Before the laws
The secular, sacred, and aesthetic cases of Lawrence Joseph
Outside those poems constrained by explicitly procedural and chance operations, a lyrical impulse, which is not to be confused with the lyric per se, dominates almost all the modes of contemporary poetry. Whether explicit or implicit, this impulse, apparent in narrative-, image-driven, and paratactic poetics, is irreducible to any specific subgenre or mode. Though the lyrical impulse differs from the lyric, which can be defined as “a relatively short poem in which the sensual and musical qualities of language are heightened in order to present a subjective, emotionally charged moment, an interior event with lasting resonance,” it functions, like the genre from which it derives, as a “law of poetics,” imposing constraints during the composition of poetry, the judgment of what to publish and what not to publish, the judgment of what is and isn’t poetry, etc. The various practices of poetry under this law habituate authors, publishers, and critics to its apparent inevitability, naturalizing the lyrical impulse, if not the lyric per se, as the sine qua non of poetry in general. These practices tend to calcify into irrepressible, complementary habits of writing and reading which function as “local” laws in relation to the general law of the lyric. These “laws” explain why readers and critics can “trace” or follow motives and motifs in a poet’s career; the final suppression of the lyrical (not the lyric) impulse rarely occurs. The poet returns incessantly to the scene of instruction which is, of course, the scene of the crime, the enabling trauma that enters public life under the mask, in the cage, of the law of the lyric.
The law of the lyric is not the sole law of contemporary poetics; the epic and prophetic, and thus the epical and prophetic impulses, also function as laws of poetics and poetry. But while epical and prophetic impulses may not always be present in what are deemed “successful” poems, it is difficult to find “successful” poems completely void of the lyrical impulse (excepting, again, procedural and chance poetics). It may be helpful to recall, for example, that one of the strategies of early Language poetry relied on agrammatical, nonsyntactical, and proto-surrealist formations to liberate ludic “content” from the constraints of the ego, often — though not entirely — reduced to the grammatical marker “I” and the subgenre “confessionalism.” The resulting “anti-lyric” poetics and poetry did not mean, perhaps could not have meant, the final suppression of a lyrical impulse. Language poetry availed itself of procedural and chance operations in order to decenter — not expel — what Olson called the “individual as ego.” That many readers habituated by the conventions of grammatically and rhetorically “correct” — and thus “clear” — poetry found much of the output of Language writing difficult to decipher is hardly surprising. As noted above, habits of reading and writing are not easily, if ever, jettisoned, but they can be tempered, tamped down, though doing so is difficult.
Other contemporary poets interested in countering the “lyrical interference of the individual as ego” but wary of what they perceive as over-experimentalism in the avant-garde line of modernism (Stein, Zukofsky, Mac Low, etc.) have felt a need to return to, or at least invoke, vatic/prophetic traditions. Indeed, it is not uncommon for American poets to begin their careers writing largely in the lyric mode before moving “outward” to embrace larger social, cultural, or philosophical issues via epical/serial or other narrative modes. For example, the traditional lyrics and narratives that comprise Harryette Mullen’s first book, Tree Tall Woman, do not herald the dizzying syntaxes, prose forms, and social/cultural critiques of later books like Trimmings, S*PeRM**K*T, and Muse & Drudge. On the other hand, social and cultural critique is present from the start in Carl Phillips’s first book, In the Blood, however embedded in traditional narrative and lyric forms. Phillips uses his first book to clear social and cultural space for himself as a gay black writer by taking on normative themes in black writing, a topic he largely abandons in his later, more elliptical, more philosophical, poems and books.
