the house where they once dwelled, just as the "land plowed by tractors/Is haunted by oaks, by the circling/Protests of sparrows unnested." The urgency with which Hannah enjoins us to consider the prior history of both animate and inanimate objects (trees, houses) forces us to view the world through new eyes, to see everything around us as constantly blooming and decaying.
Hannah's wry wit, however, ensures that the poems never wallow in the despair that her subjects might suggest. "Common Creeping Thyme" places the speaker and her mother in a hospital room where they "wait and curse/While aides placate [them] with stale crackers/and CranGrape juice." She describes Westwood Lodge, a New England mental institution where her mother periodically stayed, as a "perennial/Resort.../Where Sexton strolled through noon, made moccasins,/And danced in a circle". Later in the same poem, the college-age speaker notes that "God's a white grub./He ate the lawn, but we can't afford to exterminate him". In a macabre play on "The 12 Days of Christmas," she even depicts her mother's death rattles as "two woodpeckers out of synch;/Three geese choking on crabgrass," and employs the formality of end-rhymed couplets in "Blessed Thistle" to play with Shakespearean language in a contemporary context. "The Missing Ingredient" provides the coup de grace, its accomplished use of acrostics transcending the merely clever to make a statement about a crucial aspect of depression. Hannah ends the collection with what she calls "Cantankerous Author's Notes," and these droll comments on literary allusions and references further underline that we have lost not only an extraordinary poet but also a simultaneously self-deprecating and well-read woman.