Sport 42: 2014
In the Library with Darwin’s Red Notebook
Six floors up the windows show signs of smeary contact,
salty particles like prickly kisses blown up from the harbour
from a seafarer’s bearded lips while, open on the table,
ocean-stained pages of your notebook drift,
penciled lines, smudgy in places, your handwriting untidy,
at times unclear. I make out inosculation with a single line
through it, representation added above, but what word is that,
starting with s? You underlined gradual with a firm stroke,
scored across another word until it was unreadable. And so we go
on, you retreating as I advance over pebbles, beached somewhere
you do not name, in the air a tang of distance and discovery
spiked with your unwillingness to doubt your own eyes.
Upon closing the book I see, scrawled across the back cover
in your hand, in brown ink: nothing for any purpose. As if,
despite your growing understanding, your final impulse
was to camouflage these shipboard findings.
Darwin’s Billiard Table
Full-sized, with the latest slate bed technology
sourced from Hopkins and Stephens, Covent Garden
for fifty-three pounds eighteen shillings,
which is reasonable considering the quality,
and he covers the cost with funds
from the sale of his father’s gold watch
and a few bas-relief Greek figures,
oh and a Wedgwood Barberini vase that,
as he points out to Emma, has only been
gathering dust on the drawing room shelf.
It arrives, broken into its component parts,
having rolled the twenty miles from London
strapped to the back of a cart. He shouts
at the gardener’s boy behind the greenhouse
to help unload, and after an hour
the long limbs are laid out sequentially on the carpet,
like a gigantic mahogany skeleton
some other giant has torn apart.
Two more hours, and the eight-legged framework
stands upright, only slightly unsteady.
Wriggling into a prone position beneath,
he sketches a detailed underside view
of the complex screw levelling mechanism
to send to his son George, away at school,
so he too can admire the design and fine craftsmanship.
Once his wool-baize-clad beauty is stable,
feet precisely levelled to the lifts and falls
of uneven oak floorboards, he starts in on
his new, full-colour book, also delivered from London,
the one with the detailed diagrams of various cue strokes.
He enjoys spending his free hours practicing his moves,
page 56 delighting in every carefully judged carom,
the satisfaction of the well rounded click, clunk, plop
of a strike and rebound into a corner pocket.
Nightly after dinner comes the new ritual,
the lighting of the lamps to shine on coloured balls,
on the small brown heads of his younger sons,
the grey of Parslow the butler,
the sometimes balding ones of visiting scientists,
and so it goes,
until the morning he has another idea
and, dragging a heavy sheet from the linen press,
throws it over the baize, carries in
box after box and carefully unwraps
his collection of boiled rabbit bones, dozens
of small femurs and scapula, chopstick thin ribs,
ovate skulls, arranging each small, creamy fragment
precisely, so they almost touch, in five size-graduated
rows, stretching from one end rail to the other.
Early morning on the Sand-walk, Down House, March 1857
Praise be for fan-tailed pigeons, for flies
who lay their eggs in the navels of animals,
and every parasite that clings to life,
for red-grouse the colour of heather,
black-grouse that of peaty earth,
for the abundance of hair on the breast of the wild turkey,
the inherited peculiarities of the horns on cattle,
for tidal floods of starlings in massed tumblings
across winter skies, for the plumed seed that is wafted.
Praise be for brown beetles diving in streams,
for the wolf pack in snow,
hard pressed for food,
for upland geese with webbed feet
who seldom go near the water, for the beak
and tongue of the woodpecker,
for humble bees sucking at red clover blooms,
for each form, lightly chalked upon a wall,
divided into great branches, oddly perfect.
Battle of the Vegetables
For July, the weather has been dire;
today the children, bless them,
have been rampaging all morning
along the hallway outside my study door,
waging war. If I understand correctly,
Franky leads the carrot army,
little Lenny the potato one,
whilst Lizzy is engaging in a guerrilla action
somewhere between the two,
and all advancing and falling back,
all the time shouting, oh the shouting
and the banging of those wooden swords
which I confess I do regret, as Emma foresaw I would.
Just this instant we have a lull in hostilities,
for I have handed over several sheets
from my manuscript, a slaughtered first draft,
some pens and India ink. Next they will be after
Etty for her water colours, which is all to the good,
as it will entail them decamping upstairs,
and I shall have peace down here, for a time at least.
Now what I want to know is at what age nestling pigeons have their tail feathers sufficiently developed to be counted? I do not think I ever saw a young pigeon. I should be very glad to have a nestling pigeon sent, for I mean to make skeletons. I have done the black deed and murdered an angelic little fantail and pouter at ten days old . . . lumps of cyanide of potassium in a very large damp bottle, half an hour before putting in the pigeon. I have found my careful work at pigeons really invaluable . . . can trace the gradual changes in the breeds of pigeons. I have just had pigeons and fowls ALIVE from the Gambia! Also a large mass of parallel facts in the breeds of pigeons about the wing bars. I SUSPECT it will throw light on. . . a gin palace in the Borough amongst a set of pigeon fanciers. Do you consider that the successive variations in the size of the crop of the Pouter Pigeon, which man has accumulated to please his caprice, have been due to . . . it seems preposterous that a maker of a universe should care about the crop of a pigeon solely to please man’s silly fancies. Dorsal vertebrae of pigeons vary in number, and dispute the fact . . . that an improved Short-horn, or improved Pouter-pigeon, should be produced by accumulative variation. And you might thus prove that the duck or pigeon has not varied because the goose has not, though . . . selecting individual differences in the nasal bones of pigeons, I must think that it is illogical to suppose that . . . that man has made his improved shorthorns, or pouter pigeons, or bantams . . . [quite unreadable] . . . who tried to explain the variation of pigeons! Whatever holds good in the formation of a pouter pigeon holds good in the formation of a natural species of pigeon. I cannot see that this is false . . .