As the example of Phillips indicates, the general failure or inadequacy of social, cultural, and political institutions to address the most pressing concerns of modernity have led some poets to turn to traditional or speculative modes of idealism from the very start of their careers, spirituality and religion being two of the more common ones. As it happens, some of the most interesting, even perplexing, contemporary American poets are those that invoke spiritual/religious traditions in relation to the secular modes of poetry available to them: think of poets as varied as Nathaniel Mackey, Fanny Howe, Elizabeth Robinson, Armand Schwerner, and Gjertrud Schnackenberg. That this list is comprised of those deemed minorities is not coincidental. In Mackey and Schwerner in particular, the law of the lyric and lyrical impulse, the law of the epic and epical impulse, and the law of prophesy and prophetic impulse struggle with, and against, one another. Each law attempts to assert itself as the law, the a priori matrix from which the other laws derive. In their complex negotiations between identity and responsibility, choice and predetermination, the poetries of Mackey and Schwerner are drawn less along racial or ethnic lines (though these are present) than along religious or spiritual lines. Thus, the extent to which these poetics “press” toward an “end,” gesture toward a utopian moment, is the extent to which they confound literary genres. The enduring presence of prophesy and the prophetic as characteristic of certain American poetries indicates that the literary — understood here as primarily the site of aesthetics — is, perhaps always has been, under assault, or receptive to assistance, from without.
Or, should we say, from within? What if prophesy is not a cross a poet takes on, however reluctantly, but the very impetus of his birth as a poet? Such is the unique, if conflicted, argument of Lawrence Joseph’s poetry. By almost any standard Joseph’s poetry is formally quite traditional; it is, by turns, descriptive (though abstractions punctuate each book) and confessional (though not necessarily autobiographical), narrative (despite the collage-effects that increase with each new book) and lyric-driven (as well as driven by lyrical impulses). At the same time it raises the bugaboo of “identity politics” even as it complicates the meanings of both “identity” and “politics.” For Joseph, as with Mackey and Schwerner, the question of identity is not exclusively or even primarily tethered to the usual accidental attributes of race, ethnicity, and/or sex. For Joseph, the question is tied to the accident of birthplace — another traditional feature of the work — and the “choice” of a profession. But in centering so much of his work on the problem of “choice,” will and responsibility in relation to his birthplace, Joseph calls into question the very concepts of accident and choice — that is, his poetry questions the alleged differences between accident and essence, choice and predetermination. His work alternates between affirming and undermining accident, essence, choice, and predetermination, and it draws analogies between these differences and that which obtains between the law, the lawful, and the lawless. As a lawyer, Joseph appears to be particularly drawn to the work of Wallace Stevens, hardly just another lawyer and poet. In the work, and perhaps even life, of Stevens, Joseph finds both justification and condemnation for his “double” life as an attorney and poet. Unlike Stevens, however, Joseph can never sever his ties to that which follows and leads him, spurs him on — his accidental but essential birthplace, Detroit, Michigan.
In contrast to that over which they have no or little control — birthplace, race, ethnicity, sex — artists have generally emphasized their vocations as those of their own choosing. Of course, there is a long tradition of the poet having been chosen by spirits, the gods, the muses, and in more secular cultures, poetry itself. Joseph integrates himself into this tradition by linking the sacred and secular; he explicitly affirms that he was, in some sense, chosen by both. Over the course of his four books of poetry, Joseph is chosen, even as he chooses, to be a poet “born” in Detroit, Michigan. And both choosings originate in at least two sources: the gods (the poet as witness à la Whitman) and aesthetics (the poet as aesthete à la Stevens). Both “callings” will conflict with the secular “call” of the law. In short, Joseph’s quandary is worse than that of, say, Stephen Dedalus who “only” has to decide if he wants to be a shaman-prophet at the service of the gods (sacred or secular) or a godhead-forger of his own creation. Joseph has to decide how, or if, he can serve human laws, divine laws, and aesthetic laws, for in serving one, or even two, sets of laws he betrays the other(s). To be law-abiding he must, in turn, be a lawbreaker.
Given that he grew up in Detroit during one of the most violent periods in its history, Joseph may be excused for repeatedly returning, in his poetry, to the subject of his family’s fate in his hometown. Though Detroit becomes less and less the focus of Joseph’s poetry over the course of his career thus far, at least one poem in each of his four books explicitly concerns the Motor City. As one of the most infamous (ex-Murder Capital of the United States) and famous (Motown Records, the Big Three automakers) cities in the United States, Detroit has left its mark on Joseph. It would be an obvious mode of oversimplification to reduce Joseph’s decision to become a lawyer to a reflection of his being raised amid urban lawlessness — Monday morning quarterbacking from Dr. Freud’s armchair, so to speak — but it is a fact that all four of his books have as a central concern the tension between his lawful (largely Catholic) upbringing and the apparent unabated lawlessness of urbanity. In the early books Detroit is the site of the crime, but in later books, after Joseph moves to New York City, he discovers that Wall Street is no less lawless, in its own way, than the unforgiving streets of Detroit. From an ethical and moral position, one might suppose that the different modes lawlessness takes would be insignificant, but for Joseph the differences make all the difference in the world: he became a lawyer — not a policeman. Thus, though lawlessness prevails amid a more or less impotent law, law, however, weak, must be endorsed. Insofar as this necessity is psychological, its sources can easily be traced back to Detroit. However, its weak moral foundations suggest that the secular — chosen or choosing — represents itself as inferior to the sacred. But since Joseph offers both realms as sites of potential or possible freedom (we are chosen or we choose in both), why imply that the secular remains “weak” in relation to the sacred?
