RAPID TRANSIT


Tim M. Berra
Charles Darwin, The Concise Story of An Extraordinary Man
(THE JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2009)

If you’ve missed the Darwin train this year, then you’re doubly behind. First, because it’s the bicentennial of Charles Henry Darwin’s birth. Second, it’s the 150th anniversary of his publication of The Origin of Species, whose principle of evolution is arguably the single most important discovery of all time.

Like Copernicus and Galileo, Darwin shifted man’s position in nature and faced the attacks of the status quo. His “dangerous” idea that natural selection decrees our fate still causes agita in many corners.

This jewel box of a book offers an imminently readable tour of the great man. Every spread includes illustrations with fascinating captions. The players around Darwin are sketched in: Erasmus Darwin, a convivial socialite, promoted his little brother; Captain Fitzroy of the HMS Beagle was a bible-thumping fundamentalist; the naturalist Richard Owens was an imperious bully; the zoologist Thomas Huxley, “Darwin’s bulldog,” coined “agnostic” and advised Darwin to specialize (resulting in an eight-year study of barnacles).

Afflicted with gastronomical infirmity (possibly contracted on his famous five-year voyage), Darwin was a homebody—a doting parent of ten and an affectionate husband. His wife and cousin, Emma (née Wedgwood) was devoted and intelligent. She studied with Chopin as a child on holiday and played piano for Darwin as he rested. A family pooch was named “Quiz.”

Dreading controversy, Darwin toiled on his theory semi-privately for 22 years until Alfred Wallace generated the same idea (but without the evidence) and the two co-published. Eternally controversial thereafter, Darwin was never knighted though several of his children were. Live and learn!

Steve Carey, Edmund Berrigan, ed.
Selected Poems
(SUBRESS, 2009)

These selected poems form a journal of the self “summoned by surprise.” Ranging from quatrains to open-field verse, the phrases include quips, quotes, notices, observations, advertisements, and lyrics. They are arranged more as ambulatory aggregates than igneous fusions, and as such admit a surface permeability befitting the late Steve Carey’s Californian nature.

Carey died of a heart attack in 1987. Twenty plus years later, an undeniable prescience is manifest in his bleached jumpcuts. Deconstructed conversations are refurbished as alabaster monologues whose choppy perimeters sparkle with reflections. In “About Poetry (II)” the author unhinges language from its predictability. “Dizzy hailing worthies/I am light.”

Film references abound (Carey’s father was the actor Harry Carey). “Black and White” is a series of movie lines strung together like a charm bracelet. Staged in the present tense throughout, the author slyly frames himself via the third person.

Carey was best friends with Ted Berrigan, and the aura of that scene in the 70s and 80s, from St. Mark’s Church to St. Mark’s Place, scorches the pages. It’s a book riddled with alternating promise and absence, pills and “lilies,” as much about poetry as about biography. From “Bio”: “He lives to be remembered/and remember himself.”

Between collage and artifice, sprung lyrics fall like crystal hammers running down a scale, leading to the “favorite [blank] within.” As we sift through the supple stanzas, experiencing pain and pleasure, Carey reminds us there is never too much love. He sings blonde on gold—“Faithful to the sound of myself.”

James Guida
Marbles
(TURTLE POINT PRESS, 2009)

You can probably quote more aphorisms than anything—scripture, drama, phone numbers, or song lyrics. Like incisive nursery rhymes for adults, aphorisms deliver both sting and balm in a succinct package. Brief and pointed, their insights reveal the collective wisdom and morals of humanity via a catchy bon mot. Most aphorisms are anonymous but we celebrate known authors like Jesus, Confucius, Nietzsche, Benjamin Franklin, and Charlie Chan.

Some of James Guida’s witty sayings are condensed and convincing enough to memorize. “The magpie with no eggs to protect swoops down most viciously of all.” Or this one presented in quotations I find ruefully apropos: “A reviewer? Well, if you like… I see myself more as a herder of quotations.” Some of the directives and pronouncements read like diverting and stimulating mini-essays.

Part of the pleasure in reading these philosophical sayings comes from Guida’s style. He’s got plenty and comments on it. “Speculation on style: great lucidity conceals an acute experience or sense of loss.”

The native Australian brings a literary, even poetic accent to his axioms and the writing abounds with cosmopolitan élan (he was formerly an assistant to the legendary editor Jonathan Gallasi).

Like Oscar Wilde, Guida cultivates wryness and avoids the latent weight of this ponderous, judgmental genre. Advice, beauty, eroticism, gossip, justice, kindness, pride, and rigor are addressed with the right dash of leavening. Thoroughly modern, skateboards, texting and celebrities are mulled upon as well.

Inventive and imaginative, erudite and atmospheric, Guida seizes us with his perceptive musings: “Is it wrong to speak of spiritual greed or imaginative gluttony?”

Contributor

Jeffrey Cyphers Wright

Wright is a New Romantic poet associated with St. Mark's Poetry Project.

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