- By David M. Kinchen, with information from Knopf
Brad Leithauser, who turned sixty this winter, has been a prolific novelist and poet for the last three decades; we celebrate this abundance with a volume of new and selected poems, “The Oldest Word for Dawn”. Whether quick humorous verse, fetching lyrics, or longer poems that deepen in mystery as they progress—like the one below, which brings us to the shores of Leithauser’s home state—his work delivers deep feeling and a sense of freshness and innovation within the traditional forms of poetry.
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Along Lake Michigan
The road abruptly changed to dirt,
Thinned until grasses brushed
The car on both sides, and then
Ended in a loop before the marsh.
We hiked along an arm of land held
Firm by cedars, the lake breaking
Like an ocean on one side,
The rippling, flooded wetlands wide
As a lake on the other.
You found a broad white feather
That could perhaps have been
Converted into a serviceable pen;
We searched for precious stones.
Ahead, brown and white shorebirds,
Probably sandpipers, fled from us
Calling with small chipped voices;
So quick, their matchstick legs
Blurred, like hummingbird wings;
And when they finally stopped,
Their low bodies faded wholly
Into the brown and white rocks.
Later, where the cedars clung
Tight against the lake and crowded out
Our path, we turned toward the marsh,
And some rummaging ducks
Scooted raucously away from us,
Wings striking water repeatedly—
Like a stone sent skipping across—
Before they broke with sudden grace
Into the air. We could hear
Waves falling as we wandered
Through woods that held no breeze,
To a small, harsh clearing where
Three or four fallen trees
Crossed in a tangle. We paused there,
In the sun, and something scary slid
As if across the surface of my eye:
Snakes! Among the logs, we began
To pick them out: fat overlapping coils
Lolling in the light, skin
The color of sticks; they were hard
To detect, except when in movement.
Along the lake, where a path had slowly
Collapsed the few feet down
To the shore, up-ending little trees until
Their branches tilted into the water,
We found the body of a doe.
The place was quiet, a pond-sized cove
Where the low waves broke slowly,
Lapping up against the body.
Sand had slipped around the legs,
Blanketing the hard hooves,
But trunk and face lay bare, soft,
The tongue limp and gray beneath
Tiny crooked teeth. A wet eyelash, left
Over an eye picked clean to the bone,
Seemed a tawdry, artificial touch.
I looked for bullets, but found no holes,
Blood, nothing. The massive body lay
Fetid and undisturbed, like a mariner’s
Daydream beached up in a storm:
A strange tawny sea-creature . . .
I fanned away the flies that speckled
The blond flank, and we saw them hover,
Land, and then resume their tracking.
We held hands, kneeling beside the body
As if we could impart a gift
Of movement: possible here, on a day
When we’d seen sticks slither
And stones take flight, for this
Animal to rise at our whispering and shake
Sleep from its sandy coat. We watched
The clear waves curl, then break
Against the chest like a heartbeat.
The Oldest Word for Dawn
New and Selected Poems
About the Book:From one of our most universally admired poets: a generous selection from his five acclaimed books of poetry, and an outstanding group of new poems.
From the outset, Brad Leithauser has displayed a venturesome taste for quirky patterns, innovative designs sprung loose from traditional forms. In The Oldest Word for Dawn, we encounter a sonnet in one-syllable lines (“Post-Coitum Tristesse”), a clanging rhyme-mad tribute to the music of Tin Pan Alley (“A Good List”), intricate buried rhyme schemes (“In Minako Wada’s House”), autobiography spun through parodies of Frost and Keats and Omar Khayyám (“Two Summer Jobs”).
In a new poem, “Earlier,” the poet investigates a kind of paradox: What is the oldest word for dawn in any language? The pursuit ultimately descends into the roots of speech, the genesis of art. “Earlier” is part of a sequence devoted to prehistoric themes: the cave paintings of Altamira, the disappearance of the Neanderthals, the poet’s journey with his teenage daughter to excavate a triceratops skeleton in Montana . . .
The author of six novels as well, Leithauser not surprisingly brings to his verse a flair for compelling narrative: a fateful romantic encounter on a streetcar (“1944: Purple Heart”); the mesmerizing arrival of television in a quiet Detroit neighborhood (“Not Lunar Exactly”); two boys heedlessly, joyfully bidding permanent farewell to a beloved sister (“Emigrant’s Story”).
The Oldest Word for Dawn reveals Brad Leithauser as a poet of surpassing tenderness and exactitude, a poet whose work, at sixty, fulfills the promise noted by James Merrill on the publication of his first book: “The observations glisten, the feelings ring true. These poems by a young, unostentatious craftsman are made to something very like perfection. No one should overlook them.”
About Brad Leithauser:
Brad Leithauser was born in Detroit and graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School. He is the author of five previous novels, a novel in verse, five volumes of poetry, two collections of light verse, and a book of essays. Among his many awards and honors are a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and, in 2005, the induction by the president of Iceland into the Order of the Falcon for his writings about Nordic literature. He is a professor in the writing seminars at Johns Hopkins University. He and his wife, Mary Jo Salter, divide their time between Baltimore, Maryland, and Amherst, Massachusetts.
Excerpt from THE OLDEST WORD FOR DAWN © 2013 by Brad Leithauser. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.