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This issue of JACKET is a co-production with SALT magazine


Human Rights, by Joseph Lease

(Boston: Zoland Books, 1998)

Reviewed by Maria Damon

This piece is 1,500 words or about five pages long.

What do you do if you find yourself, a bright Jewish boy from Chicago, alive and awash in late 20th-century American privilege and expectations, when so many others of you have been killed by millennia of social violence — most recently a mere fifty years ago?

And how does it feel to inherit the legacy of their deaths and your own life? How do you "make it up to them"? What makes you "good enough" to enjoy life, or not, on their behalf, or on your own behalf, for that matter? Should you, or shouldn't you? How dare you fail, when you owe it to them to "succeed, " whatever that means? How dare you succeed (whatever that means), when they never even got to try?

So, you go to Columbia University for your B.A., you get an MFA from Brown — which promotes an interesting, non-traditional aesthetic practice — and a PhD from Harvard, where you can work with an American Studies don who actually values your brainiac language mind; but you know it's all both false consciousness and the only game in town.

These are the dilemmas implicitly and explicitly engaged by Joseph Lease's first collection of poems, ambitiously titled Human Rights. It is perhaps limited for me to read these gorgeous poems solely from the perspective of Jewish cultural studies, but this is my entry into a volume that has already been praised from many other points of view: Christopher Beach has acclaimed Lease as "among the most accomplished and provocative poets of his generation," and Thomas Fink has asserted that he "exhibits the talent of a major poet."

The Poetry Project Newsletter from St. Mark's in the Bowery called his work "sublime utterance" full of "unique power," and words and phrases like "nothing short of astonishing," "superb," and "amazing" are typical for the reviews that accompanied the book when it first appeared. His "musically alive" verse has been compared to that of William Carlos Williams, Robert Creeley, and, by several critics, Theodore Roethke.

The book's lyricism, its grasp of music (the poet's "ear"), imagery and all the crafty requisites of "good poetry" have been established; what I'd like to do is attend to what Lease himself has referred to as its "cultural work," and, more specifically with regard to the questions of survival and privilege I enumerated above, "introspection as cultural work." That is, one's debt to the traumatic enabling condition of one's life is repaid through its contant reflection in both senses — one's self-reflexive thinking about that condition, and life's ceaseless reflection of it. And Lease's poetry reflects this trauma aptly, both in its content (its angst-ridden affirmations) and its technique: in what others have praised as lyric deftness and image/sound mastery.

This trick, the lyricist's precision, has always seemed to me to have one foot (or root) in the dissociation of a traumatic, witness/victim double-consciousness. What others see as the vexed relationship between the "persona" or the "lyric I" and the actual author of the poem, I see sometimes as a split consciousness working out its traumatic splitting through hyperreal imagery and language both infused with and emptied of "emotion" — as befits the strangely hybrid hysterical/flat voice of lyric, which hovers between parataxis and "meaningful detail." Does this sound abstract? Here's the opening poem, "Michael Kohlhaas," in its entirety, to clarify:

undisturbed was the first word,
the first metaphor, the
first moral

the first visual arrangement

there was never a first narrative,
no first ambition

but the classical plugs of light
and snow
and the tightness of mud
rings, and undisturbed glass
resting on your fingers,
the evergreens and ferns

if I could avoid it
I would never tell you anything

"But there's always that tension
of being burdened with 'I'"

there are two crazy trees in your eyes

the first time he burned the town
it fell like a grove of
giant chrystanthemums

the second time he burned the town
green stagnant water
came between his teeth

the third time he burned the town
his fingers were filled with
white chrysanthemums

the first time he burned the town
he hated himself
and he hated the town

the second time he burned the town
he loved himself
though he hated the town

there was no third time he burned the town

The self-reflexive attention to "the word," moral and narrative of the opening; the pro/confusion of pronouns, which annouces itself as a poetic/existential problem ("being burdened with 'I'"); the surrealism of the chrysanthemum imagery; and the high-Biblical narrative style — the paratactical stripped-down-ness — of the second half of the poem, in which catastrophe is reported in an emptied-out, just-the-facts-ma'am voice, all indicate the vertigo, and yet the dissociated right-at-homeness, that accompanies a subjectivity conscious of the mythic/ narratological, the "personal" and the "Historical" elements in all experience.

