December 14, 2018KR Reviews

On Moral Animals: Sarah Rose Nordgren’s Darwin’s Mother

Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017. 72 pages. $15.95.

War remakes maps, but it is often scientific discovery which substantially changes the lives of those who live within those borders. The progress and transformation brought by these scientists is to be celebrated, but not exclusively, not without an understanding of the costs. Sarah Rose Nordgren’s second book Darwin’s Mother fixes its own lens of inquiry on the figure of nineteenth-century naturalist Charles Darwin, opening with absence: “All winter the ghosts were waiting / for a high school teacher who // refused to appear, and so you / were roped in” (“Ghost Lessons”). From this start, we are introduced to the collection’s concerns—how hunger gives way to seeking, but also how the desire for discovery is susceptible to corruption.

If Darwin changed the way we understand the making of the world, then surely there is something to be gained in understanding what made him. But that is the work of biography, and the poems in Darwin’s Mother are less interested in narrative than they are in using the figure of Charles Darwin’s mother (who died when he was eight years old) as a grounding element to ask questions about creation and claiming. Three of the poems share the book’s title—the first is a third-person lyric describing the someday scientist’s birth and afterbirth in immersive sensory detail: “He lolled on her belly like / a piglet on a sow, his skin / caked in white paste.” Though later in the poem the child becomes “[n]ewly civilized / in lace and linen,” the opening moments present humans less as divine invention than so many messy animals obsessed with obscuring that truth. The second “Darwin’s Mother” is in the titular character’s own voice, exploring her own power to create as well as understanding her creation’s desire to dominate. “Like God,” she says, “I give birth to men / so they might build a church / and a government over me.”

Here the collection’s heart beats, using Darwin’s theory of evolution to inform its questions about creation, about how power has often lay not just in the making but in the “discovery,” the claiming and naming. It is the careful work of this collection to hold this human tendency under its microscope. Poems like “An Uncontacted Tribe” make it clear that it is not merely a search for “truth” which drives scientific exploration; it reveals, too, the kind of colonizing that can accompany anthropological inquiry:

And so the camera captures them,
lifts their bare feet from where they meet
the soil, sucks their bodies up
through the air, into the airplane’s open door
and through the lens like
blood-colored dolls. We eat
the sight of them whole.

Darwin’s Mother, however, evokes more of a sense of painting than photography. The latter purports to capture a “real” moment, but offering a photo as truth without context can create lies all the more dangerous when we fail to examine their creation. Painting, however, makes different claims about its intentions. It is truth as rendered by the artist, a contract the consumer goes into with this awareness. The poems of the collection constantly play with this balance—this necessary symbiosis between viewer and the viewed, writer and reader, scientist and the studied—interested as much in connection as in distance. “About Us,” the first poem in the book’s third and final section titled “A Moral Animal,” trains its studied observation on humans of this moment, at heart like our forebears but in practice demonstrating important adaptations:

We have some things in common.
Like, we are in love
with each other. We all went to the same
high school, but graduated
in different years. We are loyal
to a television show about a hospital.

The poem also offers up capitalized details unrecognizable to the same selves of twenty years before, “We Share photos / of our families poolside in Barbados. / We Like pictures / . . . We stand close enough to speak / electrically,” so when it also claims that “We offer / each other little, and receive little,” we are asked to consider the evolution of this behavior. Do we offer so little to others because of our fixation on the digital presentation of our lives (which, as the grandchild of photography, purports to convey truth while creating its own fictions), or are we so engaged in social media because of our innate inability to offer very much to anyone else? Which the moral chicken, whence the moral egg?

It is to Nordgren’s credit that the poems do not seek to answer this question—they claim no such false authority. The collection deals with a variety of subjects and themes and so shies away from purporting to be a treatise on anything but how longing is a way of highlighting absence, distance. In “Achilles and Mary at the Museum,” two statues within sight of each other speak to this ache that we, their more mobile models, embody. “Lady,” Achilles implores:

let me touch the white
plaster of your dress . . .
I want to slip my fingernails
under the flaked paint
of your starry mantle.

It’s in keeping with his character that Achilles—handsome and brave and doomed—should long for the marble nearest to him, but the surprise comes in holy Mary’s response:

Like a salmon in midair, like a deer
or a beacon, like a sapling
stripped but still standing, like
a heavenly flame, your nakedness
burns the atmosphere.

Though her eyes have been cast down in prayer, forcibly through an artist’s vision, she sees him, feels him, and what she cannot see, she imagines:

. . . If I could
look behind your shield I might see
that your heart was torn by the tip
of a spear. And below that, how time
broke your sex from its nest.

Despite these parallel fevers, though, their natures separate them permanently. Nordgren’s work is too measured to claim this as a metaphor for the human experience, but the poems, in all their different concerns, are united in their focus on desire as our most natural state. Even Darwin in his inquiry was driven by a longing to know, though knowledge, this book reminds us, is not the same as understanding.

This is a work of anthropology critiquing anthropology, all through a painter’s lens. The poems in Darwin’s Mother are meticulously observed, precisely rendered portraits of humans as animals in a natural world we continuously understand (and misunderstand) in our own image.

Erin Adair-Hodges is the winner of the 2016 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize for Let's All Die Happy (University of Pittsburgh, 2017). She is currently a visiting assistant professor of poetry at the University of Central Missouri where she is the poetry editor of Pleiades.