NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
Broken World by Joseph Lease
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2007)
Testify by Joseph Lease
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2011)
Originally from Chicago, Lease lives in Oakland, California, and chairs the MFA Program in Writing at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. In addition to the books reviewed here, he is the author of two other collections of poetry: Human Rights and The Room.
In an earlier review of Broken World (see Galatea Resurrects # 9), Andrew Joron helpfully points out that the title of the collection “refers most obviously to the ethical imperative of the Kaballa, namely ‘to repair the world’ (tikkun olam).” He points out that “the world, according to this tradition, may be likened to a vessel designed to hold the light of God. But the human part of this vessel contained sinful impurities which weakened it, causing it to shatter. The divine light then dispersed, leaving “nothing” in its place. It is incumbent upon the human community to repair the vessel by performing good deeds, so that the world will be filled once again with holy brightness.”
Viewed from this standpoint, Broken World is a cri du coeur about everything that is wrong with America today. There is anger in these verses, but there is also compassion. Not surprisingly, given the context in which it is written, “shatter” is one of the keywords in the collection. The prayers that are offered up are fragmentary but genuine enough in their sense of urgency.
In the title poem, Broken World, an elegy for James Assalty, a friend who died of AIDS in 1993, Lease uses repetition as a form of incantation to heal that which is past. Everything that won’t be is set down in a kind of lament:
Won’t be stronger. Won’t be water.
Won’t be dancing on floating berries.
Won’t be a year. Won’t be a song.
Won’t be taller. Won’t be accounted
a flame. Won’t be a boy. Won’t be
any relation to the famous rebel.
At other moments, anger presents itself as another manifestation of grief but this section, too, has a repetitious element which is also a form of incantatory healing:
You are with me
and I shatter
Arrows on water;
you are with me –
rain on snow –
and I shatter
History of Our Death addresses another broken world. It begins with a found text written by a victim of the Holocaust. It is a confession written by someone who is torn apart by feelings of guilt for having eaten more than his portion of bread. In the second part, Lease contemplates another broken object, a crab shell. He sees it as a thing of beauty, even though it is broken. The emotion is heightened when he chooses to turn the meditation on the crab shell into a metaphor for his own race:
us garbage –
I was garbage –
they call me
human garbage –
I was garbage
so I still am –
Oppression is the subject here, and how to deal with horror in history. In spite of the bleakness the poem ends on an uplifted note:
God breathing –
in daughters and sons –
God dancing -
Lease’s poem Cy Twombly with its repetition of cold gray sky accurately reflects the American painter’s “grey paintings” – the series of works he produced on grey grounds between 1967 and 1971 as well as many of the other works he produced on solid fields of mostly grey, tan or off-white colours. Twombly often quoted poets in his works and so I guess there is a connection here. He no doubt appealed to Lease because, according to Katharina Schmidt, “Cy Twombly’s work can be understood as one vast engagement with cultural memory.” This is not too far removed from one of the things that Lease is doing elsewhere in this collection of poems.
The poem cycle, Free Again, which comprises half the book and is written in twenty-six sections, spells out Lease’s disillusionment with America. He looks back to the time when America was first discovered, he reaches right back to the beginning and asks
What is our country. Did it start as blank as blank blank, as blank blank blank.
There are no question marks here and so it is more of a statement than a question. Whatever was once there has, Lease asserts, in the last hundred years been covered with concrete.
In a culture that values passive pleasures above all else, freedom has somehow superseded responsibility. Democracy in this context is all about selfish fulfillment and physical comfort.
We could just get lost in this hot day, in our wanting –we could just get lost – hot day, parking lot, dear friend on the phone but no one in the parking lot to make this day better – spotlight on Otis Redding, warm Wild Cherry Pepsi, sweet soul music, Archie Bell and the Drells…
Americans, he says, are drunk on their own naughtiness.
In America, the city is one long story of corruption.
America is the place where one has to choose between winning in New York and being a good person.
Why don’t people tell the truth?
Why don’t people talk more about the government and power?
Instead, everyone is pursuing the cult of the individual. Everyone is asking for more tax cuts. It is all about I,I,I,I.
The self that wins and wins.
America is the place where money has won everywhere.
It is a place where you
can sell your soul and
the nation profits –
In America, guilt is the new terrorism.
