The Innisfree Poetry Journal

by Gigi Bradford on Hailey Leithauser

Swoop by Hailey Leithauser. Graywolf Press, 2013.




"I made it out of a mouthful of air."


W.B. Yeats

How appropriate that Hailey Leithauser recently won the Emily Dickinson First Book Award from the Poetry Foundation for Swoop. Like Dickinson, Leithauser reinvents the way we think not just about sound and language, but about how we hear poetry. Dickinson, the poet who told us to "Tell all the truth / but tell it slant," would undoubtedly delight in Swoop's hailstorm of sound and sense. 


How do you describe something new that transforms what came before? What's the poetic vocabulary for "This book blew my mind?" How did people explain jazz when it first burst on the scene and there was no language for it because its primary referent was itself? Before the terms "Cubism" and "Futurism," how did anyone describe Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase"? Leithauser's work is this startlingly distinct. You can't describe it; you've got to experience it. As Dickinson wrote, "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry." This is poetry that rises to and beyond her standard.


Leithauser's play with words and facility with forms brings us back into conversation with poets throughout the ages. She cites Marianne Moore and Gerard Manley Hopkins as favorites. I see Dickinson, and Kay Ryan's ability to take a small object and find in it a large meaning. Leithauser reminds us of myriad poets, and when she employs syllabics and palindromes we come close to the relationship of "poem" to "pun."


Swoop is just so darn exuberant. You must read this book out loud. In marvelously original poems, which Leithauser said in an interview with Greg McBride derive initially from the sound of words, she writes about and through a sonic tapestry that begs to be heard, an acrobatic amalgam that stretches her readers to the limit. How does she have so much fun with words? She is wildly, delightfully drunk on them, as in this poem:


Was You Ever Bit by a Dead Bee?


I was, I was—by its posthumous chomp,

by its bad dab of venom, it's joy-buzzer buzz.

If you're ever shanked like the chump

that I was, by the posthumous chomp

of an expired wire, you'll bellow out prompt

at the pitiless shiv when it does what it does.

Was you? I was. By its posthumous chomp

by its bad dab of venom, its joy-buzzer buzz.


Or take "Mockingbird,"a poem that in one sentence rings out in paean to the sound of a mockingbird's mock, a poem that could well describe Leithauser's own poetic process, her magpie ability to extract delightful sense out of inordinate sound:


            swoop (part

            quiver, part swivel and

plash) with


tour de force

stray the course note



. . . .


all sentiment intemperate,

all sentience



Leithauser plays tempo like doo-wop; there's no expected iambic percussion in sight. Everything is gusto: the six curtal sonnets ("Sex Alfresco," "Sex Fiasco,""Sex Circumspect," "Sex Obstreperous," "Sex Odalisque," "Sex Rubenesque"); the suite of poems about "dumb" objects ("Scythe," "Guillotine," "Crowbar," "Brass Knuckles"); the palindromes popping up in poems; the off and slant rhymes; the rhyme schemes unmoored to tradition and repetition; the assonance; the consonance; the villanelles; the teasing of hide-and-seek meaning out of sound; the tickle of intellect molting into slant perception. Facing poems undercut each other: "Sex Odalisque" and "Sex Rubenesque" or "I Love Me, Vol. I" and "I Recant, Vol. II."


These poems are a symphony. Even if you're not sure you know exactly what they mean, you know you've been bowled over and you've never heard or read anything like this before. Leithauser forces us to come up with a new way to describe her work, a new set of compass points, a new way to enjoy form.


From "I Love Me, Vol. I":


But when some wooer comes to coo, what kind

Of aetherish, unblemished dish would plumb

This fleshed Elysium? What hymn be hummed

To me, which paradigm be not struck blind;

How find that nonpareil prepared to score

This vessel of unbested metaphor?


Go get Swoop!

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