John Goodhue | Contributing Writer
Returning the Sword to the Stone
Fonograf Editions, 2021
Reading a poem out of Mark Leidner’s Returning The Sword To The Stone, is, in some sense, akin to experiencing the last light of the sun as it gives way to a moonless night sky hundreds of miles off from any human infrastructure. Musings, clauses, and associations pop up on the page as if sidereal mists and glimmering constellations, register briefly as singular sources of energy, and then expand infinitely into pointillist latticeworks of illumination and incandescence that, not unlike a long good look at the stars, leave you fist with the quandary of whether to laugh or cry, and then with a hunch that maybe the truest-to-life answer is that it’s not such a profound quandary after all.
Of course, to authentically feel caught between two of the most humanizing acts possible is a profound quandary; it just seems a bit unreasonable to expect any answers to be dualistic or mutually exclusive. Thankfully, Leidner provides a roadmap that could (in)accurately direct us into knowing how to react to his lines and sort our emotions into binary categories of thought or experience. Inductions as simultaneously oblique and obvious as “A religion that gives us heaven first” sit seamlessly alongside terrestrial footings like “A magnolia growing out of a sewer grate.” This is because, per the koans that permeate the book’s stratosphere, such disparate exigencies could very well be the same thing. Here, the hylic and the psychic are more often in cahoots than in difference.
Leidner’s world mimics and ironizes the follies, institutions, and disquiets of our own, so we never know for certain what’s numinous, what’s detritus. When could we? How would we? Why should we? These rhetorical questions are posed indirectly, through the tacit suggestion that our lives are as much made by irreverence as by reverence. Suddenly, you find yourself somewhere where “drying your hand by doing the sign of the cross several times really fast” could be a thing, where hour glasses filled with kitty litter would be flipped on ritual, where “all the restaurant fare / in the world is secretly prepared in a single underground kitchen / and sent to every restaurant kitchen on the surface / through a network of pneumatic tubes.” As your eyes pull off the page and acclimate once again to the postmodern oversaturation of our moment, the book’s contents haunt residually in a question: how much different is it here, at the beginning of 2022? The lack of a clear answer is a bit…unsettling.
To be sure, for Leidner, little is pure carbon copy. A liberal use of simile, commonly in anaphoric form, attests to this, as do compositional bent to shift with almost alarming precision between ledgering otherworldly anti-truism truisms, winding up magniloquent and serpentine soliloquies, and spelunking down through sonic counterfactuals. The poems explain how things often aren’t quite so, and are more than, and somehow also less. They operate like a Pythagorean formula that can never exactly solve for itself, a small but unmeasurable angle ever unmaking an otherwise perfect circle, a just too brief or too long look in the mirror (or, once again, at the stars). The result is a book of dictums and images—some crude, some cock-eyed, many tender—that feel at once disconnected and interlaced enough to put a lid on the idea of them ever structuring a singular conceit.
And still, it’s evident that this collection’s center of gravity holds together something far more heartfelt and far less vapid than just a comical reinforcement of a Lacanian order of socio-symbolic codes that shrouds the authentic nature of things. Rather, at the core of Leidner’s wit and the liminalities it fertilizes seems an earnest treatise on the custodial potential of humility, “That old empty / wholeness / no one changes / without feeling first.”
Oddly, while likeness can only get us close to one another, it’s the emptiness in the gap that remains—the uncertainty housed there—that matters. It’s an uncertainty we can, if so inclined, dissolve into and emerge from as a greater sum than our atomized, egoistic selves. Indeed, given that “It is certain / that every landscape vanishes into uncertainty,” the utterly human lack of precision in freighting the iridescent experiences of another (of the other) should humble us all, even if all else fails. To this end, Leidner’s indirect, flute-like spirit of inquiry is strikingly convincing. Though the exact page of our individual conversions may vary, at some we too begin to marvel at just how much could truly be “. . . like removing royalty from your bloodline by returning the sword to the stone”; an act which, in a world where tragedy oft seems a quasi-patternless plague fanning out across social fields of immutable difference, will be necessary to desanctify, re-mortalize, proletarianize, and collectivize.
At the very least, the dog’s age absurdisms of locating a blip of meaning among the firmament’s incalculable chronology, of cracking under the pressure of whether to giggle or wail, of being mortal and high-minded enough to know it—these will “shatter” us all eventually, “But it’s ok— / it feels awesome” the poet claims coolly near the book’s final stanza.
After all, as globalized systems of power and profit continue to ratchet up their oppressive tenors—ever alongside the perennial injuries of the personal—there is so much to grieve. Thankfully, as Leidner reminds us, “Grief doesn’t break your heart; it expands it.”
John Goodhue received an MFA from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. A finalist for the 2020 National Poetry Series, recent work of his can be found in REALITY BEACH, Quarter After Eight, Seattle Review, and elsewhere. He resides in Portland, OR.
Mark Leidner is the author of two feature films: the sci-fi noir Empathy, Inc. (2019) and the relationship comedy Jammed (2014). He is also the author of the story collection Under the Sea (Tyrant Books, 2018), the poetry collection Beauty Was the Case that They Gave Me (Factory Hollow, 2011), and the book of aphorisms The Angel in the Dream of Our Hangover (Sator, 2011).