The Lowly and the Long Friends: Hailey Leithauser’s Saint Worm

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Saint Worm
by Hailey Leithauser
(Able Muse, 2019, 86 pages, $17.95)

Hailey Leithauser’s first book, the thrillingly titled Swoop, was full of poems that did plenty of swooping, deservedly, onto the field of poetry prizes. Words of praise like audacious, excess, virtuosic, gusto, and glee are abundant testimony to the book’s acrobatic approach. A title like Saint Worm for a second book seems like something quieter, more up-from-under, slower. It might make us wonder: Has there been some sort of change? In fact, there’s no reason to wonder or worry. The same rhythmic abandon and the same devotion to the sounds that are the core of poetry enliven Saint Worm.

Let’s first see why the techniques in Leithauser’s poetry make such a splash. She explains that herself, in an interview with Amy Beeder, in Plume. Although there’s plenty to like, she says, in contemporary free verse, there is “a painful dearth of music—not just formal end rhyme, but internal rhymes, assonance and consonance, anaphora and all those lovely tricks of the trade . . .” The more jaundiced explanation I might add is that there’s also a painful wealth of bland diction and predictable line-breaking, and in metrical poems there’s over-reliance on pentameter (ask any editor who publishes formal verse). This need not be so. Are poets still running away from Swinburne (see “Hymn to Proserpine”)? Have they forgotten Karl Shapiro (see “Buick”)? Or Tom Disch (see “Ode to a Blizzard”)? Aren’t they paying attention to Todd Boss (“How Smokes the Smolder”)?

Leithauser isn’t running or forgetting, and she’s paid ample attention. Here’s what we get in Saint Worm, or rather, here is one of its many variations: the poem “Glowworm” as published in Image. (I’m linking here as well as excerpting so that you can read the poem in full.)

I am the whisper
matches rattle
in their cold
and boxy hovels.
I’m desire
gone to ground.
I am efficient,
almost secret;
you can read in me
such scripture
of the most compacted
and contented
red-light district. . . .

There’s a particular thrill of recognition here for those who love the very oldest of English forms. These dimeter lines work like the half-lines in the four-stress measures of Old English verse. The poem has the centuries-old impulse of the Exeter Book riddles. It’s got meter and mouth-feel paired with arch indirectness; a bit of lookup about glowworms was needed to discover how a red-light district might be relevant. There’s even a first-person speaker. If not for the title, which helps me interpret as I go, I might have looked for the canonical riddling ending “Say what I am.”

There are eight “worm poems” in the book, a sort of axis on which the other poems turn. (Swoop did something similar with six irreverent poems whose titles all start with “Sex.”) Even visually, they’re wormlike: long and skinny, sometimes in a single long sentence, sometimes wriggling down the page in a side-to-side format. By its title, “Bookworm” at first looks like an even more direct nod to the Old English riddle that begins, in modern English “A worm ate words.” But it sidesteps that expectation by avoiding the first person and by describing not the eater but the eaten: words, ink, typefaces, paper:

. . .
here is
the clambake,
a shinny, a picnic,
a barbecue, blow-
out, stick
a fork
in it slowly,
so slowly let
each perfect
word steep
brown in its paper,
let paper be
pulp, let pulp
be pastiche,
let grist
greet the gullet,
bless it
there is
room for us,
there is space for
the ages,
we’re all scribbled
on water,
bring, bring
the dead.

Not only does it riff on words and paper, consumption and waste, it wings away from those toward death, disappearance, the transience of written words, and—with a wink at Keats, whose “name was writ in water”—the poor souls who write them.

What it does metrically while getting there is a favorite dance move of Leithauser’s: to take a clearly repeated speech rhythm and let it play hide-and-seek in a camouflage of line breaks. (To be clear, I scan thus: HERE is the  / CLAM bake / POT latch a / SHIN ny a / PIC nic . . .)  The method is testimony to the real importance of the page, even where sound is primary. Without the eye’s fight with the ear, we would lose one of the poem’s genuine features, the feel of reading as a tension between visual and aural.

Quite often what the ear finds in these lines is a rollicking triple meter. Dactyls, anapests, amphibrachs—the rhythms might be any of these depending on where you begin (which makes some of these poems feel metrically a bit like Escher lithographs). The line breaks in this particular poem, besides acting as a veil in front of the dancing, don’t force pauses at all but let the sound tumble breathlessly forward. But no move gets repeated too often or for too long. There are other worm poems that proceed by bouncy iambs for quite a distance. All of them, though, have that tumbling feel.

The poems are similar in their vermiform shape on the page, and also in their point of view, usually the worm’s. “Saint Worm” is a disappointed description of the badly preserved relic of a saint; not much left for the worm to enjoy there. “Fat Worm” riffs on Shakespeare’s observation that “we fat ourselves for maggots.” “Coy Worm” sides with Andrew Marvell in his famous plea to his standoffish mistress, stating the worm’s clear preference for the non-virginal. “Sin-Eater Worm” describes the worm as such a functionary in his encounter with a particular corpse. “Eminent Worm” is about the end of an eminence grise from the viewpoint of the intruding worm, and “I Will Name the Worms” does just that: contemplates with joy the final destruction of the narrator’s own body and assigns affectionate names to the worms that will do the job.

