“the glinting trawl of gaff and lure”—How much goddamned fun is that line? I’ve never understood why everybody in the world doesn’t spend their days writing poetry.
And that is what Hailey Leithauser brings to her readers—not just commitment to the art (and commitment to be sure) but a jubilance within her work and an excitement in the sheer act of writing, which can’t help whipping up the same for her lucky readers. She gives us the fun of writing: “O step after step in stumbling tempo, / O owl in oak, O rout of black bat flight . . . .”
Hailey Leithauser’s debut collection, Swoop (Graywolf Press, 2013), won the Poetry Foundation’s Emily Dickinson First Book Award and the Towson Prize for Literature. Her second collection is Saint Worm (Able Muse Press, 2019). Her poems appear in Agni, the Gettysburg Review, Poetry, the Yale Review, and numerous other periodicals, and have been selected three times for The Best American Poetry anthology. She is a recipient of the Discovery/the Nation Prize, the River Styx International Poetry Award, the Elizabeth Matchett Stover Award, and two Individual Artist Grants from the Maryland State Arts Council. She lives quite lazily at the edge of a precipitous wooded ravine a few miles north of Washington, DC, and teaches at the West Chester Poetry Conference.
Below we present poems from Swoop and Saint Worm, and finally, ten new poems:
on Greg McBride
O, She Says
O, she says (because she loves to say O),
O to this cloud-break that ravels the night,
O to this moon, its mouthful of sorrow,
O shallow grass and the nettle burr’s bite,
O to heart’s flare, its wobbly satellite,
O step after step in stumbling tempo,
O owl in oak, O rout of black bat flight,
(O moaned in Attic and Esperanto)
O covetous tongue, O fat fandango,
O gnat tango in the hot, ochered light,
O wind whirred leaves in subtle inferno,
O flexing of sea, O stars bolted tight,
O ludicrous swoon, O blind hind-sight,
O torching of bridges and blood boiled white,
O sparrow, and arrow, and hell below,
O, she says, because she loves to say O.
Was You Ever Bit By a Dead Bee?
I was, I was—by its posthumous chomp,
by its bad dab of venom, its joy-buzzer buzz.
If you’re ever shanked like the chump
that I was, by the posthumous chomp
of an expired wire, you’ll bellow out prompt
at the pitiless shiv when it does what it does.
Was you? I was. By its posthumous chomp,
by its bad dab of venom, its joy-buzzer buzz.
Such green, such green,
this apple-, tea- and celadon,
this emerald and pine and lime
unsheathed to make
a miser weep, to make his puny
bunions shrink; these seas
and seas of peony, these showy
tons of rose
to urge a musted monk disrobe,
a lamaseried nun unfold;
such breathy, breathy moth
and wasp, such gleeful,
greedy bee to bid
the bully hearts of cops
and bosses sob,
to tell a stubby root unstub, a rusted
hinge unrust, the slug unsalt,
to stir the fusted
lungs to brim, the skin to sting,
the dormant, tinning tongue
to singe and hymn.
The heat so peaked tonight
the moon can’t cool
a scum-mucked swimming
pool, or breeze
emerge to lift the frowsy
ruff of owls too hot
to hoot, (the mouse and brown
barn rat astute
enough to know to drop
and dash) while
on the bunched up,
corkscrewed sheets of cots
and slumped brass beds,
the fitful twist
and kink and plead to dream
a dream of air
as bitter cruel as winter
gale that scrapes and blows
and gusts the grate
to luff the whitened
ashes from the coal.
So often ironic,
at times caustic, despotic,
and always so
that the mere sight
of the word
stirs a not quite
crimp of the lip.
How simple the way
that it plays to our need
to see someone
caught in the thrall
of a just,
to snigger the gloom
of the other
guy’s grand, moody
She saddens, he gladdens.
He rises, she flops.
to name a rare
tonic, or exotic
parfum for it, sell it in fat-
shaped like a tear,
of pleasure, a tincture
at the back of the ear.
Never one-volt love, nor even
lightning bolt’s severe and clearer candle;
nor tact of mooncalf’s cautious pawing
with feathered chaise and bed to cleave in;
nor ease of maid and master’s backstair scandal,
its closeting of coddled mauling,
but ever brisk, and bare, and rarely softened,
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.
The Old Woman Gets Drunk with the Moon
The moon is rising everywhere.
The moon’s my favorite easy chair,
My tin pot-top, my green plum tree,
My brassy buttoned cavalry
Tap-dancing up a crystal stair.