The last line especially — "there was no third time he burned the town" — catapults the reader into an unknown and unknowable universe where things are not as they seem, where one is forever waiting for the other shoe to drop, where one is robbed forever of any comfortable fiction of "closure." And that's just the first poem; if the world is a book, and the turned pages indicate some model of "progress," one is for the rest of this world-as-we-know-it living between one series of conflagrations and the uncertainty/inevitability of others.

This multi-layered consciousness, both enabling and disabling, is foregrounded once again in "Slivovitz," the final poem of the volume — though it appears or is implicit throughout all the poems in Human Rights. "The sun we see/ is not the real sun" (57) tells us immediately, like, "there was no third time he burned the town," that we are in a noman's land of instability — that is, ordinary life. In some ways, we already know this: Einstein and other physicists have taught us that by the time we see the sun, it may already be dead; such is the nature of the famous "speed of light" and the "belatedness" emphasized by many contemporary theorists. We also sometimes believe with Plato, though we periodically rebel, that the reality we experience can't possibly be THE reality — it must be an inferior stand-in for something better — anything less than the Ideal is not the Real, and nothing that we can apprehend with our senses, of course, is Ideal. How could it be, since it's so pathetic, horrific, banal and weird? For that matter, "When was the sun/ the real sun?" (58)

Lease adds to this existential and physical always-alreadiness the dimension of history: how can we live real lives, knowing what we know about annihilation? "It's your wedding / and you just said 'death camp'" (60). This tragicomic, Kafka-with-Tourette's timing exemplifies Lease's work. "From the back of the bus/ a voice piped up, / 'Abandon every hope, / ye who enter." (60) The verse is intercut with a "prose" passage: " . . . I'm in a mall. Watches with gorgeous faces, displays in threes in windows. Laughing teenagers. The Clinique counter full of mauve oils  . . .  I want to kiss between Donna's breasts. I wish we could slip into that storage room. Wearing the charcoal gray sweater she gave me, I think, this world is not real. And I think, My father liked the shirt I bought him. No one here is wealthy, but everyone here is shopping . . . "(59) Frankfurt School meets trauma theory: to be alive now is to live out a(n at least) double-consciousness in which eros becomes the only anchor for a spirit ricocheting between past and present, introspection and consumerism, the Real and the Immanent, the historical and the hysterical.

So, what to do. Write ("Actually I own the future, I sunbathe / in it, I write it down" [62]) and refuse to write:

    and I will not, I refuse
to sit at the counter

of Dunkin' Donuts
    on Boylston Street late at night

    writing in this notebook. (58)


To stand in icy water.
    To believe in words.
            To believe in words spoken

by an angel;
  to worry about the angel's
              intentions . . .  (39)

And refuse to believe:

 . . .  no one interrupted

the movement toward a belief
  offering no hope. (62)

Above all,

 . . . don't feel free to imagine . . . don't try to speak for another person . . . that's not your right . . . but you must . . . you are here.(50)

Can't go on, must go on. How to write poetry after Auschwitz, not in spite of, but consonant with, Adorno's prohibition against representation, against the happy self-ratifying "lyrik." Can't go on, will go on. The human right is that humans write. Here is one doing it, and it's a good thing, too, insofar as there are good things.

* * *

I've come to praise not through description, but through analysis. The descriptive praise is merited, but analysis provides for me a more engaged form of interaction with the text: dynamic, dialogical, dare I say Talmudic. Reading the volume as a contribution to Jewish cultural studies, moreover, despite its relative soft-pedaling of "Jewish content," lets us see the book's ethical imperative as one that commands self-reflection simultaneous with a skepticism about "Self" itself.

While Lease's work does not dissolve the "self" entirely, as one could argue that the work of Charles Bernstein or Hannah Weiner does, it chronicles in beautiful minutiae the subjective experience of that dissolution. That is, Human Rights attends *to*, rather than *from*, the subject's fragmentation, its dispersal/ diasporization.

Maria Damon teaches poetry and poetics at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of The Dark End of the Street: Margins in American Vanguard Poetry (Minnesota UP, 1993) and co-author, with Miekal And, of Literature Nation, a poetic hypertext.

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This issue of Jacket is a co-production with SALT magazine,
an international journal of poetry and poetics, edited by John Kinsella
PO Box 937, Great Wilbraham, Cambridge PDO, CB1 5JX United Kingdom ISSN 1324-7131

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