Returning the Sword to the Stone
(Fonograf Editions, 2021)
“Every beautiful boy is an Icarus seeking the Apollonian sun,” Camille Paglia writes in Sexual Personae. “He escapes the labyrinth only to fall into nature’s sea of dissolution.” I have always felt, ever since I first encountered Mark Leidner’s work, that there’s an element of a beautiful, fallen choirboy speaker, sardonic and spiritually cynical—yet still secure in his own privileged relationship with the divine. In fact, there is something about Leidner’s poetry that sounds as if it is a PowerPoint presentation to God after our own self-inflicted apocalypse. The first poem in Returning the Sword to the Stone, “Prism Jugglers,” (a characteristic Leidner list poem) reels off a litany of what “We” did. The tragic human insight of his lines are cloaked in hilarity, presented like answers to the implied question: so, what was it like being human? “Handcuffed skeletons washed ashore” is the first response. In other words, saved, but still imprisoned. “We juggled prisms, as you know,” he writes; nods to our ingenuity, aplomb, and absurdity in science is rampant in the book. As is capitalism, “We were roosters paid not to crow,” “We binged watched sitcoms in sweatshops”; psychology, “We finger-painted our own Rorschach inkblots”; and, of course, spirituality, “Our crown of thorns prevented déjà vu.” I don’t want to get too biblical right off the bat, but there is something I find deeply apocryphal about Mark Leidner’s poetry. It is wry gnosis; it is the fool in the play that seems to know everything and is the only one who can make fun of the king. It is a shared moment between Pagan and Christian myth, and like a 30-something Icarus, is paddling around in a sea of dissolution, giving impromptu standup to the purgatorial vacant faces blinking back.
The title of Mark Leidner’s new gorgeously made book Returning the Sword to the Stone is apt. Like a reverse Arthur Pendragon, we decide not to go for the holy grail, not to accept our righteous lineage, and maybe not to pursue a noble quest in human development but stay home and continue “whipping ourselves with Christmas lights” and theorizing about why we do it. We’re considering our crazy human condition and laughing at our own limited idea of ourselves. “You live your whole life as a wizard who does not know they are a wizard in possession of powers you do not recognize as magic,” Leidner writes in the second poem, “The Truth About Wizards,” a poem which comes off as clever, but is heartbreakingly. Mark Leidner is like that. The poems are always razor sharp. They give you a cut so fine, you don’t notice you are getting it. Through his complete rapport with the reader he is able to disarm us, and lead us thoughtfully through his surreal interactions with the world.
Leidner has deliberate involvement in his poetry. His love of constructing the line is palpable. It feels meticulously edited and spontaneous at the same time. (The sparse punctuation and wide, wide spacing on the page assist in this.) Leidner never forsakes cadence, rhythm, or delight in sounds of words for his love of narrative. His power is in simplicity and chronicles, made strange by their own logic. And while he is clearly a great prose writer, it is poetry where he shines the most for me. How deep the observation of humanity this writer has! It causes an incredulousness to pervade the experiences, laid out like an articulated dream. Dreams are, on some level, more honest than we will ever be capable of being with ourselves, consciously. They make for great poetry. And for thinking about how the mind works: forever confusing, unknown, insane and filled with truths. “It’s like a hideous dreamcatcher,” he says in the titular poem, “Returning the Sword to the Stone,” a list-poem of similes. The item attempted to be compared is never directly known beyond perhaps what the actual experience of returning a sword to a stone is “like.” And by the way, no one does a simile like Leidner. It is a poetic device sorely lacking in most contemporary poetry, an opportunity, shockingly, almost always missed.
It’s like humiliating yourself in a way that neither advances plot
nor reveals character.
You wake from a dream but the dream just jumps into somebody else’s head and continues.
There is something chilling about his obsessive simile lists. Unease builds quickly. His tone lies somewhere between Joe Pesci’s unstoppable, psychotic Tommy Devito’s “I’m just messin with ya!” (while clearly going to whack you), and a deeply loyal, blithe boyfriend whose sadness you can never touch. Luckily for us it’s more of the latter.
