Monday, November 9, 2009

Better Together

I don't know whether the algorithms have come up with this combination yet, but I have a pair of books I believe are Better Together.

I've been reading Darwin: A Life in Poems by Ruth Padel, resident poet at Christ Church, Cambridge, and a great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin. It came to my attention when I found online the poem, "Like Giving to a Blind Man Eyes":

He’s standing in Elysium. Palm feathers, a green
    dream of fountain against blue sky. Banana fronds,
slack rubber rivulets, a canopy of waterproof tearstain
    over his head. Pods and racemes of tamarind.
Follicle, pinnacle; whorl, bole and thorn.

He walks through hot damp air
and tastes it like the breath of earth, like blood.
    He is possessed by chlorophyll. By the calls of unknown birds.
He wades into sea and scares an octopus. It puffs black hair
    at him, turns red – as hyacinth – and darts for cover.
He sees it watching him.
The book tells Darwin's life in verse, with some minimum of annotation, and a lot of Darwin's own words. It's by turns enthralling and appalling in its evocation of the privations of nineteenth century travel and the oppressive splendor of tropical nature. In some ways it reminded me of Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda (with its own echoes of Gosse and Son), some of the Patrick O'Brien Master and Commander novels, and A. S. Byatt's "Morpho Eugenia" in Angels & Insects. The life lived and documented and the life imagined work together in a kind of biological symbiosis. Padel pulls it off beautifully.

Darwin: A Life in Poems has both made me want to read more poetry and to pick up again James T. Costa's splendid annotation of On the Origin of Species. From the Open Letters Monthly blog:
It’s entirely possible – I think it’s likely – that when the overwhelming and heartwarming cascade of attention to the 2009 anniversary of Darwin’s 1809 birth and 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species has at last subsided, the palm for Best in Show will go to James Costa’s beautifully-produced and scrupulously, joyously annotated version of the Origin....And Costa’s contributions are just what annotations should be. He’s respectful of his subject text, but he’s also always mindful of all the scientific and cultural changes that have happened since. But his most winning quality is his own enthusiasm, not just for The Origin of Species but for the vital panoply of the whole natural world.
As Jim's former editor, I take great satisfaction in seeing the book receive what I can't help considering well deserved kudos--especially kudos that recognize the quality that makes the annotations effective and memorable: their joy.

The Annotated Origin is, to my knowledge, the only version of Darwin's master work annotated by a working evolutionary biologist for modern readers. Costa also happens to be a gifted explainer of science to nonspecialists and a passionate field biologist used to thinking about how evolution is continuing to shape the world around us, even as  Darwin's idea continues to evolve in ways he could not have imagined.

Here is a Nature podcast of Padel reading from Darwin: A Life in Poems.  You can download Costa's introduction to the Annotated Origin, "The Road to the Origin," here.

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