Eryn Green


a review


All Our Haunted Carapace

The Lyric and The Spirit in Joseph Lease's The Body Ghost

In the introduction to his critical text, The Poetry of Kabbalah: Mystical Verse from the Jewish Tradition (Yale University Press), poet and translator Peter Cole explains that, for the ancient visionary poets of early Judaism, “poems not only depict a mystical process, they reproduce it.” Cole articulates the fact that poems written in the Kabbalistic tradition were intended as more than mere verse, more than ornamental descriptions of beautiful scenes or presentations of emotional reverie. Rather, they were poems where “the stakes couldn’t be higher,” where beneath the surface of every word “in all such attempts there is something else vibrating.” Through careful attention to music and form, the poems of early Kabbalah became themselves vehicles for mystical transport—chariots for spiritual ascent. 

By the measures above, poet Joseph Lease’s most recent collection, The Body Ghost (Coffee House Press), is a mystical, transportational, and reconfiguring text; it is a cosmos unto itself and an entirely radiant book. Here, Lease has built a self-propelling world, inhabited by myths of love and loss that accrete over the course of the work, by haunted spirits whose meanings only clarify when read again and again over time. In his spare, yet dense volume, Lease continues the work undertaken in his previous collections, Broken World and Testify, writing poems that burst and collapse under the weight of both quotidian and eternal visions, sometimes ecstatically, sometimes heartbreakingly, all the while thoughtfully navigating the relation between sacredness and profanity in the context of late-stage American capitalism. The Body Ghost is a book where the numinous (the collection opens with the poem “Ritual,”sanctifying the space of the text by invoking “the light that’s burning every second now”) and the pedestrian (the collection’s third long poem, “Night,” begins “does he/ like bombs, does he like masks—please/ breathe my newsflash, my eyes don’t fit”) exist concordantly, revealing themselves as two sides of the same  existential surface. Elegy and ecstasy, hope and despair, are never far apart in this book, as Lease illustrates early in the collection:


once more I smell the dew and rain—the

light that’s burning everything—the elegies

are taking off their clothes—say moon, say

ink, say stay in love—


The music here—the careful interior play between “rain” and “everything,” between “say” and “stay”—as well as the focus on the precise vulnerability of the lyric, are vintage Lease. In his career, Lease has proven himself a poet that understands language, and our relationship to language as readers and writers of poetry, as a source of power and prayer. Echoing Cole’s assertion that underneath the visible surface of mystic poetry there is always “something else vibrating” (Lease phrases it in the same poem above as “the soul beneath the soul beneath the soul”), The Body Ghost treats words and pages as bodies, haunted palimpsestic vessels capable of carrying and incubating human experience, at once articulating its ineffability and distorting its essence. But, like all bodies, there is another side to the sensitivity of these poems—they are able to clarify and orient our senses in the world, certainly, but they can also break. This capacity for hurt as well as hope is a central axis of energy in Lease’s new book, as the opening poem continues:


and some guy screams on Christmas Eve—

his eyes like rain, his face like ice—and

weave a circle round him thrice—we drink

to death, we smear the sky—soft wind—the

soul beneath the soul beneath the soul—



he fell apart, he rained, he flew, he sang—

and some guy screams on Christmas Eve—

we drink to death, we smear the dark—blue

wind—his stain of faded storm light in my



Given the awareness of the tension between any body’s sidereal origins (made of star-stuff, after all), as well as its inescapable ephemeral reality, death is an understandable topic of concern in this collection. The death considered in these poems is both personal (particularly the death of Lease’s father, addressed most directly in The Body Ghost’s final poem, “Stay”), but also public—namely, the proverbial death of the American Dream. In one of the book’s strongest sequences, “Rent is Theft,” Lease forcefully interrogates the modern reality of wealth inequality, capital distribution, and class in post-millennial America. Invoking Woody Guthrie’s classic American anthem “This Land is Your Land”—a song with particular resonance and poignancy in 2018, given the songwriter’s critical regard of our current President’s father, and Guthrie’s one-time Brooklyn landlord, Fred C. Trump, in the song—Lease utilizes his gift for image and musicality to profound effect, laying bare the bones of his divided nation:

this sky is your sky this

sky is my sky—“Dear God

let there be gas let there 

be cash and soft voices.”



hide me


the graves: the city, the wind, the banks:

“you just want to die I mean capitalism

just wants to kill you I mean you just

want and you just want”—

(“Rent is Theft”)

The impossibility of real success for most in this economic system, with its institutionalized keeping-up-with-the-Joneses illness, its carcinogenic enticements and disease of invented need, is one that Lease has shown himself uniquely capable of articulating in devastatingly human terms. In Lease’s hands, the very carapace of the American ideal, each and every citizen yoked under its illusory meritocratic rhetoric, is a casualty that bears mention, and the viscerality of this pecuniary violence leaves a lasting physical image on the mind of the reader:


they had a body crammed in a mailbox

and it was just a blue suit with

bones sticking out—



you didn’t, you did: just keep shopping—

eyes was I, dawn breaking, earth breaking:

just say missiles, just say drones: frack,

baby, frack: my eyes are made of cash and 

going broke

(“Rent is Theft”)

