Primate Behavior: Poems (Grove Press Poetry Series)
After wandering the earth independently, the parts began to join together in random combinations, creating bizarre chimeras: creatures of double sex, heads without necks, arms without shoulders, ox-faced men and man-faced oxen. Finally, in the part of the myth that interests modern readers seeking a classical pedigree for Charles Darwin, ill-assorted monsters like the opabinia became extinct, while the creatures that were constituted harmoniously, such as the man-faced men and ox-faced oxen, survived.
I, an immortal God, no longer mortal, wander among you, honored by all, adorned with holy diadems and blooming garlands. To whatever illustrious towns I go I am praised by men and women, accompanied by thousands who thirst for deliverance. Some ask for prophecies, and some entreat for remedies against all kinds of disease. Empedocles says that he was returned to the misery of earthly existence as punishment for the Pythagorean sin of eating meat, condemned to suffer successive reincarnations during a purgatorial journey through the orders of nature and elements of the cosmos.
His present mortal incarnation is his last, he says: When he dies, he will reclaim his godhead. One popular account held that he committed suicide by leaping into the crater of Mount Etna. In a satire by Lucian of Samosata, the Icaro-Menippus c. After I threw myself into the crater, the smoke of Etna wafted me up here. Now I live in the Moon, where I walk on air and feast on dew. Nonetheless, he retains the addictive passion for naming things:. Look, the world tempts our eye, And we would know it all!
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We map the starry sky, We mine this earthen ball, We measure the sea-tides, we number the sea-sands;. How striking the contrast with Sarah Lindsay, who experiences something like joy and finds something like the meaning of life in spending her wit to name what most of us leave nameless. Empedocles was the last of the ancient Greek philosophers to compose in verse. Because of the enormous prestige of Plato and Aristotle, the method of philosophy shifted from instruction to dialectical discourse, and the medium from poetry to prose.
The poem is a standby for Latin teachers who want to impress on first-year students the Timeless Relevance of the Classics, for in several passages Lucretius explains natural phenomena in ways that uncannily prefigure modern science, notably in his atomic theory.
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For example, he advances the theory that the images of the phenomenal world we see are thin membranes shed by objects—the husks of cicadas, bark from a tree—that float through the air until they strike our eyes. Building on the ideas of the fifth-century Greek philosopher Leucippus and his disciple Democritus, Lucretius teaches that everything is compounded of invisible. In Book I, Lucretius describes the process by which these elemental particles create the variety of the phenomenal universe:.
The Many, changing in many ways, career through all space out of the infinite, excited by violent blows, trying out all sorts of motions and combinations until they finally arrive at those arrangements that constitute the sum of all created things. In the early twenty-first century, Sarah Lindsay, infusing her knowledge of modern physics with poetic imagination, elaborates a vision that is closer to Lucretius than to Ernest Rutherford or Niels Bohr:. If a molecule near its heartless center ticks left, it will become an animal; if not, a plant.
For now, it wallows in inches of water, young as an egg on the third day, glowing with indecision. The prestige and influence of Lucretius was enormous, and his mastery of the didactic genre may have deterred subsequent Roman poets from attempting to rival him. I enter upon themes that in old times commanded praise and art; I venture to unstop the sacred fountains, and sing the lay of Ascra through the Roman towns. The Georgics marks the beginning of the end of didactic poetry in classical literature. Scientific themes may have commanded praise in olden times, but poets of the imperial age, bred to the luxurious life of Rome, were more apt to wonder if their lovers were faithful, or to find their own unfaithfulness suspected, than to ponder cosmic mysteries.
Didactic poetry lapsed into obscurity until , when Alexander Pope revived the genre as a medium of moral instruction, didactic in the modern sense of sermonizing, with his enormously influential An Essay on Man. Published in two parts in and , the poem is a summary of the scientific discoveries of the day rendered in heroic couplets and accompanied by long explanatory footnotes.
The first part, which bears the dreary and misleading title The Economy of Vegetation , surveys the technological innovations and astronomical discoveries of the era, portraying scientists as heroes, if not demigods. Here, addressing the nymphs who inspire scientific studies, Darwin apotheosizes Benjamin Franklin:. The neoclassical fripperies strike the modern ear as hopelessly stale, and the intended ennoblement of the scientist fails, for it disregards both the intellectual core of science and the sometimes difficult and even dangerous circumstances under which it is carried out. A year later, the German scientist Georg Wilhelm Richmann who translated An Essay on Man into German died carrying out a similar experiment during an electrical storm.
