Mark Leidner: Anti-myth myth-making


Returning the Sword to the Stone, the title of Mark Leidner’s newest collection, gestures to renunciation, or reversal, and the invocation of myth is developed by a line within the poem itself: ‘removing royalty from your bloodline by returning the sword to the stone’. The notion of reversing or undercutting myth threads throughout the collection, and, as Nathan Hoks argues, the book suggests ‘that, perhaps counterintuitively, one task of the contemporary poet is to reverse mythologies – for example, of origin, kingship, kinship, lineage, and privilege’. Hoks is right that poets are frequently the creators or guardians of myth, and right, too, about the exclusivity of myth: the focus on exceptionalism (whether through gift or bloodline) that is so absolute. Humour is one way in which Leidner undercuts this prestige. Long interested in jokes, as forms that seem to promise clarity (you ‘get’ or don’t ‘get’ them), he often uses them against the grain, in pursuit of mystery rather than clarity. And he relishes using other forms in a similar way: analogies, similes, aphorisms, all to generate uncertainty. They are counterintuitive tools for a counterintuitive project.

Like several others in the collection, the title poem ‘Returning the Sword to the Stone’ is a list of similes, but without a ‘tenor’, or an original subject, so that a list of comparisons accumulates without us ever knowing what the comparison is with. Hoks notices how such formal choices ‘contribute to the broader project of deconstructing how “the myth began,”’ and certainly, we can say that the absence of a tenor helps perform the absence of a source or origin story. It’s no longer about privileging an ‘original’ or a primal scene, but instead the focus is on the comparison, and the sheer inventiveness of word play, a much more porous and potentially inclusive paradigm.

A few similes refer specifically to myth; the first line for example: ‘It’s like Sisyphus making direct eye contact with you while sarcastically kissing and licking the boulder’. A figure worn smooth by familiarity is abruptly remade: and classical remoteness is transformed into a contemporary mood. There’s a similar strategy at work in a later line, where it is bathos rather than austere glamour that defines the atmosphere: ‘It’s like a haunted lake in which the wind can spell whatever words it wants in the ripples, but it never really wants to’. Snark, sarcasm, apathy, these minor moods or ‘ugly feelings’ are ‘ignoble cousins of the philosophically canonical emotions’ (Ngai, 11), and contrast with our expectations of the grand simplicity and distinction of ancient, mythic dispositions. And the comic incongruity is a useful way of undercutting the grandiosity and seriousness of myth. The last simile of the poem shifts the mood slightly, to a more wistful register: ‘It’s like a magic mirror that only shows you how you’re imagined by those who miss you’. The incongruity is of a different order here, with the set-up prompting expectations of magical machinations and dark deeds, but, in place of a punchline, instead there’s a quiet, meandering wondering. No longer the imperious outlines of a myth, peopled with larger-than-life figures, it instead turns towards the reader, inviting a personal enquiry: who misses you? What might they imagine? Who do you miss and what might you imagine?

The theme of myth reversal or deconstruction crystallises in ‘The Jeansed Horse’, where Leidner creates a new myth: a gigantic horse wearing jeans. Horses play a frequent part in myth, another concept worn smooth by familiarity; jeans not so much. And here the jeans are very specifically detailed: ‘up to its neck/where the waistline is/tight /so its mane/remains concealed under the seam of denim’. The focus upon materiality continues with the ‘buckets of change’ in its pockets, and the ‘huge sweat stains’ etched into the denim. The comic often attends closely to specificity, and Alenka Zupančič’s description of comedy’s movement away from the ‘universal values of the beautiful, the just, the good, the moral…towards the individual or the particular (as always and necessarily imperfect, limited and always slightly idiotic)’ captures Leidner’s rejection of the abstractions of myth.[1]

The horse is on a mythic scale – but the summoning of that scale is ambivalent: described as so big that it ‘prances through heaven/ its big stupid meadow/of empty beauty/change shaking/in its pockets/like cosmic maracas.’ ‘Galaxies/ poof underneath its hoof-falls/like dustballs’, while ‘[a] single coin/from its sail-like pockets/would flatten the sun/like a sewer access cover/flattening a grape.’ The similes are determinedly commonplace; the words – ‘sewer access cover’ – often lumpen. There’s a similarity here with the anti-lyricism of George Saunders, who also uses deliberately ugly, utilitarian language to great comic effect, and there’s a kinship, too, in the hasty gesturing towards comprehensive description, ‘clusters of stars, etc’ – ‘everywhere, etc’. This paradoxically anti-mythologising myth-making culminates in a commentary which situates the reader as the engine for the process:
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
This replaces conventional knowledge ‘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’ (Hoks). For Leidner, the scale and the beauty of the Jeansed Horse are not the point – what matters is a genuinely democratic or inclusive vision that privileges our ‘organs of perception’ rather than any external mythic order. And that’s partly why the whole thing is so ludicrous – this is not a myth designed to last – it’s deliberately disposable. As poetic crutches, part of the poet’s toolkit as creators and guardians of myth, scale and beauty must be abjured, or at least used with great care. Elsewhere in the collection, Leidner cites the notion of ‘a life-size Styrofoam statue of David’ (26), and it’s a paradigm that perhaps helps explain his intentions here.

[1] There’s a self-reflexive acknowledgement of the poem’s commitment to the ‘real’ or the particular rather than the abstract, when Leidner describes the jeans ‘taking on/ the texture/of a cowboy’s, the real kind/not the Hollywood /kind’ – both the acknowledgement and the expression are deliberately gauche or inelegant, in keeping with Leidner’s wariness of lyricism. 

Hoks, Nathan, Review of Returning the Sword to the Stone, Hong Kong Review of Books, 25 April 2021, https://hkrbooks.com/2021/04/25/returning-the-sword-to-the-stone/

Leidner, Mark. Returning the Sword to the Stone. Portland: Fonograf Editions, 2021

Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2005

Zupančič, Alenka. The Odd One In: on Comedy. Cambridge, Mass.; London: MIT Press, 2007.

© Emma Sullivan 2021.

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