A few years ago while digging around in a used bookstore, I came across the most amazing-looking book of poetry. It was a collaboration of two brothers, Brad and Mark Leithauser, one a poet, one an artist.
Lettered creatures: light verse
'Brad And Mark Leithauser are brothers, born in Detroit in the 1950s. Brad is a bard (the author, most recently, of the novel in verse Darlington's Fall), and Mark has made his mark as a painter and draftsman. They share the same exquisite family wit, one born in precise observation matched with intellectual playfulness. This wit is on display on every page of this remarkable alphabet book, each spread of which is devoted to an emblematic creature - an appetitive Anteater, an annoying Fly, an addled Joey, a prickly Porcupine, and twenty-two more. On the left of each spread is an eightline poem; opposite it is a delicate, complementary pencil drawing, reproduced here in exacting duotone. The poems will remind readers sometimes of Marianne Moore, sometimes of Ogden Nash; the detail of the drawings will remind them of John James Audubon and their pointed humor of Tenniel's Alice in Wonderland. But comparisons are odious here: this book is a duet by two great contemporary artists, a unicum by any description.' (Google Books)
Intrigued by Brad Leithauser's work, I have been looking him up here and there, and have thoroughly enjoyed everything I've read. The following poem is not from Lettered Creatures; however, it is a gorgeous walk through memory, reminding readers that joy and beauty are in the little things.
There was a vase
that held the world’s riches, but it wasn’t cheap.
It cost a dime — and this in a time and place
when dimes were sizable, especially for
a girl of eight whose construction-worker father
was unemployed. The old metaphor
was literal in this case and she
counted her pennies till there were ten —
then embarked on a mission of great secrecy,
a purchase whose joys ran so deep,
seventy years later, as she told the tale again,
her face flushed. It was a birthday gift for her mother.
There was a race
of people heretofore glimpsed only on hanging scrolls
in library books. They were on the vase —
the smallest whole figures imaginable,
purposeful and industrious
as they fished or planted rice or hiked a hill
whose spiral trail led to a temple perched upon
a crag between cloud and waterfall.
They were a vision exported from Japan —
a country far as the moon, and far more beautiful,
whose artists grasped an eight-year-old girl’s soul’s
need for the minutely amplitudinous.
There was a place
(Detroit, the thirties) now slipped from sight,
though here and there I’ll catch some holdover trace —
maybe the grille on an old apartment door,
or a slumped block of houses, draped
in torn sheets of rain, apparently posing for
black-and-white photographs. Even the out-
of-a-job, men like my grandfather, donned hats back then
before leaving the house — to circle endlessly about,
as if a lost job were a lost coin that might
yet be found on the street where it had been dropped,
making them whole again.
There was a face,
rucked with care, that would dreamily soften
if talk floated off toward some remote someplace
beyond the seas. My grandmother had a yen for the faraway
(which she imparted to her daughter),
even as her life was tethered between a gray
icy motionless Midwestern city —
stalled like a car with a frozen ignition —
and a Tennessee farm without electricity.
(She did once see Washington — cherry season — and often
spoke of those long pink walkways beside the water
that were Japan’s gift to a grateful nation.)
There is a vase —
a piece of gimcrack that somehow
made its way to a crowded curio case
in a small souvenir shop
in Detroit, seventy-plus years ago —
which today stands atop
the mantel in the apartment in DC
where my fading mother is now living.
When she was eight, in 1933,
she gave it to my grandmother, who
for all her poverty bequeathed her daughter so
rich a bounty, including a taste for giving:
the gift of grace.
It seems a little miracle
almost — that it’s intact, the little vase,
conveying what its makers set out to convey:
an inward island spared by Time,
by the times. These days, she can scarcely say
who she gave it to, or on what occasion.
A — birthday? The pilgrim climbs the winding hill
forever, station by station,
and “Isn’t it beautiful?”
she asks. “You bought it for a dime,”
I tell her. It holds the world’s riches still.