O watch them pitch and take the air!
Like shoo fly pies and signal flares,
Like clotted cream and bumblebees,
The moons are rising.
How hits-the-spot, how debonair,
What swooned balloons of savoir faire,
What purr of rain-blurred bright marquees
That linger late, that wait for me,
Who’ll someday rest my cold bones there
In moons that rise up everywhere.
Envy will empty
embarrassment pin-nip your skin,
grief take a steel ball
to your most brittle
ribbings, but this
and-dime you to
carrying her candle
into a room
for a mirror;
even worship with her stiff
will index and face-
in his flesh
strokes at his pillow,
keeps the rare,
seeded sweet for his mouse,
while the eremite high
on his pillar
pretties his eyebrows, plucks
at his scabs,
begs of the sundown
from Saint Worm
The heart of a bear is a cloud-shuttered
mountain. The heart of the mountain’s a kiln.
The white heart of a moth has nineteen white
chambers. The heart of a swan is a swan.
The heart of a wasp is a prick of plush.
The heart of a sloth gathers moss. The heart
of an owl is part blood and part chalice.
The fey mouse heart rides a dawdy dust-cart.
The heart of a kestrel hides a house wren
at nest. The heart of a lark is a czar.
The heart of a scorpion holds swidden
and spark. The heart of a shark is a gear.
Listen and tell, thrums the grave heart of humans.
Listen well love, for it’s pitch dark down here
and limb burdened, buoyed smoke- and ghost-
and Christ-like in reluctant temperament,
citizens of crevices
and small lost pots,
they lack panache.
Once my mother made one of a wash-
cloth laced with blood and clay. Twelve years later
on a cold Tribeca bar-
room barstool in
a lean, gin-bright
Easter Sunday morning lull, I ate
two diced and salted on a shell thin plate
of pale, petal-stenciled trim
and orchid white.
White On White
Rug dropped sugar,
fresh, wet iris on marble dresser,
the chopping of combers under cold sun,
rain-faded boards of proud, paint-
poor churches, great
dumb snows hiding
inside clouds hidden inside sky. Bring
two together and we see the old lot
of language to ledger tint
from tone, hint from
whisper (not quite
sauterne, closer to crisper champagne),
to cite complement, how as a snail stains
a cement path, the pearled trace
kindles in light.
In My Last Past Life
In my last past life I had a nut brown wife,
a gray and white house looking over the sea,
a forest for love and a river for grief,
a goshawk for beauty, for courage a knife,
a city for distance, lights spread on the sea.
In my last past life I had a brown wife
subtle and busy and contented and brief,
(she stood in the dusk silhouette with the sea)
a forest and love and a river, and grief
was a ghost hidden green in the leaves,
an echo off cliffs that bound back the sea.
In my life it would last, my past and my wife,
the wrens in the garden, the moon on the roof,
day winds that flirted and teased at the sea,
the forest that loved and the river that grieved
the life that was garden and day wind and thief
(each sunrise and sundown the turn of the sea)
the life that I had, and my last brown wife,
a forest for love, a still river for grief.
(Larva of the xestobium rufovillosum, or Death Watch Beetle)
This is the
stuff, the bright
a pawn of
with curlicue, dot,
this is the
the sate –
a shinny, a picnic,
a barbecue, blow-
in it slowly,
so slowly let
brown in its paper,
let paper be
pulp, let pulp
greet the gullet,
room for us,
there is space for
we’re all scribbled
A common button, a tooth, a tattoo
of a flamingo, a cold swallowed tear.
Ordinarily I’ve nothing to wear.
A mannered stranger: was it simply you?
You’re back in the dark of your room, dreaming
of a well-pressed suit, an electric fan,
dogs arguing, a vague fornication.
Was this then your heart, its ruinous hinge?
Rain gestures slowly, gibbering of siege.
It had an allure I am aware of—
love’s pimple, love’s stumble, love’s leaky roof,
and after, throttled laughter caught offstage,
in the distance a trawling, then blind strike,
then jerk and gaff and gored breach into light.
Like an off-kilter blister
the sea preening for storm.
It’s warm. Clouds fluster
wasps scuttle, act skittish.
I’m singing a tune
in my head
that’s muddling the
light that’s speckling the flock
of goats gone to rut.
They’re slit-eyed in heat,
shit-streaked and unholy.
in my right mind today.
Aunt says a red
dusk sours the wine, invites
tousled succuba down
from the attic.
Last night a moon came,
dove-fat and augured,
into my room. I kissed it,
curling my pillow
and kicking the sheet.