Ribbons of ants poured from trees to mince the flesh of his species of fish, mold deployed its furry mouths on the butterflies tucked in his drying box, maggots hatched hungry from monkeys hung out in the sun. Kept alive, the monkeys ate the birds. His own feet rotted around the burrow holes of chigoe fleas; at night he made blood offerings to vampire bats and mosquitoes. The language is fresh as paint, powered by a series of intransitive monosyllabic verbs: The jungle drones, ribbons of ants pour and mince, maggots hatch.
With his grandiloquent diction and coy sense of the ridiculous, Darwin portrays the natural world as a sort of botanical country dance. Descend, ye hovering Sylphs!
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The cloying mock-heroic tone never lets up as Darwin describes one species after another as courting couples, the male plant a dashing swain boldly plighting his troth and the female a blushing maiden sighing with desire. These anthropomorphic double portraits, over-precious bonbons of camp to the modern ear, are explicated by footnotes full of exhaustive, straightforward botanical description, resulting in a tonal whipsaw that leaves the reader dizzy and soon bored.
Nonetheless, The Botanic Garden was one of the most popular poems of the last decade of the eighteenth century. The disappearance of didactic poetry after Erasmus Darwin may be attributed not only to a revolution in taste but to the increasing difficulty of science itself, which had developed a specialized vocabulary that made most of its discoveries incomprehensible even to the well-educated general reader. Didactic poetry, from Hesiod to The Loves of the Plants , was based upon the assumption that an intelligent reader could read and learn everything, including the latest scientific thinking.
Yet by the end of the nineteenth century, as the intricacies of scientific thought became ever more abstruse and the mathematical vernacular ever more complex, an intellectual elitism emerged. Other contemporary poets have written about scientific subjects. Leithauser enlivens his book with fascinating oddments of botanical and zoological lore, as Lindsay does, yet he does not peer into their inner causes and push the limits of what they can tell us.
He is content to be enchanted and amazed. Here Leithauser describes the reaction of his hero as an adolescent, after capturing a beautiful butterfly unlike any he has seen before:. Despite the urgent italics and fussy punctuation, this is vague writing. He may be excited, of course, but after all making such a find is the principal goal of collecting.
A serious beginner would surely make an attempt to sex the specimen.
To return to Lindsay, while most of her best poems are about science, from the beginning she has taken on other subjects. A poem in Primate Behavior speculates on the love life of Siamese twins. Chocolate cake. And what about books? Here Lindsay veers perilously near raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens.
When she says she needs books, she says nothing—for a poet, this is tantamount to averring a partiality for water. She likes chocolate cake: Me too! But what is the point of sharing that information, except to establish a rapport with the reader based on the trivia of everyday life? Poets are entitled to ride their hobbyhorses. If you discovered the poetry ofT. Conversely, if you were charmed by the book you might find The Waste Land and Ash Wednesday tiresomely obscure and depressing.
Lindsay to read from her poetry Feb. 7
On the Bufos, we approach comprehensive knowledge By covering half the distance to it, half the remaining distance, Half the diminished remnant, half again. Lindsay is also fascinated by the origin of life and the earliest antiquity of civilization. The modern Gilgamesh tells one petitioner:. It could be there. No promises. A man needs a hobby. You want all the answers? You want to die of boredom? Life on this planet persists in knitting its minerals into animal and vegetable variations, behaving at all times like the central point of the cosmos, and because it is water it seeks the path of least resistance and pauses sometimes to admire itself, because it is earth it might subside in camouflage or darkness or cease to move for its own good reasons, because it is air it may seem like nothing yet be the invisible sustenance of oceans or forests or a shade of blue, and because it is fire it leaps and is uncertain and leaves smelly waste and goes everywhere it can uninvited.
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Over the course of twenty-six poems, Lindsay traces an imaginary Mesopotamian civilization from its legendary origin to its decline, interweaving scenes of the excavation of its ruins by several generations of fictional archaeologists, from flamboyant Baron von Hausknecht in the mid-nineteenth century, who. Lindsay has a pitch-perfect ear for the vernacular of the second millennium B.
The factitious fragment begins:. But come with me, and I will go first, I will go before you into that land no one has seen. Do you love stories with sexy, romantic heroes who have it allwealth, status, and incredibly good Everything you need to deliver a rich, concept-based approach for the new IB Diploma English Language and Literature course. Everything you need to deliver a rich, concept-based approach for the new IB Diploma English Created especially for the Australian customer!
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