The Extra Eye

My father once said to me with a smile that he believed he could write a poem on Drosera, the sundew, on which he was then working
William Darwin

Privacy grows round him
like fur on a hibernating bear.
For visitors, he sets up a mirror
by the front door, on the wall,

angled so he can check them
from the study. “I care more
just now for Drosera than the origin
of any species in the world.”

“Nothing in my scientific life
has given me such satisfaction
as the structure of the primula.
The two forms, perfect hermaphrodites,

bear the same relation to each other
as sexes of a mammal.” He publishes a book
on orchids. “A pleasure to write.
But whether worth writing I know not

any more than the man in the moon.”
When the sickness is worst
he watches a tendril
spiral clockwise into light.

“The tip of the root
might be compared to the brain.”
Each leaf glows with its own meaning
as if he had a third eye in his forehead

which he could never close.
“Idleness is misery.” The life-forms
tell him their stories, as if he could walk
through the organic world like a door

and touch the source of light.
“We stand in awe before the mystery
of life.” Spores of the giant fern.
The ivory bulb of a crocus.

“My mind has become a machine
for grinding laws
out of large collections of facts.”
He asks a friend in Delhi to recommend

a book on the Indian Mutiny.
They read it together:
she reads to him in the afternoon.
He writes a paper on climbing plants

and watches drops of mucilage
glisten on the tentacles of Drosera,
the common sundew,
like poison in a fairy tale.

Like the Venus Flytrap, they entice
and then they curl. “One wing of a gnat
is enough to snap it tight.” She watches him
in the greenhouse, still as a stalking cat,

bent in a caftan of light
over stamen, glands and lanceolate leaf.
Is no distinction safe? “I know
what he is up to! He’s wondering

if Drosera is an animal.” Like a tree
in Kensington Gardens
with a tiger underneath. Like flustra.
Like the polyps in coral reefs.

 

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