Lease’s latest collection, Testify, is essentially a continuation of Broken World which is perhaps why similar cover designs adorn both books. The title smacks of prophecy and it is imperative.
In conversation with Claire Chafee, Lease himself links the two books together when he says that in both he tried to write poems that embodied spiritual mystery and the broken but essential promise of American democracy.
The opening sequence, America, is a further lament on the state of his country. It is a savage critique on blatant consumerism, military deception and political inertia. It is set in the context of events that happened during the period November 2004 to April 2008. It is political but Lease does not attempt to persuade us to the right or to the left. He just wants us to move forward to a more compassionate place where there is a “home” to return to. Thomas Fink, in his informative review, reminds us that Lease’s sequence America was begun “around the time of John Kerry’s narrow defeat and right before Barack Obama gathered momentum for the decisive Democratic primaries. Lease serves as a witness to the greed, mendacity, and potent PR machine of right-wing capitalist authoritarianism and to resistance to it.” America is the place where big corporations are sexy, where financial indices matter, it is where everyone has to succeed, where people are addicted to the Dow. It is also about image – America is expensive houses but, Lease adds, expensive dying houses. It is also a place where morning smells like piss, it is drunk and guilty and it is a body come undone. This is a poem in the Ginsburg tradition. He tells America to wake up: You are not the truth.
What we’re talking about is nothing less than rescuing a democracy that is polarized it is in danger of being paralyzed and pulverized.
This a sequence with a sense of urgency.
In the next section, Torn and Frayed the prose poem Enjoy Your Symptom provides us with a telling commentary on the individual and the notion of society. Whatever happens, appearance is all:
Life is a series of shocks and injuries during which it is necessary to dress well…
But this all crumbles when the poem takes on a mocking tone:
Really, your whole stance of precious self-regard, your whole delicacy and force, is a fart at this point. No one cares. You’re just one more sensitive ice-cream cone in a world of unemployable spaniels…
In other words, the individual with puffed up notions is just a receptacle for something that will melt away into nothingness in a world of yapping, ignorant dogs. The need for community is acknowledged in the piece but the sad thing is that even a community can be inward looking and conspiratorial shutting out the very people it should really serve:
The ten laughed. I said, I’ll laugh at your jokes if you laugh at mine.
In America, you don’t allow anyone to push you around. You have to know how to sit in a chair and be outside the law.
Lease chooses to head up another of the poems in this section with this anonymous quote:
“You just want to die. I mean capitalism just wants to kill you I mean you just want and you just want-”
In the opening to the title of the sequence he says:
I felt like winter, I felt like Jell-O – we lost the word virtue,
we lost the word sister, two hundred years of dark garden –
it happens so fast – believe me (I know you won’t) -…
In another section he says:
America, you can’t be greed, America, you’re only greed…
Greed is a stone in the shoe of America.
The section Send My Roots Rain is more tender and lyrical in tone. It is a series of fragmented poems with characters in closer more personal scenes. The final section, Magic, depicts the yearnings of Americans trapped in a materialistic world where everything is based on credit / credit // everywhere. The word play on “gold” and “God” – materialism as a religion in itself – says it all.
everything’s turning to gold, everything’s turning to God,
everything’s turning to dust.
Jesus told “me” so, he gave “me” laws, he gave “me” diamond rings…
Stylistically, both books make use of anaphora – the deliberate repetition of a word or a phrase for a specific effect – in order to usher in a chant-like, incantatory music. These rhythmical elements help to hold together the emotion that animates each poem. The contradictory elements, again, so often found in his poetry, help to point up a divided America. Imagery, particularly from the natural world, is used sparsely but employed to good effect. For example, in the opening lines of America Lease says:
Try saying wren
-as if America would admit to identifying with anything so diminutive as the wren…but then again, herein lies a contradiction: despite its size, it can prove to be a formidable opponent. In 1925, it lost some of its credentials when Miss Althea Sherman in the March issue of the Wilson Bulletin, wrote “Case of the People of America Versus the House Wren,” demanding that “the felon be sentenced” for attacking other birds, usurping their nests, and even killing their young.
Both books are laments in the prophetic tradition but they do offer hope for the future:
God won’t leave our dreams alone.
Neil Leadbeater is an editor, author, essayist and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014) and The Fragility of Moths (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2015). His website is at www.poetrypf.co.uk/neilleadbeaterpage.shtml.