Jesse Nissim


Joseph Lease’s Testify

by Joseph Lease
Coffee House Press, 2011
63 pages / $16  Buy from Amazon or Coffee House Press







In his latest collection, Testify, Joseph Lease pulls words from a wide stream of diction, using vastly different textures to make the fullest contact with his readers. Re-casting lines from multiple news sources, Lease sets up the problematic linguistic backdrop of the current media and the gaping lack of a faithful source of social, economic, or political truth. The action of writing, even the intention to “turn off the shooting try our new / daydream and / try our // new rights,” offers an intervention, an alternative to the automatic moving walkway that propels us always in the direction of consumerist distraction, militarized deception and political numbness.

This mixing of language sources runs horizontally and vertically throughout the poems, always accompanied by what seems like the intention to write into language a new kind of critical and essential love. With lines like “We’re going back home to / night pushes through money” and “write to your congressional representative, / write to, keep imagining—,” these poems literally invite readers to return to a more compassionate model of democracy, in which there is a “home” to return to, perhaps the home of collective action around the demand for true social investment outside of capital or military “growth.”

Made of four discrete sections, “America,” Torn and Frayed,” “Send My Roots Rain,” and “Magic,” Testify sings from a lyric “I” that is at once outraged, grieving, tender and hopeful. Lease retraces phrases and rhythms to build tremendous richness and depth over the seventy-five-page work. Bleeding through the borders of its separate movements, the book circles back, widening and deepening the connection between speaker, listener and poem.  Some of Testify’s parallel undertones are subsurface as a pulse—and I can’t be sure if it’s my heart that’s making them or Lease’s. To me, this is the central force of Lease’s work; this beautiful tangle of breathing and moving makes direct contact, which Lease has forged through a kind of shared organ. Take, for example, the opening lines to “America,” the poem that comprises Testify’s first section: “America // 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.”

From this first line Lease roots down immediately in both body and voice. His focus on effort and embodiment in the face of disorientation, dismay and deception, creates a space for shared experience and hope.

Moving quickly into war on the next line, Lease connects a national identity crisis, “A clown explains the war….Oh CNN,” to a personal one, “I have to run, eat less junk.” The effect is to model a consciousness of citizenship that never seeks to isolate the self from the collective: “say democracy: say free and responsible government, say / popular consent.”


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August 9th, 2013 / 11:00 am