Dr Gully’s Cold Water Cure
patient to strip naked
and cold-water-soaked sheets
to be wound around the body,
these in turn
to be covered over
Wait one hour,
strip once again.
Make an application of iced spring water,
one swift dousing,
from a bucket positioned
directly above the head.
Encase belly and lower back
in a wet girdle;
dress otherwise in warm clothing.
the five mile walk from well to well,
taking draughts of water from each.
Sit for extended periods
before a hot lamp
to induce profuse sweating.
Breakfast should be dry biscuits,
boiled mutton and fish,
No alcohol. No snuff. No work.
My Dearest Emma,
My own dear how it did make me cry
to read of your going to Annie’s garden for a flower.
Our poor child has been fearfully ill;
as ill as a human being could be,
you would not in the least recognise her,
her poor hard, sharp pinched features.
I could only bear to look at her by forgetting
our former dear Annie;
here is nothing in common between the two.
She has not had wine, but several spoon-fulls of broth,
& ordinary physic of camphor & ammonia—
Dr Gully is most confident there is strong hope.
I am assured Annie is several degrees better.
This morning she is a shade too hot,
but the Dr thinks her going on very well.
You must not suppose her out of great danger.
She keeps the same; just this minute she opened her mouth
quite distinctly for gruel—& said that is enough.
She has slept most tranquilly almost all afternoon,
perhaps too tranquilly.
We have bathed her again with vinegar.
page 62 An hour ago I was foolish with delight,
pictured her to myself making custards
(whirling round) as, I think, she called them.
I told her I thought she would be better
& she so meekly said thank you.
Poor Annie is in a fearful mess,
but we keep her sweet with Chloride of Lime;
she asked for orange this morning,
the first time she has asked for anything except water.
3 o’clock. She is going on very nicely
& sleeping capitally
with breathing quite slow.
We have changed the lower sheet,
cut off the tail of her chemy.
She looks quite nice.
Got her bed flat & a little pillow
between her two bony knees.
She is certainly now going on very well.
A low and dreadful fever.
Poor dear little Annie.
It is all over.
We must be
more and more to each other,
my dear wife.
Annie’s Writing Box
holds the memory things:
unused note papers, a set of goose feather
quill pens, her mother-of-pearl handled
penknife, an unposted letter, a stick
of red sealing wax, her silver thimble, a ribbon
studded with glass beads, a paper folded
over a lock of light brown hair, a paper folded
over two withered yellow crocuses
her mother cut for her.
Darwin’s First Reader
Did she turn your pile of papers
face down on the table? Did she say
she would rather have you,
and everyone else in your world,
continue to believe, and hang all
your evidence, your findings related
to the beaks and feathers of pigeons,
the behaviour of bees? Did she ask
then what’s the point of all this,
what of our three children dead,
what of the Churchman’s guarantee
we would see them again?
I can see you before you do it
(and you mean to do it)
standing at her elbow with your theory.
She hasn’t noticed you yet,
she’s playing the piano with such feeling.
You pause, uncertain now
if you’re up to the task.
Tonight, my jaw aches;
I think it’s something to do
with too much scrolling through
On the Origin of Species, underlining
all the evolutionary Haiku
hiding there, and
it may also be related to the way
the doctor who had my skull x-rayed
when I was nine
told my mother over my head
that my jaw was grossly deformed.
I can’t see it myself.
There’s not much to be done
for an ache
but wait for it to ease.
In the meantime
a layer of skin covers it over,
smooths everything out.
A Short Note from Brother Erasmus in London
Charles, there is a mysterious box
come for you, marked glass
but with a kind of grid iron lid
as if it had something alive inside.
The facts in ‘Darwin’s Billiard Table’ are sourced from Janet Browne’s excellent biography of Darwin (The Power of Place) and from letters contained in the Darwin Correspondence Database (https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk).
Many of the phrases in ‘Early Morning on the Sand-walk, Down House, March 1857’ are extracted from Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.
‘The Battle of the Vegetables’ was a picture drawn by one of Darwin’s young children on the reverse side of a draft of On the Origin of Species. Only around thirty such pages survive; many did so only because Darwin gave them to his children to draw on and then kept the pictures.
The lines in ‘Pigeon’ are extracted from letters Charles Darwin wrote whilst working on his manuscript for On the Origin of Species.
The details of ‘Dr Gully’s Cold Water Cure’ are sourced from ‘The hydrotherapy and infamy of Dr James Gully’, an article by William E. Swinton, published in The CMA Journal, 20 December 1980, volume 123. Darwin underwent the water cure both at Malvern, Worcestershire, and at his home at in Kent, setting up the equipment required in his backyard, from 1849 until the end of 1851.
The lines in ‘My Dearest Emma’ are extracted, unaltered aside from line breaks and ordering, from Charles Darwin’s letters to his wife Emma during the final illness of their daughter Annie, who died the month after her tenth birthday. Annie’s writing case and its contents were kept by the Darwin family in remembrance of Annie.
‘A Short Note from Brother Erasmus in London’ is an extract from a letter written by Erasmus Darwin to his brother Charles in December 1862. The full text of the letter can be found on the Darwin Correspondence Database.