“I’m not used to circumstances like this,” says Leopold Brant, observing the walls. He’s wearing a purple dress coat and a cravat maybe one size too large. His curls of dark hair have been artfully clustered towards the top of his head, with very little spilling over to the back or sides. His voice isn’t quite disdainful but only because the stronger impression it leaves is of carelessness, lassitude. He has come to the Lower East Side to read at the Poetry Project and it’s evident that his surroundings are beneath him.
His poems, as he reads them to an audience whose responses alternate between credulous, jaded, amused, and bemused, are not quite “beautiful” but also not quite not. For the most part they chronicle, wistfully, a intermittent series of gay affairs carried out amidst the costly art galleries and penthouses decked out in costly avant-garde art for which Brant’s attire serves as a kind of synecdoche, though frequent jolts of humor (one especially large laugh comes in response to an epigram that wonders why John Cage’s advocates can’t shut up and be silent about him) and occasional hints of family trauma (a younger brother in need of guidance, a father whose extreme wealth enables the poet’s luxurious existence even as his parental neglect cripples the poet’s emotions) leave little doubt that there’s a method and a mind behind Brant’s fatuous self-presentation. When he finishes, the audience applause is sincere and loud enough to indicate high levels of interest.
Reading his author biography, it’s hard not to conclude that there isn’t any art-world publication, poetry don, queer cultural critic, or institution of high fashion that hasn’t branded Brant as the next young thing to watch. It’s almost a shame that none of it is real: “Leopold Brant,” the melancholic young gay poet of New York’s ultra-cultured upper class is only a heteronym, a mirage constructed carefully by a melancholic young gay poet/critic, though only of the upper-middle class, named Felix Bernstein. The son of the prominent, prolific Language poet Charles Bernstein, Felix shares with his progenitor a desire to lampoon and interrogate the power of class in culture, but he experiments less with words than with entire personas: Leopold’s conceit offers him an opportunity to mock the preening and posturing endemic to a culture in which the rhetoric of gay liberation and the forms of radical art are cheerfully co-opted by high finance. (Nor is Leopold merely a critical mask: his unhappy loves and family traumas are distended versions of figures and events in the life of Bernstein fils.) What the blithe, contemptuous poses of Leopold ultimately permit Felix is, somewhat paradoxically, an escape from certain kinds of posing—in particular the vacuous genuflections that pass, frequently, for discourse in the art and poetry worlds alike. In his performance there’s a sense of challenge and of grievance that’s as appropriate to poetry (think of Baudelaire, or Heine, if you’ve read them) as it is absent from most of American poetry today. The sweeter the image, the bitterer the thought behind it: and what stings the most, perhaps, about the whole charade is that the poems, regardless of their author, are good enough to stand on their own.
Frank Guan (@frankophilia) writes for n+1, where his latest essay was an overview of the life and work of Tao Lin. He is a founder and co-editor of Prelude, a new annual magazine of poetry criticism and poetry.