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

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.

Lavoro all’uncinetto

Collection of Italian needlework pieces, circa 1920

Out of the depths (stuck bottom drawer, old chest)
I’ve dug from plastic-bagged indignity
a mound of lace meringues: fine white crochet,
mine now by force of law, and loss, and mess.
My mother’s hoarding of her mother’s handwork,
chastely intact, most of a century.

Mysterious nonna, visited
too rarely, poorly understood
(our lost words locked each other out;
our only common tongue was food)
I never watched you, in bad light
inventing beauty thread by thread.

A Late Look Back, and Forward: Mary Jo Salter’s The Surveyors

The Surveyors
by Mary Jo Salter
(Alfred A. Knopf, 90 pages, $27)

Gathering background for this review, I was surprised to discover that the poems of Mary Jo Salter that I remember best are not the ones that her recent reviewers consider most typical. The Salter poems I think of first are “Welcome to Hiroshima” and “Common Room, 1970,” poems that look through the prism of first-hand, small-scale experience to confront evils on the scale of history. But I’ve conversed with readers who think of Salter’s usual subjects and approaches as timid, reticent, anxious.

Reading the Early Letters

i.m. Anthony Hecht

Why should it shock me that his younger self
spouts wordplay like a great baroque jet d’eau,
German abbreviations, French bons mots,
lettered allusions up and down the shelf
of the Bard’s dramas? And the KJV?
Even in wartime, juggling bric-a-brac!
A bright disguise, put on for family?
A carapace his later poems would crack?

False questions. My small shudder at the heart
drums from the memory of those pinched and bland
and few scribbles I sent from school back then
to parents shy of words and starved of art.
All parties artless, failing to understand
what mattered—
……………………….Fifty years, and I wince again.

Sleep, Loss

Once past the pang of handing in her keys,
she met none of the miseries foretold
for the retired. Those bus-stop waits in the cold
were well lost, and she slept the sleep of peace
alarmless. What dawned slowly was a dulled
or loosened hold on morning’s luxuries—
the moon, a sliced pearl set in lapis skies
diamonded by one planet, with the gold-
red band of sunrise chasing her.
………………………………………And she thought
then of an older loss: when her last child
had learned to sleep till daylight, and her lulled
limbs fled communion with the monk, the night-
watcher, the graveyard shift, as she became
an outcast from the house of two a.m.

Wildfire Season

Iliad 2.455-457
with thanks to A.E. Stallings

. . . Just as a lightning strike,
or a stray spark, or some such randomness
takes hold, sudden as thought, of a wildland ridge
so that we see, in distances and news clips,
tall tonguings of molten saffron-orange
lick hugely from one hillside to another
and plumes of ashy black, poufs and bouffants
lifting, then sifting down in crumbs of grit
on the attendant rich suburban houses
where families listen nervously for updates—
which highways will be glutted with sedans,
and Range Rovers, and SUVs, all gut-stuffed
with people in flight, angry and disbelieving
that a random flash or spark could wrest from them
the lovely form and matter of their lives,
leaving not even gods to blame, just so. . .