The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   20

The Transmutation Notebooks

Poems in the Voices of Charles and Emma Darwin

by Anne Becker

Washington, D. C.: Forest Woods Media Productions, Inc. / The Bunny and the Crocodile Press, 1996
The original transmutation notebooks were those in which Charles Darwin worked out his ideas about natural selection, about the transmutation of species, and are one of the sources for The Transmutation Notebooks. Becker has taken them, Darwin's published writings and journals, and his letters and those of his wife and cousin Emma née Wedgewood, and re-assembled their fragments into a series of connected poems which, in sequence, tell the story of their life and thought; all are related in the first person by either Charles or Emma, except for the last, a posthumous epilogue spoken by their oldest daughter. Evan Connell did something similar in Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel and Points for a Compass Rose, but unlike Connell Becker is telling a single, clear and coherent story, and the basic material itself is more unified --- more like building up a sculpture by adding pieces of modelling clay than Connell's vast assemblages of found objects. It is a small sculpture, almost on a bonsai scale, but a realistic, detailed one for all that, with two recognizable and individuated characters set in a world which is itself full of small details --- Fuegan clothing, coral atolls, the delicate parts of barnacles, Galapagos (one of the high points of the poem), growing children, scholarly disputes, love, aging, bereavement. (Perhaps a better figure would be that of those supreme artists-in-the-small, the Mughal miniaturists.)

This is not superb poetry, the sort which demands to be memorized and read aloud and makes the small hairs at the back of the neck stand on end, nor is it profound (except, perhaps, for those who have never encountered Darwinism before). But it vivid and moving in the appropriate places, well-wrought throughout, and ultimately highly satisfying.

99 pp.
Evolution / Poetry
Currently in print as a paperback, ~US$12, ISBN 0-938572-12-1
7--8 August 1997