Eight Dates with Darwin

-Athol Williams


It hangs from a twig, cast like a monument

yet inside there is rearrangement – miracles

that shuffle laws and cogs and planets.

The insipid Layman caterpillar, stripped

of its brown coat, is strapped into a golden

life jacket that invites time to fan its wings.

Within its embrace the chrysalis holds all

the secrets of butterflies, to stretch and fly

from clivia to arum lily to wonder. All it needs

is space and the wisdom of rearrangement, and

a little time.



Like voyeuring into a distant bedroom, I wonder

what Neanderthals ate for Sunday lunch

and what they did for fun on their day off.

What about those after us, the chimera of beasts,

the concocted wretch? Perhaps they will know

their godness, rather than consumption. Perhaps

they will know they can fly before they can.


We should follow the inevitable path, propel

ourselves into the abyss of uncertainty

accompanied only by our arrogance and limited

mastery of nature’s laws, to take man as he could be,

harbinger to superwoman, not merely as he is.

Some towers scythed and cities marooned but we go.

We can already leer into bedrooms to come –

we’ve grown a man’s ear on a mouse’s back

and produced electronic blood.



I am not this flesh so insert bionic eyes,

splice my genes to point in new directions,

fill my plastic veins with blood that flows

by remote-controlled commands. Attach

those factory-made fingers that never tire

and that lab-grown heart that never aches.

I am not this body, invincible, I am

this spirit, wandering.



In the Shrewsbury library, I see a wasp

that my history says I should fear.

Frail, it struggles up a five metre pane,

every tentative reach of its eyelash legs

a gasp toward freedom. But no matter

which way its instincts call, man defeats

its evolution. We came too soon, it seems,

with our exponential need for space and

death and windows that confound wasps

behind invisible traps. Perhaps, in sunrises

to come, wasps will understand windows

but unless we heed the lines in such rooms

stacked full, half-understood,

we may never see this marvel.



The Salopians say I resemble Darwin;

it must be the white beard,

because I have no theory

to anger the woolly locals or their god.



These moments, evolution, occur

by the waking of voices within, not

the introduction of new; like the selection

of a song in a jukebox, not the introduction

of a vinyl LP to a record player.

Place may invite our tongues to new dances,

or the fashion of new tools, but these tongues

are not new, they rest in the ridges

of our ingredients waiting for yeast

or flame or a good stirring to dust them off

and into action. This is how we know we can fly –

we feel our wings flapping with every heartbeat.

Ask the monks who crafted Wenlock Abbey,

or any explorer; ask the musician, the painter

of invisible vistas; ask the newborn baby.



To become,

we can wait on nature’s Gantt chart

and selection algorithm or we can engineer

ourselves into becoming – lungs

that inhale toxic air, stomaches

that drink polluted water. Soon hippos

will have mechanical fins and bats

fibre optic vision, so why should we not

upload our personalities from cellphones

and GMO our babies?


The hills will hold our memories;

we can always tap the mountains for wisdom.



If I live to 2059

I will celebrate two hundred years

of Darwin’s great book with my own –

‘The Future of Humankind’ perhaps,

in which I lament Sapiens’ sudden rise

and imminent fading. A tragedy it will be,

the text, the epilogue to his story

and the absence of future Sapiens readers.

Although, I am told it will adorn the history

sections of future bookstores, dog-eared,

among texts on Sapiens anatomy

and the foolishness of our time.


Athol Williams is a South African poet currently completing a PhD in Political Philosophy at Oxford University. He has published four books of poetry, received four literary awards and had poems published in over forty literary publications internationally. Athol holds graduate degrees from Harvard, MIT, LSE, London Business School and Oxford.

This article was featured in Matter Thoughts Issue 1 – Horizons