In his first collection since the widely acclaimed Darlington's Fall, Brad Leithauser takes the reader on a bracing poetic journey. Curves and Angles begins in a warm, soft, populated world (these are the curves of the human body, as well as the elliptical pathways of human motivation), and it concludes in a cooler, sharper, more private place--the less-giving angles of an inanimate universe.
The first section, "Curves," introduces us to a couple of passionate young lovers, indoors in the city on a rainy afternoon; to a vociferous cluster of children playing on a Midwestern summer evening; to a godlike scuba diver, "all long gold limbs and a restless halo of long gold hair." In a pair of long poems, two aging men--one a science-fiction writer of the 1950s, the other a traveler in an airport bar--confront their mortality.
"Angles" guides us to a rarely opened north-looking attic room, made brilliant by a nearby maple in full fall orange; to a sunny Louisiana kitchen, where two bowls--one brimming with semiprecious stones, one filled with seashells--are locked in an eternal silent beauty contest; to a frozen Icelandic lake; and to a narrow unmarked entryway that possibly leads to our "true and unbounded kingdom."
Curves and Angles wanders from the balmy waters of the South Pacific to the crystalline wastes of the Arctic, unified throughout by an embracing love of the natural world in all its inexhaustible variety--whether lush or spare, peopled or solitary, curved or angled. It's a journey made unforgettable by these wise and exuberant poems.
Poised between reserve and sympathy, between limpid pathos and stoic resolve, Leithauser's first book of short poems since The Odd Last Thing She Did (1998) contains some of his strongest lyric work. Leithauser won praise in the 1980s for his attractive revivals of difficult forms. He has since found broader notice with novels in verse and in prose, and as a critic whose interests include musical theater and Scandinavian literature. Here, two well-sculpted poems describe New Year's Day in Iceland ("miles of ice give way in time/ to rock and snow"), and several more pay homage to the playwright and Broadway lyricist Lorenz Hart. In a six-stanza poem about scuba divers, the first thing we see is "a can of Cheez Whiz" whose "cheese--or cheez--extrudes into the sea/ as a sturdy gold thread." By far the best work, however, occurs in the sequence most indebted to Leithauser's novelistic talents: "A Science Fiction Writer of the Fifties" combines narrative gifts, baby boom nostalgia, ecological worries and a fine sense of stanza and line. Leithauser may not be his generation's most ambitious poet, but at his best he can make old forms sing anew. (Nov.)
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November 13, 2006
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Excerpt from Curves and Angles by Brad Leithauser
NOT LUNAR EXACTLY (Detroit, 1948) New, and entirely new to the neighborhoodÉ One August day, it came to their own street: the Nutleys brought home a television! Nights now, the neighbors began to meet more often than before, out walking, walking past the Nutleys, who, on display behind their picture window, sat frozen in their chairs, watching their television, which lay off to the side, just out of view, so you couldn’t make out what it was they were watching but only them watching, the four Nutleys, in a blue glow that was lunar but not lunar exactly. That was the summer we all watched the Nutleys–no, we all watched “The Nutleys,” which was the one great show of the summer, it ran for weeks, with its four silent stars behind glass, until nights went cold and damp and we turned to our cars if we ventured out after dark, and then–three in a row– the Daleys, the Floods, the Markses took the plunge, they brought home the glow, and the Nutleys, suddenly, belonged to a new community. FROM HERE TO THERE There are those great winds on a tear Over the Great Plains, Bending the grasses all the way Down to the roots And the grasses revealing A gracefulness in the wind’s fury You would not otherwise Have suspected there. And there’s the wind off the sea Roiling the thin crowns of the great Douglas firs on the cragged Oregon coast, uprooting Choruses of outraged cries, As if the trees were unused To bending, who can weather Such storms for a century. And–somewhere between those places, Needing a break–we climb out stiff From our endless drive to stand, dwindled, On a ridge, holding hands, In what are foothills only because The neighboring mountains are So much taller, and there are the breezes, Contrarily pulled, awakening our faces. SON Memory buries its own, And of what now forever must be The longest day of his life What mostly remained was a blur Under too-bright lights–so he Could scarcely tell if the things Sharpest in his mind were Nothing but fantasies, sewn Afterwards, out of grief, And guilt’s imaginings. Yet it seemed memory called up (After the interminable birth, As his finger stroked the arm Of a child who would not last Even one whole day And all of its time on earth Ministered to by vast Machines that couldn’t mend the harm In a single transcription slip In reams of DNA) A look so haunted, so Haunting, he would not confess (Not even later, to his wife) How it stayed with him, on him: the slow Flicker in a watery eye, The mute call–through all The exhausted hopefulness The condemned come to know In the end–from animal to animal, Imploring,Please save my life. NORTH-LOOKING ROOM In a seldom-entered attic you force a balky door, disclosing a room made brilliant by an orange tree whose branches bear no fruit but maple leaves; We’re in New England, after all. Though rippling foliage fills the pane, the flush that tints the wall will last a week or two, no more. * And this conception, if consoling, of a high, untenanted room lit solely by a tree houses as well–at least for those who’d sidestep round the fear that in the give-and-take of calls to answer, calls to make, we lose the light most dim, most clear– a reprimand no breeze can shake. OVER LABRADOR When miles of perfect whiteness Gave way to a whiteness below (Snowed-under hills of