BROKEN WORLD by JOSEPH LEASEBRIAN STRANG Reviews
Broken World by Joseph Lease
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2007)
In June 2007, Harper’s ran a series of articles on how to repair what has been done to “the constitution,” “the courts,” “civil service,” “the environment,” “science,” “the economy,” “the marketplace of ideas,” “intelligence,” “the military,” “diplomacy” and “the national character.” In virtually every sphere, it seems, Americans live with the idea that great damage has been done, that things are broken, but certainly more that the political elements of the nation is broken. The social is made up of spheres within spheres—the personal, the local, the civic and so forth—each an imperfect fit, broken worlds that intersect, collapse, unite and divide—composing the multiplicity of community and individuals within it.
Joseph Lease's new book, Broken World, takes its title from Robert Creeley quoting Hart Crane: “And so it was I entered the broken world.” The term is also part of the visionary Jewish tradition. Lease is working within (while “making new”) and applying these traditions to the contemporary world of the individual, of the human community and, yes, of America, a world of contradictions too diverse and complex to be contained. And the poems of this broken world do not contain but oscillate between the tensions of the many worlds we inhabit. This is no easy task and Lease has, more successfully than any of his peers, written directly, authentically and affirmatively through these contradictions.
The first poem, “Ghost,” announces a language of lament, an implicit but present voice both close at hand and intangible, creating paradox through repetition.
the word for dawn
the word for light
the word for hand
The poem moves through, but never quite inhabits, the lyrical “I,” veering into the pronoun “her” instead with the closest possible referent being “sister,” though “sister,” is “the word for dawn” and, this too, is “the word for others.” The resulting sphere is one of connection, an ephemeral lyric that, rather than exulting in the individual, steps through the connections of commonality into a liminal zone where the dichotomy of self and other is reduced. Here, in this zone, where an incantation of lament unites, where the self is in union with others, the broken world can begin to be healed.
In the title poem “Broken World,” an elegy for James Assalty, a friend who died at 31 of AIDS in 1993, what “won’t be” is recorded and lamented. And Lease uses repetition again to echo through what is broken:
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.
“Broken” is a term of function. And the rhythms established form a kind of healing incantation, lamenting what no longer works. The loss of a friend, of an individual person, breaks the world.
At times the poem takes on the tone of anger in sadness:
You are with me
and I shatter
Arrows on water;
you are with me—
rain on snow—
and I shatter
Engaging with both the internal peril and outwardly turned vengeance of loss gives the poem an accurate claim to the multiplicity of experience. Rather than encapsulate, the poem is open to contradiction, and for this it rings true with the reader.
“History of Our Death” deals with another broken world, seen through a historical lens. Although the poem is less intimate in its relationship to the subject, it is no less personal in its relationship to the reader. This poem explores what can and cannot be known about horror, and, for me, it is the most compelling of the book (though many readers will probably feel that “Free Again” is the most important) because it asks the most difficult questions, about complicity, about empathy, about what it means to be part of humanity.
Beginning with a found text written by a victim of the Holocaust, the language of the first section both engages and distances. It is the language of a victim who is torn by complicated feelings of guilt after eating more than his allotment of bread. Few of us can imagine what it feels like to be bored, guilty and waiting for certain annihilation, to be so utterly dehumanized and, at the same time, be wracked with such human emotions. The inclusion of this text announces Lease’s sincerity; a detached ironic stance will be useless in the rest of the poem. Instead, the rest of the poem becomes, according to Lease, an attempt to “create life that we need—life that we don’t recognize until we are in the poem.”
The second section, returning to a present-day first-person address, begin with description of “The top half//of a crab shell” and ends with “they call me/human garbage— // I was garbage / so I still am—“ in an echo of T.S. Eliot’s dehumanized and utterly reduced “pair of ragged claws.” Oppression is the subject of Lease’s poem, and the reader must ask, as the poet does, whether it is possible to truly empathize with the victims of such vast and senseless destruction and we must go on to ask whether this gesture, doomed to failure from the beginning, serves any purpose. Can one do no more (as Lease says in the third section) than “burn for no / reason”? Don’t attempts to “feel” for the victims trivialize the horror, making one complicit in some way?
Lease deals with these questions of how to think about horror in history and concludes that “the living know nothing / I can’t know.” Yet despite the bleakness of these conclusions, remarkably, the poem ends on a note of hope:
in daughters and sons—
Perhaps answers to some of the questions this poem raises can be found in a previous poem, “Soul-Making.” If it is impossible and perhaps even undesirable to attempt to inhabit the experience of the victims of oppression, the attempt to bring ourselves closer in some ways is, nevertheless, necessary for the creation and re-creation of our own internal life, for the sustenance of our own humanity and, perhaps most importantly, to keep indifference, that dangerous anesthetic, at bay. After all, it is a history of our death and this is our soul being made.
In the final and longest poem of the collection, “Free Again,” Lease turns his attention to contemporary America. Here, Lease establishes a Shelleyean place for poetry in the political sphere, as a legitimate means of engagement in a culture that values passive pleasures above all else. Freedom—artistic, social, personal and otherwise—must be actively recreated, and so the series consists of 26 poems of the same name. The number 26, too, might be seen as a marker of the English language, indicating the necessity to recreate freedom linguistically as well.
In the realm of this poem, the contradictions are thick and it is easy for poets to veer into a stance of sarcastic irony, of inertia. Lease’s attempt to find a valid place for poetry in the political realm, prohibits the use of irony as a distanced passivity. Instead, this poem alternates between the lyric and ironic, as in these two consecutive poems of the series (in their entirety):
Stillness in red, stillness in green—I
have no words, light hangs like rope—
We breathe our eyes, promise the
wind, boxes of shit, pieces of glass—
Color the wind, we breathe our yes,
open the doors, one vote one corpse—
One seed of light—
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—
Here irony is a useful tool, as a means for critical engagement, but Lease never relinquishes his firm grounding in a more complete and authentic stance. Moving between a yearning, breathed “yes” and a commentary on the lack of community, both poems feel accurate as reflections on the contemporary American empire. Lease’s “I” is both victim and perpetrator, ensnared in the contradictions. But if he is to accurately address this society in the larger way that he does, he must avoid being reductive. And his poem does successfully capture and comment upon an America of the early 21st Century.
Ultimately, Broken World is an affirmative and visionary work, one that attempts to nurture the “seed of light.” “Broken” has an implicit and awesome moral imperative, mandating that we mend what is no longer functional. And through Lease’s own attempts at accurately understanding the world, the responsibility extends to the reader as well:
I was a ghost, you were the only one
who could hear me—
Brian Strang, co-editor of 26: A Journal of Poetry and Poetics, lives in Oakland and teaches English composition at San Francisco State University and Merritt College. He is the author of Incretion (Sputyen Duyvil) and machinations (a free Duration ebook) among others. i n v i s i b i l i t y, a special edition with drawings by Basil King, is forthcoming from Spuyten Duyvil. Recent poem/paintings can be seen at his site, Sorry Nature. His poem/paintings opened at Canessa Park Gallery in San Francisco on June 3rd.