“Comparing Joseph Lease to other poets is like comparing a lightning bolt—to a bolt.” This, Lease told me, is how his mentor, the poet David Shapiro, introduced a young Lease, at a joint poetry reading, in the 1980s. Lease shared this with me recently, as we sat in a noisy Oakland coffee shop, discussing his new book, The Body Ghost.
Today, Lease is a critically acclaimed poet, scholar, and professor of writing and literature at California College of the Arts. And The Body Ghost does have more than a hint of the lightning-like quality to it—it is electric and electrifying, spontaneous and illuminating. Consider a section of the poem “Rent Is Theft”:
you didn’t, you did: just keep shopping—
eyes was I, dawn breaking, earth breathing:
just say missiles, just say drones: frack,
baby, frack: my eyes are made of cash and
“Rent Is Theft” is made of linked fragments, each one a poem in its own right. Each poem-fragment gets its own page, each has that same haunting “Rent is Theft” title, which pulsates, echo-like, mantra-like, as the work unfolds. The experience of outrage about one’s political environment, about drones and fracking, is familiar and easy to relate to, but what makes the work truly unusual is the ambiguous, almost mystical language that wraps around the politics: “just keep shopping,” a clear dig at oblivious consumerism, is followed by “eyes was I,” which is obscure and complex. Is this an allusion to Emerson’s “transparent eyeball”? Subsequent natural images of dawn and breathing earth would seem to point in that direction. And what of the commanding tone of the phrase “just say missiles”? Who is the narrator talking to? And if he appears to be aware of the systemic failures of his country, why are his eyes “made of cash”? The stanza’s phrases are joined together loosely, as if in a row of frenzied thoughts that convey a burning, sleepless predawn mind racing in circles.
We all read, in the endless silent glow of our screens, the news about missiles and drones. But to try and utter these words—“missiles,” “drone,” “fracking”—to oneself, out loud, and not as distant abstractions but as the description of one’s linguistic and physical reality, is a disturbing exercise and a sort of a reality check. It is prayer-like and dark. The question of one’s responsibility (“you didn’t, you did”) recalls a famous line by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “indifference to evil is worse than evil itself … in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
Some of the most original and intellectually challenging American poets have rejected the lyric “I”—a stable, reliable, narrator/self. The great breakthrough of that kind of poetry, and its magic, lay in its ability to invoke the illusionary, dynamic nature of identity as such. At the same time, the value of a personal narrative, and of the authentic voice of a storyteller, took a back seat in such poetry. One of Lease’s innovations is his attempt to summon that personal experience—but to do so in an abstract way that evades oversimplification. “Eyes was I” is a visionary instant: seeing, perhaps in feverish predawn hours, the extent of one’s responsibility for systemic injustice. Later in the work, the poem veers from ironic critique of consumerism to more somber images:
here you are, here we are, no mercy
no future, lots and lots of turkey
death tangles, death shakes, death
breakfast served all night
The opening segment echoes the Biblical hineni, or “here I am,” as well as the invocation of mercy. As Lease told me, “Deep down, I always felt I was a Jewish lyrical poet of Psalm in a very postmodern tone, or spectrum.” The postmodernism comes in the juxtapositions, which offer stark, jarring contrasts to the prayerful, psalmic sentiments. Here, the opposite of “mercy” isn’t “judgment”—but the “turkey sausage.” Turkey, of course, is an American bird, and while eating as a form of oblivion may be a universal experience, there seems to be a specifically American context in these lines.
“Breakfast served all day” is a phrase we are all familiar with, but in Lease’s subversion it points to something more than the excesses of American consumerism. Reading the line as enjambment, the phrase “death breakfast,” which is being served all night, alludes to the narrator’s insomnia and oversaturated consciousness.
The above segment takes up a whole page, with lots of “empty” space—space between words, between lines, groups of lines—and that intensifies the silence of the white backdrop, the silent and prayerful thinking. As Lease explained, a “poem with a few words on the page can have a big sacred voice.”