Because to the extent its foundations are human, not divine, secular law is fundamentally, necessarily, weak in relation to sacred law. Yet this weakness is also its strength. Its human limitations perforce make secular law humane in every sense of the word — that is, both “good” and “bad.” On the other hand, sacred law, by its very nature, is perfect — and inhumane. And since he is human — by choice and not by choice, as we will read — Joseph tends to prefer the vagaries of finite imperfections to the certainty of infinite perfection, a preference which will serve to justify the movement toward the aesthetic in the third and fourth books. He is “born,” however, a prophet utilizing the lyric mode of poetry, reminding us that the gesture toward the horizon of the utopian can be inward as well as outward. And because he will never be able to free himself of the prophetic voice even as he embraces the aesthetic of the lyric, the poet will shuttle back and forth, inward and outward, gesturing toward the lyric and epic: his poems will be written in the frequencies of the lyrical and epical impulses.
Joseph pits the divine against the human in his first book, Shouting at No One (1983). It opens with a pre-genetic “epigraph” whose first line is “I was appointed the poet of heaven.” The phrase “poet of heaven” can be read in at least two ways: heaven’s representative on earth and heaven’s own, singular (“the”) poet. Both readings are supported by the poem. The poet is “appointed” to describe “Theresa’s small roses / as they ben[d] in the wind” but soon tires of this rather pedestrian lyric mode. Requesting a change of duties, he is ordered to “copy” the “breaths” of the angels, only a slight upgrade, from his perspective. However, he does as he is told and, somewhat surprisingly, wins “a public following.” Presumably jealous of his success or just tired of the poet’s failure to please the divine powers, God, or God’s representative, orders the poet to leave heaven.
It’s an old story, of course, one of the oldest myths: the jealousy of a god as the “father” of earthbound poetics. Like Lucifer the poet has been cast out of God’s grace, and like that fallen angel, his spiritual “brother,” the poet too will make a heaven of hell, first by a little revisionist history in the closing stanza of his “Generation”: “So that’s when we got the idea in our heads, / to be born” (24). These lines occur in Joseph’s third book, Before Our Eyes, a book that, as the title suggests, attempts to heed the call of earthly delights and abominations. Published a decade after Shouting at No One, Before Our Eyes offers a rejoinder not only to his own story — he was ordered out of heaven by God — but also to the more sanguine details of his birth as asserted later in that first book: “I was pulled from the womb / into a city.” Taken together, these lines are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The “divine” idea to be born might well have demanded human help to pull it off. Still, these lines stand in tension with one another, especially when we consider a third variation on this theme as it appears in Joseph’s second book, Curriculum Vitae, published exactly five years after Shouting and five years before Before Our Eyes: “I might have been born in Beirut, / not Detroit, with my right name.” The conditional past participle, separated from two different, if not opposing, simple indicatives by half a decade, can be read as an epic in progress, one in which the hero-poet has “forgotten” the circumstances of his origin and is making it up as he goes along or is ashamed of the circumstances of his origin and is prevaricating to ward off (self) discovery. Everything hinges on this conditional, the very engine of equivocation. Let’s not forget that this string of obfuscating, if not quite self-cancelling, statements began with the poet’s punishment for doing exactly what he was told to do. Thus the Kafka-esque law, the punishment for “failing,” however obedient, is, as it turns out, precisely what the poet must face again on earth and it is not insignificant that the poet finds himself a “son” standing helpless before another fallen father, the origin of the law.
