ANDREW JORON Reviews
Broken World by Joseph Lease
(Coffee House, Minnesota, 2007)
[First published in The Poetry Project Newsletter, December 2007/January 2008, Ed. by John Coletti]
Here is a book of broken-off prayers appropriate to a broken world. Lease’s poems petition a transcendental absence, offering up the lament of a temple cantor who also has assumed the role of Cantor (the discoverer of bad infinity). Trying “to be a man, … to heal the night or day,” the poetic subject bewails its exilic condition, lost amid the soulless profusion of the American night, where “the word for light / is nothing.”
The title of Lease’s collection refers most obviously to the ethical imperative of the Kabbala, namely, to “repair the world” (tikkun olam). The world, according to this tradition, may be likened to a vessel designed to hold the light of God. But the human part of this vessel contained sinful impurities which weakened it, causing it to shatter. The divine light then dispersed, leaving “nothing” in its place. It is incumbent upon the human community to repair the vessel by performing good deeds, so that the world will be filled once again with holy brightness.
But for now, “brightness falls”––Lease’s deliberately ambiguous phrase serves as the incantatory refrain of the book’s title poem, indicating that the divine spark, at present, falls to earth but only to fail. The broken world, “blank as glass,” is not yet ready to receive this light. “America equals ghost,” a ghost in a machine whose systems of oppression and alienation can only put “The word of God / in a plastic bag.”
And yet Lease’s writing of the disaster results not in a deadening, but an enlivening of language: the formal brightness of these poems appears to oppose, if not redeem, the darkness of their content. Coming quickly, urgently, often in repetitive patterns, their lines are delivered with a passion that at times approaches joy, and with an improviser’s impetuous sense of rightness: “my soul is like a green used car: / / my soul is like a dancing bear, / an old drunk king, a patch of ice.”
The beat of these poems at first sounds almost Beat, but in the end their rhythms and rants are derailed by distinctly postmodern doubts about the construction of language, self, and world. Caught in a liminal space between the enthusiasm and skepticism, the poet announces that “we need to know why voices fall apart,” then challenges us to––in the same motion––“believe in the moon, believe / in Andy Warhol––”
Voices fall apart, even as things fall apart––so that the broken world finds its counterpart in the broken word, in the delegitimation of meaning (“the sky betrays you when you say / the sky––”). Does Lease here resurrect the dilemma of Eliot’s “Waste Land” by using poetic techniques of breakage to lament the breakage of world and word? Or can Lease say, with Hart Crane, that “I entered the broken world / To trace the visionary company of love”?
The flush of anger and anguish in Lease’s work certainly distinguishes it from the pallor of Eliot’s despair. For Lease, a voice that falls apart can still lay claim to the power of negativity. Where Crane’s “crystal Word” evokes “What I hold healed, original now, and pure…” to finally “lift love in its shower,” Lease’s lines (dedicated to a friend who died of AIDS) record starkly that “You are with me / and I shatter // everyone who / hates you.”
“Shatter,” of course,” serves as one of the keywords of Lease’s Broken World: “like anyone else, we had our shattered selves––like anyone else––we owe ourselves and all we are to death….” A broken world necessarily becomes a world structured by death, by the limitation and isolation of its elements. Instead of progressing into the future, time is reduced to a series of negative instances, reiterations of stoppage: “Won’t be a year. Won’t be a song. / Won’t be a beginning. / Won’t be forward. / Won’t be on the way,” etc.
Because the constitution of “self” is essentially a temporal project, the shattering of time produces an obsessive-compulsive self, condemned to endlessly reflect its own reflection, “singing hymns for no reason: and, and, and, and, and––I, I, I, I, I––” Each part of the poem-cycle “Free Again” (which comprises half the book) is also entitled “Free Again,” documenting the atomized self’s obsessive-compulsive drive to free itself from the bad infinity, the abysmal mirror-regressions of its own identity. As Lease puts it in “I’ll Fly Away,” “compulsive repetition usually implies a lack of / resolution between self and space,” leading to an existential irresolution that is characteristic of neither the subject nor the object, but the abject.
The space of the abject (as defined by Kristeva in Powers of Horror) falls between the categories of subject and object, and is therefore situated beyond the symbolic order. Yet this is the space, not only of trauma, but also of the unsayable––that is, of poetic possibility. “We are ourselves because this is the world’s first morning, and we are ourselves because it is not, and we are also not ourselves,” as Lease declares in “Free Again.” In the service of the unsayable, the language of Broken World shifts between multiple planes of discourse, most notably those of metaphysics, social critique, confession, and song. Indeed, Lease’s practice answers the critic Robert Kaufman’s description of “song singing the impossibility of song.” Lease’s Broken World is a tragicomic, oddly triumphant book of poetry that transforms even the darkest places of the American psyche into the placeholders for a missing, messianic light.
Andrew Joron is the author of several books of poetry and most recently, of The Cry at Zero: Selected Prose, a collection of prose poems and essays (Counterpath Press).