Now at my feet
lies such puddle
of feathers. Forgive me.
The Cannibal’s Song
Today I found some flowers, three, in a row.
Yellow, yellow, yellow.
How poetic it made me feel, all that sunlight pouring
evenly into their beggars’ mouths, into the brave, beggarly
cups of their hands.
Another man or woman might have walked on past,
not stopping to notice the mouths,
not stopping to notice the hands,
interested only in her own internal life,
biting his lip against the yellow brightness,
as I may have mentioned, I have the soul of a poet.
Love of the world fills me like rain fills a battered rain barrel.
So much love that I carry a small knife wherever I go,
so much love I carry a small, silver fork, a spoon,
ornate and profound cutlery spilling from my pockets,
napkins, salt and pepper shakers, a Murano glass,
graceful to the hand, etched with shepherds and cloud-colored lamb.
Beware it friend.
Beware it now,
beware it then.
its steps upon
the stair. Beware
your door, what
twists the rugs
of hallway floors.
their soft-ticked dark;
be scared of all that
treads outdoors. Take
guard, take time,
take caution as
with dread what you once
dared; take sense
in all that stirs
in air. Take in each
tiny step, great
Let autumn come,
go, let spring shake
off its weight
of snow. Be
bare once more,
as you go again.
O sinking of silk!
O padded brocade
of personal feather!
I say, let’s bring
them back, the swans
in the spine, I say who
even knows how to
sigh any more, how
position a wrist to lie
wilted and cool
as a cloth on
a forehead, I say
where are those wan,
of arsenic skin who
diamonds the solacing
oxygen; how like
willows they were! How
like bendable arrows,
hysterical sachets, combustible
marshmallows, I say
let’s flush out the wrens
in the lungs, the doves
in the bloodstream; I’m too
sturdy by half, I’m over-
defended; a pillow
would suit me, horsehair
and velvet, bolster
or stuporous lumbar, I
say the plaint in my pelvis
is a nimbus enveloped,
a conga untested, say
unbutton my bosom, I
am open for business.
Dear Doll-Face, I miss you & by miss I mean maul
in absentia (the hairy-fresh scent of your pillowcase,
one smutched & kaput, tossed cotton ball); My Dearest
& Only Flamingo, near here is an elegant Belle Époque
boite, a crowded candle-dim room with a piano that you
should be in; Dear Where Did You Get To You Rascal,
I’m ill-content & I want you, desire like fire each precise,
acquiescent, curvilinear inch; and maybe Hello From
Down South, does the moon way up there still reveal
her shocked kisser over the peak of the torn garage roof
or how’s about an ordinary Greetings You Plump &
Deciduous, Smirched Girly Girl, I’m getting worried
that I am debased and forsaken and, Oh yeah, Postscript,
On the white kitchen table each night lies an icy great
salver of oysters that are heartedly waiting to be your
Beneath the hazed moon, this
hazy absence of stars,
how the hearts of the frogs
How they stretch and bloat
the fine elastic
of their chests, and how
their bloated hearts
are so greatly
This night of camp-tent
swelter belongs to the frogs;
the distant car rattling
slowly home and the nameless,
distant dog know
barrenness, the lone
washer chuffing through
the open door of the Laundromat
cannot muster an equal
grief, so let us pause then to
give praise for the broad
nostrils and the glottises of frogs.
Let us pause for the great
and cupidinous faith that doles
and gravels in the swell of
their thousand throats, in the gellant
swell of a thousand
bulged and gibbous jowls.
Beneath the street lamps,
the damp porches din with
a stridulous passion;
the car lots and darkened
surf stands echo
with an unbroken desolation
and hope, so let
the vacant causeway crowd
with wheeze and jug
and whoop, the slim alleys
hoarsen and gruff.
Let us give loud and stentorian
praise for the gullets
of frogs, that their maws
may widen, their dry
lips bubble and their bellies
spread. That they may
throb and chirrup and croak
of strange and taintless
beauty, make of
our portion proper melody.
Cherry Crush is my favorite lipstick.
When Worlds Collide, my movie of the week.
Why don’t we paddle on out, you and I,
to that small place in the lake where the moon
is skirring to drown. She’s lonely up there
in a way only she knows but I know
a good thousand ways to be near.
Why don’t we try a new game named Fleas-
in-a-Thimble, why don’t we shake up
a cocktail called a Neutron Star?
To be honest I have a body unhappy with space
between bodies, to be truthful I’m hearing
a rumor you do your best work in the clutch.