These poems are concerned with human predominance for hypocrisy and denial, showing us how we are trapped in an act of pretending to be at ease, but mostly knowing deep down that gruesome horror is imminent. To mix my own simile with Leidner’s: the poems are like Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta “wagging hotdogs at each other—while only watching their own hotdog, hoping that it doesn’t break.” Like someone on fire insisting they wanted to be and that it’s a good investment. This existential, bloody, barking laugh. This severed head that no one will admit is in their lap. There’s something so terrifying about human nature and its lonely consciousness. Humor is a crucial tool in exploring that spooky realm, though it also has an added effect of psychologically heightening fear. “But where is the fear that does not become exaggerated?” Gaston Bachelard asked. “It’s like porn with everything but the eyes Photoshopped out.” Leidner replies.
There is something thrilling and totally unknown about the line, “It’s like a magic mirror that only shows you how you’re imagined by those who miss you.” And “Nothing is purer than gratitude / and because it’s so pure / it’s the first thing to blow away when the wind blows.” I read these lines and think how generous and brazen their compassion is; how much they want to connect with the reader. “The eyes are teeth that see,” and “Grace is a diaper you never have to change” give me more hope and solidarity than any selfcare post ever will. I think what Leidner speaks to is a mind dissatisfied with the status quo of emotional reality in poetry. Leidner is a quietly genius poet who is accessible, yet disconcerting. Sadly, some readers don’t tolerate or understand irony, ironic tonality, or understated emotions. I find the speaker’s calm and resourceful nature means I never feel shouted at in this book, never scolded, never left out. These are poems of communal occurrences, ones of sufferings and joy, of irony and sincerity.
Irony is mostly misunderstood and mistreated in poetry, but important in talking about, and in, art. To mitigate the existential horror (that all this living is random, without meaning, and so inescapable of irony) Leidner honors the impetus of making art at all. As he ends the fabulous poem “Youth is a Fugitive”:
Morning, a more convincing dream.
Life is long for a brief time, then brief for a long time.
The problem with irony
is that it is too soothing.
It suggests a pattern to tragedy
and therefore mitigates the terror that tragedy is random.
Were tragedy patternless, we’d be meaningless
and all the ironies of literature are a dam against this despair.
It is the “ironies of literature” that are the dam against this horror. Leidner reveals the repressed psychological fear that all our experiences are “patternless.” The double irony is that it implies the nobility and need for irony, while also showing it as self-soothing avoidance. What is said is that we’d be meaningless without our literature, but what is meant is that that’s meaningless mollification: not exactly an answer to meaninglessness. Which ultimately might have to be accepted, to allow us to understand that we create our own meaning. In art. Again, doubling back to art actually being what does dam against despair. Did I lose you? I can’t help but get into the tiny apparatuses of human thought and struggle for meaning, and I find it most stimulating in good poetry.
Meanwhile, the poems are relentless in unraveling and retooling the very concept of irony. The very next poem after “Youth is a Fugitive” is a staggering and total slow-burn love poem, “Having ‘Having a Coke With You’ With You,” in which the speaker’s partner recites Frank O’Hara to him on a walk.
You started talking about how
you used to think that that poem was just about being in love
and how being in love with someone was so wonderfully banal
but then you said recently you had thought it was more
about the futility of caring about art at all
The speaker takes us on a play-by-play thought-journey reacting to it all. It’s a through and through James Tate-influenced poem, though, unlike Tate, we aren’t led into magical realism exactly, but into the logic of a poet like Leidner’s mind. It’s so unyielding in its formula, that you become transfixed on following the logic, and comforted by the knowledge that even poets have these kinds of reactions to poems: ignorance, followed by dislike, followed by engrossment, wonder, appreciation, and winding up with deep, real human connection. The poem ends:
I was struck by the question you posed as I was
still stunned that you could recite so casually such a long
good love poem, and as well, that you hadn’t even recited it
primarily to acquire appreciation for recitation
so much as to ask what I thought about what you thought about it
now, versus how you thought about it then, and this was
when I knew I wanted to be with you forever.
In a way, Returning the Sword to the Stone is a defense against familiarity. A manifesto exposing the nonstop seriousness in poetry. I see the joy and empathy in these poems. He’s so good at random, without being intentionally unintentional (which is more transparent). In titles such as “Salad on the Wind” there’s humor and beauty. Yes, he’s having fun. Yes, he self-consciously wants laughs, wants to be liked. Yes he wants to reduce a humiliation that pervades our lives. And don’t we all? It’s honest and refreshing to own it, and use it. Leidner posted recently on Facebook about a poem:
a spoonerism is a figure of speech where the starting sounds of words are switched. as a poetic form, spoonerisms are very low-value and supply a small amount of unsophisticated amusement. they are the literary equivalent of reduced salt triscuits. not the worst snack in the world, but barely better than nothing at all, and, unfortunately, addictive.
