Not a poetry person myself, I am thankful to regular contributor Amy Pence for her thoughtful and detailed poetry reviews. Amy is back this month after a trip abroad and we are happy to have her back.
At an international conference in Oxford, England one evening this month, several participants gathered at a local pub. My husband and I were surrounded by a New Yorker, a Canadian, a Londoner, a woman from the countryside of Denmark, and a young man from Lisbon. All agreed that in matters of the economy, culture and especially in the increasing commodification of our futures, their nations were following us: the US down the dark bizarre rabbit hole (we were in Lewis Carroll’s city after all). There was a brief, grim silence.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
I hear the same frustration, guilt and powerlessness in Joseph Lease’s book of poetry TESTIFY, published by Coffee House Press. At first, I must admit, his project seemed like spitting in the wind—a cliché he chose not to weave into the poems. Each poem in the first section “America” (identified as reflecting the years 2004-2008) is titled “America.” Here’s a sample:
NASDAQ +12.90. Dow close: 10,617.78.
Hey kids, big sexy corporation!
Don’t be a quitter.
The “America” poems slyly ply us with the ambivalent messages we receive in this country, and indeed, America’s mass “messaging” becomes the sub-text of the book. If that were all, perhaps I’d stop reading.
However, TESTIFY, as Lease lets us know in his notes section, echoes the refrains of other thinkers and writers, including Amiri Baraka, Michael Bérubé, Allen Ginsberg, Susan Howe, Julie Kristeva. These echoes, and the repetitions of some key lines, lend the book its sense of power and poignancy that draws me in.
In the poem “Night,” the collaged messages accumulate:
Miss USA gone wild, high school football, pro-business policy
“solve your child’s sleep problems”—
“ready or not”—you walked around like shame:
sparking and breaking—might give it back—might—
you’re in the rain a million miles from rain and you and you and you
and you and you—
“ready or not”—blue town and summer and green town and
From the fragments, and the haunting childhood cry of “ready or not,” a lyrical tone arises and gathers: what it is we’ve been made ready for in a society that has lost its ability to see the “light gray,” in a nation where journalism is no longer objective, and the population is divided into “wolves” and “sheep”?
What I also admire in Lease’s book is his attention to the textural shape of each poem. Words find their line as a dancer finds and fills her space. Like the master Danish poet Inger Christensen in her book alphabet, Lease crafts each poem with attention to the weight of each word. This is a difficult task when dealing with overused messages, yet after reading the book through to its conclusion, I am struck by how each poem is an embodied utterance: the individual body of this speaker with his particular experience as well as the body politic, “torn and frayed.” The long poem in the section “Send My Roots Rain” is both elegiac and haunting.
The poems are torn, yet hopeful. In an interview Lease says, “I tried to write poems that embody spiritual mystery and the broken but essential promise of American democracy.” By the last section, “Magic,” Lease tries (also a key word) to invoke some.
branches, desire, little ifs of white spin in the bowl—
he wanted, wanted to leave—he tried and yes he tried any-
thing, the world is gone, the world is back—“I am not who
I am”—the sincerest form of commerce, I is a meaningless
dog, “I believe that”—
As many of the dreams of the 2008 election have perished, and as Britain burns with mass lootings brought on by lower to middle-class frustration, Lease’s testimony rings even more vividly. “Mr. Fantasy” can’t heal the world’s problems, which have become persistent and global. Lease’s last line: “I hear that everywhere I go” leaves us with the puzzle of our times: once “that” is heard everywhere, then what?
– Amy Pence, Regular Contributor