The most obvious feature of Brad Leithauser’s poems is how well made they are. Unlike many of the street poets who favored free verse, he was committed to forms and rhymes from the outset, and he proclaims himself to be one of the New Formalist poets. He is gifted with an exceptional ear for the music of verse, which he is able to control and evoke as he chooses within the restrictions of poetic forms. One might call him an Augustan writer for his respect for the traditions of his craft, though his vocabulary ranges far and wide and he works his will with his multifarious subject matter without imparting any sense of being trapped by external forms.
The subjects of his early collections are principally places and flora and fauna, as in “A Flight from Osaka,” “Giant Tortoise,” “Dead Elms by a River,” “Along Lake Michigan,” and “In a Japanese Garden” from Hundreds of Fireflies and Cats of the Temple. Often grave, reflective, matter-of-factly lyrical, elegiac, and sharp-witted—“Rabbits: A Valentine” from Cats of the Temple presents a droll meditation on the creatures’ legendary fertility—these poems chew more than they bite off, though they include the occasional spun-off small-scale work and epigrams as well as evidently deeply considered works such as “Hundreds of Fireflies,” the title poem of his first collection. Some seem to have been written from a desire to write, and they seem to be none the worse for that.
The Mail from Anywhere adds “A Peopled World” to the places, plants, and animals of the first books. In this it foreshadows the portraits of family and friends in The Odd Last Thing She Did, Curves and Angles, and Darlington’s Fall. It is not accidental that the middle section of The Odd Last Thing She Did, “Stones Trees Breezes Stars,” is bracketed by “Men and Women” and “Men and Men.” The title poem, “The Odd Last Thing She Did,” refers to how a young woman who committed suicide by jumping off an ocean cliff left her car running with the headlights on and had just filled the tank with gas. The portraits in these later volumes evoke the poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson and Robert Frost in their rich simplicity and conversational ease. The language in these later poems is more direct and idiomatic than that of their predecessors.
In Leithauser’s later works, society and its constraints appear increasingly as subjects, although Leithauser seldom touches on religion and politics. Darlington’s Fall, however, has much to say about religion, especially in the light of the Darwinian enlightenment, a topic that bedevils its entomologist hero. This verse tour de force perhaps makes one think of Samuel Johnson’s apercu: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you...
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