I am crushing so hard on Mark Leidner right now that it's getting distinctly sticky. If you're of a sensitive disposition, you might like to turn away.
I came to Leidner by way of young Wellington poet Hera Lindsay Bird, who wrote about him in a post for National Poetry Day. She offered up 'The River', and I was hooked
The woman told me the saddest thing I had ever heard. I told her I loved her because of what she had told me. Her expression soured. She warned me not to love her for her telling me that. She told me it was okay, and maybe even good, to love her – only not for that. I responded that I did not love her for that, exactly, and that she had misunderstood me. I admitted that why I loved her was related to what she had told me, yes, but only tangentially, and was that alright? She asked me to elaborate, so I told her that I loved her, not for the thing she had told me, but for the courage involved in telling someone something like it, something that sad, which seemed to me to be a great deal of courage – and I told her I also loved her, though far less than for the courage part, although plenty still, for the way in which she told it to me, which I explained had been, in all seriousness, eloquent and mesmerizing. She had a small build and at that point she laughed like a flower, wilting and blooming. Her nose was in the center. I decided to show her the river. I picked her up in my hands and carried her, crisscrossing back and down through the steep and elaborate cragwork of the slope of the riverbank. When my feet were finally in the water I looked at her and said, the river is deep, and fast, and it drowns many people, but I still love it. I still love the river, I told her. But I do not love it because it is deep, and fast, and drowns many people. I love it because it runs behind my house, and I have lived above it forever.
On the strength of this and a few other pieces I read and listened to online (Leidner obviously writes to read aloud) I ordered this chapbook. 'The River' turns out to be the sweetest and saddest of the poems (how do you like 'Mutually Assured Childhood Molestation' as a title? Because it turns out I like it very much) in the collection - the least ironic, the least undercutting. I could find - in fact, if I knew more of this kind of writing, I daresay I would - find some of Leidner's acrobatics juvenile and tiresome; as it is, I'm captivated by the energy and freshness.
There's a sense of anticipation as I read, that jumps between the amused, the appalled, and the aroused - as if each line is being written out just before my eyes get to it, a gleeful tumble to keep the words and images flowing just for me ... (from 'Blackouts')
It's like cutting your hand on a piece of metal during sex.
It's like punishment meted out at night by a giant tractor.
It's like losing at chess to a caveman.
It's like a caveman losing at chess to a dinosaur.
It's like a dinosaur losing at chess to a primeval forest ... losing at chess to a primeval star.
It's like punching your children to a tune.
I grabbed those lines from about 10% of the way into that piece. These are start anywhere, stop anywhere poems. I have read 'Romantic Comedies' numerous times online in the past few weeks, but now I have the book, where it is broken out into six or eight stanzas per page over 18 pages, I find myself reading it from the start, the end, the middle, piecing it together in new ways, lingering over lines I've come to love ('She's like get a load of this and he's like whoa'; 'He calls Nashville, laughingly, Nashvegas, but she calls Nashville, icily, Nashville'; 'He is rain and she is smoking a cigarette out on the patio'; 'She likes things one way and he like them the other'; 'They both have perfect coital timing'), being surprised by lines that seem to have been added in when I wasn't looking. (The poem is loooooooong so I'm popping it at the end of the review, if you want to read it.)
This could be annoying, if you were looking for narrative flow, but I love the pile-on effect. I love how Leidner himself seems to make fun of the neatly-ending poem, the dog-tail-flick Bill Collins referred to in 'Lines Lost Among the Trees'
and the little insight at the end
wagging like the short tail
of a perfectly obedient spaniel
sitting by the door.
From the end of Leidner's 'Gossip'
the grand ﬁnale is going to be
a ﬁnal, grand simile:
Talent is to honesty what love
is to gossip, if we are poetry.
Or is it, talent is to honesty in poetry
what gossip in poetry is to love in life?
I don’t even care. Okay, really,
this is going to be over soon. I want a million dollars,
and you, but I would take either.
But I would rather have you,
and if gossip moves through love
like money through time, I basically do.
I am leaving, but like the leopard on the branch,
and a daunting number of other things,
you are looking at me again,
and so the poem will continue, like gossip.
It's also the doubleness that reminds me of Billy Collins here: the potential po-facedness of Collin's 'Litany' in type, for example, versus the fondly amused tone it takes on when he reads it. Leidner could be serious, but I'm picking he's not. Unless he is. In which case, he's serious like cancer. Only he'll never let you know it. (Also, 'I am leaving, but like the leopard on the branch, / and a daunting number of other things, / you are looking at me again, / and so the poem will continue, like gossip' - that's totally the rhythm of 'You are still the bread and the knife. / You will always be the bread and the knife, / not to mention the crystal goblet and--somehow--the wine.')
Actually, that passage also makes me think about how self-consciously writerly Leidner is. He's not all Hey, look at me, writing this poem here. Instead, he pokes fun at his own style and, somehow, I feel, at all the earnest young boy-men wannabe lyrical poets out there, seducing wide-eyed girls with their buff words. I find this knowingness very attractive. From 'Love in the time of whatever disease this is':
time almost stops moving
as my pants magically lower
like a Niagara Falls of Levis.
