The Oldest Word for Dawn: New and Selected Poems by Brad Leithauser (Knopf)
For a poet as elegant, skilled, well-mannered, and sane as Brad Leithauser, a little bit of disaster may be a necessity. His poems need some spur of pain or compulsion to overcome complacency. The work gathered in The Oldest Word for Dawn shows an incremental rise in temperature, book by book, with Leithauser spending less time on lacquered still-lifes, amiable nature poems, and breezy travelogues, and beginning to tell more interesting stories. But the real heat comes when a subject grips him and refuses to let go.
Leithauser was capable of beautiful descriptions from the start. Of horses in a neighboring pasture: “offered shoots from your side of the fence, / they’ll joggle forward to inhale / a verdant airy handful.” Of a toad crossing a road: “landing each / time like a splattered / egg, he regathers, heavily pauses / in the baking sun, and heaves / aloft again.”
He was also, from the start, a committed formalist. Many of Leithauser’s early poems are cast in elaborately patterned stanzas, with varying line lengths and a mix of rhymed and unrhymed endings. (Although his rhyming, frequent as it is, tends to have a fairly muted quality. You could almost miss it.)
The trouble is, the early poems are written as if they were happening to somebody else, with no particular reason for existing. A person moves through a landscape, observes a few things, utters a mild exclamation at the wonder and/or humor of it all, maybe indulges in a bit of light wordplay, and then goes on to look at something else. The poems have everything except something to say.
A series of poems set in Japan, where he and his then-wife, the poet Mary Jo Salter, spent time in the early 1980s, are artful and exquisite, but they can’t shake a superficial, touristy quality. In Minako Wada’s house,
She sets each day
A doll-sized cut of tea,
A doll-sized bowl of rice.
She keeps a glass jar
Of crickets that are fed fish
Shavings, an eggplant slice ...
And so forth. Another poem lavishes a profusion of detail on the flora, fauna, and food (“rice, squash, spinach in soy / and sesame, // sweet ribbons of squid strewn / with pinhead-sized pink fish eggs, pickles,” etc.) of a seaside resort they must have visited. This is the poetry of idle observation; it doesn’t seem as if it had to be written.
With his third book, The Mail From Anywhere (1990), in the first of a series of poems set in Iceland, the writing begins to glow with the heat of obsession. The extremity of the landscape seems to be drawing new energies from the poet. In “Glacier,” he faces something he can’t take the measure of:
Blindly, you feel it, out there, know you are
that coolly turns
the August sun away.
Or open wide your eyes—they open on
the mine-black walls
of the glacier’s end,
hard-fitted with the stones
of its raw erosions.
This is also the point at which longish poems of family lore start to appear. But where you might expect a writer’s narcissism to take over, rambling on about private matters that nobody else could possibly find as interesting, these poems have a depth of feeling that was rare in Leithauser’s earlier work. He manages character and setting, detail and dialogue, with a novelist’s deftness, and the stories—with their sex and violence, their suspenseful unfolding—make these among the most compulsively readable poems in the book.
The secret may be the poet’s half-buried identification with this roster of dreamers, eccentrics, rebels, and failures from his grandparents’ generation. It’s as though in recounting their stories, retracing every painful or embarrassing detail, the poet is freed to examine something in himself he was otherwise unwilling to face.
Perhaps the most memorable is “Very,” (short for Veronica), the wayward older sister of his grandmother, first glimpsed in a 1916 portrait:
Chin (and hip), the healthy bust,
The fervent, faintly cross-eyed glance,
The grand masses of upswept hair.
He recounts her flight from small town Tennessee for the East Coast, her swift engagement to a lieutenant (soon machine-gunned in France), her later failed marriages, her drinking, the quarrel she provoked with the poet’s grandfather, and her final sad descent into ALS, during which she struggled to please the last of the lovers who supported her. As he envisions her, the poet enacts a sort of cross-generational, dream seduction:
And when she swings round, in her plush red dress,
Her shoulders are bare and, what’s more
In all this heat, they’re white as snow. The air’s
Ablaze. Her pretty hands are cupped. She peers
At me, declares, I knew you’d come to me.
After so much politeness and polish, so much remoteness, it’s refreshing to encounter a splash of lurid exhibitionism. The family poems often have the thrill of the taboo, of something emerging unbidden.
The new poems in the book have three subjects: the death of his mother, the break-up of his marriage, and his brushes with linguistic, archaeological, and artistic prehistory. (After the loss of those two close relationships, is he digging for some deeper, earlier foundation?) Poem after poem dredges the same ground.
In the divorce poems, Leithauser keeps returning to the same abject character (in different guises) and the same haunted deep-sea imagery. A man in his little apartment on a Saturday morning vacuums his aquarium and identifies with the skittish, circling fish. A marine biologist, “after his wife left,” tries to exact some order from the fragments of his new life, before finally envisioning a descent to “Earth’s deepest blue, easing to black, by and by, / in that journey all sea-dwellers undergo / to the lightless lost-and-found of the ocean floor.” It’s grim, but oddly invigorating; these feel like poems that had to be written.
The poems for his mother, while less harrowing, are rich with evocative detail, skillfully paced, full of meaning, and they incorporate the kinds of wordplay and lapidary description that in his early work seemed like an end in itself. “A Vase,” with its delicate shadings of tone, its judicious sketch of themes from his mother’s life, and its subtle blend of the personal and universal, moves towards a heartbreaking ending, with not a word wasted.
Where many poets after five or six books are repeating (or worse, imitating) themselves, Leithauser has found a new, more powerful register. Struggle and loss seem to be showing him what he really has to say.
David Danoff received an MFA from the University of Maryland. His poems and reviews appear in Measure, Dash, Unsplendid, Tikkun, and Provincetown Arts.