Tuesday Apr. 4, 2017

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It hovers in dark corners
before the lights are turned on,
     it shakes sleep from its eyes
     and drops from mushroom gills,
          it explodes in the starry heads
          of dandelions turned sages,
               it sticks to the wings of green angels
               that sail from the tops of maples.

It sprouts in each occluded eye
of the many-eyed potato,
     it lives in each earthworm segment
     surviving cruelty,
          it is the motion that runs
          from the eyes to the tail of a dog,
               it is the mouth that inflates the lungs
               of the child that has just been born.

It is the singular gift
we cannot destroy in ourselves,
the argument that refutes death,
the genius that invents the future,
all we know of God.

It is the serum which makes us swear
not to betray one another;
it is in this poem, trying to speak.

“Hope” by Lisel Mueller from Alive Together. © Louisiana State University Press, 1996. Reprinted by permission.  (buy now)

On this day in 1832, Charles Darwin (books by this author) traveling aboard the HMS Beagle landed on the shores of Rio de Janeiro as part of a five-year trip. His Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, which emerged as a result of his journey on the Beagle, remains one of the most important scientific discoveries of the 19th century.

Darwin was born in 1809 in Shrewsbury, England. He attended Edinburgh University as a young man to become a doctor, but discovered quickly that he couldn’t stand the sight of blood or suffering. He decided to become a clergyman in the countryside instead, so that he could more fully pursue his interest in natural history.

Before he could complete his religious studies, he was approached by the Captain of the HMS Beagle, Robert Fitzroy, who sought an unpaid companion for the trip. Darwin agreed, seeing opportunity to catalog animals and plants on the journey. Later, Darwin discovered that he almost missed his chance in the history books, detailing the ordeal in one of his letters: “Afterwards, on becoming very intimate with Fitz-Roy, I heard that I had run a very narrow risk of being rejected, on account of the shape of my nose! He was an ardent disciple of Lavater, and was convinced that he could judge a man’s character by the outline of his features; and he doubted whether anyone with my nose could possess sufficient energy and determination for the voyage. But I think he was afterwards well-satisfied that my nose had spoken falsely.”

Darwin and Fitzroy landed at port in Rio in April of 1832, and stayed until June. At the start of the trip on land, Darwin recorded the midday temperature in the shade as a sweltering 104 degrees Fahrenheit. He took ill at one point but was cured overnight by “cinnamon and port wine.”

In one day, he collected 68 different species of beetles. One of the most memorable moments of the stop came when he came across a parasitic wasp laying eggs inside a live caterpillar, to be eaten alive by the grubs after hatching. This event single-handedly challenged Darwin’s belief in God; he wrote to fellow naturalist Asa Gray: “There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the [parasitic wasp] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars.”

Darwin himself sampled many of the animals he encountered on the islands that he visited. He ate armadillos, iguanas, giant tortoises, agouti rodents (“the best meat I ever tasted”), a puma with “veal-like” meat, and a large bird called a rhea, which Darwin had been looking for desperately before realizing that he had been dining on it.

Darwin finally reached the famous Galapagos Islands three years later, in 1835. Then, in 1859, he published his seminal book On the Origin of Species. Those looking through the prolific library of Darwin at the time of the theory’s development will encounter endless marginalia detailing his thought process. On the final page of his copy of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, which argued for an archaic view of evolution, Darwin scribbled a single line: “If this were true, adios theory.”

It’s the birthday of Robert E. Sherwood (books by this author), born in New Rochelle, New York (1896). As a boy, he loved the circus, and when he was seven, he was so moved by a production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that he had to be carried out of the theater — he was sobbing.

He was gassed in the First World War, and the tension between maintaining peace and defending justice became his life’s work — that and show business. By age 26, he was the leading film critic in the U.S. and one of the wits sitting next to Dorothy Parker at the Algonquin Round Table. He earned three Pulitzers in five years for his plays about the moral implications of war — Idiot’s Delight (1936), Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1939), and There Shall Be No Night (1941).

It's the birthday of novelist, memoirist, and screenwriter Marguerite Duras (books by this author), born near in a small village in French Indochina near what is now Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (1914). Her parents had left France to teach in the colonial South Pacific island, but her dad became ill there and died, and Duras had an impoverished miserable childhood in which she was abused by her mother and brother.

When she was a teenager, she became lovers with a wealthy, older Chinese man, whom she met on a ferry between Sa Dec and Saigon. She would write about him for the rest of her life, in autographical works like The Sea Wall (1953), North China Lover (1991), and The Lover (1984), which was an international best-seller and won France's most prestigious literary prize.

The Lover begins begins, “One day, I was already old, in the entrance of a public place a man came up to me.  He introduced himself and said, “I’ve known you for years.  Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you that I think you’re more beautiful now than then.  Rather than your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now.  Ravaged.”

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®