You drip like a ship of physical aristocracy
Your undercarriage is drizzling stars
We make love like a church burning down
in the imagination of a eunuch
then flee together out of simile into you.
When we climax together I tell you I love you
but it comes out, "I hate language."
(You can listen to Leidner reading this poem in front of an audience, and hear him lose it over 'Niagara Falls of Levis')
Leidner is endlessly extractable. You can pluck so many of these lines and imagine them as an inscription on a tombstone or a slogan on an ironic t-shirt - or both, at the same time, a very Leidner notion. Having said that, a couple of the poems do feel like full stories: 'Pretty Girls', 'Mutually Assured Childhood Molestation'. They're simultaneously shock-statements and wry-smile love stories.
So. Overall, there's a youthfulness and a puffed-chested-ness and a joy in the fomenting fermenting bubblesome powers of language that catches on me here. Leidner doesn't rip my heart out, stomp it in, then stitch it back into my chest so I feel fresh tenderness with every beat, like some poets do. Instead, he takes me out for two bottles of wine after someone else has done that to me, and gives me 86 different ways to laugh and cry the experience off. And I love it.
TANGENT. A SOBERING MOMENT OF SELF-DOUBT IN THE HEADY DAYS OF FIRST LOVE.
I woke up this morning, after drafting this review late-ish on a Sunday night filled with end of weekend happiness, with work-week doubts. Had I been sucked in by a stylish, stylised poet of the Twitter generation? I mean, we're talking about a guy who releases videos of animated robots reciting his poems. Whose first book was actually a collection of tweet-like aphorisms. And then, fearing I had fallen for a hipster, worried that my bubble of infatuation was about to be pricked by the pin of maturity, in the pre-dawn dark I drew Leidner's book to me again. And I re-read 'Story'. And I was reassured. Because it felt true to me. It's too long to type out here, and too carefully constructed to extract from without giving you a group of wrong impressions, like ten people in a blacked-out room, each with one hand on an elephant. But it is true, grown-up, nuanced, beautiful understanding of the power and danger of words between people who love one another.
(And you made it to the end! As promised, here is 'Romantic Comedies')
He has a turtle and she has a shell.
She’s the principal and he’s the janitor.
She’s a widowed social worker looking for a father figure and he’s an elderly vagrant.
She’s a woman and he’s … a woman.
He’s unprincipled and she’s … principled.
Everyone in his life has drowned and he hates dogs and she’s a collegiate swimming coach with a thousand dogs.
He’s a collapsing star in the heart of the galaxy and she’s an ex-con with 5,000 spacebucks and nothing to lose.
He’s clever and she’s stupid.
He’s good-looking and she’s ugly.
She’s sort of interested in him, but he’s not sure how interested he is in her, though he is, a little bit.
He is always being ironic and she is disdainful of irony.
He’s a prosperous historian living in the present day, and she’s a historian struggling to make ends meet … from the future.
She’s a Nereid and he’s a Dryad.
She’s a sassy black oncologist and he’s a racist with prostate cancer.
She’s a plucky explorer of catacombs with a lust for adventure and smoldering good-looks, but he’s the quiet type, content to stay at home, reading about the exploration of catacombs only in books.
He’s moneyed and she’s a bitch.
He’s squeamish around blood but she is courteous around blood.
He’s a Muslim terrorist and she’s a normal Muslim.
He blew up the World Trade Center and she blew up when she heard he blew up the World Trade Center.
She’s a singer/songwriter but he’s just a songwriter/gay.
They’re both gay.
He’s a foot fetishist and she’s an amputee.
She’s a world-renowned gourmet cook and he’s a world-renowned fast-food restaurant mogul.
He’s a highly sought-after model caught up in the spree of drugs and sex that is the Berlin fashion scene, and she died in a car wreck six years ago in Zurich.
It’s midnight on the mesa, a dry breeze rustles across the colorless sand, and high atop a wind-chiseled monolith, they are two black cobras, drenched in silver moonlight, coiling in a furious act of forbidden cobra love.
She likes things one way and he likes them the other.
He’s hungry and doesn’t care where they eat, and she keeps saying she doesn’t care either, but every restaurant he offers up, she shoots down.
She likes monogamy but he likes sleeping around.
He’s bored but she keeps talking.
They’re both vegetarians but are both picky eaters and it’s almost enough to drive each other crazy.
They’re both the same.
They’re exactly the same person.
They’re in love.
They’re both in love … with murder.
She’s a pacifist and he’s a warmonger … until the tables turn and she becomes the warmonger and he the pacifist … though during the turning, on vectors bound for where the other just left, as they pass each other in the middle, like passengers on opposite trains, they see each other and reach out into the void, and for a few brief seconds, before their forward inertia pulls them irrevocably apart, they simultaneously occupy a single position.
He is the ocean and she is the sea.
He knows where a rare ore is and she knows metallurgy.
He said a curse word when he was in space, and she was at mission control and overheard him and reported him to his superiors, after which he was not to be allowed back into space.
