This review is about 6 printed pages long.
Ropes of light hover in the broken world of Joseph Lease’s third book of poems. It’s an image he repeats in the midst of other movements — the crass, the mundane, the vaguely sinister and the fully American details of this collection full of ‘elegies...taking off their clothes.’ Broken World is one of those rare books for readers not yet afraid of music, despite how all too often readers are warned against it. One is tempted to say that in a world where musicality and virtuosity are often ‘out,’ Lease has chosen to warble anyway. And there’s no doubt some readers might at first glance cringe instinctively as some poems seem to hang on conventions rarely revivified: lists, blues-like refrains. This is precisely where Lease stands up and belts out something surprising, something one has not heard exactly, except maybe in the Amiri Baraka of Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note:
And now, each night I count the stars.
And each night I get the same number.
And when they will not come to be counted,
I count the holes they leave.
These lines of Baraka followed by the image of his daughter whom he walks in on praying into her empty hands might serve as a chart
of the trajectory Lease pursues, a similar haunted space where the sublime and
the quotidian perform their rondeux. It’s America in which even the losing
side seems compelled to keep count of something, even if they’re not sure
In the background of much of Lease’s poetry over the years is that sense of obsessive calculation, or what Adorno called ‘Instrumental Rationality.’ But at times, and only for brief moments, Lease expresses a faith in the Enlightenment Project, against which Adorno lobbed this phrase. What’s new here is how Lease resists simply deconstructing instrumental rationality and its link to our money fetish. Mindful that instrumentality suffuses our use of language itself, Lease zeroes the scales by renewing the lyrics of Wordsworth and Rilke, by establishing that the ‘word for dawn/is others.’ The recurrent Romantic undertones are set up almost like Baraka’s jazz rhythms. Lease’s rhythms set his images in motion. The effect is a sort of counter-counting.
The music of Lease’s lists, often so mundane, such as ‘Toyota Camry’ playing lyrically off ‘St. Mary’s Laundry’ propels Lease’s work ‘Outside the syllables,’ as he suggests in one part of his long, serial poem ‘Free Again.’ Or at least, that is the gesture both Baraka and Lease share — to push the music of the quotidian, the micro-struggles of everydayness into the forefront, even if the main subject matter is always more unavoidably partisan — Lease’s Jewishness or Baraka’s Blackness. But why so many readers respond beyond these seeming partisanships has more to do with how each poet makes their anger almost universal, and part of that is the sophistication of the music. Rather than lulling a reader to inattention or stirring the reader into awe over the poet’s virtuosity, the music elevates the tiny details into the grand old themes, newly arranged.
Lease has written eloquently in his critical work about the power of Baraka to evoke other possible trajectories of American history and how Baraka’s dissatisfaction has transformed him through various periods. Lease does not yet have the sweep of a writer like Baraka, not the same number of aesthetic and political periods. But he shares Baraka’s ability to make an elegiac poem carry all the thematic force of a great novel. If it sounds Romantic, this thematic sweep, it is. But it is also constrained by his love of montage and his lyrical compression.
If Lease has accepted the age’s love of de-centered, hardly fleshed-out voices in scanty narrative; it is the more to his credit that his serial poems read as rich collections of voices refracting off one another.
Lease’s America is full of voices refracted through one another, and it is within this refraction that Lease’s untethered romanticism bounces back with all of the force of Baraka’s criticism, his anger. One culture echoes in another in Broken World, only partly because of the musical complexity. At times, Lease invokes his erudition to infuse a poem with a hint of the European classics, but at other moments his work is haunted in the way a young white middle-class suburban boy might pick up urban, black slang. Of course, this is meant to serve to remind us of our tenuous and often uncomfortable unity. But more than that, it seems to suggest we cannot even speak without speaking through each other: ‘Two blocks from campus, a boy maybe ten or eleven, yelled at junior high-school girl: ‘Ho-bag, incest baby, spread your legs.’’ From such aching detail, Lease turns around and concludes that poem with the line: ‘We have a Ponderosa.’ Indeed we do, and the line is somewhat reminiscent of ‘Houston, we have a problem.’ What intrigues me, however, is how this line shifts the poem into another set of registers simultaneously, both into one of the American West and into a critique of its expansionist mythology. It seems to implicate the Culture Industry and America’s history of rape and plunder not only with urban violence, but with NASA and our foreign adventures. Even more remarkable is that all of this is accomplished while also urging an honest contemplative mode, and not a simple dismissive judgment.
