Nathan Hoks reviews a collection of poetry that tiptoes a line between joyful goofiness and stunning lyricism.
Mark Leidner, Returning the Sword to the Stone (Fonograf Editions, 2021), 98pp.
Mark Leidner’s Returning the Sword to the Stone is not exactly a book of renouncement, as the title might suggest. Rather, these poems enact comic and insightful reversals. The book teases us by suggesting that, perhaps counterintuitively, one task of the contemporary poet is to reverse mythologies – for example, of origin, kingship, kinship, lineage, and privilege. These poems swerve and backtrack in wild, often uproarious procedures, and it’s a testament to Leidner that he’s able to perform them in such a way that they don’t become self-indulgent. He tiptoes a line between joyful goofiness and stunning lyricism.
The poems in Returning the Sword to the Stone engineer this myth reversal in both relatable, contemporary experiences (e.g., a standoff at a work meeting) and delightfully surreal scenarios, such as “The Jeansed Horse,” a poem that creates its human-animal hybrid not by anthropomorphizing the creature, as in the Netflix series Bojack Horseman, but by simply clothing the animal in oversized jeans. The simple absurdity of the image (e.g., “The horse gallops / everywhere / huge sweat stains / soaking through the jeans / salt lines etched / like lightning in the denim.”) turns into a splendid cosmic allegory and the poem ends with an instructive commentary on myth:
hate this revelation.
When they inveigh
that this myth
appears too infrequently
in the record
to be weighed
respond with a shrug
say you want nothing
of the already known.
You have been to the spot
the myth began.
You have seen the sounds
birthing their words.
You have given
with your ears
the hooves of this horse
their very shoes
as the psychic lanterns
of the jeansed horse’s
eyes open endlessly
on seas of sawdust darkness! (78–79)
The reversal doesn’t simply reject knowledge; it replaces it with a different origin story, a story not of royal lineage or the creation of the world, but of the poetic experience of words in which our organs of perception become more open to a creative or visionary experience. That’s a heavy ending for an otherwise cartoonish poem, and I love holding this profound moment in balance with my urge to laugh until my belly hurts. An ecstatic contradiction! As the above passage illustrates, Leidner’s tone and style are so deft, so casual and disarming, that it’s easy to forget these ambitious contradictions, easy to overlook the outrageous incongruities that stack up line after line.
Many of the poems in Returning the Sword to the Stone are list poems, and I’d suggest that this form contributes to the broader project of deconstructing how “the myth began.” Leidner’s catalogs and iterative exercises are often centered on a specific kind of verbal play or figure of speech. The title poem, for example, is a list of similes that, apparently, don’t have a tenor (the “tenor” is the starting object or idea that the images are compared to). We get a steady buildup of “likes” without knowing exactly what is like these things. “Being with You” is another list of similes, while “Youth Is a Fugitive” is a list of aphorisms. Meanwhile, “I’m Running for President” is a list of left-field confessions, each followed in non sequitur fashion by the pitch “I’m Running for President.” And then the poem “Spoonerisms” is just that, a list of splendid spoonerisms. Some of Leidner’s best spoonerisms can be read as complete phrases, such as “various cultures / carry us vultures” or “party on / arty pawn.” Meanwhile, many of the others simply juxtapose phrases and suggest fantastic commentaries without saying so much. Here are just a few:
“found a buyer / bound a fire”
“debt bubble / bet double”
“ballads of sadness / salads of badness”
“looted and burned / booted and learned”
“a massive past / a passive mast”
Spoonerisms are a perfect vehicle for Leidner. Just as “The Jeansed Horse” suggests, they open our eyes to the birth-giving function of words and sparkle, attractively, in their wordplay. And the fact that they appear as procedures, or operations, in catalog form, allows a rhythm to build up, inviting the reader to participate in the verbal play of myth reversal. In fact, after reading this book, my family and I played games of spoonerism for weeks at dinner. A marvelous reversal of the myth of family dinner strife!
Nathan Hoks is a poet whose books include Reveilles, The Narrow Circle, and Nests in Air, forthcoming from Black Ocean. He teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Chicago and in the MFA Writing Program at the School of the Art Institute.