Poem of the week: John Agard – ‘The Ascent of John Edmonstone’

Out of Bounds – British Black and Asian Poets (Bloodaxe/Newcastle University, £12) is an anthology of British verse, edited by Jackie Kay, James Proctor and Gemma Robinson, that re-maps the country.

Starting in the Shetlands and ending on the Isle of Wight, it looks at the country afresh from a Black and Asian poetic perspective. It’s not only geography that is redrawn. John Agard’s “The Ascent of John Edmonstone” reminds us that Charles Darwin was instructed by a man who began his life as a slave on a Guyanese plantation and who may, crucially, have encouraged his student to one day explore South America.

The Ascent of John Edmonstone

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(The freed black slave who taught Darwin taxidermy at 
 Edinburgh – 1826)

My name rings no bell

in the ears of science

but footnotes know me well –

footnotes where history

shows its true colours

and passing reference is flesh

for I am John Edmonstone,

whose name is little known

to evolution’s white ladder.

But Darwin will remember me,

just say the black man who taught him

Egypt’s ancient art of taxidermy.

To think that we should meet

in Edinburgh of all places

few doors apart on Lothian Street.

No mention then of savage races.

In those days we were two bird-stuffers

mounting mortality in feathers.

We were each other’s missing link

colleagues upright on the chain of being

a pair of wingless apes condemned to think.

You can borrow Out of Bounds – British Black and Asian Poets from the Scottish Poetry Library, 5 Crichton’s Close, Edinburgh EH8 8DT. Tel: 0131-557 2876, e-mail [email protected] or see www.spl.org.uk.