Broken World by Joseph Lease. Coffee House Press, $15.
Reviewed by Emily Hunt
In Broken World, Joseph Lease scrambles for self-definition in a deliberately muddled composition of “shiny cars parked in a lot” and bits of broken mirrors, “red buds” and “torn strips of city.” This collection of poems, awash in political overtones, leans on potent imagery to address the corruption of a country once “blank, blank, blank.” Lease tosses text from hand to hand as if it were a solid object; with the repetition and reweaving of single words and phrases throughout the book, he tests the weight of these tools, looking for a way to sculpt an understanding of his identity, inherently colored by America, his home.
Broken World, sufficiently dappled with white spaces and room to reflect, lends itself to a reading in one sitting. Lease’s poems are as vulnerable as they are demanding, as tentative as they are assertive. He asks and tells, gropes and glues. By Part Two, which is composed of twenty-six individual poems that share the title “Free Again,” the reader finds him or herself digging through the contents of a man split open, spilling words.
The structure of “Ghosts,” Broken World’s first poem, signals for readers Lease’s concern with the limitations inherent in words: “the word for dawn / is others / the word for light / is freefall / the word for hand / is others.” The rhythmical piece reads like a man out of breath trying to spit out meaning. Lease has written down these phrases--given them some sort of physical body and enough space to breathe--so that he, like a painter gauging the accuracy of his composition’s proportions, can step back and look at them to decide if they hold true. "Ghost" ends with “nothing,” open and defiantly blank, dangling against a background of airy white.
“Broken World,” the poem to which the collection owes its title, initially gains momentum in its painting of America’s portrait, only to fall back into this naked place, “blank as glass” and “erased by snow.” The repetition of “won’t be” delineates through negation, while phrases like “America equals ghost” lend definitions ultimately void of certitude. By “Soul-Making,” readers discover that this deceptively empty space holds a man, “bodiless and bright,” whose “soul is like a green used car . . . an old drunk king, a patch of ice.” America, then, becomes a nesting doll of ghosts, stacked and stacked with the spirits of men and his objects.
Time and time again, Lease examines the interplay between authority figure and subject, teacher and pupil, superego and ego. Referencing paintings that resemble scratchy lessons on a chalkboard, he speaks through “Cy Twombly” to readers as if he were encouraging a group of curious students: “you are getting it and you are getting it / here or there or somewhere.” The speaker (or teacher) himself searches for a gem of recognition, for “thick ropes of light” inside his words. Later, “Little Lightning Bolt” introduces a recurring “Simon says” theme. As readers we are puppets, hands on our heads, hearts exposed to whatever may fly our way: “Simon says, put your finger on your nose. Simon says, you haven’t done enough . . . Simon says, you only have blood, marsh light, and sparrow.” Through these modified playground commands, Lease cries out from the perspective of a manipulated subject.
Like several of Lease’s pieces, “Lightning” ends with a dash, rushing readers along to the next page. In this case, the dash points to 1944 Litzmannstadt, a scene that stinks of ashes, hunger, and dirty names. Here, Lease continues his exploration of the weight of a word assigned, shaking it out like a dusty rug to see what settles: “They made us garbage--I was garbage-- / they call me / human garbage--I was garbage / so I still am.” Such simple constructions serve as poignant expositions of a culture’s ugly underbelly. Broken World thrives on these moments that address the power of a label, whether it be “garbage,” “Jew,” or “American.”
Lease applies the notion of tabula rasa to America itself throughout “Free Again.” He steps through the mud of a world stuck on money, “drunk on not / having to / respond,” and clouded with the neon emptiness of strip malls and parking lots. Trekking through such an environment, one cannot help but think of how its once-clean slate must have shimmered. Lease begs us to look at our reflections; he highlights bits of shattered self, heavy as glass in the air of this country. In his Broken World, habitat defines inhabitant and vice versa, and both remain swampy. These poems possess an uncanny synchronization of insistence and wonder. A tainted, money-hungry country rapt with the color green (e.g., “When we’re gone our names will mean green body . . . our names will mean green thought”) soaks those born into its homes and tossing in their beds before sleep, cuts their darting thoughts with the bare and haunting honesty of a face in the mirror. Lease cracks open these icy reflections to fish for something worth “free[ing].”