You may come to this book looking for a stance on Beauty. You may come to it looking for more Snoop Dogg references. You may come looking for a catalog of Mark Leidner’s Twitter feed. In each of these cases you will arrive misguided, but by the time you realize it you will be halfway through this immanently readable book and a couple of express stops past your intended subway exit. In adopting the serial aphorism for his debut collection of poetry, Beauty Was the Case that They Gave Me (Factory Hollow 2011), Leidner doesn’t so much aim for Nietzsche as shoot for perpetual brain spasm, a sort of intellectual pleasure buzz built on the evolution of a comic theme over lines.
While he’s trying to tickle your neurons, he sticks mostly to the precipice between like and love. His first long serial work, “Blackouts,” surveys the former, using the phrase “It’s like…” like a button; he pushes it over and over, and you lean forward with a mild addiction-type feeling for what will come out next. Sooner or later you pull yourself away and think, “but what…what is it?” Maybe love, maybe life; whatever “it” is, it’s like “a cross between an orgasm and a black hole.” It should pulse, but because time has slowed down, it emits a low-level tingle accompanied by an invisible pull that is nearly impossible to withstand. You like what’s happening. You glide. You’re like, “I could do this all day.” And before you know it, it’s like “eating dick off a paper plate.” This is a Leidner trick. The simile that bonded you to pleasure is suddenly a dark kind of super glue, and your hands are hopelessly stuck to the book’s terrific cover image, also a collage by Leidner. You might feel a little sick after awhile, a kind of candy-coated gut rot, but that’s what the other poems are there for—and love.
Love saves Beauty Was the Case that They Gave Me from becoming the sophisticate’s bitter Tweet fix, and in this regard Leidner takes his place beside comic poetry greats like Richard Brautigan and Ron Padgett. Love is what rescues humor from solipsism. The book’s first poem, “The River,” is a disquisition on love and language that posits the latter as a necessary force to carry the darkness of the former past ruin. In the second poem, “Lily Pad,” Leidner lets the words work themselves until he can plainly state: “Love is rad.” This is a beautiful set-up for love’s deceleration into like, where the last line of the poem transitions seamlessly to “Blackouts”: “I love the long green fall into the rad black hole.” Like and love leapfrog each other through the entire book, so that one becomes a condition of the other, inextricable. Leidner loves like and likes love. And since “Love castrates ambition,” Beauty Was the Case that They Gave Me never tries to move past either into a seriousness that might hamper its charm. And since unchecked charm can easily ruin a book, like must, just when it seems poised to trump love, be side-stepped as we “flee together out of simile and into you.”
This is a book that likes you. A book that likes you so much it may even like like you. And so the two of you teeter on the edge where like becomes love and never give in completely because LOVE writ large may contain an evil, dissembling core, as suggested in “Mutually Assured Childhood Molestation.” So love, in its multilayered aura of trauma, is actually rescued by like: leapfrog. In his future books, Leidner may decide to go with one or the other. He may even, actually, choose beauty. Or truth for that matter. Until then we must be content with his dream of it in a poem called “Gossip”:
One day I will write a beautiful poem
that will go: I am a pale
transmuting slowly into
on the surface of a still, white lake
as a dark, fibrous smile
spreads across my lips
Chris Martin is the author of Becoming Weather (Coffee House 2011) and American Music (Copper Canyon 2007). He is an editor at Futurepoem Books, where he curates the response blog Futurepost.