January 2008

Dale Smith

marsupial inquirer

Somatic Ghosts

Every day in every way. America equals ghost. The wrong side of history.
Flat matted yellow weeds.

These words from the title poem of Joseph Lease’s third book of poetry put readers in touch quickly with insistent, haunting concerns. Broken World explores our situation in America where the symbolic order teeters between the unspoken and the all too plain. The work is haunted too by failed social possibilities, personal grief, and the insistent drift of history. This insistence -- a yearning for what could have been and for what might have happened -- enters with many voices to argue in elegiac cadences for a renewed vision of the world. Lease’s lyrics open new spaces to argue for the world -- for a vision of it -- and he grapples with the insistent ghosts of failed social experience.

Although his lyric gifts are significant, these poems do not represent the lyric speaker as a vatic medium of personal feeling. While Lease approaches the lyric as a way, in Robert Pinsky’s words, to register “[c]ommunal life… in the cadences and syntax of language,” he listens for “somatic ghost[s]” that inhabit communication, bringing not one but many voices and perspectives to create a “social presence,” one far richer and complex than what Pinsky imagines. The line between beauty and horror, personal vision and social blindness, is ever so fine:

Two blocks from campus, a boy, maybe ten or eleven, yelled at a junior-high-school girl: “Ho-bag, incest baby, spread your legs.” It’s all naked out here. Nothing is here. It’s all one big strip mall. We have a Ponderosa.

This, again, from “Broken World,” draws on the language of the street to reveal a nakedness -- our world of “one big strip mall” -- as if we are all scooting around like flies in a skull, to borrow Herman Melville’s provocative image. Lease’s work struggles against social and economic reality to evoke a world beyond the localized subjectivity of the author. It’s a scary place from which Lease often speaks, because the world is terrifying, and it lives only in relation to “[t]he word:”

            The word of God.

The word of God
            in a plastic bag.

Lease uses what Robert Creeley called “primary language,” words that relate rather than represent. For Creeley, the energetic force of poetry was sufficient to the act of attention running through it. Lease’s rhetorical approach assumes communication between reader and poem; he does not represent a world, he relates its basic energies and he argues for an experience of the world held in language. Indeed, language is part of that experience too. An example of this rhetorical application can be found in his use of anaphora to suggest the claustrophobic and anxiety-driven pain of loss:

Won’t be a year. Won’t be a son.
Won’t be a beginning.
Won’t be forward.
Won’t be on the way.
Won’t be a dreary prison.
Won’t be the month of May.

Such rhetorical cadences make the paratactic lyrics accumulate with emotional energy. Lease is more concerned with evocation than representation, making a world as a consequence of his experience in language.

Typically Lease’s work has been discussed in terms of its lyrical “precision” and for its elegiac response to the Real, “attend[ing] to, rather than from, the subject's fragmentation, its dispersal/ diasporization,” as Maria Damon notes. His writing has also been compared to Amiri Baraka’s, though I think this is a stretch; each comes to the problem of the Real -- of the World -- from totally different spaces. One engages with the paratactic lyrical intensity of the serial poem, the other with more directly politicized works of poetic protest. Standard Schaefer argues, however, how “Lease’s America is full of voices refracted through one another,” for Lease possesses an impressive genius for compressing subversive imagery and vocal cadences within dynamic rhetorical fields. In his fragmented serial poems readers are brought to those gaps we apprehend in fleeting moments where the horror of what we behold elsewhere through the news, say, is a horror of ourselves and our complicity in the madness that unfortunately gives shape to our lives in America. The lyric acts as a perfect tool for discovering the world and for reclaiming it from the prosaic sludge of daily life. But what is his lyric "doing"? How does it achieve its goal to publicize the unspoken and disembodied perspectives that compose our "broken world"?

Lease’s elegiac response to the world creates arguments for voices that cannot be heard any other way. In his work there is a painful reflection through voices of the dispossessed, the displaced, and the damned. Public debate in America today acknowledges only the dominating ideologies of a legitimized public sphere, a sphere that is chiefly extended through the media of major corporate networks. Power seeks legitimacy through this public sphere, though it has been argued that the public sphere is largely symbolic -- a fictional creation made to sustain capitalism. Where, in this great illusionary space, can poetry’s contribution make a difference? Can it successfully publicize the exiled voices -- the exiled world itself, lost in a frenzy of libidinal desires and consumptive habits? To answer this I see Lease turning to the problem of the lyric and its contribution as a mode that addresses belief and desire, reclaiming poetry as a rhetorical genre rather than supporting its representational claims to beauty. Lease’s arguments also are made on behalf of the souls of the dead. It is their story he publicizes. The ghosts, in Jack Spicer’s sense, are looking through us, offering what they can to reclaim a world from the technologies that are closing it from view.

In “Free Again,” Broken World’s final long poem, Lease writes the following:

I can’t make something out of nothing: Holiday Inn sign, Independent Taxi -- there are no symbols, no open roses hanging down to the grass -- shadow and wind, blue-gray car, bright red car -- there are no symbols, no spells -- and water was my dirty name: 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 midsummer night -- she wants torn strips of city, she wants wind and rain through torn strips of city -- in the window a beadwork Birth of Venus, beneath her a man sleeping in a doorway -- voices across the street: does that bar stay open -- VCR sale $60 -- the Dillinger 4, the Creeps, old Cocteau and Yeats in the window, a picture of the green man --

Here we see how a “primary language” makes the poem into a kind of window of imagery, rhythm, and sequences of insight native to the poet who must lose himself to access the world. The accumulation of imagery, the staccato pace, and the predominance of single syllable words or words opening with a stressed first syllable help to extend this energy. And it takes a poet of supreme value to manage such self-negation and control of language to bring this world out, broken or not, from the “minute particulars” that consist of our experiences. Lease’s lyric will to show us what’s going on is necessary, and he shows us how to attend the “somatic ghost[s]” that haunt our language and ourselves.