Some Comments on Darwin’s Microscope

I’ve been collecting comments on my forthcoming poetry book, Darwin’s Microscope, some of which I expect we’ll use on the back cover of the book. I thought it might be interesting to put the comments down here even if yes, it is a blatant attempt at intriguing potential readers! (I haven’t quite got to the point where I start whispering ‘buy my book, buy my book;’ friends, smack me if I do…plus you can’t buy it yet; it’s not out till Feb.)

The One that started it all: I have to thank one of my Uni supervisors, Doug Shedd, for encouraging me to send some poems to Richard Dawkins. Though Dawkins did not respond to my query asking him to consider writing a brief intro to the book (sadness), he was kind enough to reply about the poems themselves. Once I heard he was on Dr. Who I realized what a busy and important person he was and thought I should leave him alone…

Dear Kelley

I was so impressed by your poems that I sent them to a professional expert, a scholar of English literature who also writes poems about Darwin. She is Dorothy Sutton, Professor of English Literature at Eastern Kentucky University. Actually, your poems reminded me of hers, and I expected her to like yours, which she clearly did, as did I. I append our correspondence.

All good wishes
Richard Dawkins

Dawkins kindly passed on the poems to Dorothy Sutton, a poet whom I studied in the process of creating my own book! Of course it was wonderful to hear back from her…


Swain is a poet after my own heart; someone compelled to celebrate the arts and sciences, the wonders of our world (most especially Darwin). With wise and musical phrases, intelligence, and well-phrased conclusions, this new writer has produced a collection of excellent poems, filled with many fine touches.

Prof. Dorothy Sutton , Eastern Kentucky U.; author of Startling Art: Darwin & Matisse

I have a knack for being terrible at remembering names & faces…I met Dr. Van Wyhe at the British Society for the History of Science (BSHS) conference last year, and found myself casually chatting with him without having a clue as to who he was (even though I’d read all about the Darwin correspondence project). You can imagine how I felt when I said to the Cambridge Professor who has been compiling all of the handwritten correspondence of Charles Darwin himself, and what do you do...?

Fortunately John is a generous person and kindly read my poems…

Darwin’s Microscope is a rich and personal engagement with Darwin and his science – both helping to bring the feeling of his lived experience into the mind of the reader and connecting our time – and our experiences – with those of the celebrated Victorian man of science.

Dr John van Wyhe
Director
The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online
University of Cambridge

Along with Prof. Doug Shedd, I should credit John Holmes with starting me on this Darwinian path. My junior year abroad at the University of Reading, Dr. Holmes was my supervisor for a paper on Dawkins’s book, The Selfish Gene, and Darwin’s own On The Origin of Species. The rest, as they say, is history…

Kelley Swain shows Darwin’s world of natural history to be as rich and strange as the myths it replaced. From butterflies and whales to Darwin himself, the objects of her meticulous and respectful gaze are bound up in the history of the whole world, yet it is their uniqueness above all that Swain treasures in these fresh and subtle poems.

Dr. John Holmes, Lecturer in English Literature, University of Reading

A blind query to the PAS brought Mario Relich and I together for tea and a chat. It’s interesting to think about his trust, or the chance he took meeting me – a brief look at my poems and he declared, “I can see you are a real poet.” My, what would he have said if I had not been? Well, thank you Mario, for meeting me. I’m happy to say it has resulted in me coming to Edinburgh in March 09 for a reading at the Scottish Poetry Library.

I left reading Darwin’s Microscope till this afternoon, to give it the attention which, as I have anticipated, it deserves. It is, in fact, full of very fine poems. All four sections are very good, but sections I and II particularly so, as you get closest in these poems to Darwin the man. ‘Cetacean Introduction’ seems to me one of your most brilliant poems, and I would also single out poems like ‘The Unsettling of Dunes’, ‘Lovely Mollusk’, ‘Feeding the Corn Snake’ (it is almost like a Ted Hughes poem, but very much your own individual poem), and ‘Thermodynamics of Immortality’, which seems to me to stretch the boundaries the most. ‘Monarch Sunset’ is dazzling, and ‘Spherical Motion’ gives a kind of symphonic ending to your collection. You capture Darwin’s voice most effectively in the poem ‘New Hand on Deck,’ because although he is in a parlous state, his mind is still on evolution! I am sure the collection will do well, and it is certainly a fitting tribute to Darwin.

Mario Relich, Secretary, Poetry Association of Scotland

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