Like Lawrence Joseph, I too “might have been born” in a different country, a different city, “not Detroit, / with my right name.” When I was growing up in the Motor City, Joseph’s Market was a local Detroit grocery store I occasionally frequented though it was not located in my parents’ neighborhood. We had relatives on the east and west sides of town and I would sometimes stop in for snacks before or after visiting my cousins, especially when I was in junior high and high school. It was the stereotypical — therefore, unremarkable — grocery store: owned by immigrants (“Chaldeans” or “Jews,” as my parents would say in those can’t-be-bothered-with-ethnic-distinctions days) who seemed to work hard, complain little, and say even less. Because there were several black-owned grocery stores in my neighborhood, I did not grow up “resenting” immigrants for taking “our” jobs. Having worked in a large grocery store chain (no longer extant) throughout my high school and college years, I would not have minded handing over my job to some eager immigrant upstart. I digress here in order to come clean, a matter of full disclosure, and to contextualize my comments about Joseph’s Market as portrayed in several poems throughout Joseph’s collection, especially in the context of the 1967 riot. To be honest, aside from the name, I barely remember Joseph’s Market — it blurs in my memory with every other mom-and-pop grocery I patronized — but I understand why Joseph cannot forget it. Here indeed is his scene of instruction, the scene of a crime that shattered his family in general, and his father in particular, but that also gave birth to the prophet as lyric poet.
The 1967 riot in Detroit was the culmination of over a decade of frustration for many of the city’s residents. It was a race riot, a class riot and an anti-authoritarian riot: black against white, under-or unemployed against a burgeoning middle class, and citizen against the police. As usual, other ethnic and racial groups, predominantly immigrants from the Middle East and Eastern Europe, got caught up in the violence. After 1967 there was no turning back, only a turning inward. Intra-and interracial violence became, more and more, the national image of Detroit as its more legitimate claims to fame, the music and automotive industries, began to wane.
Apparently, Joseph’s grocery store was burned during the riot. A few years later, Joseph’s father was shot and wounded. The explicit references to violence regarding his father occur in the first and last poems, entitled, respectively, “Then” and “Not Yet,” of part 1 of the first book, Shouting at No One. Because “Then” follows the poet’s “expulsion” from heaven, temporality, as “then” and “not yet,” frames the opening section: the poet’s failure in paradise condemns him to birth, to time, to the succession of moments or “nows.” The latter is reflected in the name of the father and the very first act we see him performing, yet another sign of the damnation of earthly life: breathing: “Joseph Joseph breathed slower / as if that would stop / the pain splitting his heart.” “Joseph Joseph” (or now now) is temporal succession in tension with the longing to hit the brakes, to slow, if not stop altogether, the headlong fall toward death. Hence the repetition of the same (Joseph Joseph) even if The Inferno, The Castle, and The Third Policeman, for example, remind us that repetition is itself an index of Hell, that Joseph Joseph was, in some sense, “already” dead. And the enjambment of “those” initiates another theme that will pursue Joseph throughout all four books: the advent of the other. As immigrants, as founders of the grocery store, Joseph’s grandparents were “those” others; “now” (or “then”) they find themselves being driven out of business by other others. Out of the flames of this burning, this exodus, the poet, retroactively, discovers the moment, the “now,” of his birth: “it would take nine years / before you’d realize the voice howling in you / was born then.”
