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The Boston Phoenix Lease On Life

A poet's declaration of Human Rights

By Catherine A. Salmons

JULY 6, 1998: 

HUMAN RIGHTS: POEMS BY JOSEPH LEASE. Zoland Books, 72 pages, $13.

The sun we see
is not the real sun

The dead will not give back water,
they cut my face,

have what they want.
A pane of glass

between you and what you touch:
write "Holocaust" --

try to imagine night
thoughts of survivors

in the suburbs of Chicago.
By now they have grandchildren

I have no right to picture.
The real sun, deceived,

stolen from the sky,
put to death . . .

Strange lines: a chorus of inherited guilt; blues elegy with drunken, surrealist refrain; quick spins through a tonal repertoire hinting at Rilke, Ginsberg, Apollinaire. The opening cadence of "Slivovitz" (at right) explains why Bostonian Joseph Lease is making a reputation as one of the exciting young voices in American poetry.

Like each of the hefty works in Human Rights, Lease's first major collection, "Slivovitz" is not a simple poem. It's a long, complex web of history, digression, anxiety, investigation -- a lyrical essay-in-verse. It's both intimate, haunted by the mysticism of Rilke's great "Requiem" for Paula Modersohn-Becker ("I have my Dead and I have let them go . . . "), and political: a subdued, Paul Celan-tinged meditation on the dissonance of generations, on war, immigration, and survival as a family legacy. (Grandson of East European communists and son of suburban Chicago academics, Lease is a self-described "red diaper baby, once-removed.")

These poems are about the Holocaust and survivor guilt, about bourgeois complacency and spiritual dis-ease, about the fragility of collective memory, the sublimation of ritual in consumer culture. But Lease attacks from oblique angles, juxtaposing riffs on painting, philosophy, and literature with vignettes from, say, Dunkin' Donuts -- a machine-gun barrage of disjointed snippets that somehow take you where he wants you to go. He strides through everyday scenes in archaic language that makes them sound like a shaman's dream. (His description of a shopping mall: "No one is yelling here, or haggling . . . there is no ritual slaughter in this mall, no chickens are being killed in the sacred way . . . ")

Beyond their inwardness and obsessions, their altruism and self-doubt, Lease's best poems are distinguished by their technique. In keeping with the true spirit of lyric, the ideas take shape around the sound; the music generates the meaning. It's a fine and admirable skill: whether by intent or by intuition, Lease composes first for the ear -- the medium is the massage.

He employs repetition and a kind of odd counterpoint, revoicing and transposing phrases, often braiding multiple motifs into a single, harmonic coil of stanzas. Take "The sun we see/is not the real sun": Lease creates from this phrase a four-beat flourish that he then repeats, varies, and contrapuntally inverts, giving "Slivovitz" its prophetic tenor. The poems have a breathless expansiveness on the page, a visual arrangement that turns them into music. Like "Slivovitz," "Ode," "Apartment," and "The Room," in particular, show a rare understanding of tension and release, of the drama in formal variety: prose blocks alternate with skewed couplets that zigzag down the page in a crazy, syllabic jig.

In other words, he knows how to keep it interesting -- how to make poems breathable, sayable, and new. Few poets these days are publishing verse this musically alive. As Lease himself has remarked, he's never seen poetry as "something under glass." Although he spent his college days at Columbia studying 17th-century verse, his aesthetic has more to do with downtown nights immersed in New York's vibrant, early-'80's avant-garde. He gave readings in Greenwich Village lofts, listened to punk and John Cage, hung out with expressionist painters. The movie Basquiat, he says, felt like a flashback.

Lease now has a PhD from Harvard, yet he transcends the world of "academic" writing. His poems are difficult, somber, at times obscure, but he always makes them sing. He's spent years as a quiet activist, publishing in nearly every major literary journal in the country; and he's highly visible on the Boston scene, reading in schools, bookstores, libraries, even bars -- wherever he can reach people directly with his vision of a learned poetry that "lets the reader in." Human Rights is a commendable achievement, the culmination of years of hard work. Every page betrays Lease's belief that poetry still occupies a vital role in the culture.

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