Worminess, it must be said—especially corpse-maggot worminess—is not an easy poetic sell.  Apart from an evasion like Dylan Thomas’s “the long friends” (in “A Refusal to Mourn . . .”), the worms of the grave are generally invoked for their power to disgust. Why are worms in this book? Leithauser describes her goal in the worm poems as working through the fear of death, and she recalls discovering “the idea of the consumption of the body being not a destruction, but a release from the body, a de-construction so to speak.” For the reader, the fear is not so much worked through as danced away from, distracted from by the game of skipping over these graves through sometimes convoluted syntax, to the beat of the meters and internal rhymes.

One odd-poem-out looks death in the face, though, and gentles it without dancing around it. It’s “Tollund,” a poem that assumes we have seen or can look up images of Tollund Man, the leather-skinned bog body from the pre-Roman Iron Age. “Tollund” does more of its work with images than with sound:

. . .This is a death
that crows want to honor and snow
at rest on gentling hills wants to lie over.
This death that is weariness,
this death that is meaningless
and careful experience,
that is glacial and graveled, hoveled experience
like that of existence (calling of children
over millennia, loud rivers,
clouds). . . .

The poem has assonances and bits of triple meter (“the cargo of stomach, the plenty of gut”) but its longer lines, shorter sentences, and calmer diction let us move through its sense more smoothly than in the worm poems, and I would say more soothingly, without thought of fear.

Working through fear is not the book’s only motivation. In its multiple motivations, Saint Worm also follows the pattern in Swoop, which has a secondary strand of dictionary poems. Saint Worm’s other principal theme is praise of whatever is lowly, abject, “despised and rejected of men.” Poems about bones and skeletons straddle the line between themes, but poems about small, shy animals like the octopus, minnow, and frog come directly under the heading of lowliness. So do poems about unloved creatures like crows and albinos and unloved people like the madman, the pickpocket, and the hangman. Minor moments do too, as in “Dumb Luck”—

When a punch is ducked
by a fall-down drunk,

or the bank is broke
by a card shark’s blink,

then you know it’s struck
like the tinny plink

of a rusted clock . . . .

—and as in “Coronation,” about a silly moment of loving royal pomp and circumstance:

wouldn’t you just,
so lost among orchids
with no born-to-it,
heretofore glimmer or sense
of noblesse,
wouldn’t you, trusting,
alone, slip on
the welterweight topper
and sing swank as an opera
from the buttery lamplights
of Moscow to Rome?

The “praise of the lowly” poems can show off a wider range of techniques than the deliberately worm-shaped poems can. That range has the drawback of looking a bit miscellaneous but also the virtue of variety. Among those “lowly” poems are syllabic verses like “Octopus,” “White on White,” and “0” that are a bit surreal, seeming to channel Marianne Moore.  The “Bedlam Songs,” “The Pickpocket’s Song,” and “The Hangman’s Song” use undisguised end rhymes and meters that bounce. “Monster,” which seems to give voice to Beowulf’s Grendel, uses a rough six-beat line. And there’s the rare free-verse found poem, “The Distance of Objects.”

A few poems, but only a few, don’t fit well into this two-theme classification, and it may not be a coincidence that for me those poems work less well than others. “Eurydice” and “Mary” are examples. I suspect I simply don’t see those two archetypal women the way Leithauser does. In both of her books, much of our pleasure depends on being able to share her attitude, which is sometimes unorthodox.

Nonetheless, Leithauser’s skill in using and in moving past our typical attitudes is worth exploring.  Consider: “lowliness” as a category overlaps with “triviality.” No matter how many poets have been fond of minor subjects and have celebrated the minor poem, to combine rhyme with the everyday skirts the danger of producing something that belongs in a class with Updike’s light verse or Maxine Kumin’s “Sneeze.” Yet by moving the rhymes away from the ends and breaking up the usual correspondence between line and rhythmical unit, Leithauser gets something quite different, something that asks to be its own category even when its subjects are considered unimportant.

Swoop was constructed almost entirely of this brand of nose-thumbing at seriousness, which partly explains that book’s joyful reception. Saint Worm has a darker heart. It wants to make friends with dissolution and lowliness, not blow raspberries at them. If there is the same metrical playfulness, there is also less “O” and less wild swinging between levels of diction.

Writing in May of 2020, I wonder how a book with no societal bone to pick or political side to take will fare, in an emotional climate that has changed utterly since its publication date. Will it suffer because its interests have no identity but the human? Will it benefit from our new, housebound awareness of the depths of everyday things? Will we be comfortable with its dance with death while the numbers of the dying grow?