Beauty Was the Case that They Gave Me by Mark Leidner
Factory Hollow Press, 2011; 94 pp
Reviewed by Dillon J. Welch
Today I shut my driver’s side door and the rear windshield inexplicably exploded. Today, which is not the same today you read this, rather December 16th, 2013, the day I wrote this, the same day I stood in the cold laughing, knuckles red, poking out the remaining shards of what once was window with an ice scraper. It was cold, probably too cold to be wearing a t-shirt, but I hadn’t expected to be doing maintenance on my car window when I left the house. I hadn’t expected the bitter wind on my ribs or my fingers feeling like frostburnt cocktail weenies, but still I laughed.
This is how I feel when I read Mark Leidner’s collection, Beauty Was the Case That They Gave Me: simultaneously in shambles, and inflated like a dumb, happy balloon. Glancing at the cover, I’m thinking New York and I’m thinking Ruthless collaging and I’m thinking One man dunking where no man has dunked before. And the poems often open up and unfold in the same way a well-spun joke does, quiet and elegantly stated:
They say Einstein had no tear ducts.
They say he cried straight from his brain.
They Say he had a small family,
about four inches tall.
But where many “jokey” poets would launch hysterically into orbit and never quite come back to earth, Leidner possesses the subtle finesse of staying in tune with the beautiful, the meaningful. In “Yellow Rose,” Leidner loads up the first half of the poem with offhand dick jokes. He touches on arousal via public transportation, snowstorm-induced erections, and different words like “apricot” or “foliage” that are seemingly in control of his libido. It all feels rather middle school and juvenile, which makes the abrupt shift in tone on the following page that much more jarring:
and yet there are some things
that do not give me a boner:
the level of tranquility
a Jeep of body bags achieves
jostling off along a twisting gravel
path, bound for home;
the bracing red and white of flags
As the poem evolves from harmless joke-template to anti-war, anti-pain ode, we are left with scenes of decimation, “people being / shot like dogs, like nothing, / nothing slumping / on the ground, nothing blood / is just a pool around.” It’s no easy feat to arrange these two distinctly disparate moods side-by-side and not only get away with it, but also own it like a birthmark or a birthright.
While Leidner excels in uniting the absurd with the absurdly passionate, he seems to, at times, get carried away with his initial topic. In “Memoirs of a Secret Agent,” we are introduced to a Bond-esque international spy, who struggles, for most of the seven-page poem, with what to call his nemesis (an accumulation of scars and faces and scarred faces), as well as finding time to make love to his Hollywood-beautiful cohort and lover, Gabrielle. The poem in many ways is clever, Leidner pointing playfully to spy film tropes like deep, subterranean super-hideouts and the bullet hole-ruptured iron pipe that never runs out of steam: “Also I remember thinking / whatever drugs these druglords are selling / their manufacture sure requires a lot of steam.” The content is charming, sure, but also at times exhausting, skimming through it and feeling like the payoff might not be worth the close reading of an extended joke.
But if drawn-out, unapologetic banter is where Leidner’s poetry occasionally sags, his ability to effortlessly cover grand lapses in time is a true strength. In “No One,” the speaker unfolds an entire life in nine lines:
When you sneeze it sounds
like you’re having and orgasm.
When you’re having an orgasm
it sounds like you’re having a baby.
When you’re having a baby
it sounds like you’re dying.
When you’re dying
it sounds like someone sneezing
somewhere far away.
And again, in “Charismatic Ambulance Driver,” the poem drifts naturally from medical care in WWII, to tilling fields in Poland, to literal moonwalking, moving in and out of deserts, Texas, and Atlanta, and ending, thoughtfully, on a wife “heavy with child,” while the two characters test-drive a coupe and ruin the interior as her water breaks.
Leidner’s poetry is expansive and exciting, traveling across large fields and even larger timespans, and for the most part it feels right, feels like we are riding along with him in his hot air balloon with attached jetpacks, his time-machine made of antique silverware and kitchen ceramics. And maybe the most rewarding part is that he knows we are right there with him:
It was an old story. All true stories are.
It wasn’t complex, and it doesn’t even need to be told,
but I’m telling it. Because I have to say something.