This second birth, the scene of the crime, of instruction, will not be religious, at least not in any traditional sense. This birth will promise no immortality, as both the title and theme of “Not Yet” indicate. However, this second birth is a second chance, not to praise the heavenly powers but to avenge the breaking of their sacred laws. As we might expect, this second chance is compelled, not chosen:
… there is so much
anger in my heart,
so much need
to avenge the holy cross
and the holy card
with its prayers for the dead,
so many words
I have no choice to say. (17)
As he will discover over the course of the next three books, this “chance” will itself be revised. For the poem ends with the invocation of chance as the ambiguous name of the offspring of predetermination and choice: “I don’t want / the angel inside me, sword in hand, / to be silent. / Not yet” (18). Compelled and compelling, chosen and choosing: the difference between these words blur in the potent potion of the imperative and subjunctive. It is the latter that is, of course, yet another sign of damnation, of earthly life, and thus, of temporality. Not surprisingly, then, the “holy cross” and “holy card” will gradually recede from view during the poet’s exodus that will eventually take him to New York. He will take up the law of human institutions and, most important, the law of the lyrical impulse. He will begin his “turn” toward the aesthetic, not in order to abandon the prophetic, much less the secular, impulse (he will remain a lawyer), but in order to make both the prophetic and secular more bearable. The aesthetic — the lyrical impulse — will provide respite (if not only that) from the unsparing demands of the God roaring inside (the epical impulse) as well as the oft-obscene demands of human law.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Before the second book, the second (and not the last) chance that is also Curriculum Vitae, before the narrator will learn “to delight in a measured phrase, / to bank the rage in the gut, / to speak more softly, / to waken at three in the morning to think only of her / — in the age of postcapitalism” (3),he will have had to put away childish things. Such are the lessons of the rest of Shouting at No One. But the narrator is human; he suffers memory, and so, nostalgia, wistfulness, even as he propels himself forward, headlong, toward an uncertain, adult future. He looks back through the frame of a frame (“When I was a child / I saw this church through the window of a ’51 Chevrolet,” 5) or propels himself back even further to the pretemporal world of another life (“I was a child when the wolves came / from the north and ate our donkey,” 21). We have, here, then, a “when-when” situation: the signifier — adverbial, conjunctive — modifies the “past” as static moment and bottomless regression. In that sense the boy invoking these “whens” is an adolescent aswirl in the currents of dissolving childhood and simmering adulthood. At the same time it should not escape our notice that these scenes are moments of loss: the grandmother whose “small / soft hands [were] holding [his]” is gone, replaced by “a woman, / … who lowers her head / to spit” (3); the donkey-eating wolves in rural Lebanon are merely prototypes for “those” burning Joseph’s Food Market in urban America. Indeed, in poem after poem in Shouting at No One (and, as seen below, in Curriculum Vitae), “those” others are brothers, cousins and strangers, so eloquently put at the end of what is probably Joseph’s best known poem, “Sand Nigger”:
… a Levantine nigger
in the city on the strait
between the great lakes Erie and St. Clair
which has a reputation
for violence, an enthusiastically
bad-tempered sand nigger
who waves his hands, nice enough
to pass, Lebanese enough
to be against his brother,
with his brother against his cousin,
with cousin and brother
against the stranger. (29)
The alternating alliances (we will see another example of this later) are matters of chance and circumstance that are not, here, mystifications of history that pit a permanent “good” against an intractable “evil.” These ever-widening conflicts in which allies and foes are interchangeable, a matter of dates and places, derive from ancient antipathies that apparently predate blood relations and cultural values. “Lebanese,” like “American,” tells one nothing about regional, geographical or intra-ethnic differences. Thus the gesture “out” of, or “before,” history points toward the prelapsarian paradise referred to in “I was appointed the poet of heaven.” But as noted above, Joseph’s overarching myth is not a religion of the closed Book; there will be no reappointment to his former post as “the poet of heaven.” This point is driven home in the most provocatively titled poem in the first book: “There Is a God Who Hates Us So Much.” As we recall, the poet “was pulled from the womb / into this city.” Buffeted about amid sin, guilt and atonement, the poet confesses that he “was a system of laws / [he] hated” (43). For the law, secular or Christian, forbids the self-regard implicit in revenge. And since only God avenges through self-reproduction in the fullness of time (the “coming” or “return” of the Son), the poet, trapped in temporality, feels betrayed. Yes, the city “pulled,” but perhaps either God or the narrator’s mother, did not struggle enough, if at all, to hold him back. Thus the sweeping condemnation of his judgment: “I measure you according to your creation.” Given the mixture of guilt, anger, and self-recrimination encapsulated in the poem, it is difficult to exclude anything or anyone from Joseph’s wrath. This line could apply to his father and mother as well as to the city in which he was born, to say nothing of God. Yet, perhaps the line refers first and foremost to the poet, for this book ends with another admission: “It’s not me shouting at no one / in Cadillac Square: it’s God / roaring inside me, afraid / to be alone” (55). God, Author of the closed Book, is inside the poet. Hence he is a prophetic declaimer of the Law by which God, through him, measures and judges. That Joseph does not avail himself of vehicles appropriate for the prophet-poet, that he declaims within the lyric, tells us the God inside him is not (yet? ever?) fused with the poet. Nor, perhaps not coincidentally, is the vengeful, bargaining and gambling God of Abraham, Moses, and Job reconciled with the loving, forgiving and self-sacrificing God of Mary, Peter, and Jesus of Nazareth. Either this God is not omnipotent (the poet’s resistance to fusion is too strong) or this God is, in fact, no God, at least not the God of Judaic, Islamic, or Christian theology. This God would be some indeterminate force, perhaps the id catapulted into the godhead, determined to avenge the past, a folio of unresolved cold cases. Yet, the poet admits that the holy roar within may simply be the prolonged cry of existential loneliness, which is to say, a loneliness only partially alleviated by another human being, a beloved: God as the first lyric poet. Eventually this God or godhead will undergo metamorphosis, will be eroded by age, love, and/or, ruthlessly decapitated, will become, but only in part, a godless aesthetic, a law of the lyric that is only a copy of a copy (secular law) of sacred law.
