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Andy Nicholson on Testify

Testify

Joseph Lease

Coffee House Books, 2011

 

            From first viewing the cover, it is clear that Joseph Lease’s new book, Testify, is an extension of his previous book, Broken World. The covers of the two books are strikingly similar: both are amalgamations of photographs of chain link fences and cracked pavement in heavily saturated colors. Testify is consciously put in conversation with Broken World, and it returns to the overlapping themes of spirituality, politics, and the materiality of contemporary detritus that Lease writes about with sensitivity and fervor.

            Lease’s suppleness with his themes is demonstrated in poems such as “Night:”

 

“ready or not”—blue town and summer and green town and sky—

 

you’re in the rain a million miles from rain and you and you and you—

 

“ready or not”—I can pray in the shadow of the silo in the snow, Chili’s, Target, Payless, Wendy’s, words washed in the shadow of the silo,

 

we bought you smoke over manufactured community;

water, snow, and wheat—

 

“ready or not”—There’s a dream in the rain.

 

In this short space Lease moves from the incantation of the childhood refrain “ready or not” to the unrestrained, emotional loss of speech of “and you and you and you” to the listing of brand names and into the lyricism of “words washed in the shadow of the silo.” These dazzling shifts in register and emotion occur throughout the book, texturing the poems and fusing them with a sense of urgency.

The ugliness of our consumer society shown in “Night”—embodied in Target’s big-box store or the proliferation of Chili’s chain restaurants—is the superficial indicator of capitalism’s deeper crimes and of the culpability of the democratic citizen, as expressed in one of Lease’s long poems, America:

 

                                      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. Feels like you might have. Might have.

 

With ongoing international wars, capitalism’s violence against the underprivileged, and the desire for consumption over the spiritual, the American world remains the broken world Lease detailed in his previous book. The power of poetry to repair this broken world is maddeningly limited, and among the most powerful moments in Testify are those expressions of simultaneous desperation and frustration as poetic, personal, and political crisis collide:

 

A clown explains the war. What start or color or kind of grace. I have to teach. I have to run, eat less junk. Oh CNN. What start or color. 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. Try saying wren. Try saying

mercy.

 

                                         Try anything.

 

Here Lease recognizes poetry’s limited ability to respond to these crises, and it is a painfully honest recognition, where the poet cannot even speak freely but can only try to speak in response. While the poems in Testify are not silenced by Adorno’s famous admonition “There can be no poetry after Auschwitz,” they do recall the difficult and hard earned language of Paul Celan, writing in the face of political calamity in the middle of the twentieth century.

            And when the poetic, personal, and political collide, a beauty returns to the world at the site of these collisions. As the lines between personal and social, profane and holy vanish, the poetry touches the sublime, a state of being that is vertiginous and static, where the individual is reduced to nothing and fused with everything:

 

                                           don’t

panic, let time wash you, you can swim—

the green hills turn to gray, gray turning

blue, just say undershirt, just say hair,

shoulders—I’m falling, I’m flying, I’m

waiting, I’m nothing, I’m

snow—

 

In a world where commodification structures a geographical distance between consumer and site of production and structures an existential distance between consumer and the consumer’s sense of self, Lease continues to recover moments of connection and presence. In his representation of contemporary life, filled with the spectral images of 24-hour news channels and the NASDAQ ticker, Lease looks to poetry as a means of action that moves reader and poet into the world. Faced with a fractured world, Lease presses his language until it fractures too, the sentence breaking off as the poem opens up to the potential for activity and intimacy with the world:

 

            If birds

                        If

 

The sky

            Is the

                        Sky

 

If birds

            Tangle

                        Prayer

 

            I

                        I’m

 

It is Lease’s ability to ground his visionary sensibility in the physical world and the tight connection he keeps between his emotional register and the materiality of the language that makes the poems of Testify so powerful. His critique of capitalism and his desire for beauty stand in stark opposition to scripted talking points by keeping the poems fully embodied. The language and world of Testify is tactile, making its moments of pure lyricism intense and startling as Lease gives an honest portrait of contemporary America and insists with that same honesty that the holy too is in that portrait.

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