Indiana University Press, 1984; 85 pages; $15
25th-anniversary and first paperback edition: Indiana University Press, 2008, $19.95.
(This review was first published in Home Planet News, Vol. 6, No. 2, spring-summer 1987)
Reviewed by Martin Mitchell
Philip Appleman opens the preface to his most recent collection, Darwin's Ark, with a quotation from Basil Bunting ("I think that a man who wants to write in the twentieth century makes a great mistake if he doesn't begin by reading The Origin of Species") that voices Appleman's own opinion and introduces a brief account of the author's lifelong exposure to the work of Darwin. He writes of having been conceived in the same month Scopes was arrested for teaching evolution in Tennessee, refers to the dog-eared copy of the Modern Library edition of The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man that he read while in the Merchant Marine during the late 1940s, mentions the editions of Darwin he himself prepared for Norton, and documents the often virulent (and still ongoing) resistance to the "overwhelming sanity" of Darwin's work and its profound influence on him, culminating in the production of this book.
And a truly splendid book it is, one that would I make an ideal gift for someone held in high regard. The superb drawings are by Appleman's Indiana University colleague Rudy Pozzatti, whose creatures crawl across the pages, not so much illustrating the poems as inhabiting and helping animate them. The book's design and layout, supervised by Sharon Sklar, are very nearly impeccable, making reading of the book an almost unequivocal delight. (The typography could be faulted, on close inspection, for the distracting space that appears before some v's and after some w's, but there is only one misspelling: "breath" for "breathe" in Part 6 of "Darwin's Bestiary:") [The letter spacing has been fixed; "breathe" remains misspelled.]
What of the poetry itself? Well, it hardly matters, I suppose, that in his preface Appleman doesn't say whether the poems in the book were all inspired by Darwin, as implied, or whether he simply gathered together a group of poems, originating in disparate circumstances, that could conveniently be lumped together under the single Darwin heading. What matters is that, in many cases anyway, the poems can stand on their own merits, and several of them — whether they generalize into history from personal experience (as in the poignant "Nostalgie de la Boue") or particularize from history to comment on man's place in evolution (as in the powerfully effective "The Hand-Ax") — are good enough to transcend even the author's customarily high standards. One of the strongest, despite its rather pointless Vonnegutian repetition of "This is how it's done" to introduce each of its three parts, is "State of Nature," an ambitious yet wondrously economical poem (Appleman can get more raw strength into a few lines, without sacrificing either subtlety or surface elegance, than any other contemporary American poet who comes to mind) that goes right to the heart of the matter of survival, touching on early man as hunter, on modern man as scavenger and devolving to that ultimate survivor, the cockroach.
Appleman more than justifies the Darwin motif in the book's very first poem, "The Skeletons of Dreams," in which he makes his point beginning with a three-line quote from Darwin:
When a species has vanished
from the face of the earth,
the same form never reappears…
So, after our millions of years
of inventing a thumb and a cortex,
and after the long pain
of writing our clumsy epic,
we know we are mortal as mammoths,
we know the last lines of our poem.
And, incorporating Darwin's theory into "The Hand-Ax," he writes: "after a million years of axes, we/are old enough to know/that when we die/we die forever."
By now it must be obvious that Appleman has put more into this collection than the (considerable) ability to maintain an evocative balance between the personal and the tribal, or species-oriented. Indeed, he is sounding an urgent call against the many threats to our survival. That call asserts itself in various ways throughout these poems; in "The Hand-Ax" it emerges as one of the most eloquent and powerful antinuclear statements I have ever come upon. Only in "Reading our Times," which is uncharacteristically obvious, does Appleman's voice become strident, and though the poem is redeemed somewhat by a strong final image, its central pun ("Times," capitalized but not italicized, refers to the newspaper as well as to our era) is unworthy of the author's proven talent and vision.
Despite such substantial pieces as the book's first four poems ("The Skeleton of Dreams," "Nostalgie de la Boue," "State of Nature," and "The Hand-Ax") and the angrily antireligious "After the Faith-Healings," the poetry in Darwin's Ark must be judged uneven because in Section III of IV, apparently having run out of serious themes, Appleman suddenly turns to nonsense rhymes. "Darwin's Bestiary," which features cute little pieces on the ant, the worm, the rabbit, the dog, and "the booby and the noddy," is followed by a group of "phobias" ("gaminophobia: the fear of ten-year-olds") and "euphorias." Perhaps the author thought that after the solemnity of "State of Nature" some levity was in order. To this reader, however, the triviality of the poems in Section III serves to undercut the genuine profundity of the earlier poems — especially since the author simply isn't very good at lighter verse, which in his hands comes across as merely coy. (The group of poems in Section IV, though not so easily dismissible as those in the previous section and though they contain a few nice images, seem added on to fill space.) Still, on the basis of the poems in Sections I and II, Darwin's Ark can stand as an important book from an author capable of great poetry. The physical beauty of the book and the magnificent poems in its first two sections make Darwin's Ark well worth having — and treasuring.
Martin Mitchell, former editor of Rattapallax (2001-06) and of Pivot (1983-98), reviewed films for several publications, including After Dark for the length of its existence (1968-81). He is a contributing editor of the magazine.