The Oldest Word for Dawn

The poetry of Brad Leithauser offers an adept blend of individual and social drama.

The Oldest Word for Dawn By Brad Leithauser Knopf 234 pp.

The Oldest Word for Dawn: New and Selected Poems is a wonderful introduction to – or means of getting reacquainted with – the work of Brad Leithauser, whose poetry and fiction have delighted readers for years. The compilation begins with new poems that lovingly portray Leithauser's late mother, who watched the world change in dizzying ways during her more than 80 years.

Those pages demonstrate Leithauser’s ability to create clear, compelling narratives that satisfy readers on multiple levels. As the book continues, diving into older work, the writing shifts from looser, longer pieces to tighter, more imagistic poems and back again. Some of the most memorable writing is compact and polished, as in these lines about the planet Mercury from “11 Astronomical Riddles”: “I huddle closest to the heat/ Yet my back is cold/ As ice. I am the most fleet,/ If the least bold.” Throughout the book, music and formal control go hand in hand, resulting in smooth poems that are inviting and thoughtful.

Leithauser knows how and when to use rhyme and rhythm, and he adeptly tackles both personal stories and larger concerns: history, math, philosophy. His signature poems, such as “Emigrant’s Story,” blend individual and social dramas with tenderness and precision. In “1944: Purple Heart,” Leithauser captures the mood of a generation with the description of a wounded GI who is supposed to focus on healing but instead thinks “Rest? He has to show his girl ‘a time.’ ”

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