Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1200
The most obvious feature of Brad Leithauser’s poems is how well made they are. Unlike many of the street poets who favored free verse, he was committed to forms and rhymes from the outset, and he proclaims himself to be one of the New Formalist poets. He is gifted with an exceptional ear for the music of verse, which he is able to control and evoke as he chooses within the restrictions of poetic forms. One might call him an Augustan writer for his respect for the traditions of his craft, though his vocabulary ranges far and wide and he works his will with his multifarious subject matter without imparting any sense of being trapped by external forms.
The subjects of his early collections are principally places and flora and fauna, as in “A Flight from Osaka,” “Giant Tortoise,” “Dead Elms by a River,” “Along Lake Michigan,” and “In a Japanese Garden” from Hundreds of Fireflies and Cats of the Temple. Often grave, reflective, matter-of-factly lyrical, elegiac, and sharp-witted—“Rabbits: A Valentine” from Cats of the Temple presents a droll meditation on the creatures’ legendary fertility—these poems chew more than they bite off, though they include the occasional spun-off small-scale work and epigrams as well as evidently deeply considered works such as “Hundreds of Fireflies,” the title poem of his first collection. Some seem to have been written from a desire to write, and they seem to be none the worse for that.
The Mail from Anywhere adds “A Peopled World” to the places, plants, and animals of the first books. In this it foreshadows the portraits of family and friends in The Odd Last Thing She Did, Curves and Angles, and Darlington’s Fall. It is not accidental that the middle section of The Odd Last Thing She Did, “Stones Trees Breezes Stars,” is bracketed by “Men and Women” and “Men and Men.” The title poem, “The Odd Last Thing She Did,” refers to how a young woman who committed suicide by jumping off an ocean cliff left her car running with the headlights on and had just filled the tank with gas. The portraits in these later volumes evoke the poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson and Robert Frost in their rich simplicity and conversational ease. The language in these later poems is more direct and idiomatic than that of their predecessors.
In Leithauser’s later works, society and its constraints appear increasingly as subjects, although Leithauser seldom touches on religion and politics. Darlington’s Fall, however, has much to say about religion, especially in the light of the Darwinian enlightenment, a topic that bedevils its entomologist hero. This verse tour de force perhaps makes one think of Samuel Johnson’s apercu: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” However, Leithauser’s poem is done surpassingly well, taking its place with such estimable predecessors as Alexander Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin (1825-1832, 1833; Eugene Onegin, 1881) and Lord Byron’s Don Juan (1819-1824) as well as the sonnet-sequence-novel by Vikram Seth, The Golden Gate: A Novel in Verse (1986).
The epic ambitions of Darlington’s Fall are implied by the Darwinian background, which would cast so many assumptions and unquestioned verities in doubt. Darlington’s Fall is not just the story of the entomologist but also by implication that of the larger issues raised by science and particularly entomology, which at the time of the story was just beginning to emerge from the province of enthusiastic amateurs into a full-fledged discipline. Leithauser is known for the assiduity of his preparation; he clearly immersed himself in biology and entomology during the seven years he worked on his novel in verse.
The story of Russ Darlington begins in Indiana in 1888, his birth year. The innocence of this world is soon to be lost. Russel—his name thus spelled derives from that of Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin’s competitor—sets his career path at the age of seven, when he catches a wonderful amphibian, the king of frogs. He never looks back. He can afford not to, since his widowed pipe-smoking, remote-but-generous father is rich. Russ is obviously headed for achievement when, as an undergraduate, he is entranced by a beautiful classmate, Pauline Beaudette. She is flirtatious, a partygoer, and clearly unsuited to be a research scientist’s wife.
Pauline is the first butterfly to lure him. The second is a rare Morpho that Russ spots on the Micronesian island of Ponape, where, leaving discontented Pauline behind, he has repaired alone. Attempting to net the creature, he falls, breaks his back, and is permanently crippled. Returning, he separates from Pauline and settles in with his father, who ultimately dies and leaves him a more than adequate income. Russ’s life as a field scientist is over, although he devotes himself to the composition of a large-scale textbook, to be grandly titled Life’s Kingdoms, and to the overseeing of the creation of a huge mural, the Progress of Life in the Grand Rotunda of the splendid new natural history museum his generous wealthy father had had built, partly to make amends to Russ for his bad luck in the Pacific.
As Russ’s life settles into its bachelor’s routines, he undergoes yet another fall, a fortunate one this time. He falls in love in 1933 with Marja, the beautiful young daughter of his Polish housekeeper, proposes to her, and is accepted, in spite of the vast differences between them in age, status, income, and religion. Marja was raised Catholic; Russ has been unsuccessfully trying to reconcile the Darwinian view of nature as red in tooth and claw with a Wordsworthian perspective. It seems he has come at long last into a safe harbor.
In the last section, “Darlington’s Dream,” Leithauser retraces Darlington’s disastrous Pacific adventure. He hikes what he believes to be Darlington’s hill, chows down in the jungle with friends of his guide (everything cooked in lard), drinks the local ceremonial tipple, Sakau, and undergoes what is either a life-threatening allergic response or a near-lethal bacterial infection. He feels in extremis a more-than-deep awareness of Darlington in similar dire straits.
The point of view shifts to Darlington and his dream, which leads him, initially accompanied by a small child, perhaps Micronesian, into a sea cave, alarmingly squirming with creatures large and small. Darlington, intimidated, nonetheless feels this evolutionist’s version of Plato’s cave can offer the key to the mystery of mysteries, the master plan dreamed of by nature seekers from Aristotle to Charles Darwin. He will never come closer to seeing how life’s hubbub might be reduced to an intelligible order. That is as close as he, or anyone presumably, will get. The full sonnet that ends the novel picks up where the one at the beginning left off. In it, he falls through space and time until he fetches up on his own shore. In the last lines, he is granted surcease from his Faustian quest by finding that the woman he most wanted is in fact there, with him.
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