The social instincts ...
naturally lead to the golden rule.
—CHARLES DARWIN, The Descent of Man
Holding her steady, into the pitch and roll,
in raw Midwestern hands ten thousand tons
of winter wheat for the fall of Rome,
still swallowing the hunger of the war:
the binnacle glows like an open fire,
east-southeast and steady,
Anderssen, the Viking mate,
belaboring me for contraband,
my little book of Einstein, that
“Commie Jew.” (So much for the social instincts,
pacifism, humanism, the frail
and noble causes.) I speak my piece
for western civ: light bends ...
stars warp ... mass converts ...
“Pipe dreams,” says the Dane, “pipe dreams.”
“Well, mate, remember,
those Jewish dreams made nightmares
out of Hiroshima, and
blew us out of uniform, alive.”
He stomps down off the bridge; some day
he’ll fire me off his rusty
liberty: I read too much.
The ocean tugs and wrestles with
ten thousand deadweight tons
of charity, trembling on
degrees and minutes. Anderssen
steams back in with coffee, to
contest the stars with Einstein, full ahead.
We haven’t come to Darwin.
Freezing on the flying bridge,
staring at the night for nothing,
running lights of freighters lost
in a blur of blowing snow,
we hold on through the midnight watch,
waiting out the bells.
With Einstein in our wake, the tricks
are easier: liberty
churns on, ten knots an hour,
toward Rome. One starry night
we ride at last with Darwin on
the Beagle: endless ocean, sea
of Toxodon and Megalonyx—a voyage
old as the Eocene, the watery death
of Genesis. The going
gets rough again, the threat of all those bones
churning the heavy swells: Anderssen,
a true believer, skeptical,
and Darwin trapped in a savage earthquake,
the heave of coastal strata conjuring
the wreck of England, lofty houses gone,
government in chaos,
violence and pillage through the land,
fossils gleaming white along
the raw ridges.
“Limeys.” Anderssen puts his benediction
to empire: “Stupid Limeys.” After that
we breathe a bit and watch the stars and tell
sad stories of the death of tribes, the bones,
the countless bones: we talk about
the war, we talk about
Okinawa, Iwo Jima:
slouching toward Tokyo, the only good Jap
is a dead Jap.
We must get the bomb, Einstein writes
to F.D.R., waking from
the dreams of peace, the noble causes:
get it first, before
the Nazis do. (The only good Nazi
is an extinct Nazi.)
At the death of Hiroshima, all day long
we celebrate extinction, chugalugging
free beer down at the px, teen-
age kids in khaki puking pints
of three-point-two in honor
of the fire: no more island-hopping now
to the murderous heart of empire.
Later, in the luxury of peace,
the bad dreams come. “Certainly,”
Darwin broods, “no fact
in the long history of the world
is so startling as the wide and repeated
of its inhabitants.”
Off somewhere to starboard, the Canaries,
Palma, Tenerife: sunrise
backlights the rugged peaks, as Darwin,
twenty-two years old, gazes at
the clouds along the foothills.
Longitudes ease westward; it’s
my birthday: twenty-two years old
as Tenerife falls into the sunset,
I’m as greedy for the old world
as Darwin for the new, Bahia, Desire,
the palms and crimson flowers
of the Mediterranean, clear water
dancing with mines. Ahead of us
a tanker burns; the war
will never end.
“You talk a lot,” says the melancholy Dane.
“You sure you’re not Jewish yourself?
You got a funny name.”
“Well, mate, I’m pure Celtic on one side,
pure Orphan on the other: therefore half
of anything at all—Jewish, Danish,
what you will: a problem, isn’t it,
for Hitler, say, or the Klan,
or even Gregor Mendel, sweating out the summer
in his pea patch?”
The fact is, I know those ancestors
floating through my sleep:
an animal that breathed water,
had a great swimming tail,
an imperfect skull, undoubtedly
hermaphrodite ... I slide
through all the oceans with these kin,
salt water pulsing in my veins,
and aeons follow me into the trees:
a hairy, tailed quadruped,
arboreal in its habits, scales
slipping off my flanks, the angle of my spine
thrust upward, brain
bulging the skull until
I ride the Beagle
down the eastern trades to earthquake,
to naked cannibals munching red meat
and Spanish grandees with seven names
crushing the fingers of slaves.
Who are my fathers? mothers? who
will I ever father?
I will sire the one in my rubber sea-boots, who
has sailed the seas and come
to the bones of Megatherium.
From the war of nature, from famine and death,
we stand at last creators
of ourselves: “The greatest
human satisfaction,” Darwin muses, “is derived
from following the social instincts.” Well,
the thing I want to father
is the rarest, most difficult thing
in any nature: I want to be,
knee-deep in these rivers of innocent blood,
a decent animal.
Landfall: Yankee liberty discharges
calories on the docks, where kids
with fingers formed by hairy
mumbo jumbo on their chests
and rub small signs for hope
Liberty, sucked empty of its
social instincts, follows the Beagle
down the empty avenues of water
to amber waves of grain, to feed
the children of our fathers’ wars,
new generations of orphans, lives
our quaint old-fashioned bombs
had not quite ended.
on the fantail
I hear the grind of rigging, and
Darwin is beside me, leaning on the rail,
watching the wake go phosphorescent.
We’ve been out five years, have seen
the coral islands, the dark skins
of Tahiti; I have questions.
“Darwin,” I whisper, “tell me now,
have you entered into the springs of the sea,
or have you walked in search of the depth?
Did you give the gorgeous wings to peacocks,
or feathers to the ostrich?
Have you given the horse his strength
and clothed his neck with thunder?
Who has put wisdom in the inward parts,
and given understanding to the heart?
The breeze is making eddies in the mist,
and out of those small whirlwinds come the words:
“I have walked along the bottom of the sea
wrenched into the clouds at Valparaiso;
I have seen the birth of islands and
the build of continents; I
know the rise and fall of mountain ranges,
I understand the wings of pigeons,
peacock feathers, finches; my mind creates
general laws out of large
collections of facts.”
The rigging sighs a little: God
is slipping away without
saying goodbye, goodbye to Jewish dreams.
“But the activities of the mind,”
Darwin murmurs, “are one of the bases of conscience.”
Astern the pious Spaniards go on praying
and crushing the fingers of slaves; somewhere
the Mylodon wanders away,
out of the animal kingdom and
into the empire of death.
For five billion years
we have seen the past, and
So this is the final convoy
of the social instincts: the next
time missiles fly to Rome,
they will carry Einstein’s dream of fire,
and afterward there will be no need
for liberties, hope, or charity.
Now we ride the oceans of
imagination, all horizon
and no port. Darwin
will soon be home, his five-year
voyage on this little brig
all over; but when will I
be home, when will I arrive
at that special creation: a decent animal?
The land is failing the horizons, and
we only know to take the wheel
and test the ancient strength of human struggle,
remembering that we ourselves, the wonder
and glory of the universe, bear
in our lordly bones the indelible stamp
of our lowly