Leithauser rhymes through evolution

March 31, 2002|By Clarinda Harriss | By Clarinda Harriss,Special to the Sun

Darlington's Fall, a novel in verse, by Brad Leithauser. Knopf. 311 pages. $25.

All life divides into two kingdoms. Such is the opening sentence of naturalist Russell Darlington's biology treatise, as we learn by delving into poet / novelist / essayist Brad Leithauser's 2002 verse novel Darlington's Fall, the statement is wrong, and both the book and its characters are fictional. But the debate over life's kingdoms -- what and how many they are -- may be both real and crucial.

Darlington's two kingdoms are Animals and Plants, a notion "so simple" that "You almost have to laugh." Author Leithauser elaborates "it's the burden [contemporary science] / To show that life can be allocated / Into five kingdoms: plants, animals, / Fungi, and two varieties of unicells."

The pattern of Darlington's life also moves from simple twos to complex fives.

Loss and Gain are the first twosome. Russell's adored mother dies young and the small boy takes comfort in fondling the contents of her jewelry box, arranging the jewels in their little satin niches. Soon he moves to collecting, boxing and arranging nature's own jewels, insects.

Before he reaches puberty, he has already discovered a ruling passion. Loss morphs into gain.

The next pair seems to be the scholarly vs. the active life. A college scholarship and a gorgeous debutante-type bring these two "kingdoms" into an uneasy union. A paralyzing fall suffered during a specimen hunt in Africa splinters this union.

Home in Indiana, Darlington oversees the building of a museum for his collections. He hires a young artist to create a series of murals depicting scenes from evolutionary history. (Reviewer's chuckle: "Darlington" is the name of a vehement anti-evolutionist who publishes both on and off the Internet.) Naturalist and painter embody Science and Art. Both seem unable to finish the work of depicting "the whole grand paleo-pageant of life."

"The trick [of both science and art]," says Leithauser, "is to soldier on ... just as though yours were not a hopeless task."

If modern biology insists on five kingdoms, so does Darlington's life. Staring into a mural, Darlington notices how one humanoid group -- a father, mother, infant -- resembles a classically rendered Holy Family. Now we have Science, Art and Religion.

Darlington depends on the companionship of Professor Schrock, grand old man of Darlington's scholarly field. Schrock sees insects as eating machines, copulating machines. Darlington turns to a fourth kingdom: Philosophy. Here he defends the notion of a universe which, if not exactly moral, at least houses mercy and love along with maggots and bloody claws.

Schrock dies of a stroke following a gargantuan meal served up by the granddaughter of an elderly foundling whom Darlington has installed as his housekeeper. Evening piano lessons morph into passion and Darlington moves to his fifth kingdom: Love.

Leithauser has two more twosomes for us. First, Life and Art. The last third of the book depicts how the character who speaks as the author devoted much of his life to replicating the naturalist's travels in order to write this book. This brings us to the duality that underpins Leithauser's whole project: Poetry vs. Prose. Novels are supposed to be in prose; this one is in 10-line rhyming stanzas. Whether or not this duality finally unifies depends on whether or not the reader thinks it works.

This reader isn't sure. This reader likes the book best when it devolves into whole stanzas of cataloguing: names of species, ways worms make use of host animals' systems, the explosions of a native beverage within the writer's own system. Poet vs. reader -- hitting us right in the senses -- that conflict is a poet's job.

Clarinda Harriss, chair of the Towson University English Department, has published three collections of poetry and contributed two scholarly works on poetry. Her work appears in many U.S. magazines including Touching Fire: Erotic Writing by Women. She edits and directs BrickHouse Books Inc., Maryland's oldest continuously publishing small press.

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