Again Baraka is perhaps a model. In a world constantly preaching tolerance for the opinions of others, Lease reminds us that doing so does not mean we can’t oppose our enemies. As result, the ‘Ponderosa’ line does not appear ironic in an enervated or flaccid way because Lease boldly interjects it into a poem confronting what it means to become a man in America. What is not judged is the fact we’re embedded in a broken world, but what is opposed is the idea that we must accept how it structures our notions of masculinity. In this poem, the lyrics themselves are embedded in a series in which a straight man embraces his dying friend with AIDS. The breadth of wrestling both the with personal and the political then is clearly in Baraka’s territory, following as well his ardor for transformation and constant probing, which Lease emphasizes with other simultaneous tonal shifts throughout the book as a whole. Lease, like Baraka, has the ability to suddenly abandon irony and hit you with sincere revelation, moving back into solace and suggesting temporary solutions, pauses, fierce silence.
Broken World opens with short elegiac lines, full of rhythm not quite bluesy, but jangling. This music opens up a terrain of friendship — not simply because a poem addresses a dead friend — but also because of the openheartedness:
I couldn’t hear
You are with me
and I shatter
It’s a bold admission here, that you
haven’t been available (for whatever reason) to be there for your dying
friend and at the same time offering to defend him against his enemies. In this
case, the friend is a writer name James Assatly, dying of AIDS, and thus the
enemy is not the disease, but the homophobia. But it reads, too, like the
contract Lease wants to have with his readers.
Careful readers of his Human Rights may have sensed that Lease fully accepts human selfishness even when he objects to its excesses. There is a concern with proportion which when coupled with Lease’s flashes of rage create a tension, somewhat like those lines above — a protective embrace despite the acknowledged distance — in which a reader feels comfortable, protected even as Lease Virgil-like proceeds to take you into those dank corners of the American way of life. It’s a book where casual sex can become as threatening as children playing with guns, where having one’s lunch money taken is restored to its real terror, even the poet steers the reader around the danger, thus also restoring a sense of scale with a gentle prodding of the reader to keep looking.
And of course there is corruption, about which Lease says, ‘USA means the outer miracle kills the inner miracle.’ The reader like Lease knows that the reason why (and Lease is interested in whys) is related in some part to this very plain, straightforward language. It’s the language of money. Against it, Lease deftly deploys montages, some of the most memorable in American verse. He also manages to zoom in and out during the montage. This is what allows his repetitions to be successful and not ham-fisted as they might be in a lesser poet’s hands. What returns never returns in the same proportion. Yes, he will shift contexts at times, but he is not interested in the kind of moral relativism such a technique can suggest. Evil is depicted with a shifting sense of proportion that allows other details to appear startling, so that in a poem ostensibly about Oprah, debt-management counselors, and ‘the middle-class venting:’ hits with:
last night this wire
trashcan made a torch —
the Americans are
here, drunk on not
Seen as mere juxtaposition (as it might seem here excerpted from the longer musically linked poem) lines like these might create a sense that Lease is too light, that his connections are too easy — Americans are drunk abroad, but helpless and easy prey at home — but its precisely this lightness of tone, the blitheness of quotidian detail that is under scrutiny in other sections of the poem :
The I feels grateful for its bagel, grateful for its espresso — now try it this
way: the I lives in an empire — community of headlines, community of
video loops — all its friends feel terrible — ‘guilt is the new terrorism —’
the Dostoevsky Network: all writhing,
all the time —
What allows this passage to work is not simply some kind of bourgeois
honesty. It’s the fact that it is placed within a poem in which a
neglected child verges on imminent suicide, a step that seems oddly logical in
context. The real consequences of ‘the American way of life’ which
Dick Cheney has declared ‘non-negotiable’ approach all the heaviness
of ecocide. Yes, its true that Lease can have his speakers utter casually about
‘genocide’ and ‘how the rich got rich,’ that his
speakers can seem to lament all too easily that ‘money has
But those are only the tracking shots before Lease zooms in on another close-up, and tracking shots, as Godard said, are a question of ethics. Change, proportion, persistence in Lease’s poems bring us startling moments when the speaker asserts things such as ‘we need to know what colors deer can see’. Moments like these remind us that there is an earth beneath us and we need to understand it. It connects Lease’s America to hunting, of course, and thus other forms of domination, but simultaneous registers and resonates with the America as object for scientific exploration, that slightly more benevolent side of the colonial project that sprouted what would become the field of ecology.
