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Cats of the Temple by Brad Leithauser (Knopf: $14.95, hardcover; $7.95, paperback; 70 pp.)

August 03, 1986|James Bartruff | Screenwriter Bartruff was twice Academy of American Poets prize winner at UCLA. and

You have to reckon with Brad Leithauser. Born in mid-Baby Boom--a generation which, considering its size, is most notable for having produced no great writers--Leithauser is a graduate of Harvard and Harvard Law School and already the recipient of numerous grants and awards, not the least of which is the arcane MacArthur Foundation "genius" award. He is also one of the rare "happy" poets: His joy in the things of this world and the lively, undampened play of his poems make this book almost lighter than air.

"Cats" is cut from the same cloth as his first collection, the critically and popularly well-received "Hundreds of Fireflies." The poems tend to concentrate on things, in this case, tortoises, sea horses, rabbits, and, in the title piece, tigers on a Japanese screen. He primarily is a painter of pastoral miniatures, even when flying over or touring on foot the precincts of Tokyo.

He's the more complete artist in his narrative poems. I thought after reading parts of "Hundreds of Fireflies" that we might have another Pushkin on our hands, and a good half of "Cats" are travel pieces--Nova Scotia, Guam, Japan--in which other human beings figure in the foreground. Unfortunately, Leithauser is too often content with mere description, and the grit of emotion, even his, is left buried under the bounty of words.

Don't get me wrong. These are great words. Leithauser is a Mozart of formal invention and music-- almost lost arts, these days--and his ability to invest the ordinary objects of life with little epiphanies is unsurpassed by anyone save William Carlos Williams.

Those who praise Leithauser--and those he seems to have learned from--are the academia against whom Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and the Beats revolted in the mid-1950s. The latter were located on, or found much of their inspiration from the Pacific Rim (Snyder made a long pilgrimage to Japan), and what they wrote and how they perceived the world changed perceptibly for the influence.

Leithauser, on the other hand, even after having spent years overseas, seems to be "breezing on his trust fund through the world," as Robert Lowell once said, writing little more than exquisitely beautiful postcards, all the while retaining the breeding, outlook and reticence of the American ruling class. That he is a better pure writer than Ginsberg or Snyder--he is, in my opinion, the best pure writer in the language--makes him a terribly frustrating poet to read.

It may be that Leithauser means to harken back to Robert Herrick's Elizabethan charms, or, perhaps he has absorbed and is merely reflecting a certain lightness of style found in some Chinese and Japanese poetry. I think, rather, that he's found a beautiful way to avoid fully engaging himself in the harms of man. As the painted tigers of the title poem say, "Enter . . . There's nothing to fear." That makes for comfortable reading. Given Leithauser's talent, it's also a shame.

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