Darwin: A Life in Poems, By Ruth Padel

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The Independent Culture

It is not easy to take on a real-life figure whose own voice dominates as much as Darwin's does, but Ruth Padel is an excellent listener, and she knows when to intrude and re-make, and when to leave well alone, to produce a magisterial, yet close and touching portrait of the man in this series of poems.

In some, such as "The Balance Sheet", in which Darwin, ever the scientist, sizes up the merits and detractions of getting married ("An object to be loved and played with. Better than dog"), Padel more or less takes his exact words and fashions them into poetry. In others, she complements his fascination with natural history by concentrating on the body, making it sensual and even dangerous ("red grass of her jowls, russet half-moons beneath her eyes"). In yet others, such as "Painting the Bees", it is all her own understanding of a man who is constantly plagued by the greatest questions that "scratch, torment and swarm" around him.

Never once does she let go of Darwin's scientific focus, but by embedding his passion for his work in the corporeal, she gives us something more: a human portrait of this father of evolution, this father of 10.

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