Lease’s vision has garnered comparisons of him to Walt Whitman in so far that there is constantly the suggestion of possible communities, but there is also an emptiness and loneliness, sometimes a solipsism (evoked formally, not pathetically) that suggests more a comparison to the late Whitman who seemed haunted by visions of a predatory prehistory, not unlike contemporary writers on ecological collapse and the dark side of the Industrial Revolution who have more and more emphasized that questions of history come down to a choice between food or fuel.
I would very much like to read a poet who manages to captivate even while s/he can connect the dreary linkages between America’s newfound desire for biofuel to the consequent dislocations of the poor in South America, who will lose their farms to agribusiness and move to slums, or who, on the verge of starvation, will be forced to ship their agriculture products to America where we will burn it in our cars. We are not yet in that America. We are much closer to the one in Broken World.
The book ends with a return to childhood, not quite a regression, but a return to a type of intimacy we must be capable of if we are to develop the imagination to oppose a broken world. Lease is smart, then, to end the book
by recalling how childhood is a place where the imagination reigns, It’s ironic for a poem called ‘Free Again.’ After all, Godard said, all children are a little bourgeois. But ultimately Broken World ends in a plea for someone to listen, which could be taken as futility, the logical place for a poet to end a book who could not summons the proper revolutionary affirmation, a poet too choked up over the fact that things are not as they were promised and can’t be.
But this is not quite what Lease is. A voice ortwo intrude, one the voice of a suicidal child, but also another who says,“I can remember my secret book— /I was a ghost , you were the only one / who could hear me—”. It’s a doubling, the voice perhaps of the man speaking to his earlier self. And the line break at “who could hear me” crucially cuts across any sentimentality and presenting America as only half dead, only half asleep, half child and half adult, vaguely aware of its secret history of violence. For this reason, the unconscious must distort and represent our horrible awareness as a “secret book”. Lease, again like Baraka, depicts our unwillingness to feel what we, in fact, do know, shorn of abstraction, shorn even of the sense that we know it in the same ways.
The suggestion then is that commonality can be renewed from the experience of wondering “who is listening?” It’s a simple experience — that moment of loneliness and the need to be heard, that awareness of our common “broken”state.
But calling Broken World’s seeming simplicity and concern with false promises nostalgia or naiveté or some other expletive is like calling concern for the one you love “proprietorial” or “exclusive.” Yes, those might be roughly the parameters, even regrettable ones. But the concern itself maybe still more complete and human — carrying still more of the human possibility and compassion — than interests that allege to be uncontaminated by any such affect or impulse.
The best poetry has always been conservative in this way: recognizing that the language of the age was always on the verge of being co-opted by enemies of humanity, of become inhuman or mechanical (either brightly or dully so), of becoming a weapon of the powerful or an anthem built on jargon; the best poetry has always brought out the sense that meaning is in contention, that is political, human, of this world, tangible so transformable. Poetry attempts to conserve language’s power to actually communicate beyond the dulling forces set against it. No serious reader today even doubts this.
The enemy of poetry now is not the old image of literature as pursued in a trance, with the air-conditioner on, of the old bearded thinker with soft hands, removed from the concerns of the world, going over his notes. The enemy today is the parody we are given of belonging to the world or even complicity, the parody of communication we are offered which is always to say, we’re all part of the problem.
But serious writing today in its efforts to appear complicit is always at the tawdry service of some wicked ideology — capitalism, racism, sexism, etc. — and indeed so aware of its limits, that it now must celebrate its self-consciousness.
That is why I think the stress must fall on the specificity of the relationship between the reader and writer, on what the writer hopes to give the reader even if both know such a gift can never be received in tact. Some of this is in the lines: “I couldn’t hear. / I couldn’t hear / your voice. / You are with me / and I shatter / everyone who / hates you.”
That is why I like the compassionate even if sometimes testy embrace ofJoseph Lease’s stance as a poet, which seems to say, I don’t know you, I don’t know what I can do for you, I don’t know that the poetry will achieve anything, it may even ruin us both, but I will damn sure aim to make it do whatever you will let me.