For Washington-based poet and teacher Anne Becker, writing The Transmutation Notebooks: Poems in the Voices of Charles and Emma Darwin wasn’t simply an act of creating artit was no less than a matter of survival. “I came to the writing of these poems with the idea of change. That absolutely the one condition all living organisms exist in is a state of constant change,” she says. “So I wrote these poems to survive, because change is very difficult for me. I wrote them to make me more plasticable to take another form.”
Becker says that once she realized that life wasn’t spells of inertia separated by periods of transition but really one long continuous state of flux, she decided to write about it. She sought inspiration in science, reading first about plate tectonics and then about Darwin’s theory of evolution.
The rhythms of Darwin’s scientific writings, and his frequent metaphors, prompted Becker to write some of Transmutation’s poems in the voice of Darwin himself. The collection evolved into a dialogue when Beckerin the process of exhaustively researching Darwin’s lifecame across letters Emma Darwin had written to her husband; moved by their beauty, she decided to include poems written in Emma’s voice, too.
Some of Transmutation’s entries cannibalize the Darwins’ writings verbatim. Indeed, the collection’s first section, “The Journal of the Voyage of the Beagle,” seems to be only thatDarwin’s journal broken up to resemble lines of Whitmanesque poetry. This ambiguitynot knowing what’s pure creation and what’s pure Darwinis, according to Becker, the point. “I think poetry ought to be subversivedisturbing and dangerous,” she says. “It would be dangerous to think that I made them all up; it would be dangerous to think that I only took his work and edited it.”
Becker says all the works in Transmutation are love poemslove between man and woman, love of work, love of ideas. More than anything, though, the entire collection seems to be a labor of love, one done as an exploration of life’s only true constant: change. And Becker is nowhere near finished. Her next volume of poems, Human Animal, explores this same theme (OK, so not everything changes), but this time, Becker promises to use her own voice. Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa