Thursday, January 15, 2015
Sonnets from The Voyage of the Beagle By Rick Mullin
Sonnets from The Voyage of the Beagle
By Rick Mullin
Dos Madres Press
Review by Dennis Daly
Charles Darwin embarked on the HMS Beagle into the natural world of fauna and flora from a context of faith and wonder. Like other rationalists and scientists who came before him, he armed himself with revelation and the romance of adventure. Whereas Johannes Kepler had his Pythagorean mysticism and astrology, and Isaac Newton his biblical prophecies and secrets of alchemy, Darwin entered the fray of reasoned observation with a Christian missionary’s certainty and an Englishman’s righteous superiority. Yet something extraordinary, miraculous if you will, seemed to take shape, something which changed the very way we look at the world around us and each other. Darwin’s five years of exploration and growth he chronicled in his journal and subsequently in his book The Voyage of the Beagle. Here begins poet Rick Mullin’s masterpiece of poetic reinterpretation.
Taking with him his painter’s skillset for critical observation and his magnificent formalist writing style, Mullin in his Sonnets from The Voyage of the Beagle conjures up a persona that both captures Darwin’s notebook cadence and blends in his own contemporary sensibilities. Mullen’s Petrarchan sonnet variations carry the expedition’s narrative amazingly well, while at the same time lending themselves to detailed detections and measurements. The results bring to mind grand interpretive creations of poetic art, Alexander Pope’s translation of the Iliad being one. Mullin’s perceptive powers are so attuned to specificities that he examines his own metaphor in his opening piece (after the invocation) entitled Launch of a 10-Gun Brig. The poet explains,
Our journey fronts on an incessant volley.
Heavy southwest headwinds sent us back
a second time to Devonport, unto that black
embankment of commercial blight. The trolley
at the warehouse hadn’t moved an inch. My heart
lay heavy as a gun, an iron gun
in line to fire—an apt comparison,
for on the third day we would make a start,
exploding on the sea through open light…
Non-readers of the “Voyage” often think of Darwin island-hopping from research site to research site. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most of Darwin’s time was spent on land—three years and three months to be exact. His coastal and inland studies included the native populations. On this subject his perceptions clearly matured over time. Mullin’s persona relates the circumstances of an Indian attack in a matter-of-fact and somewhat self-satisfying way. He says,
My informant recollected with some horror
the sound of quivering chuzos in the hour
the estancia faced the naked entourage.
He saved the souls of many Christians there,
he claimed, by simply locking the corral
and courtyard. As the horrifying sound
intensified, a Frenchman on the wall
commenced with grapeshot, sputtering a prayer,
and putting 40 spearman on the ground.
Later on in the poem Indian Wars Darwin sees things a bit differently. Noting the genocidal deeds of Argentinian dictator and warlord Juan Manual de Rosas, Mullin’s Darwin tersely clarifies,
General Rosas and his cohorts justify
the government’s campaign in simple terms:
The Christian versus the Barbarian—
one more distinction lost on morning worms
and meaningless to certain birds that fly
in circles. Carrion is carrion.
One of my favorite pieces, The Plain of Port Desire, prompts sadness and a passion for knowledge beyond the sensory and obvious. Darwin stands alone on the edge of a lifeless field of chalk and gravel. Forced to wait out the tides of life, he seeks words to flesh out descending loneliness and a wavering disquiet. Not much happens. Or does it? The poet puts it this way,
…I walk about
in a virgin forest, noting as I go
the tree line falling to a plain of gravel
mixed with soil resembling chalk, a level
lifeless field except for one guanaco.
The one suggests a coterie. A herd.
But none is visible. The loner trots
and leaves me on the near edge with a journal
open to the hollow, doubtful thoughts
that fly into a landscape wanting words,
a permanence that speaks to the eternal.
The oddness of that camel-like guanaco and its complex evolutionary history stops one in mid-read and provokes awe, an awe which I’m sure Darwin felt as he captured the moment in his notes.
Although most of Mullin’s sonnets replicate the same rhyme scheme, he does, at least in a couple of instances, vary the initial octave from abba cddc to abab cdcd. One of those poems he entitles Jackass Penguin and it’s quite funny. The poet details a showdown between man and beast, between Englishman and penguin, a veritable High Noon scenario in the Falkland Islands. In the actual journal entry Darwin noted his amusement triggered by the penguin’s demeanor and its strange jackass-like braying. I must say again that I am amazed how closely Mullin comes to capturing the voice and verbal mannerisms of Darwin. Here is the heart of the sonnet,
…Shall he best me?
We pose at loggerheads, two flightless birds.
But certainly my crude experiment
will show the world (or is it visa versa?)
common traits in nature evident
between Englishman and A. demersal.
Brave as Heracles, he holds every inch
he gains with vehemence, his head thrown back
and rolling side to side, a braying golem
Mullin’s persona considers the human species in the same conclusive matrix as he does finches or lizards. He is at his anthropological best in his journal entry set in Sydney entitled Silent Thoughts at Dinner. He imagines the penal colony mindset of his waiter at a dinner party and delves into this society’s hidden and rancorous undercurrents. The sonnet opens with Darwin speculating on the waiter’s crimes,
The servant’s shirt is snowy white and stiff
with starch. One wonders what he’s done.
One eyes his hand, imagining a gun,
the butcher’s knife. Yet here we dine as if
the man were serving of his own volition
in a London home, but on a wider street.
Remarkable, considering the heat
and given our antipodal position.
Yes, Rick Mullin astonishes with his formalist artistry and his narrative versatility. But more than that Mullin has fashioned a poetic voice that easily ascends, in this book and his previous collections, to the very top tier of all contemporary poetry—whatever the stylistic preferences. If you haven’t read him by now, you’re missing a lot.