Coffee House Press
Reviewed by John Findura
I’ve always hated the August Wilson quote that “all art is political.” Of course it is, but let’s not say it out loud. There’s a feeling of being left out when you’re too right of the left and too left of the right – ah, everyone starts to yell and it all seems so untidy. That being said, Joseph Lease’s Testify is political, but only as an old-fashioned witness to it, which seems very right. It doesn’t push right or left, but rather forward, which is a direction anyone with actual power hesitates to look toward.
Lease begins the first part of his testimony to America with a poem titled, simply enough, “America.” What follows is at once chant-like and circling, like a jazz pianist playing the same figure over and over yet telling a different story with it each time. And this happens over the sound of a 24-hour news cycle as quickly as the finger can press the remote control.
“Wake up, you’re not the truth,” he writes to a country that now has a Peace Prize–winning president who personally orders the execution of his citizens overseas. This is where firemen and teachers and plumbers and dog groomers pay for bad investments by people who own their own jets. I push a button and kill abroad, pull a trigger and kill at home:
O Captain, my
Captain, citizen, citizen.
Feels like. You killed someone or no. You didn’t. You
did. You’re responsible, irresponsible. Didn’t do it,
can’t remember. Feel like you might have. Might have.
Killed someone. Won’t remember. Don’t want to
remember. Don’t want to be told again—
Yes, the ship’s gone rudderless and Lease recognizes that now is the time to “try anything” because we are clearly “past the water’s skin, past / The edge of coming home.” Of course there is a worry that even if we wanted to come home, is this still it? Is this what we thought it was? It is difficult to bear witness to any of this. Acceptance is too often thought of as resignation. But no, acceptance is only one of the first steps before anything can change.
So what change does Lease offer? I don’t know, but perhaps none beyond what you yourself can do. We all get caught up in “CHANGE” written in mile high letters, but few are possessed to do more than stare at it while waiting for someone else to do it. I think Lease is asking “do you see what I see?” and of course we do. So now how do we proceed? How will you bear witness? How will you testify? Lease writes
I tell you I was the stars. What do you care. I
tell you I was a green pool on a summer night,
heat driving everybody nuts. What do you
care. I tell you just some more of this
Yes, what do I care? – I ask this often.
Lease’s book is not filled with complaint or bitterness. It is filled with a clear eye towards our future by reading the tea leaves of our present. That doesn’t sound all that difficult, but why then has no one written this book yet? I’d say because Joseph Lease appears to be the singular talent able to absorb all of this and focus it into one 66-page beam of poetic truth and beauty. I would testify to that.