The lepidopterist Russ Darlington, who stands at the center of Leithauser's novel in verse, is torn between Wordsworth's nature ("Nature never did betray the heart that loved her") and Darwin's, with its vulgarized slogan, "survival of the fittest." Leithauser uses 10-line stanzas to take us from the Booth Tarkington–like Indiana of Russ's birth in 1888 to his second marriage, in the 1930s. Russ shows an early inclination to study nature—and more specifically, butterflies, finding an ally in an eccentric Austrian exile, Professor Schrock, who tutors him in German and natural science. At Old University, it becomes clear that Russ is meant to be a professor. Unfortunately, he falls for and marries the flirtatious Pauline Beaudette, who is surely not meant to be a professor's wife. But before their temperamental differences become too evident, Russ sets out for Malaya to collect butterflies. He never makes it. On the Pacific island of Ponape, hunting a stray Morpho, he falls and is crippled. Once he comes home, he separates from Pauline, making a bachelor nest with his father. Leithauser leads us up to the 1930s, when Russ, alone and debilitated, proposes to his maid, and then, in a long coda, he combines Russ's dream on the night before his second marriage with Leithauser's own journey to Ponape. Russ's vision of life as "a sort of swap-shop/ an auction run without an auctioneer" is a view of chance and selection regretfully purified of Wordsworthian sentiment and very much in tune with our own neo-Darwinian times. 12 line drawings by Mark Leithauser. (Mar. 27)
Forecast:Though Leithauser's latest is more accessible than its form might suggest, it lacks the sense of urgency and invention that encouraged readers of Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red to brave a book-length poem. For inveterate fans only.
Release date: 03/01/2002