The Oldest Word for Dawn: New and Selected Poems

The Oldest Word for Dawn: New and Selected Poems

by Brad Leithauser
     
 

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From one of our most universally admired poets: a generous selection from his five acclaimed books of poetry, and an outstanding group of new poems.

From the outset, Brad Leithauser has displayed a venturesome taste for quirky patterns, innovative designs sprung loose from traditional forms. In The Oldest Word for Dawn, we encounter a sonnet in

Overview

From one of our most universally admired poets: a generous selection from his five acclaimed books of poetry, and an outstanding group of new poems.

From the outset, Brad Leithauser has displayed a venturesome taste for quirky patterns, innovative designs sprung loose from traditional forms. In The Oldest Word for Dawn, we encounter a sonnet in one-syllable lines (“Post-Coitum Tristesse”), a clanging rhyme-mad tribute to the music of Tin Pan Alley (“A Good List”), intricate buried rhyme schemes (“In Minako Wada’s House”), autobiography spun through parodies of Frost and Keats and Omar Khayyám (“Two Summer Jobs”).
In a new poem, “Earlier,” the poet investigates a kind of paradox: What is the oldest word for dawn in any language? The pursuit ultimately descends into the roots of speech, the genesis of art. “Earlier” is part of a sequence devoted to prehistoric themes: the cave paintings of Altamira, the disappearance of the Neanderthals, the poet’s journey with his teenage daughter to excavate a triceratops skeleton in Montana . . .

The author of six novels as well, Leithauser not surprisingly brings to his verse a flair for compelling narrative: a fateful romantic encounter on a streetcar (“1944: Purple Heart”); the mesmerizing arrival of television in a quiet Detroit neighborhood (“Not Lunar Exactly”); two boys heedlessly, joyfully bidding permanent farewell to a beloved sister (“Emigrant’s Story”).
             
The Oldest Word for Dawn reveals Brad Leithauser as a poet of surpassing tenderness and exactitude, a poet whose work, at sixty, fulfills the promise noted by James Merrill on the publication of his first book: “The observations glisten, the feelings ring true. These poems by a young, unostentatious craftsman are made to something very like perfection. No one should overlook them.”  

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780307959669
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
02/19/2013
Sold by:
Random House
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
256
File size:
2 MB

Read an Excerpt

OLD GLOBE 


For her big birthday 
we gave her (nothing less would do) 
the world, which is to say


a globe copyrighted the very year 
she was born—eighty years before. 
She held it tenderly, and it was clear


both had come such a long way: 
the lovely, dwindled, ever-eager-to-please 
woman whose memory had begun to fray


and a planet drawn and redrawn through 
endless shifts of aims and loyalties, 
and war and war.


*


Her eye fell at random. “Formosa,” she read. 
“Now that’s pretty. Is it there today?” 
A pause. “It is,” my brother said,


“though now it’s called Taiwan.” 
She looked apologetic. “I sometimes forget . . .” 
“Like Sri Lanka,” I added. “Which was Ceylon.”


And so my brothers and I, globe at hand, began: 
which places had seen a change of name 
in the last eighty years? Burma, Baluchistan,


Czechoslovakia, Abyssinia, Transjordan, Tibet. 
Because she laughed, we extended our game 
into history, mist: Vineland, Persia, Cathay . . .


*


She was in a middle place— 
her forties—when photos were first transmitted, 
miraculously, from outer space.


Who could believe those men—in their black noon— 
got up like robots, wandering the wild 
wastelands of the moon,


and overhead a wholly naked sun 
and an Earth so far away 
it was less real than this one,


the gift received today— 
the globe she’d so tenderly fitted 
under her arm, like a child.


*


Finally, there’s cake: eight candles in a ring. 
. . . Just so, the past turns distant past,
each rich decade diminishing


to a little stick of wax, rapidly 
expiring. I say, “Now make a wish before 
you blow them out.” She says, “I don’t see—”


stops. Then mildly protests: “But they look so nice.” 
We laugh at her—and wince when a look of doubt 
or fear clouds her face; she needs advice.


Well—what should anyone wish for 
in blowing candles out 
but that the light might last?


THE BIRTH OF INJUSTICE


Meandering Neandertals 
keep bumping up against


the glacier’s high, invasive walls, 
whose blackened snout


comes down to eat the ground underneath their feet.


Which is the way now? 
What else but hunched despair’s


narrowing valleys, this gathering 
feeling of everything


constricting? 
                        It’s an old notion, nearly sensed                        
from way back when: somehow,


this exorbitant venture of theirs 
—Life—isn’t working out.




She’s a brooder, this one, 
on her rock, who once or twice, or thrice


(no words for numbers yet), 
has laid a child to earth. They take


the tiny body from your arms and it goes 
down into a cold mouth we make


ourselves, digging out the shape. 
                                                             The ice eats, the earth eats, and having set


her haunches on a rock, she ponders the light: 
it’s dawn, or dusk, no language for


origins or ends, and yet the sun 
is moving, and in her blood she knows


always their dwindling journey has been far 
too brutal: something’s not right.




This big-boned figure who 
subsists chiefly on cattails she praises


from the numb gray sand 
of a half-frozen pond


prefers of course 
the soft and steamy organs of horse


or aurochs, when those are in hand— 
not often enough.
                                 Not often enough, days


warmly warm, all the way through, 
when the wished sun rises


up in your chest with the blaze 
of honey on the tongue, for you the ache


and sting of it, sweet beyond 
any sounds a mouth might make.


REMOTE MIDNIGHT


Icelandic Mouse

As, safe in its hole, 
The field mouse quakes when the hawk 
Soars across the sky, 
So the candle, indoors, shakes 
When the wind goes howling by.


Kenyan Lion

. . . The leaves, too, quiver 
At the roar of a creature 
Whose gullet’s vaster 
Than that lair where the battered 
Blood-streaming sun’s retreated.

Meet the Author

BRAD LEITHAUSER is the author of five collections of poetry, six novels, a novel in verse, two collections of light verse, and a book of essays. Among the many awards and honors he has received are a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Ingram Merrill Foundation Grant, and a MacArthur Fellowship. He served for a year as Time magazine’s theater critic. In 2005, Leithauser was inducted into the Order of the Falcon by the president of Iceland for his writings about Nordic literature. He is a professor in the writing seminars at Johns Hopkins University and divides his time between Baltimore, Maryland, and Amherst, Massachusetts. 

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