Review by Anne Elena Eyre
Coffee House Books, 2011
America. Where are the bodies in the streets? Surely there’s enough to protest as there was if ever before? New battles disguised behind vacant words.
Words are what interconnect our consciousness through webs to known and unknown realms. Words are magic because words can manifest actions. This is recognizable in actions that necessitate words to be fulfilled. For example, the words “I do” commit the act of marriage, but if and only if they are accounted for by legally sanctioned witnesses. The two people who can say “I do” to one another are defined by state legalese. Regardless of this however, if I say, “I do” despite or on account of whether the state’s law does or does not recognize their meaning, my body will recognize their meaning and this extends into the body of words. The body and the body’s words recognize “I do” despite the state’s legalese. Joseph Lease’ new book Testify brings us closer to an understanding of the magic of this body word or word body. Lease’ words can reset context so that words in action aren’t contingent on any predetermined, sexualized, characterized or identified normative social restriction or exclusion. His words allow the body to feel and break through to connection. Lease’ words are prayers that connect one to an Other—the personal to the universal—the known to the unknown.
Joseph Lease opens Testify with the long poem “America”—the nation’s proper name is repeated as a clearing or rattling of the air between movements. Lease’s “America” is a potential context that allows for the body to feel words as both familiar and foreign, as both personal and social or subjective and objective. As such “America” is a nation or proper name that encompasses individuals who understand what unites a social definition of a word is the disparate and vast personal embodied experiences of it. Lease is an incredibly hard working poet who relentlessly drafts and redrafts his poems until he feels they are finished and yet they maintain spontaneity and an ease of grace. Each word is of the every-day world and incredibly cared for, but never polished to a showcased preciousness. The first poem of the series and book reads:
Try saying wren. It’s midnight In my body, 4 a.m. in my body, breading and olives and Cherries. Wait, it’s all rotten. How am I ever. Oh Notebook. A clown explains the war. What start or Color or kind of grace. I have to teach. I have to run, eat less junk. Oh CNN. What start or color. There’s a fist of meat in my solar plexus and green light in my mouth and little chips of dream flake off my skin. Try saying wren. Try saying mercy. Try anything.
Words are embroiled and enmeshed in a context whose legalese demarcates the law sovereign and yet to be free every individual must be sovereign. What is a sovereignty that is not selfish individualism? How can this freedom be experienced as embodied in words? If word bodies have been emptied of taste or sustenance, “breading and olives and / Cherries. Wait, it’s all rotten.” how would I place words in my mouth to feel their embodiment as sweet (cherries), peaceful (olives) and life giving (breading)? Words are all we have to get into the body of words and so what to do but try—“Try saying wren”. What are the bodies of these words in my mouth? Is the wren of this word in my mouth given flight or freedom as a personal experience that informs and transforms its social definition or rather a bird caged in my mouth by a predetermined social definition? What can I do? I will try to say words—to start to feel the “fist of meat in my solar plexus and green light in my / mouth and little chips of dream” Could there be a dream left to have? Have even Martin Luther King Junior’s words, “I have a dream” been evacuated of their meaning—sold to a corporatized social consciousness—to a privatized “I”? By who and when and where and how? Who is the “I” who could dream words into “breading and olives and / Cherries”?
Let’s dream on dreamers and say, “Try anything.”
Lease does try anything, anything to get at the magic of word body—the “I” that is personal/universal, subjective/objective. He writes, “Oh / Notebook. A clown explains the war.” We’re in need of journalists but journalists who aren’t a part of the violent context or privatized “Oh CNN.” script. Objectivity is an ideal in journalism, but the subjective “I” cannot be done away with no matter how hard one tries. Joseph Lease’s “I” in Testify slips in and out of objectivity and subjectivity to get at the facts, but what are the facts? There are no facts except the fact of death. The surface of my flesh in contact with death is my surface presence in contact with its absence. Only my flesh can give this to my embodied experience of disembodiment, yet I will not survive to tell of it. This is the paradox of death. I can only experience my death, and yet will not survive to relay the experience and therefore I need others to witness it and write it in their notebooks as journalists. Death is the law and there is no absolute authority in death, there is only the voice of witness. And this voice is the personal voice of the impersonal—the voice of green, blue, fog—that Lease returns to throughout Testify. What can I do in the face of death?
I can testify.
This testimony is not THE word, it is word—amorphous, ambiguous, generous— protean. Could the “I” of this be multiple—leaves of grass—a single body made up of individual blades, because there are, as Lease writes, “leaves on grass” there are bodies (leaves) on top of singular bodies (blades of grass) that do not appear to be part of the One body (the lawn)? Could the “I” be aware of the simulacra—aware of a consciousness that denies original or copy but relishes heterogeneity (“leaves on grass”). Could the “I” of word be found as Lease writes, in “America, one extra summer night—I want to (you know) feel like a giant eyeball—” What would the “I” be if a giant subjective and objective eyeball? It would be an “I” that is a window to the plural singular—the “I” that is first, second and third person. But what would this “I” see?
