Online Edition: Summer 2007

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Broken World

Joseph Lease

Coffee House Press ($15)

by Noah Eli Gordon

There is in the Jewish tradition a daily prayer called the Sh’ma, which begins: Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ehad. Although the translation can vary, it is roughly equivalent to: Hear, O Israel! The Lord, our God. The Lord is One. The prayer is a testament to the belief in a single God, but it is also a testament to the importance of an acoustical engagement with the world, to the power of the speech act. It is the duty of the Jew to cry out to the lord. The existential angst of Rilke’s famous opening to the Duino Elegies—“If I cried out, who among the angelic orders would hear me?”—seems to be at odds with much of what is central to the Jewish faith. What if these two positions, which is to say that of the duty of speech and of the doubt of its reception, were to be put into proximity? What would a prayer of uncertainty accomplish? Joseph Lease enacts such a question in Broken World, his long-awaited third collections of poems. Here, one finds the sometimes discordant clanging of Judaism, community, love, AIDS, and late capitalism transformed into an incantatory fugue-like poetry, an extended elegy for wholeness, and yet one that understands the necessity of our having abandoned grand narratives. 

Halfway into the book, Lease ends the poem “I’ll Fly Away” with the following: “my friend is saying prayers / and saying prayers, there’s nothing else—.” This nothing is that of Stevens, as earlier in the poem, and indeed in an earlier poem in the book, one is given echoes and samplings from “The Snow Man” (“one must have a mind of / summer, of water, of warm rain—his mind is winter, / copper, elegy, green silk, brown bread, dust—”). Lease’s book is built on this sort of system of allusion and recontextualization: even the title of this poem references a famous hymn. In the first section of the poem immediately following “I’ll Fly Away,” one is given the actual prayer, both in its title, “Prayer, Broken Off,” and in the body of the poem:

                                    1

                                                a stain of faded
storm light in my hand—

If I cried out,
Who among the angelic orders would
Slap my face, who would steal my
Lunch money, knock me
Down—sailboats moored
In harbor, trees on the long
Breakwater, orange shimmer
Of late July evening—I can’t stop
Wanting the voice that will come—

Here, Rilke’s elegy is beaten up on the playground, interrupted by a sudden apprehension of worldly images, and further removed from the meditative space of prayer by an admission of personal need. The medieval ethicist and Kabbalist, Eleazer of Worms, discussing the importance of mental concentration during prayer, writes, “Before you utter a single word of prayer, think of its meaning…If a worldly thought occurs to you while at prayer, fall silent and wait until you’ve brought your mind back into a state of awe toward the Creator.” Thus, Lease’s prayer, broken by its very worldly concerns, while still containing both duty and doubt, is a mark of the desire for answers and of the uncertainty of where to aim such a desire. With the phrase, “I can’t stop / Wanting the voice that will come,” Lease echoes a self-reflexive moment in Theodore Roethke’s sequence The Lost Son, where Roethke attempts to manifest a modicum of reassurance, while also highlighting the presence of his own doubt: “A lively understandable spirit / Once entertained you. / It will come again. / Be still. / Wait.”

Broken World, in fact, has something in common with The Lost Son. Just as Roethke’s sequence developed a system of recurring symbols, so Lease’s book develops a set of recurring images, which appear and reappear in altered forms, giving to the book a sense of progression. Although this is also true of works such as Lyn Hejinian's My Life or Martha Ronk’s In a landscape of having to repeat, Lease’s superb attention to musical pacing and rhythmic syntax from poem to poem brings to these recurrences something slightly askew from the above-mentioned books. Like a dream suddenly remembered midday and momentarily mistaken for a memory from one’s waking life, one feels, upon encountering these reworked images, a ghostly, tentative familiarity, one that is as uncanny as it is comforting.

The images that Lease creates are always uncluttered by adjectives and direct. His particular use of Shklovskian defamiliarization is one where the context itself allows for the shock of a more fully engaged perception; this pushes one to ask why particular images appear where they do, and to wonder not how they’re changed by their context, but how their presence alters the concern of the poem in which they’re housed. When Lease writes, “there are no symbols, no open roses hanging / down to the grass,” all that one sees are these very Mallarmean missing roses, yet when given a litany of such direct images in quick succession, a technique common here, each one takes on a heightened significance (“Outside the syllables, outside the grant proposal, I’m a / cracking song, a blighted meadow— // A city street, a baseball bat, a fashion spread, a vodka rocks—”).

The “I” of Lease’s work, insistent on locating and dislocating itself within a cultural and political milieu of “the Odyssey, warehouses, snow, / power lines,” is Whitmanesque in its inclusiveness and messianic in its desire for what Benjamin, in writing on the Surrealists, termed the “radical concept of freedom.” In fact, the majority of the book is given over to a serial poem consisting of 26 sections, each of which carries the title “Free Again.” Obviously corresponding to the amount of letters present in the English alphabet, this specific number is important as well in Kabbalist terms, as it represents the numerical value of the Tetragrammaton, the four Hebrew letters that form the name of God. Lease’s “I” is also attuned to the critiques of dialectical materialism, as is evident in the following section of “Free Again”:

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—

Lease shares with Benjamin the ability to employ both the tenants of Marxism and those of the Jewish Messianic tradition. These two seemingly incommensurate positions famously came together in Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” where the notion of religious redemption serves as a model for that of revolutionary change. There is in Broken World a consistent tension between the poet’s role as creator and as critic: “I’m just trying to make a night or a cathedral or a pine—why don’t / people talk more about corporations and power—I’m just trying to / make a midsummer night—” That this tension is evoked and sustained via a musical poetry makes for a book as enjoyable for the speed with which one might move through it as it is for the deep, underlying intelligence that rewards multiple readings and the mulling over of its many pleasures.


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