Trying to keep your voice clear (your voice will break)

A review of Joseph Lease's 'Testify'



by Joseph Lease

Coffee House Press 2011, 63 pages, $16 ISBN 9781566892582

A new volume by Joseph Lease is cause for celebration by the most discerning readers and writers of poetry. Testify emerges at a timely point in American history, in which verisimilitude has become the order of the day; rote mimicry retains the tinny sound of a better past; and reflex has been turned away from what collective inner feeling remains. Against this ominous backdrop emerges a book that simultaneously owns the cultural realities, while refusing their inevitability.

Lease is the master of tenderness, crafting a deeply felt synthesis that is as potent in its specificity as it is accurate in its intuitive musicality. Each word feels equally found and chosen. One senses an unprecedented level of balance in the intellect and the heart that undergird this poetry. Not only does work by Lease speak to me, it singes while it sings, it reminds me of better selves within us all, selves that reach and recover and refashion the raw bounty given us.

Joseph Lease functions as the quintessential poet. The successive versions of his poems depict continual renewal that vibrantly shows in the works as it evolves far beyond their original versions. Lease’s singular use of anaphora, the deliberate repetition of a word or phrase for a specific effect, achieves perfection as it sings or cries its musical reality in repeated chant-like fragments that become in their aggregate more whole than any more traditional construction would allow.

And this is and you are and we
are: say we are the people: we are people, the people:
say democracy: say free and responsible government, say
popular consent:
say democracy so polarized, say polarized, say paralyzed (22)

The fourfold structure of Testify begins with the long poem “America,” and proceeds into “Torn and Frayed,” a sequence of shorter poems that distinguish multiple symptoms of harshness that define the current state. The work then moves into a reverent and powerful prayer sequence of “Send My Roots Rain,” concluding with “Magic,” a fusion of the emergent and desired miracle posited as the optimal definition of the possible.

Rarely does a book of poetry release universal truths so skillfully and passionately by pinpointing such surprising and specific images as “There’s a fist of meat in my solar plexus / and green light in my mouth and little chips of dream flake / off my skin.” Lease carries the reader with him as he allows supreme vulnerability to be sung.

In Lease’s words, “I’m trying to make change actual, to embody change. It has to do with the lyric sequence, and feeling tone, and scene structure. You can play self-consciousness, the way you can play the violin or the cello.” As a reader, I am more than willing to be carried forward by Lease’s work, implicitly trusting where he will carry me. Embracing knowledge as responsibility is the reconstituted innocence of Testify. A heartrending trio of lines, italicized, is allowed to guide “America”:

the sin most insistently called abhorrent to God is the failure
of generosity, the neglect of widow and orphan, the oppression
of strangers and the poor, the defrauding of the laborer —

Coming right out with the most accurate accusation of the greed that has been allowed to flourish as a national raison d’etre, Joseph Lease has mastered the art of selecting the harmonic that brings to life the pain of being induced into the scheme that has dissolved our collective dream. Testify becomes the act of trembling with courage to scream whispers to the hardened sky. The cap across the horror, the realization of the horror, the recognition that horror can be multiplied, and multiplies itself …

Rarely have I been so relieved to hear a person say the word “prayer” as I was in Lease’s poetry. The work instills a willingness to connect beyond limitation, in search of a full stop to the collective (t)error. The animal self-turned-narcissist, the sensory deprivation, the heart’s starvation, becomes the permanent and pure desire for touch, for release, for an inherent and everlasting music. Lease voyages to the right side of the brain where lines dissolve and the great act of “rescuing” a hypothetical democracy becomes possible again through recognition of the truth.

The chatter that fuels polarization through recitation of empty phrases like “free and responsible government,” “popular consent,” along with the projection of “Airbrushed / Gwynneth” and a host of recipes “write to your congressional representative,” further distance us both individually and collectively from the inner impulse to imagine an inherent music: “they keep showing / the real world on TV” (20).

Nature holds, primal scream holds, colors hold. Surfaces and edges hold. Just as “You / Are past the boundary now And repetition of the definition of “the sin most insistently called abhorrent to God” gathers material meaning as it continues like a snowball collecting dirt and tiny stones. In the poem “Enjoy Your Symptom,” we hear:

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. (29)

The symptom assumes multiple forms in Lease’s work, as the poet gently, artistically splinters words across the page, depicting the constancy of desire, even as it has been warped away. In a parallel fashion, Leases uses insistent, syllabic points across to share a renewed form of reality:

Traces of snow in the
Autumn soft
Sung moons (36)

The brain, “ready or not,” delivers an interior, monologic, pounding chant:

You’re in the rain a million miles from rain and you and you
and you and you —  (41)

At the threshold of the moment, threats to the abbreviated individual immerse the psyche in its own possibility, acknowledging the bountiful arena of infinite holiness, of an unfathomable tenderness that never loses the word “vow,” the word “try.”

Authentication failed. “Dignify my renaissance.” In the
rhythm of hair and sky, in this telling so rivers and hedges
and horses, in this so hard then, so hard and free, in this
telling cradled by slow moss, breathing September. I can’t
break again. I want to give you this. Wander all day, sleep
like a dog, sleep like a wren, sleep like a fire. (“Your eyes are
made of cash and going broke.”) If I fall down or dance or
go across the road where orange leaves are spinning in a
thin gray rain. If I fall down or dance or go. (44)

Lease encompasses the division line between the specific self and the wall of community. “God won’t leave our / dreams alone” (53).

I find a singularly remarkable feature in Lease’s poetry that sets him apart from every romantically inclined writer I know. Lease can capture, depict, and bring to the forefront of consciousness the horror of human failing to be human, and without restraint transform the essential self to do what needs to be done. Consciousness becomes synonymous with responsibility.

turn toward night, speak into it: the bright invisible red
blood: you want, you need, which is it —

something tawdry, he writes behind glass, on life, on death,
cast a cold eye — passersby pass by —

the eye, O priests, is on fire, the buried life, the buried life —
                        shower door on grass, shower door on grass,
rain beads on jade — “you’re it” — (61)

The final section of the book, “Magic,” deliriously unfastens each of the specific figures and integers and points of understanding from its lockstep position.

branches, desire, little ifs of white spin in the bowl — (70)

Lease questions the “I,” the “me” the narcissistic spree of nonsense:

Jesus told “me” so, he gave “me” laws, he gave “me” diamond
rings, he gave “me” laws, he gave “me” nations too —  (71)

And in a final moment of chanted magic, the book closes with:

pro-business policy solutions solve your child’s sleep
problems book-birds shining leaves hang fat grapes so mist
deep kiss mouthful of wind like wet peonies his head is
winter are you a worker health insurance health insurance
health step into the water and step into the road step into
the water and step into the sky health insurance greed
health insurance greed before you know it you’re lying in a
pool of blood
            I hear that everywhere I go (75)

The singular, passionate, precise, and potently skilled energy revealed in Testify consists of truths that, as I repeat them in my voice, his voice, other voices, with which I can barely cope, knowing their accurate pain. This is poetry that is what it speaks. The sounds themselves attest to the power of immersion in the emergency of our culture.

If you do not buy any other poetry book this year, buy Testify by Joseph Lease. Read it aloud to anyone you love. And read it carefully, specifically, reverently, while trying to keep your voice clear (your voice will break). The breakage will be real, beyond mere sentiment; it will be the “fist of meat in [the] solar plexus” (11). You will experience word choice recovering the ingredient that found your pores. All of them.