The Alchemist in the Engineer: Linda Besner’s The Id Kid

The prescient epigraph for Linda Besner’s deservedly lauded debut is an exchange between the Devil and the titular character of David Mamet’s Bobby Gould in Hell who proclaims, as we liberal-minded bleeding-heart leftists tend to do, that “Nothing’s black and white.” “Nothing’s black and white” the Devil answers, impatiently, “what about a panda? What about a panda, you dumb fuck! What about a fucking panda!” That the language here is hilariously potty-mouthed is one thing; that it implicitly rejects the supposed bread and butter of an intellectually artistic sensibility—a resistance to extremities, proclamations, or fundamentalisms—is another. But the real magic is how these two spheres fuse to produce a third, alchemical soup, wherein Besner’s work can demonstrate what Gaston Bachelard once identified as the key to dynamic, self-aware, contemporary thought: “the alchemist in the engineer.”

I could certainly argue that this balance isn’t always perfectly struck in The Id Kid. Some poems perhaps rely too heavily on an urge to forge golden, polysyllabic, linguistically complex lines, wherein the grounded, common energy that I think makes Besner’s work hum is lost for the sake of lyric play. Others, including the self-portrait that complements the delightfully weird “Self-Portrait: Besner (Recto), Cactus (Verso),” seem to me to veer too far into confessional kitsch to strike an effective balance between common and cultivated speech (and I’m talking about the picture here, not the poem). “Steak,” a meditation on romance and/or traffic accidents, includes not only the brilliant opening, “Buckle up, because I’m telling you this only once: it’s the steak / I still think about,” but also the predictable descriptor, “idiosyncratic as true love,” while “Leather Jacket” displays both overriding technical brilliance and a clunky conclusion: “You, and your hold-me-tight leather jacket.” But such complaints are motivated by my own taste, of course; I prefer an inclusive balance between sweet and sour that I think is much harder to accomplish.

Luckily for me, the bulk of the poems in The Id Kid brilliantly manage such a balance, displaying a wry maturity and aesthetic self-awareness most debut poets can only dream of. “Paris in the Spring” (33) is one example—a poem based, in part, on a reading test used to measure top-down processing, wherein a repeated word, embedded in the text, remains as undetected by the reader as does the poem’s father figure. Most of the poems in the third section, “Great Men,” strike a similar balance, no small task given the difficulty of writing original portrait poems, or the challenge of drawing accurate, evocative images of any gendered subject. Most of The Id Kid’s poems include similarly successful combinations of sacred and profane. In “Bathtub Showroom,” for example, sparkling faucets irrevocably prove “Intelligent design, sure to last forever” while the fantastic “Hummingbirds are Solipsists,” includes “A thumbnail portrait of God as a red kimono handjob,” a description that’s probably impossible to improve upon.

Despite its debatable flaws, nearly every poem in the book offers similarly superlative moments. If you’re seeking “a tiger rodeo,” “de futuro ducks,” or “stonehenge for black flies,” you’ll find them here. If you’re looking for intertextual nuance and terrible puns, they’re here, too. And if you’re seeking resolution for the supposed conflicts between high and low, base and superstructure, petty and profound, look no further. Perhaps what ultimately makes such inclusivity possible is Besner’s confidently curious voice, which is as willing to welcome the pimply kid into the cool clique as it is to dismiss the politically left in order to savour the repugnant right. Just as its epigraph epitomizes her balanced choices, then, it’s no surprise that Besner’s concluding lines tidily sum up the faithful alchemy that makes her debut so stellar: “Me, me,” her speaker shouts, hand up, offering what we might read as a methodological modus operandi for The Id Kid: “pick me, mister,” the voice urges, “Saw me in half. / I believe.”


Rob Winger’s latest book is The Chimney Stone, but he’s working on another one. He lives in the hills northeast of Toronto, where he currently teaches at Trent University.


Between common and cultivated, sacred and profane: Arc.


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