by Mark Leidner
Factory Hollow Press 2011
Reviewed by Kathleen Rooney
“…when I’m not trying to be funny, but I get a laugh.”
Mark Leidner is responsible not merely for crafting the poems in his collection Beauty Was the Case That They Gave Me, but also for the cover, where a red-uniformed basketball player soars above the New York City skyline to dunk on the Twin Towers. Like the poems in the book, this cover reads as both striking and provocative—funny, uncomfortable, and not without pathos. Leidner’s illustration is risky. It also speaks to the pleasure of sport: watching someone who is exceptionally gifted at a specific activity who is doing it not only well, but also joyfully. Leidner’s poetry is aware of and delighted with its own virtuosity, but is not arrogant about it; the poet is not only cognizant of, but insistent upon, its
limitations . No amount of dunking will bring back the Twin Towers. This book is good at what it does while being concerned with what it is unable to do, often taking that very inadequacy as its subject.
One of the best pieces in the collection, “Yellow Rose,” comments on the futility of anti-war poetry in particular and “political” poetry in general. After a page-and-a-half of comic riffing on scenarios that give the prurient, immature speaker “a boner”— including, but definitely not limited to: “tornadoes on the news,” a woman pronouncing “apricot,” and “the way the sun came through the window/prismatized by smears of grease”—he transitions to images which do not, starting with “the level of tranquility/a Jeep of body bags achieves/jostling off along a twisting gravel/path, bound for home,” and including “War/in general, and in particular/the current war”. The speaker bitterly concludes:
I am against the current war the most
because while it unfolds
I live, and I love
I suppose. But who could possibly care
what I have to say about this war?
I could say anything here,
it wouldn’t matter. I could say,
“I am Motortrend Car of the Year.”
“You are the yellow rose
corkscrewing out of the slippery rocks
that gird the river of black water.”
“I have seen a thousand moons
wax and wane to completion
since we last touched.”
And though the speaker tragi-comically asserts his own impotence in the face of institutionally sanctioned violence, he simultaneously shows that his statements do matter; the poem ends up politically and emotionally efficacious because it spends most of its time winning the reader over and accruing a degree of good will before getting to its real thrust
. As the poem progresses, the reader comes to realize that the innumerable goofy hard-ons are not arbitrary, nor are they just cheap signifiers of lowbrow bodily humor; they are also interrogations of masculinity. Thus, the semi-sudden turn at the end to war is not a 180, but a smoothly connected component of an argument, a surprising yet inevitable shift toward the classic juxtaposition of that which is erotic with that which is deadly, as well as the pain of being largely powerless in the face of institutional coercion. “Yellow Rose” is hilarious, weary, and sad, and speaks eloquently of the frustration of being an atomized subject in a “democracy” that does not care.
It would be misleading, though, to suggest that this is primarily a political collection. Most of the poems make no mention of global conflict or politics, but rather take as their premise something the reader will know passively and forcing them to know it actively. For instance, few people have not heard the expression “Pearls Before Swine,” just as few people are unfamiliar with how the formulaic plots of “Romantic Comedies” unfold.
Rhetoricians and cynical film makers exploit pre-existing knowledge of these things all the time, inducing their audience to buy what they are selling without actually thinking about what they are saying. Leidner sets out to give the weirdness of these things back to his audience—to make his readers aware of all the detritus in their heads. The penultimate paragraph of the prose poem “Pearls…” asks:
How would you feel if your whole life was worth nothing? And nothing came of it? You would be like a dog staring up at a Rembrandt. Or a single-cell amino acid stranded on some meteorite in space. Or a really good baseball player back in primordial times, back before there was baseball, or even civilization.
Be smarter than you have to be, the poem seems to suggest; don’t waste your brain, don’t waste your life. Compelling though it is, this accusatory tone might fail if the speaker did not, in the ultimate paragraph, accuse himself as well, admitting:
Sometimes I feel like that too. Sometimes I feel like a swine pearls are being cast before. Like at sunset. Or every time it snows. Or when I have sex and the girl is on top. Or sometimes when I’m not trying to be funny, but I get a laugh.
In breaking this expression down to a degree that does not, on the surface, seem possible or even worth attempting, Leidner seems to be asking both “How on top of my game can I be?” and “Isn’t there a different game we should be paying more attention to?” This latter bit of self-critique—does poetry matter? Does art? Does beauty?—ensures that neither the book nor the individual poems come off as shallow exercises in
Similarly, “Romantic Comedies” consists of 17 pages of pitches—“Everyone in his life has drowned and he hates dogs and she’s a collegiate swimming coach with a thousand dogs”—that put one in the mind of a Baroque composition; they are increasingly ornate as they accumulate, building to a crescendo by way of timing and repetition. The piece takes shape as a comment on love, but it also suggests that the search for love in rom coms is potentially metaphorical for all kinds of searches, so it goes both ways, and the poem helps the reader see that.
Leidner’s poems always seem to set out with a purpose, and then to be making surprise discoveries en route, and sometimes those discoveries consist of what the poem can or cannot do. For all their high-concept premise-i-ness (Recall that of the cover: “What if a guy tried to dunk on the Twin Towers?”), the poems do not embark with mere novelty as the goal, but rather commence with something received to see what happens when a ton of pressure is applied—can I take this coal and squish it into a diamond? Over and over again, Leidner takes risks—seemingly multiplying potentially “bad ideas” times a million to see if he can eventually push through to a good idea. If these poems were just riffs, then nothing would be at stake, but because he is trying, always, to be coherent—to make his poems add up to more than the sum of their parts. The reader wonders “Can he do it?” and roots for him when he does.
“Biographies of Einstein,” for instance, begins with a series of outrageous statements and one-liners, such as, “They say he had a small family,/about four inches tall”, kind of like the animated song “George Washington” by Cox and Combes or “Anecdotes from the Life of Pushkin” by Daniil Kharms. At first, the piece seems as though it might be a series of fanciful non sequiturs, but then—as he does elsewhere—Leidner proves himself thankfully ill-suited to non sequiturs, stringing them together until the poem becomes narrative. Thus, he achieves the steady energy of a non sequitur-driven poem while retaining the option of progress, moving in a direction toward a point. Instead of discrete fireworks (which could be charming enough), Leidner’s poems take their beautiful flashes and choreograph them into a full-on laser light show. His poems have takeaways—they have, to use an old fashioned high school English class word, themes. They refer to things outside themselves, and they do not merely quote them. “Biographies of Einstein” is ridiculous and silly, but so too does it deal with the heroic and problematic sides of the actual Einstein, and his complicated relationship with the nuclear history of America.
To put it another way, Leidner tends to write poems that argue. He produces poetry that a reader can agree or disagree with. His poem “Story” reads like a parable mixed with a PhD thesis, or like a Milan Kundera novel where a great deal of the “story” is actually thinky commentary on the deceptively simple narrative. Language, the poem declares, “calls action forth, out of the body. / That is what powerful, believed language does. It is the wind in front of the locomotive that pulls the rest of the train into the future.” Here and elsewhere, the reader can see what the poet is asserting, can discern the values and ideas being expressed and defended; Leidner’s poetry is not a series of clever but ultimately empty utterances or dropped statements that never link to the surrounding ones, interesting though they may be. Rather, this poem proceeds unexpectedly yet logically, making a case, offering exhibits and evidence and adding them up to a whole, all the while keeping the reader’s interest because of the inherent tension suggested by the title—is this poem a poem, or is it a story, and how can anyone tell? Beauty is the case, as the collection’s title explains, and Leidner obviously wants to entertain and to meet his readers where they live, but also wants his poems, above all, to be beautiful.