Here, the broader dangers posed by the characteristic mechanisms of the Anthropocene become distressingly intimate. At moments like these, it is impossible for the reader to miss the linguistic connection between the poet’s own name (Lease) and his subject matter (here, “rent”). The personal and the public collapse. Such connections are the sinew enabling movement between parts in this collection—they are examples of the invisible webs, Lease indicates, tying our discrete selves to our broader universe. And it is precisely these connections which point the reader to the questions motivating The Body Ghost: What are we supposed to do with our bodies on this planet (“lavender sky, sky like whiskey—the way, the way/ we live in bodies” Lease writes in the book’s titular poem)? How do we account for our horizons, and for their destruction at our collective hands (“ice and river—“the desire to be normal is healthy”:/ no, it isn’t—can you imagine the death of the wind—/ can you remember the ghost of that voice—”)? Are we doing enough to help see one another through (“I’ll try/ to glint like birds behind the rain—“)? How do we sleep at night (at several points in The Body Ghost, Lease repeats the phrase “and promise me the rich can’t sleep”)? 

For his part, Lease doesn’t presume to have the answers to these questions, but instead offers us his eyes to see through, so that we might better understand the stakes of our present world. The vision beheld by the poet is not always pleasant. And yet, despite the iterated damages, incriminations, and ill-portents, The Body Ghost is not a hopeless book—indeed, like all of Lease’s work, it feels quite the opposite. There is destruction here, yes, and corruption, but there is also mercy. In fact, one of the book’s most tender-hearted poems is entitled “Mercy.” Dedicated to Lease’s wife, the writer Donna de la Perriere, this serial poem is chock-full of grace, creating a space where mistakes can be met with not damnation, but forgiveness; where flaws are not condemned, but allowed to exist as bridges toward betterment. It is a heartening sequence, and one which bears attention, making paramount use of Lease’s most excellent poetic tendencies (anaphora, caesura, chiasmus, alliteration), beginning:




pink streaks,

sky, pink streaks, branches—buildings

turn purple—the wind sings the moon—

the moon sings the wind—all the words,

all the worlds, in one face—




one story—the boy and the wren—the

wren and the night—the face in the 

house—your lips slip the night—your

face slips your eyes—your eyes slip 

your yes—love like flying—




where is your kiss—who is your night—

smile painting, smile sacred arcs of

rain—O, taste, O taste and see—I can’t

believe we’ve come to this—your rose—I

can’t believe—



This is Lease at his best, at the peak of his powers—weaving hymns out of thin air and white space, inhabiting language in such a way as to make it soar (“love like flying”), and opening outward without the selfish need to resolve his lines into one meaning or another (the availing of such pluripotency is one clear function of his continuous use of the em dash). William Blake once suggested that innocence is not the same thing as naïveté, not an oblivious sense that the world is beautiful without a careful accounting of its faults, but rather a dogged optimism, a feeling that even in the face of evil and experience, light still shines through. Lease’s new book feels innocent in this way, not untarnished but also not without hope. This may be a broken world, but it’s not one without potential for healing; it may present a bleak vision sometimes, but here we have a poet willing to testify to its simultaneous grace; we may be haunted by myriad ghosts, but we also have the blessings of our bodies to share. Reckoning the loss of his father, whose death haunts the entire book as a kind of metaphor for the human loss of inherited ethical exemplars, Lease writes:


   my father









when I

   don’t see

you, I’ll

   see you”


This persistence of vision even within paradox—the kind of vision that requires faith in order to properly see—is one of the lasting gifts of Lease’s new book. It is also a link back to the ancient Kabbalist poets, who endeavored to see sights their eyes couldn’t always process, to experience spiritual sublimity that defied description, and to reckon the fact of grief/death alongside the perennial opportunity of love/life. Cole writes of the poetry of the Kabbalist mystics that “working like verbal spirit traps, the poems…precipitate a sense of transcendence which becomes palpable long before it is fathomable.” Lease’s poems accomplish something similar in The Body Ghost, making it a must-read for anyone eager to glimpse a shimmer of hope within a fraught scene, to hear music accompanying the postmodern din, and to taste “faded storm light in my/ mouth.” 

Eryn Green's first book of poetry, Eruv, was selected by Carl Phillips as the winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize and was published by Yale University Press in 2014. His poetry, essays, and criticism have been featured in the New York Times, Esquire, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, jubilat, Painted Bride Quarterly, Denver Quarterly, and numerous other venues. Currently an Assistant Professor in Residence of English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Eryn lives near the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area Area with his wife and daughter.