Poetry: “The Skeletons of Dreams” by Philip Appleman

On this date–November 24–in 1859 Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, was published. Its full title was On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. In honor of this anniversary, we’re pleased to reprint Philip Appleman’s poem, “The Skeletons of Dreams,” originally published in Darwin’s Ark (Indiana University Press, 2009) and reprinted here with permission of the poet.



He found giants
in the earth: Mastodon,
Mylodon, thigh bones
like tree trunks, Megatherium, skull
big as boulders—once,
in this savage country, treetops
trembled at their passing.
But their passing was silent as snails,
silent as rabbits: nothing at all recorded
the day when the last of them came
crashing through creepers and ferns,
shaking the earth a final time,
leaving behind them crickets,
monkeys, and mice.
For think: at last it is nothing
to be a giant—the dream
of an ending haunts tortoise and Toxodon,
troubles the sleep of the woodchuck
and the bear.

Back home in his English garden,
Darwin paused in his pacing,
writing it down in italics
in the book at the back of his mind:
___When a species has vanished___
from the face of the earth,
___the same form never reappears…

So after our millions of years
of inventing a thumb and a cortex,
and after the long pain
of writing our clumsy epic,
we know we are mortal as mammoths,
we know the last lines of our poem.
And somewhere in curving space
beyond our constellations,
nebulae burn in their universal law:
nothing out there ever knew
that on one sky-blue planet
we dreamed that terrible dream.
Blazing along through black nothing
to nowhere at all, Mastodons of heaven,
the stars do not need our small ruin.

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