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<i>Mullus Surmuletus, The Striped Surmulet</i>. (Courtesy Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library, Digital Collections.)

The Grand Temptation

March 2, 2020

Maybe Cape Cod is fertile ground for existential transformation. Something about the metals in its sandy soil catalyzing metaphysical shifts—I don’t know. All I know is I had my entire worldview rearranged when I was visiting its shores.

Impossible Bottle. By Claudia Emerson. LSU, 2015. 65p. PB, $17.95.

Ecstatic Sorrow

Claudia Emerson, who died in December 2014, had come to be known as a poet capable of revealing startling discoveries inside quiet, quotidian circumstances. Her poems are set mostly in Southern rural and small-town scenes, moments in ordinary lives that would normally elude anyone else’s attention.

Charlie Don’t Surf

A container ship the size of a prone Chrysler Building slides silently past me, at eye level, close enough to touch. Multicolored intermodal containers, the red blood cells of global commerce, are stacked a hundred feet high on the deck. The freighter slips into the lock with mere inches to spare, kissing the concrete wall with a hollow shriek while the massive steel gates swing closed. The 65,000-ton ship is lowered from Gatún Lake. Sailors wave at the bow, and millions of gallons of water leave the lock chamber. Inch by inch, the giant vessel appears to sink to its gunwales, stately as a coffin put in the ground. 

The Olfactory Lives of Primates

Dear Chris, I’m sorry you couldn’t make it to Brad and Caitland’s wedding. It was pretty good. The beginning dragged—the usual, everyone standing around, sniffing each other’s breath, figuring out who was from Caitland’s family, who fr [...]

Flawed Intelligence, Flawed Design

In 1996, a then-unknown professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University, in Pennsylvania, published a book in which he claimed to be the author of a scientific discovery of the magnitude of those of Copernicus or Newton. Those of us in academia who interact with the general public know only too well that there are many people out there with this kind of belief. At least once a week I get a thick envelope containing pages on pages of mathematics showing that God is truly the number pi, or that world peace can be found in the outer reaches of modern topology. The internet has only made things worse. At least these people, unlike many of my other correspondents, feel no need to assure me that they will pray for me—or, conversely, regret that I am past praying for.

Darwin Strikes a Match

  Sweet tobacco wafts through the quarterdeck,        around the sweating rungs and under the hatch, while a perfumed woman studies the Captain        to her wicked tattoos. She is rare [...]

Confessions of a Darwinist

 came to evolution in a roundabout way. Sure, as a kid I had seen the dinosaurs at the American Museum of Natural History—and had heard a bit about evolution in high school. But I was intent on studying Latin and maybe going to law school.

But evolution got in the way. I was dating my now wife, and through her getting to know members of the Columbia anthropology faculty. At the time (early 1960s), anthropology to me meant Louis Leakey and his adventures collecting human fossils at Olduvai Gorge—rather than, say, Margaret Mead and her adventures studying cultures of the South Pacific. A summer spent asking embarrassing personal questions in my halting Portuguese in a small village in northeastern Brazil ended my quest to study evolution through anthropology. I was far more taken with the Pleistocene fossils embedded in the sandstone that formed the protective cove for the fishing boats. By summer’s end I was determined to become a paleontologist.