The penultimate segment of “Rent Is Theft” culminates with:
wake up, you’re not the truth—and,
and, and, and—I, I, I, I—might have,
killed someone: you didn’t, you did
eyes was I,
The stuttering repetitions hint at anxiety and guilt, confessional prayer—chants, but also bring us back to the question of personhood, an “I” whose voice, however fluid or fractured or dynamic, is in direct communication with the reader.
“Rent Is Theft” is a serial poem, in which each segment refers to previously stated themes; it is a poem saturated with generous amounts of white space, fraught with silence. The poem seems to emerge from the so-called postmodern spectrum, haunted by political concerns and reverberating with biblical echoes. As Lease put it in our conversation, “I believe poetry can be accessible and innovative and musical and really right there, for the readers, especially if it is doing something that they’re not expecting, or don’t happen to be familiar with. Being original: It’s crazy that so many have abandoned that goal.”
It is clear that Ezra Pound’s Modernist injunction to “make it new” matters to Lease. In both Modernism and Postmodernism, the ambition to innovate often hit the wall of skepticism about one’s ability to truly state something new and unusual, and, thus, oftentimes, it was the poem’s form, rather than its semantic meaning, that offered opportunities for innovation. Moving beyond the received poetic forms such as ballads or sonnets, poets were able to make their own forms, which accentuated the poems’ messages in a way that words alone couldn’t.
Lease says that he works slowly, taking a great deal of time for each poem, which may seem surprising, because of the spontaneous-seeming energy that permeates his verse. Lease describes his writing process as “taking poems through these journeys, and you can call it revision, but in my opinion these are successive ways of improvisation, successive ways of very tight distilling, and crafting, and streamlining, always ear-driven. … I believe that poetry is music, language is music, and when the music is right, that’s when the poem is done.”
This history of improvisational attempts to think through an impossible subject matter for a poem whose story is without a beginning or an end. Not that Lease hates stories, however. When we met, along with his wife, Donna de la Perrière (a superb poet in her own right), he would turn to her and ask, tantalizingly, “Should I tell that story?”
One of the many memorable stories of the evening was about Lease’s beginnings as a poet. The life-changing event of his teenage years occurred when he was listening to Patti Smith’s Horses album, which came out in 1975. Lease found himself absorbed in one of Smith’s interviews, in which she referenced the French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud. Looking over at a bookshelf, in what must have felt like a magical moment, Lease suddenly noticed his mother’s copy of Rimbaud’s book right there, staring back at him. With a great deal of teenage tact, Lease took the book to his mother, asking: “What are you doing with this?”
One of The Body Ghost’s most memorable poems, “Mercy,” is dedicated to de la Perrière, and though in its free-associative structure it is similar to “Rent Is Theft,” the subject matter here is quite different:
and all the words—all the hands—you
dream me—dream me there—soft mist,
soft kiss—mend the world—maybe it’s
possible—what do you know—what do
you taste: vodka, ice, soft air, soft air—
your hands—what if I worship you—
your life is real—
The dashes may remind one of two very extremely different poets—Emily Dickinson and Allen Ginsberg—who utilized dashes to indicate leaping, racing thoughts, or impossible silences. With the interwoven varying rhythmic repetitions, however, this poem feels a lot like singing, or even dancing—dancing between “words” and “hands”—imagined and real, poetic and physical, projected and known, intoxicated and enlightened. That dance between worlds and words is what makes the poem’s experience real.
Later in the evening, Lease handed me what looked like a printout of an email. These were his notes, he told me, which he sent to himself, in advance of the interview, responding shorthand to the questions I had emailed him a few days prior. Looking at the lines now, it struck me that they sound a lot like a poem, or a segment from one, and could stand on their own, without the context of questions that prompted them. Even the reference to David [Shapiro] could be read as a riff on the biblical David, the Psalmist:
fullness of representation
words are ghosts and prayers
prayers for truth
prayers are truth
I was brave enough to
say to David that poetry
is sacred music
Read more of Jake Marmer’s Tablet magazine essays on poetry here.
Jake Marmer is Tablet’s poetry critic. He is the author of The Neighbor Out of Sound (2018) and Jazz Talmud (2012). His jazz-klezmer-poetry record Hermeneutic Stomp was released by Blue Thread Music in 2013.