In Testify, published by Coffee House Press, I’m delighted to find that Lease has continued to write sincere, musical poems—poems which continue to resist smarmy irony.
One underlying question of this jeremiad-of-a-book is: How can poets ask metaphysical questions without being accompanied by ironic overtones? In “Enjoy Your Symptom,” Lease writes, “I said, Why am I even walk- / ing these streets? That is a fart, said Jack.” I love that Lease never lets the metaphysical immediately be labeled existential. And through Lease’s careful rendering, silencing the speaker’s quest for meaning seems despicable. Elsewhere in Testify, Lease writes, “I can pray in the shadow of the silo, in the /snow, Chili’s, Target, Payless, Wendy’s, words washed in the /shadow of the silo.” Read this lyric aloud. As treated by Lease, branded nouns sound like talismanic objects. Furthermore, his humankind is spiritual, “I felt like Jell-O—we lost the word virtue” But despite his mortified tone, he writes, “this lack of justice I acknowledge / mine—“
Many of Testify’s poems are lamentations. At one point, he urges, “the sin most insistently called abhorrent to God is the failure / of generosity” Here, sin means neglecting the proactive spirit of the Torah—as well as neglecting the upstart spirit of democracy. Perhaps this is why so many of the lines in this book invite us to join in with what the speaker is saying.
Testify’s first line, “Try saying wren.” sounds off a serialized account of anguish, especially over systemic guilt and grotesque language. Later, we read, “my scream is a brand name:” but Lease never treats language as a total failure. And his poems aren’t sentimental. In the end, even his metaphysical concerns can sound like a confession, “I want to live forever, why not, why / not admit it—“