Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), one of the most famous scientists of the 19th century and best known today as the co-discoverer with Charles Darwin of the theory of evolution, is the inspiration for this beautiful sequence of poems by Anne Cluysenaar. The title (meaning ‘burnt rocks or cooled lava’) is derived from the language spoken on the volcanic island of Ternate, in the Malay Archipelago, where Wallace experienced that ‘flash’ of inspiration which brought together his observations as a naturalist, leading him to describe his theory in a letter to Charles Darwin which encouraged Darwin to publish The Origin of Species.
A field trip that passed by Wallace’s birthplace near Usk on the Wales/England border triggered the author’s research into the scientist’s journeys through the Amazonian rainforests and the jungles of the Malay Archipelago as well as the lush landscapes surrounding the river Usk, which he explored as a child and young man.
Tracing Wallace’s travels, the poet becomes aware of echoes and tensions between his responses and her own. Orchids, orang-utans, rare beetles, butterflies and birds of paradise, collected by Wallace and preserved in British collections, are sought out and intensely re-experienced.
The book opens with an introduction by Wallace expert Charles Smith, of the University of Kentucky, and a Foreword by the poet. The poems are accompanied by a rich selection of images: some that Wallace chose to illustrate his travels, including a sketch by Wallace himself, together with photographs of Wallace specimens and of living animals and plants. Also included are photographs of Wallace and of his birthplace on the banks of the river Usk in Wales.