We are still ahead of ourselves. Before the exteriority of an exodus there is “internal” exile, which is to say, the silence and cunning of a Stephen Dedalus or a prophet biding his time. Joseph goes to work in the infamous plants of the (formerly) Big Three automakers and quickly learns that who and what he is or, more to the point, isn’t — “What’s the matter, Rabbi?” a coworker inquires — doesn’t matter. The uniformity of “those” from the point of view of the “family” is reflected back to Joseph in the uniformity of the machines as well as the uniform(s)ity of the machine operators. In this industrialized Detroit, there are “only” blacks, whites and Jews, workers and bosses. Thus, “When a stranger asks / ‘Why’s someone young as you work here?’ / don’t answer. You don’t answer / when he answers ‘You’re a factory rat like me.’” (12) But as indicated by the very next poem, “I’ve Already Said More Than I Should,” which is situated in New York, this Dedalus-esque strategy will apparently be necessary even “after” the exodus. New York will turn out to be another turn in a journey of exile without end, another verse in an interminable song:
It isn’t for nothing that I deny
interior theological dialogue, doubt
the existence of the new aeon,
don’t sleep past dawn anymore.
In the offices of the great firm
whose name might matter
I won’t reveal what I abhor,
or my desire, if I can’t be rich,
to be, instead, moral or famous (14–15)
Here, the contemptuous sneer of “moral,” just another option squeezed in between “rich” and “famous,” tells us that the vatic/prophetic voice, however receded or suppressed, has followed our narrator to New York and into the law firm. The secular lawyer is hounded by the vatic voice of divine responsibility, next to which human morality is a mere shadow. Though he will not acknowledge it until Before Our Eyes, he is now double: a lawyer and a prophet. Having been “trained” for New York by Detroit (and later, in Ann Arbor, by the University of Michigan Law School), he understands what it takes to survive: “I stuffed the crisp ten dollar bill / he paid me into my pocket. / I knew where it came from. / I knew that much was mine.”
This Machiavellian ethos will be reinforced in the third book, Before Our Eyes. Thus the first stanza of “Over Darkening Gold”:
So here we are. Thieves stealing from thieves
in a society of complex spheres,
wondering what you should do. And still
stars blown outside the eye’s corner. (20)
The uniformity of the family, of the factory, will extend to the law office — “I couldn’t help but overhear / my thoughts and opinions” — and suggest that differences dissolve under the intense pressures of those old standbys, land and money: “What if poverty and anger / and the desire for thrills, / and tribal attitudes, exist / not only on the streets but innately / — inherent, if you will, / within the boundaries of the nation, / social and economic classes, our time?” (19) Thus the threat of a life as a mere secular automaton butts heads with the necessity to resuscitate the God roaring inside him even if the latter appears to be, here, on life support. In Curriculum Vitae both the automaton and prophet — the birth of the aesthete will occur in Before Our Eyes — vie for the poet’s soul, which in this context is his voice. On the one hand, a poem like “That’s All,” with its world-weary title, appears to offer the automaton the consolation of memory, if nothing else: “I work and I remember, that’s all.” The penultimate line, however, tells us that this attitude is the result of the blurring of accident and choice: “I don’t know why I choose who I am” (35). Here, the poet is not a prophet; moreover, he heralds none, foreshadows no one: “No spirit leaped with me in the womb” (34). He goes to work; he gets paid for his use of words as a lawyer, as a teacher. Still, the God roaring inside will not be so easily appeased: “I live in words and off my flesh / in order to pay the price. // When the ancient fury persists, / I pay the price” (43). The prophetic law within is an incessant reminder that he, a law-abiding citizen, is, in the fullness of time, a lawbreaker. Small wonder that Joseph insists, at the end of the second book’s title poem, “Curriculum Vitae,” “I am as good as the unemployed / who wait in long lines for money” (8). The consolations of secular law — the “people” avenge the wrongs done to the individual, the individual has his day in court before the “people” — cannot assuage the ancient injustice of the burning of Joseph’s Food Market. A lawyer, he has yet to find employment suitable to the abatement of that ancient fury. Just as human morality lacks the rigor of divine responsibility, so too secular law is a weak imitation of divine righteousness.