I am a giant eyeball and I have a dream that is more and/or less individual. Just as a fixed definition is impossible in any individual word (words are only defined by more words), my individuality is not a fixed definitive identity. Words necessitate context to be read and defined, just as I necessitate spatial and temporal context to understand my individuality and identity. Further, identity can’t be fought with identity because it becomes a popularity contest, but isn’t this what politics is? Lease understands this as a farce in and of itself—“a clown explains the war” Subjective journalists are caught up in the tangle of perceived objective responsibility in order to engender a perspective of bought and sold capital across borders, across cultures, across bodies. Lease’s Testify offers a type of journalism that liberates word, identity, and individuality because his poems allow the reader to experience the words personally in their mouths as wrens of flight. Personally embodied word definitions catalyze magic because only personally embodied definitions can reset the context. This is the dream of the possibility of language. Together, we think we may have a dream, but the “I” is individual. Individuality can be gift of flexible identity or debt to an identity fix. The “I” of Testify is not fixed; it is historical but not sequentially ordered as an affect of a particular cause. Identity is sculpted by memory and the collective memory of the American “I” is addressed and transformed by Lease. For in this capitalist American system as Lease writes:
I can’t remember anything—past the crust and
down to the human, down to the want and
want and want—
Lease begs us to question whether or not the human, the American human is of want (debt) or dream (gift). In the second part of Testify, in the long poem “Send My Roots Rain” appears the following:
I can’t stand my own mind—
You just can’t live through this—you’re in the
Rain a million miles from rain, you started and
Started breaking and thinking and speaking
And breaking—might give it back—might give
Back—swear you will—if you could only dream—
The saddest dog I dream—the I’d
No longer be in your eyes—
The secret blue lie—
How can “I” or “You” stand or live through this simulacrum, “Rain a million miles from rain”? We can disrupt the enforced narrative, “breaking and thinking and speaking / And breaking—might give back” We could give back to the social realm of definitions personal and embodied content. If we could dream the dream of an “I” that is humble—a witness of death—an “I” that is not an “I” composed of what “you” (the social realm) see—I would “No longer be in your eyes—” because I would be in my eyes, but my eyes aren’t narcissistically egoistic, they’re witnesses of death. Then I would not live with the social definition of words, I would personally define them via embodied experience. This “I” in touch and release with its own death is an “I” outside the parameter of socially ascribed characteristics, identity traits, taken-for-granted language. It is a deeply personal experience of the impersonal “I.” This “I” is an “I’d”—I would—a potentiality. “The secret blue lie—” is/isn’t the sky the giant naked eyeball looks in to—in through.
In the last section of Testify, the repetition of “Magic,” just as the repetition of “America” in the opening long poem, clears the field wherein words enact an “I” that takes on the “spin and sky means / cash” How do I see the sky beneath the sky we see. How do I move from seeing a sky of want and greed, to seeing a sky of “whiskey”? “maybe I should dream of nothing maybe that’s / it nothing like a golden green angel like night sky” Maybe this dream of nothing is a dream in which “I” find an “I” that is other and fresh to this “I”—an “I” that is no thing but an elusive entity—an ineffable nothing—formlessness.
Words are magic. We do not have to learn them. We have to repeat them with belief in the embodied personal experience of their content and not with what a commoditized social realm attempts to fill them with. Testify is dedicated to Walter Benjamin perhaps because history is not a pile of moments to jolt chained reactions, but as Benjamin envisioned it to be, a bundle of relations we as angels take flight from with and through language to a place, Lease writes, “Where my eye just came / Untied—” The social context could be a place for “I’d”—a place wherein we recognize One in and as an Other’s death—a death that can only be experienced personally but known socially via testimony. “’I’m not who I am’—the sincerest form of / commerce, I is a meaningless dog. ‘I believe / that’—” Lease’s Testify is a book that allows for a subjective and objective “I” that harbors transformative potential because it is not narcissistically egoistic. The “I” of Testify is an expansive, embodied as well as impersonal entity that only exists in relationship with language; an “I” we can read ourselves through and enact ourselves into being with. “I” can say I do.
Anna Elena Eyre is poetry editor for Open Letters Monthly as well as co-editor of Barzakh. Her chapbook “are me” is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press and her book “Faceless Names: Three Books of Letters” is forthcoming from BlazeVOX. Currently she resides in Albany, NY where she is working on a doctorate in twentieth century American poetry and poetics.