“Love is rad”: TFT Review of Beauty Was The Case That They Gave Me by Mark Leidner
Mark Leidner’s Beauty Was the Case That They Gave Me (Factory Hollow Press, 2011) revels in the possibilities of parameters: each poem seems quick to establish its field, its project as it were, lofting it and then playfully pushing back at its self-imposed boundaries. The language, in general, is deceptively direct, underlying a mode that becomes self-conscious if it gets too elevated or ambitious in its scope. While reading, I was tempted to think of a poet like Frank O’Hara, whose lists, casual and insular references to his peers and to Coca-Cola bottles— I guess you could call it plain-speak— seemed at once to throw stones through the windows of the Church of Poetry while simultaneously making the mundane sublime. Break down the fourth wall and add a dash of James Tates’ casual surrealism, and you might have something that resembles this collection. Almost despite itself, Leidner’s is a masterful and contemporary voice: Like a great rock drummer, he can get fancy or play cacophonously, but is able to tuck back into four-four time without losing a beat. The man’s got rhythm, knowing when to be irreverent, when to be clever, and yes, when to inject gravitas.
The poem, “Yellow Rose,” for example, immediately builds a humorous and profane duality, beginning “When it snows I get a boner,” and then listing other moments (“tornadoes,” “the presence or absence of a woman,” “garbled rap/…out of/ white dude’s iPod”) which inspire the voice’s decidedly masculine arousal. The form of the poem creates an effect of comic accumulation, which crystallizes into self-consciousness: “And at what age do men mature?/ I wonder this and get a boner”. At this point, however, and without shifting in register, the poem takes a dramatic turn, exploring the things that do not give the speaker a hard on: “the level of tranquility/ a Jeep of body bags achieves,” “Faces ceasing to exist,” “people being/ shot like dogs, like nothing” which build into “War/ in general, and in particular.” At play, here, is the guilt of the pacifist non-combatant happily and unhappily existing far away from the bedlam and chaos of war while being painfully aware of it. What is interesting to me is the way in which Leidner almost immediately undercuts not only his critique, but the agency of the art form in general. He writes: “But who could possibly care/ what I have to say about this war?/ I could say anything here,/ it wouldn’t matter.” As if to prove this point, Leidner then creates a frame both around the mundane and commercialized, “I could say,/ ‘I am Motortrend car of the year,” and the elevated and poetic:
‘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.’
These lines, set as they are in quotation marks, create a pointed ironic distance from their charged, even overly sentimentalized bearings. Leidner creates a web built on oppositions: casual phallocentric humor in the face of atrocity, poignancy and perhaps even longing set against the futility of the poetic project. It is in such moments that the poet reifies his position of authority while knocking down the artifice of what he does.
At times, however, this self-conscious and premeditated approach yields weaker results. Although a good fit within Beauty Was The Case That They Gave Me, the poem “Lily Pad,” to my mind, errs too much on the side of the casual and anti-poetic. It is a poem that seems intentionally bad, in the vein of the muumuu house poets, shooting for a kind of lowest common denominator aesthetic. In parts, it almost works. There is a charm in the simplicity of:
The fold is love
and love is rad
and I love the rad gray fold of love
as well as the round green pad.
The simple monosyllabic rhymes inject an almost child-like delight in the way things come together. But, ultimately, I feel a bit cheated, like the joke is on me. It is as if the sentiments fit together too tightly; a set of well crafted building blocks to the kid that wants to make a Lego castle. Even the synesthesia of the last line, “and I love the long green fall into the rad black hole,” though clever, is not enough to redeem the hyper-simplicity of the work. If “Lily Pad” were a painting, it’d be the kind of abstract that evokes the response “my 8 year old could do that” from the confused parent. In this sense, I would suspect that the poem actually ‘wants’ a scornful response from those who take the whole thing too seriously.
And of course, Leidner is at his best when he convinces his readers that he is not being serious at all. His poems are provocative and comedic, working and reworking a quickly established formula so thoroughly that they transcend their jokey set-ups. It is an effortless seeming and often dazzling process, in which, for example, the Einstein of “Biographies of Einstein,” “lived a hard life/ in and out of rehab, and quantum physics,” and “could make the chalk write out/ equations on the blackboard/ from thirty miles away, at another university.” Einstein becomes a kind of anchoring image, alternately a physicist wizard, a 60’s swinger (who slept with Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy while a bound and gagged JFK watched), an angry child, and a messianic figure. It is an approach that plays with and eventually strips away the pop-cultural associations around the scientist. What really makes the piece tick, though, is the poetic apotheosis of the physicist imbedded in the last stanza:
They say it is helpful to think about Einstein
more like melody, more like phenomenon
They say he floats like a finger of cloud
across the full moon of technology.
Einstein, here, comes to represent both the possibilities and limitations of human progress: a scientist whose work at once revolutionized our understanding of the Universe, while laying the groundwork for our own atomic undoing.
What arises is a complexity built of simple and ingenious parts, poems alternately enthralled with and glib with their own subject matter. This breaking down of presupposed boundaries drives “What’s Cool Changes,” which reclaims the false categories of what is “cool” and what is “lame” starting off:
Probably nine tenths of people mistakenly believe they are cool… They think that what they think is cool really is cool, but I’ve got news for them. It’s not. It’s incredibly lame. And what’s lamer than somebody thinking they’re cool when they’re not?
To brilliant effect, Leidner is able to sustain a prolonged absurdist commentary on the ephemeral and ultimately meaningless nature of this duality. His thesis, as it were, and the engine that drives this poem is, of course, in the title. Systems of valuation, what’s hot, change: There is no underlying or inherent quality of coolness or lameness, but rather, these categories shift and become one another, especially in the era of irony: “It’s a moment to moment, day to day proposition.” In the vein of Gertrude Stein, the repetition of these categories make them “change,” shaking off their original meanings to become meaningless. A paradoxical construction remains, in which “those who believed what was original cool is still cool, but not really, and are willing to alter their entire belief structures to keep pace with what’s cool as it changes, are, in the end, and all alone, completely cool.”
In a way, I found my own reading of Beauty was the case that they gave me similarly subject to these kinds of false categorizations: I still cannot decide whether I think the work is cool because it is trying to be cool, or if it is so because it is trying to be lame. Either way, and especially as the first collection of a young poet, I think this collection represents the debut of an inventive, funny and vital voice. I hope that it isn’t “lame” of me to think so. These things change.
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