Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Broken World by Joseph Lease

Coffee House Press, 2007

Reviewed by Michael Sikkema

With his books Human Rights, and the latest Broken World, Joseph Lease has created a body of work which is wholly innovative and musically alive. Perhaps more than any other poet writing now, Lease explores the Lyric “I” as a place of conflict, confusion, exploration, and contradiction. Lease uses the Lyric “I” not as a comfortable stance but as a tool with which to explore and interrogate Lyric boundaries.

Lines like “I remember that night, or / that night,” form interesting tensions next to “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.” In Broken World, it is by writing into and against subjectivity, it is by fracturing the Lyric that Lease reinvents it and addresses all the other fractures in the book’s title.

“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–“ Lease writes. The scraps of silence are a part of, not apart from, the music while gaps are a necessary part of the meaning. Lease writes “What is our country. Did it start as blank, as blank blank, as blank blank blank.” The search for, the making of, and the questioning of meaning which Lease undergoes in this book replaces the presentation of meaning often associated with Lyric poetry.

Formally crafted as well as spontaneous and surprising, image-driven and rhetorically sophisticated, Broken World speaks clearly to our contemporary aesthetic and historical conditions. That is to say, it’s the book that we need right now, and won’t stop needing anytime soon. “Why don’t people / tell the truth––you scare people––genocide and / how the rich got rich––even a bus shines differently in light” Lease writes.

Removing the fourth wall which separates the Lyric from history, Lease takes on huge subjects like the AIDS crisis, the Holocaust, and the environmental and mental degradation of capitalism in the only way a poet successfully can; like Blake, Lease finds evidence of these sprawling topics in small and specific instances, as in "Free Again": “my handwriting, stories, Paul / Celan, phrases - / on the back of / a receipt”. In a single image Lease packs an intense constellation of facts and questions.

Is it more important that the poetry is on the flip side of the receipt, or that it’s literally of a piece with it? Exactly. These two facts co-exist and this is what seems to be the point. Poetry as active resistance exists only in the context of what it’s resisting, just as the most disjunctive syntax of a poet like Celan is always in the relief of the “standard” syntax and underlying power structure against which it acts. Lease doesn’t give us this argument; he gives us an image that embodies it.

In “Free Again” and throughout Broken World, Lease’s images make us see with projector speed and detail. In the amazing poem, “The History of our Death,” Lease juxtaposes a page from a Holocaust journal with natural images of a shoreline. The journal page begins the poem as bald historical fact and sets up a context of dehumanization, captivity, and witness. The speaker of the poem, and so the reader, literally see the natural images and the History being dealt with through each other.

Algae forms on clams and mussels to turn the shoreline into a Chagall canvass. “Mussels” and “wetness” carry muscles and witness. The “rounded hinge” inside a clam shell “looks like a bone inside a human ear” and the eye is led to the “holes where the face once was.” These images spill through each other in terrible union as social and historical facts underlie each natural thing seen. Too young to have died in or lived through the Holocaust, Lease is old enough to be personally involved in its aftermath.

“I read documents” Lease writes and the effect of this powerful poem is that the reader reads documents alongside him. Scraps of these documents (“Jew slave / “subhuman” / “person without dignity”) float through “the winter light” and water like a surreal transparency. The history with which Lease deals is very much present in the landscape around him and shapes his perception even as he shapes ours with densely packed images.

In his essay “Semblance,” Charles Bernstein argues that in field poetics “rather than having a single form or shape or idea pop out as you read, the structure itself is pulled into a moebius-like twisting momentum” and I argue that this is especially true of Lease’s Broken World. Lease isn’t a one trick pony; yes, Lease’s images are stunning in their intelligence but Lease’s version of the Lyric also opens to include prose blocks, juxtapositions of metered and free verse, riffs on lines by Stevens, Williams, Burroughs, Rimbaud, and many others, quotations from historical documents, critical texts, and memoirs, a Romantic sense of the pastoral as well as an ironic sense of that mode’s shortcomings. The borders of individual poems are destroyed as a two beat cadence appears and reappears alongside phrases and lines which also echo and chime throughout different poems.

The result of all this is a beautiful book, not a group of poems related by their binding alone. A master of rich, arresting images, beautiful cadences, and an architect of formal beauty and experimentation, Lease gives us Broken World, an entirely necessary book.


Joseph Lease is the author of two critically acclaimed collections of poetry: Human Rights and The Room. His poems have also been featured on NPR and published in The AGNI 30th Anniversary Poetry Anthology, VQR, Bay Poetics, Paris Review, and elsewhere. Originally from Chicago, Lease lives in Oakland, California and chairs the MFA Program in Writing at California College of the Arts in San Francisco.


Michael Sikkema was born in rural Michigan and has lived in The Netherlands, San Francisco Bay area, and now resides in Bufallo, NY. His poems have
appeared in the tiny, Zafusy, Xantippe, Word for Word, Parthenon West Review, Mirage #4 Period(ical), Shampoo, Fourteen Hills, Bombay Gin, New American Writing, Temenos, and work is forthcoming from BlazeVOX and Seconds. His chapbook Code Over Code appeared recently from Lame House Press.