Prose Feature: Knock, Breathe, Shine: A Review of Hailey Leithauser’s SWOOP (Graywolf Press, 2013), by Emily Wolahan

January 23, 2015

Former poet laureate Robert Pinsky has described the poetry he writes as emphasizing the physical quality of words. He advocates for us to read poems aloud, to let our breath become part of the poem and the poem part of our bodies. Swoop, Hailey Leithauser’s intoxicating first collection, understands the physical nature of words and sounds. Her poems bounce along several registers, surprising us with their diction and resulting music. Her rhyme-heavy lines share breath with the reader, and when the poem reaches its end—either epiphanic or tragic—poet, poem, and reader arrive in time. We are seduced by the sound of the poems, and their physicality inhabits us, wins us over.

To find rhyme used so masterfully and with such a light touch in twenty-first century American poetry, we are best off looking to rap lyrics. A divide seems to have widened between poetry and song so that volumes of highly rhymed, sonic poems are somewhat rare, or more the province of British poets like Carol Ann Duffy. For many American readers, Leithauser’s poems have more in common with rap artists such as MF Doom. In his 2005 The Mouse and the Mask album, he piles rhyme on rhyme on internal rhyme. For example, in “The Mask”: “With a new crew key chain, and street name / What set do he claim for fame, peep game.” In “O Sorrow, O Bother,” Leithauser writes:

so she’s sticking a pin, again and again,
in a fiendish maneuver,
a re-voodoo do-over.

She often weaves end and internal rhymes over several line breaks: “to be pricked by her pin, / to be hung by his thumbs / in the spin of her brain; thinking.” Or she expands the sound in a word like “lover,” which then leads to a semantic expansion: “of the lover / who loved her, / and grew weary / of her.” Leithauser builds a fruitful tension between sound, which propels the line forward, and sense, asking us to slow down and appreciate its meaning.

The lush poems in Swoop choose to use that tension between sound and sense in an exploration of desire. The excess and sensuality in Leithauser’s poems, their sheer sexiness, echoes the ravaging sensuality found in John Donne’s sonnets. With such a framework, we might understand that Leithauser is in the process of wooing—and it’s the object of her desire that’s so interesting. Unlike a Donne love poem or a Shakespeare sonnet, which are, at least on the surface, directed at a beloved, Leithauser’s work is often more interested in exploring herself and the world. The speed and seduction of the poems sweep the reader along so that we, too, are exploring self and world. Her most direct allusion to her poetic heritage is in two sonnets, “I Love Me, Vol. I” and “I Recant, Vol. II.” These sonnets juxtapose their form with high and low diction, from “How nobler than a Toblerone am I” to “I have caused no argument in Zagat.” The poems encapsulate the rhetorical approaches we expect from sixteenth-century poems. “I Love Me” lauds the vessel of the poem to sing praise, to be beauty, far outliving the beloved. “I Recant” places the lover as subservient to the beloved. Her description of a poet-lover of no importance in the volta of the poem is both funny and depressingly accurate:

I am unaddressed in the best cafes
where I am lesser thumb, a background cough,
underpaid, scant hoodoo, verminous fluff.
Among proffered options I am unweighed,
in multiple choice, when compared to you,
oozy rat in a sanitary zoo.

Leithauser’s wit leads her away from idealizing a person or cataloging a love affair. Instead, she takes up sensuality itself. The series of “Sex” poems scattered throughout the book are liberating portrayals of women with sexual appetites who are at times ridiculous, but always very real. These are the solid opposites of those by the aging, sensitive Prufrock, where the narrator is aware of and frightened by his own sensuality. There’s no “Do I dare to eat a peach?” Instead, in “Sex Alfresco,” we have:

a shrouding bower finds us nabbed and handled;
     in an ample, moony bramble, briar-bitten;
at a doorway, pinned and hidden; behind a shading stable,
          leather-sored, and lather-ridden.

Forget “‘Do I dare?’ and, ‘Do I dare?’” In “Sex Obstreperous,” Leithauser writes, “O Naomi did I moan a moan / too odious; did I rasp a ruined gasp too proud?” Leithauser allows people to be sexual animals, while also finding humor in our appetites.

The joy inherent in Leithauser’s poetics coaxes another physical reaction from her readers: a smile. One of the short poems in her series “From the Grandiloquent Dictionary” is an ars poetica. “Metrophobia” is the fear of poetry. Leithauser writes:

Metrophobia

I, too, dislike it, or at least I find
too much of it bromidic and unrhymed,
muffled in a fog of cottony prose,
frightened of shadows or stepping on toes.

She chides; we smile. In the rebuff, we see the obvious truth of the slackness in so many poems in journals and books, perhaps even in our own portfolios, but Leithauser’s contrariness, the Moore-infused primness of it, incites a smile.

Leithauser’s light touch and her use of humor might be some of the most compelling accomplishments in Swoop. Funny, rhymed lyrics have a tendency to be dismissed for not being serious enough. But Leithauser proves again and again that a strain of darkness—of insight—is at the core of her poetics. Take, for example, a handful of poems in Swoop that profile violent objects. In “Scythe,” “Guillotine,” “Crowbar,” and “Brass Knuckles,” she considers what these objects would say if they could speak. “Guillotine” begins with a bit of black humor:

If it could speak it would say
tickle, tickle

s’il vous plait.
Or maybe, redder, redder

The poem considers the use of the guillotine, its distant cousins the “chaise / electricque” and the “cement overcoat.” Then the guillotine is given a chance to reincarnate and come back as some other object: a ladder, scissors, a nickel:

that insistently
whispers

fickle, and fickle.

Ending the poem with a rhyming echo of what the guillotine said suggests the insensitivity of all objects—nickel, ladder, or electric chair. Each is an object only imbibed with meaning by the person using it. The lines recall the torturer’s horse in Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” as it “scratches its innocent behind on a tree.” The ladder and a nickel are as menacing as the guillotine is innocent.

Swoop stands out as one of the most interesting books of this past year because it breathes life. Reading the poems is a physical exercise in breath. Leithauser’s poetics demand we reconsider the rhetorical potential of humor and rhyme. They leave behind the crutch of somberness and earnestness, but do not forsake the impulse to inquire, wonder, recoil and embrace.

—Emily Wolahan

Emily Wolahan

Emily Wolahan is the author of Hinge (forthcoming from National Poetry Review Press, 2015). Her poetry has appeared in journals such as Gulf Coast, Omniverse, DIAGRAM, Boston Review, New Linear Perspectives, and Drunken Boat. Her essays have appeared on NPM Daily, The New Inquiry, and Gulf Coast, and she completed a Vermont Studio Center residency in 2014. She has collaborated with artist Joshua Thomson on his multimedia project Platinum Metres. She is also the editor and co-founder of JERRY Magazine, an online literary magazine. Wolahan lives in San Francisco with her husband and two children. She is part of the San Francisco Writer’s Grotto.

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