Why don’t we start a hot dance craze, the Grace
Under Pressure, open a roadhouse,
A Face in the Crowd—I’ll wager I could
tighten a cold coal into a diamond, frottage
a bundle of sticks till they flame; I’m betting you
could scrounge up a mattress the size of a match
box, carry a torch that burns the house down.
Weep no more my lady
Oh go ahead
and rend, old girl,
this garb with all
its sanguine billowing
was made one day
we knew for shredding
and for sundering. Let
all your careful coupling
of hooks and threads
they will, let stitches
grasped in satin
in flurries ravening,
and blub, good dame,
until the tuns and weighted
buckets slop, the barrels
top, until your brave
galoshes slosh, the streets
turn slick beneath
your feet and vitreous,
the courtyards bog
to froggy dens.
This noon which sears
the field to emerald
cuts shadows scythe
and viper sharp, the wind
which fluffs and crowds
the swan bank
pitches stingy dust
against the stone,
so shrug, untouched,
that pitied, ataractic
petting from your shoulder,
swat the tatting
from your cheek,
blubber, snivel, ululate;
keen until the Furies
rest, Niobe warms
again to flesh,
sob, squall and yowl;
wail, my lady, weep today
the gray Pacific fresh.
Boats are sad folks
as they rock
and they rock tied
in the dull
tinfoil light to
Boats could be
like cradles so
adore all the green oceans
and seas that
ignore them, that
romance their broad
salty, fat slaps
and how they
and slow, boats,
lonely, given the names
of out-of-date mistresses,
loved and abandoned
like mistresses: Patsy,
and Beatrice. Coffins
are boats too,
in a close,
empty perhaps, but
still sad. I had
a boat once and I painted it
blue. I assume
it was glum as
the rest and I guess
it forgot me in time,
and maybe it swelled
and it rotted
and maybe its tiny
blue paint flakes
swam as a swarm
in the balletic
of aggregate heaven-
Hearts and Arrows
Fair-haired, tubbiest of cherubs,
rain down your barbs!
Chubby-armed scion, wake me
again with whistles of dove wings,
sweet whistles, spine-shudders.
Roust me, I beg you, with breath-kisses,
rumors of missiles, sharp darts
of delirium, agonies steeper
than canyons and chasms,
than fathomless depth-dark
gulches of oceans.
Unmask and dethrone me;
paint a bright marksman’s target
on the arch of my back and when
you have emptied your quiver,
when I am sufficiently punctured
and scored and you’ve gorged
on my heart, then
sing to me, Fat Boy, of
her silk. Order me slide my thigh
over hers and giggle her neck
like a tipsy milkmaid,
for on this night sat late at the crumbed,
wine-stained cloths of my table,
I am cooled as stone, and grown old,
and no longer babble of women.
I’ve Been Busy
I’ve been busy today
with a tin can of gas.
I’ve been slaving away
with some rags and
a match. Now that the river
is darker than ever,
wider and wider, you’d think
with its planks and
its cables, the seven great arches
all suffered to ashes, the night
would be quiet; it’s not.
Over the croaks here
and there at the edges,
the sudden, artistic flashes
of luminous fish-eating
fishes, curious eddies,
I hear them—the people
so far on the far other
side still calling and shouting
with their moon-headed faces;
over the abetted cinders, shouting
and waving with horns
and confetti, with torn moonlit
hankies, it sounds like
they’re saying—I can’t
help but hear them—we’re
setting the table,
we miss you already.
Or, in other words,
to be flown high up the pole, alpine
as a kite, rendered sack-
sopt and muzzy, lushed, boxed,
gone pot-smit and sotted, face-
foxed or malty,
left whistled, jug-bitten, tipped
tilt as a wheelbarrow
or wrapped in warm flannel—how—
ever the mother tongue
maunders her long, labyrinth, liquid
way round, here we
are tripping up in our cups,
not legless or tow-
row, O My Lovely, not staggered
or tight, but still
reeling ripe, feeling pipped,
and isn’t it all replete
as a peach, our swizzle-stick flirt
and this breezy, voluptuous
rush, (be it glass, be
it barrel) that disburdens
the weight of decorum to devil dry
virtue and gust up your skirt.
one-eyed, three-legged dog,
mud slumbering hog
tight, right rubbery
boot in long snow-slog.
a din of tin keys,
huge hop of small
flea, land crab with sea-leg,
sheep bleat lost in fog,
gas passed at high tea,
grand club-foot leapfrog,
goat gone up a tree.