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
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
by its bad dab of venom, it's
If you're ever shanked like the
that I was, by the posthumous chomp
of an expired wire, you'll bellow
at the pitiless shiv when it does
what it does.
Was you? I was. By its posthumous
by its bad dab of venom, its
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:
part swivel and
tour de force
stray the course
. . . .
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.
But when some
wooer comes to coo, what kind
unblemished dish would plumb
Elysium? What hymn be hummed
To me, which
paradigm be not struck blind;
How find that
nonpareil prepared to score
This vessel of
Go get Swoop!