Hundreds of Fireflies
The reigning poetics of the 1960’s and 1970’s, aided and abetted by poetry workshops that dotted every major campus in the United States, heavily stressed the virtues of free verse, personal utterance, the “deep-image,” and what poet Stanley Kunitz has referred to as “cornfed Surrealism.” In keeping with the spirit of that apparent cultural democracy, poetry was widely demoted from the status of an art to that of a craft; anybody with an image and a pen could do it. Formality was eschewed as “academic,” and larger cultural themes were put to bed as poets withdrew to establish their personal authenticity. Now that the youthful cultural ethos of that time has largely faded, along with long hair, student protests, and blotter acid, so too the confession-oriented poetry of that time seems to have exhausted its mandate. It is clear now that a return to formalism is in the air and with it, a new generation of poets working under values of strict form, clarity of discourse, and objective treatment of subject matter.
With his first collection, Hundreds of Fireflies, Brad Leithauser announces his allegiance to the (old) new poetic values without trying to galvanize the tired, still-available corpse of academic verse. In the strict meters of these poems (most are rhymed, too), one finds an observer so astute that his perceptions break into vision—not unlike what one experiences in the poems of Elizabeth Bishop. Leithauser builds a handsome dialectic between the seen and revealed world, between the desire for light and light itself, between biological life and transcendent being by setting out his themes early in the book, later doubling back to retrieve earlier connections, pushing them in new settings to reveal further meaning. As the poems overlap, glossing, developing, and elaborating one another, the web of significance grows, catching more than merely the sum of discrete poems. Such a high sense of architecture is rare in a book of poems; in a first book, it is extraordinarily so.
The first of the book’s three sections spells out the poet’s main concerns: the urban sensibility returned to nature, the giving way of surfaces to reveal new reality, and the unseasonal need of all life to seek what is brighter than itself. The opening poem, “An Expanded Want Ad,” fleshes out in great imaginative detail an advertisement for a summer cottage in Michigan. Here the setting is all, and the poet’s loving descriptions overturn the imagined hesitations of a city-dweller. Despite the rustic atmosphere—the ramshackle house, the dirt roads, the weird, nocturnal voices of the bullfrogs—the poet concludes that daybreak itself (“the morning’s flashy gift”) mends all that is wrong, all that one wished to vacate in the first place.
The book’s next three poems take up the theme of landscape as a basis of perception and knowledge. In “Alternate Landscape,” the poet watches from the window of a jet plane while his minutes-before reality becomes lost in a surge of clouds. At this height, mountains “roll slowly downhill” in a terra firma description of clouds, which suggests an endurance one knows they do not possess. Meanwhile, patches of earth slip by; these are “another life,” mentioned thus casually to suggest the ease with which one clings to the given perspective. “Miniature” depicts an anthill shone upon by a sun-yellow dandelion and a white dandelion (“a dainty crumb-/ came of a moon”), but the tiny, work-obsessed insects “erect a temple to this sun and moon,” although the moon floats away to germinate elsewhere. In the frenzy of their task, they are paradoxically “unmindful/ of all suns and moons.” Yet their lack of “mind” is perhaps the reason for their unrelenting energy and the cohesion of their community. In “Between Leaps,” the animal and plant worlds are suspended in equilibrium until a frog, spotted “like an elderly hand” yet green as “new leafage,” arbitrarily disrupts the tenuous balance by hopping from his place of “green languor” into the water, at which point “the place’s spell/ is lifted.”
If these poems test the surfaces of our given reality, they also suggest that the urge—some would say the necessity—to test them results from a desire to experience greater relevance from the natural world, a relevance that will yield itself up only to the unromanticizing eye. This desire finds a clear expression in the title poem. Here, fireflies in their brief, seasonal mating bring even the oblique heavens, of which they are a substitute and symbol, closer, though they are “nearer than the heavens/ will ever be.” The desire of the mute fireflies is reflected in the urge vacationers feel to experience them, for they, too, feel that “Merely/ to watch, and say nothing,/ gratefully,/ is what is best.” Seasonal animals themselves, they realize that they will be “drawn too by the light,/ of another firefly season.”
The second section consists of a poem that stands in perhaps ironic contrast to the book’s more serious concerns. A longish narrative poem called “Two Summer Jobs,” it involves two turning points in the poet’s life. The first (“Tennis Instructor, 1971”) took place during the summer before the poet entered college; the other (“Law Clerk, 1979”) seeks to justify, with some hesitation, the poet’s profession, law. The poem departs in style and intention from everything else in the book, and perhaps because it occupies the center of the collection, it provides the book’s only...
(The entire section is 2268 words.)