Monday, October 25, 2010

Cats of the Temple

A theme that runs through Brad Leithauser's poetry is the position of the mind in the world, or the relationship between the mind and the world. There are three moments in his 1986 collection Cats of the Temple that stake out the territory at issue here. The poem "On the Lee Side (Cape Breton, Nova Scotia)" concludes with a description of the mind's desire to see the world as being there just for itself. Leithauser describes the mind (or this part of the mind) as an "elusive but unavoidable, queer / but predictable inner companion":

... who's
neatly, snugly sure

just how this splendid

show of weather's to be accounted for:

ingenious exhibitions exclusively intended

to entice and entertain him here.

From this perspective, the mind is sure that the world is there for it, as "irresistible grist / for the fabulist," as the book's opening poem, "Two Suspensions against a Blacktop Backdrop," puts it.

Here, the mind (or this part of Leithauser's mind) feels that the world is there for its delectation, but near the end of the book, this perspective shifts significantly. First, in "Seaside Greetings (Oki Islands, Japan Sea)," the penultimate poem in the book, after describing how "the crest of a bluff" looks like Japanese armor, Leithauser carefully considers that surprising similarity, and others:

Of course given the scale Nature has
to work with, all of these uncanny,

and often funny, resemblances

(the ancient trees

wrung like buxom women, whales
in the clouds, bights like laughing

horses' heads, potatoes bearing profiles

of generals

dead now for centuries) are

statistical certainties, nothing

more, and yet they do appease our

appetite for

play at the heart of things ...

The "ingenious exhibitions" of the earlier poem are now "uncanny ... resemblances" that are "statistical certainties, nothing / more"—and that line break after "nothing" briefly makes those "resemblances" and "certainties" into "nothing." That "nothing" then calls forward to the "things" of the next clause, the "and yet" clause that gives us something back from that "nothing / more": the satisfaction of a desire for play. The "ingenious exhibitions" may not be "ingenious" and they may not be "exhibitions," but the mind can still be appeased by them—not with meaning, but with playfulness.

The final poem in the book takes place in the same location: "On a Seaside Mountain (Oki Islands, Japan Sea)". At the top of the mountain, there are horses in a pasture, and the poem concludes:

The sun's pace
is perfectly theirs, and the planted ease

they are breathing, are breeding, in this place,

while not meant for us, lightens us anyway.

The "ease" of the horses is "not meant for us," but it "lightens us anyway." Again, the mind seeks something in the world, but in these last two images, Leithauser's "elusive but unavoidable, queer / but predictable inner companion" has been tempered by a realism that still leaves room for that companion to be "enticed and entertained." The world may not be "exclusively intended" for us—it may even be devoid of meaning—but it "appeases" and "lightens" us anyway.

1 comment:

Donald Brown said...

Nice commentary, great quotations. Thanks, I'll have to look into this poet's work sometime. I've known the name but only fleetingly in anthologies. I like the clarity and ease of these lines--"entertain and entice" indeed.