Joseph serves three masters, surrenders himself to three law systems, the laws of secular, sacred, and aesthetic adjudication. The gods he appeases, however, are not the objects of any positivistic theology. But while, and because, it relegates the sacred (as religion) to its “proper” place within the private sphere, the secular has no place for either aesthetic play or prophetic railing. Indeed, the secular is wary of this impish renegade that refuses to recognize borderlines: “I had to tell him to lower his voice. / Imagination split forever — one side fear, the other, hope; no one knows / how to decide even within oneself” (65). Here the secular and prophetic (whose voice is always too loud, too public) struggle for the soul of the narrator even as they shield one another: the secular voice of “reason” disguises the divine wrath of the prophet while prophetic righteousness, sotto voce, steadies the secular lawyer assaulted on a daily basis by the ordinary lies and half-truths (i.e., secular law) that pass for the (divine) law. For the poet, then, for the aesthete who has not (yet?) freed himself of either secular rationalization or prophetic inspiration, the psychic conflicts suppressed in order to function in “objective” public life achieve a kind of volatile but homeostatic equilibrium. Out of this interminable but apparently manageable crisis poetry is born, a poetry that confounds generic distinctions precisely to the degree it partakes of the lyrical, epical, and prophetic. From the point of view of the general public, however, it is the practice and teaching of law that constitutes maturity which, as Freud reminds us, depends upon the suppression of play, the patrolling of the aesthetic. And, as Max Weber reminds us, maturity under the Protestant ethic depends upon the privatization of evangelistic fervor. There is, in the “disenchantment” of “becoming mature,” nothing shameful, even if shame is one of the weapons the “healthy” self deploys against its ugly duckling siblings, id and alter ego.
Except, here, “which” is the ego, the alter ego, the id? The general stance of the poems in the last two books is that of a lawyer (ego), but this does not tell us how the remaining two “selves” (the aesthete and the prophet) line up with the alter ego and id. Because the latter can never appear as such except in the guise of an alter ego and because Joseph clearly distinguishes between the appeal of the aesthetic and the duty of the prophet, we can posit the presence of two alter egos, one aesthetic and one prophetic. The latter avenge themselves, “roaring” as two gods or a split God, judging not only the world but also the healthy ego as unhealthy, as unworthy of a secret it keeps in reserve: “”I’ll let you in on a secret. One’s deepest secret / is a certainty that protects against the world” (54). These lines, from “A Year Ago This June” in Joseph’s fourth book, Into It, point to the untold, the matrix of what might one day be said, projected into an indeterminate future: “But that’s another story” (54). The alter egos spin tale after tale that, far from revealing, enwrap themselves in layer after layer of language. These two alter egos, the sacred and aesthetic, constitute an alliance of convenience against the secular ego. By the time we reach Into It, the secular will be ceded the “actual”; that is, the sacred will be in retreat, resigning itself to the Protestant ethic. The withdrawal of the epical will clear ground for the advent of the lyrical. The secular ego will be left with one alter ego and the trace of the other alter ego.