We see this cathartic humor too in such stunning writers as Patricia Lockwood, Amber Sparks, Sommer Browning, and Morgan Parker, to name a few. There is something so choking about the self-seriousness of some poetry, that cannot find any shade of humor or paradox in its melodrama. And it is not seriousness that’s an issue with me—poetry is deadly serious—but a kind of petulance. To me, it speaks to a denial of actual feelings, a defensiveness towards the reader, who literally can be anyone, and who is the crucial other half of the poems’ full Becoming. Poems are not op-eds regarding partisanship decisions, or instances of cleverly arranged moments built to convince you to sympathize with the poet. And you cannot control who is reading your poems, nor make many assumptions about the reader. You have to trust and appreciate the reader—whomever they may be, if you are lucky to get them. Some entire books of poetry aren’t as interesting as one line of Mark’s picked at random. “A ménage à trois between three yous”? “A rendezvous that leaves you the same”? Even smaller lines like “waiting is a time machine” are genius. He’s almost pathological in his cleverness, like a master Twitter user (which he is), who gets the humor Lockwood pointed to in her book No One is Talking About This. We see this in talented comedians who are insecure but insist on living lives in over-confidence-requiring occupations. I understand this masochism. But it is the veil of askew truisms and art—particularly poetry—that protects the professed unworthy part of ourselves. And humor allows an opportunity to declare something, to actually take position, and create meaning, without, perhaps “offending God” or being thrown out of the group for presumptuousness. Again, the fool that is filled with the truth of the play, badgering self-defeating kings.
That is, all the poems but one. The one I find the most raw; the full-length mirror in the group. “Plague Blessing” is probably the most recent, for obvious reasons. This poem is important because it shows the vulnerabilities of Leidner’s earnest schtick: that things can get really serious. Here, the voice is pandemic-beat, suffering, tired of making jokes. “Grief doesn’t break your heart; it expands it. It breaks your brain; nature’s whispered gibberish is suddenly intimate.” I can’t even begin to convey how that line made me feel. “Nature’s whispered gibberish is suddenly intimate”? Great poetry should outright attack you, and this did. It should render you mute. This did. This poem focuses in on the pain and intimacy of the pandemic, both personal and universal. “May you weep with the numinous delirium of those reborn who / were born before.” That’s the kind of line that tells me Leidner is coming fully into his voice as a poet, capable of being the funny guy, as well as the frighteningly serious Lord Byron who chills you with his dexterity with language.
Touches of both the scientific and the divine in the book are significant and again, timely. “The Jeansed Horse” I consumed like some bizarre Jesus allegory (Jeans/Jesus?): a horse in jeans with “sound neutralizing sound / in a giant equation / in the darkness of its pockets[?]” I mean, damn. It’s our predicament in a nutshell, articulated as if I were on DMT and being told telepathically by neon strings of spaghetti! Fathoming the universe and the divine in terms of a horse in jeans! And understanding it perfectly. “You have been to the spot / the myth began.” So sagacious. So intense! I see in the acknowledgements that the poet has lost both parents, and has also got a new baby, and I see those things as being one of the elements of sorrow and joy hidden in this book. “Like I’m a beaver trapped in human form / and the wood tastes exactly the same as it did / when I was a child, and I am comforted.”
It is doomish empathy for all of humanity’s situation in poets such as Leidner that I find so invigorating. And yes, soothing. How rare a gem this poet is! To mean every word with total vulnerability and yet to be irreverent at the same time! How is that possible? He shows us the crucial medium between opposites: that one is so meaningless without the other. That irony: a detachment, a negative space, between what is said and what is meant—that that space exists. It is a frequency of meaning, not a fixed meaning. It’s a dangerous, but also inescapable consideration in our culture today. One we can only explore in such realms as poetry. His voice is liberating, underlined by itself. As Leidner continues on about one of his poems on the Facebook post, “the poem equivalent of eating four boxes of triscuits in one sitting. was it good? sure, in the moment. in the way nihilism can be liberating for a spell.”