Reading Swoop, I couldn’t help but notice myself smiling at first. Then there was the impulse to read aloud, to drum the table in front of me. These poems are musical, rhythmic, dance-provoking. They’re fearless and funny and macabre and eloquent. I loved them.
I came to this conclusion exactly two poems into the collection. The first poem, “Scythe,” imagines the desires of that object, with one of the best images of opposition I’ve ever read . The scythe wants
that is larder, the other
For those keeping track of such things — killer linebreaks, right?
I’ve made no secret of my love for Bogie & Bacall’s first joint film, To Have and Have Not, and so I was prepared to fall hard for Swoop‘s second poem, “Was You Ever Bit by a Dead Bee?” — which, of course, I did. It’s a poem that answers the movie’s famous question, with the kind of rhythm that would make Hoagy Carmichael proud. Here are the first two lines:
I was, I was—by its posthumous chomp,
by its bad dab of venom, its joy-buzzer buzz.
Doesn’t that make you want to read the rest?
As you can probably tell, Ms. Leithauser is the kind of poet who’s enchanted by the sounds that words make, and by the wonderful oddities of the English language. (More than once I turned to my trusty OED: after all, how often does one encounter “lamaseried”?) Indeed, several poems are composed of entries “From the Grandiloquent Dictionary” (look for a particularly hilarious entry, Metrophobia. Then look up metrophobia.) Reading Swoop is in some ways like like listening to a Dorothy Parker who’s fascinated not only by people, but by the personalities of words themselves. Take these lines, from “Schadenfreude”:
So often ironic,
at times caustic, despotic,
and always so
I’d love to take you through each and every one of Swoop‘s poems to tell you what I love about them, from the dazzling description of one of Moby-Dick‘s tragic characters (“Pip, Mid-Sea”), to the bluesy “Bad Sheep” with its twenty-six synonyms for dark (except black), from the darkly comic “Sex Circumspect” to the downright funny “Sex Fiasco.”
I feel rather cruel, Dear Readers, for passing along these tantalizing morsels and not full plates. Luckily, Swoop is a feast, and you’re invited.
*My thanks to Graywolf Press for sending me a review copy of Swoop.
Tomorrow: One of Hailey Leithauser’s poems will be the featured poem of the week.
Wednesday: An interview with Hailey Leithauser, author of Swoop, winner of the Emily Dickinson First Book Award from The Poetry Foundation.