He’s trying to solve the Middle East conflict, but she keeps stirring up trouble in the Middle East.
He’s on an important fact-finding mission for the U.N. and she shits facts.
They are the only two deer in the world who can walk upright on their hind legs and speak proper English in British accents, and their favorite activity is debating the superiority of Copernican models of the solar system over the alternate models.
She is a t-shirt full of eggs and he is an egg accidentally blown out of a lake by a strong wind.
He is expanding and she is shrinking.
It is her second day at Ruby Tuesday’s and he has worked there for five years.
He lied to her and she splattered paint all over his car except she made the paint the exact same color as his car to express the complexity of her anger but he didn’t get it.
She is naturally thin and he has to work at it.
She is involuntarily drawn into the story of every house she passes in her car, and he is unable to drive a car because of his leg.
She’s a pale-skinned aesthete who edits a webzine, and he’s a suntanned meathead completely perplexed by the masthead.
She’s his best friend and he’s sick of jerking off each night into the toilet.
He has a piece of turkey stuck between his teeth and she’s got a full Thanksgiving turkey stuck between her knees.
She is uncomfortable and he is fingering her.
She finally trusts him and he finally thrusts himself into her.
He’s thrashing around in a bathtub and she’s a flash flood happening somewhere far away.
He gouged out Christy Schumacher’s face in the yearbook and she is Christy Schumacher.
She’s the first female matador in Spain and he’s the first male bull impersonator willing to take male bull impersonating all the way … to its logical … and gruesome … conclusion.
He’s a carpenter and she’s a virgin.
He has a ponytail and she has no education.
He is widespread poverty, sweeping corruption, and violence institutionalized to a degree unseen elsewhere in the western world, and she is a tiny Latin American nation.
He is the farmscape at sunset and she is the silhouette of the barn, the windmill, and the silo.
She thinks she might be falling for him, but she is cautious because of how badly her last relationship ended, and he is okay with taking things slow because he is patient and cunning.
They both have perfect coital timing.
He is dangling her off a bridge and asking her what bridge it is and she is pleading for her life and screaming the Golden Gate Bridge.
His gaze carries calcium on it like a one-way conveyor belt that deposits massive doses of calcium into whatever he looks at, and she has a calcium deficiency once thought incurable by experts in the field of calcium.
His resemblance to her ex is superficial, but her resemblance to his ex is profound.
She was only joking when she touched her behind and made a sizzling sound, but he was the one who had to drive her to the emergency room to treat the third degree burn on the end of her finger.
He is the rain and she is smoking a cigarette on the patio.
He has always been ashamed of his membership in the militia, and he has always hated everything they stood for, but he has always been in love with her, and she never even gave him the time of day … until he joined.
He is Norway but she is holding out for infinite fjords.
He calls Nashville, laughingly, Nashvegas, but she calls Nashville, icily, Nashville.
She has just excitedly asked him to the annual charity dinner, and he has accepted, albeit reluctantly, anticipating yet another tedious masquerade of bourgeoisie apotheosis.
She thinks swoon is a funnier word than mulligan, and he thinks swoon is a funny word too, but no way in hell is it funnier than mulligan.
She’s a streetwise kangaroo in the last days of the crumbling republic, smuggling food and medicine out of the city, distributing it out of her pouch to the poor, and he’s a power-hungry possum prelate, who secretly convenes a midnight session of the senate, and with pledges of infinite eucalyptus tricks an influential coalition of koalas into illegally declaring marsupial law.
She’s like get a load of this and he’s like whoa.
She’s a lonely air traffic controller and his name is Eric Trafalgar and completely he’s out of control.
She’s a disorienting aroma and he’s a bee crashing into a mirror.
He’s a man running up a hill while morphing into a snowball and she’s a snowball rolling down a hill and morphing into a running woman.
Her very existence depends upon the capability of mimetic art, and he doesn’t even know what mimesis is.
He stabs her in the heart with an icicle, but when the icicle melts she resurrects.
He’s looking out across the fan-packed arena through a pair of high-powered binoculars, and she’s on the other side, pointing at him with one of those big foam fingers.
He’s searching for the Holy Grail and she has a map to the last known location of the Holy Grail.
He’s searching for the Holy Grail and she has a cousin who supposedly knows a guy who says he knows where the Holy Grail is.
He’s searching for the Holy Grail and she has little Holy Grail shaped pupils.
He’s searching for the Holy Grail and she’s a trapped cricket too small to leap out of the bottom of the Holy Grail.
He’s searching for the Holy Grail and she’s standing in front of the Holy Grail, smiling up at him impishly, as behind her the Holy Grail imbues the fringes of her body and face with soft gold light.
He’s searching for the Holy Grail and she just swallowed the Holy Grail whole.
She’s the Holy Grail but he’s searching for Atlantis.
He’s radiation and she’s a Geiger counter registering the current level of him in the surrounding rubble.
A fortune teller long ago warned him he would die in Egypt, and she walks like an Egyptian.
He is several flames and she’s a candelabra.