Batu-Angas, Envisioning Nature with Alfred Russel Wallace

Anne Cluysenaar
Publication Date: 
Friday, May 2, 2008
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"This book is a fascinating exploration of the life of Alfred Russel Wallace, whose independent discovery of natural selection in 1858 triggered Darwin's publication of The Origin of Species. Wallace made important journeys to the Amazon and Indonesia, and Cluysenaar's delicate and graceful poems (framed with quotations from Wallace and images of the animals and plants he collected) deftly explore the channels that these journeys opened up. "Poem VII" describes Wallace catching a clear-winged butterfly in the Amazon. The writing moves from haiku-like evocations of the butterfly's flight to a sense of immense measures of time - "This is the living form / of the rainforest's age, an art / grown of its interactions / which now he has gathered up / into a triangle, dying, / that knowledge folded away". Cluysenaar's work articulates the tension between the slow evolution of a species and the scope and value of a single life, her writing at times attempting to reimagine the processes of natural selection as a kind of intensely personal experience - "I wish I could sense in myself some transformation . . . something adequate to dimensions / not yet begun, or dreamt of"; "Such sudden terrors part / of the huge slow changes."

The Guardian, October 2008

Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), one of the most famous scientists of the 19th century and best known today as the co-discoverer with Charles Darwin of the theory of evolution, is the inspiration for this beautiful sequence of poems by Anne Cluysenaar. The title (meaning ‘burnt rocks or cooled lava’) is derived from the language spoken on the volcanic island of Ternate, in the Malay Archipelago, where Wallace experienced that ‘flash’ of inspiration which brought together his observations as a naturalist, leading him to describe his theory in a letter to Charles Darwin which encouraged Darwin to publish The Origin of Species. 2008 is the 150th anniversary of the discovery of natural selection by Wallace and Darwin.

A field trip that passed by Wallace’s birthplace near Usk on the Wales/England border triggered the author’s research into the scientist’s journeys through the Amazonian rainforests and the jungles of the Malay Archipelago as well as the lush landscapes surrounding the river Usk, which he explored as a child and young man. Tracing Wallace’s travels, the poet becomes aware of echoes and tensions between his responses and her own. Orchids, orang-utans, rare beetles, butterflies and birds of paradise, collected by Wallace and preserved in British collections, are sought out and intensely re-experienced.

The book opens with an introduction by Wallace expert Charles Smith, of the University of Kentucky, and a Foreword by the poet. The poems are accompanied by a rich selection of images: some that Wallace chose to illustrate his travels, including a sketch by Wallace himself, together with photographs of Wallace specimens and of living animals and plants. Also included are photographs of Wallace and of his birthplace on the banks of the river Usk in Wales.

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