That trace of the other accounts for the elegiac tone that permeates much of Into It. Although the muses of Into It are Wallace Stevens and Ovid, neither the celebrant of a post-religious humanity nor the advocate of aesthetic pleasure would have endorsed the figure of the “fallen” poet. Nor would either have endorsed the powers of observation as “consolations” for any alleged lost paradise, sacred or secular, as seen in Joseph’s third book, Before Our Eyes. That book, as its title suggests, begins as homage to the consolations of phenomenology and enabling “observation,” that is, to a lyrical alter ego and epical alter ego: what is seen consoles or outrages. We cannot imagine Stevens, the hardboiled author of “the the,” “the nothing that is,” writing this conclusion to “Before Our Eyes”: “For the time being / let’s just keep to what’s before our eyes” (5). Joseph’s qualifications — “For the time being,” “just,” — are not, could never have been, Stevens’s.
Given what we observed above concerning the problematic “place” of the aesthetic and the sacred vis-à-vis the secular, it is not surprising that the figure of the “double” arises explicitly in the third book, largely set in New York, at the same time that Joseph begins his, if you will, aesthetic turn. Because the ego and its alter egos enforce, respectively, secular, lyrical, and epical laws, the “double,” as we observed above, is itself doubled; it veils the competing powers of the lyrical and epical impulses, consigned to the aesthetic and prophetic respectively. Moreover, as we will see, the secular (legal scholar and professor) ego, the sacralized (prophetic) alter ego, and the aestheticized alter ego take turns hiding behind or shielding one another. Their differences subvert any positive identities we might be tempted to read in them; everything depends on the position from which Joseph writes. Most of the time he positions himself as a lawyer writing poetry, but sometimes he is a poet practicing law, or a prophet pretending to be both a lawyer and a poet. No single poem can juggle all these balls at once. However, several of the poems in Before Our Eyes and especially in Into It attempt just such a feat. For example, the opening title poem of Before Our Eyes can be read as an attempt to locate secular adjudication and aesthetic claritas within the social, to proffer both as res publica:
The point is to bring
depths to the surface, to elevate
sensuous experience into speech
and the social contract.
However, a few lines later, after affirming the link between inside and outside, subjective and objective, private and public, aesthetic and secular law — “By written I mean made, by made I mean felt; / concealed things, sweet sleep of colors” — the poet admits that the prophet indeed risks dishonor in his own country:
So you will be, perhaps appropriately,
dismissed for it, a morality of seeing,
laying it on. (3)
Here the “you” seems more pointedly self-referential, acknowledging more keenly its doubled (tripled) existence. The rest of the book affirms this hypothesis. The double lives of the lawyer/poet//poet/prophet (it isn’t clear that the poet that doubles as a lawyer is the “same” poet that doubles as a prophet), is linked to the dyad of predetermination/choice: these duplicities tend to enforce silence, cunning, though it isn’t always clear “who” remains silent, “who” resorts to cunning: “A lot of substance / chooses you. And it’s no one’s business // judging the secrets each of us needs: / I don’t know what I’d do without my Double” (13). Given the asymmetrical balance of cultural and social power between these selves, it isn’t surprising that the public ego/secular lawyer is forced to chastise and ridicule its epical, prophetic, alter ego — “So you rampage within yourself — you think / you should be thanked for it?” (67). Even language partakes of this doubleness: “words are talk and words themselves / forms of feeling” (16). If all is “feeling,” mere “talk,” it isn’t surprising that an escape valve from the law office might depend on withdrawing from humanity until some crisis rouses one: “I surfaced from my reflections to see / wartime” (27). What had once been a sub rosa strategy, however failed (“I’ve Already Said More Than I Should”), however compromised by having (been) chosen, “in a badly measured time / human form over non-being” (24), has become, here, a disfigured form of the subaltern, if not quite submarine, “life.” And, of course, there is the other temptation of the poet: to not only be a prophet but to be a politician, to measure the impact of his sayings: “Exactly how much one poet’s thinking has influenced / what’s in the air” (31). These lines come from “Whose Performance Am I Watching,” taken directly from a Fernando Pessoa poem, but they also echo the existential dread of the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime”: to live as an inconsequential automaton. For Joseph, however, the dilemma is even more acute: on the one hand, secular law is not only ineffective but, worse, it collaborates with the unlawful; on the other, the sacred law is, at best, irrelevant to those pursuing the mirages of the gold standard (“The filtered sunlight insinuating opulence”), which renders the epical-prophetic mode outdated.
At the beginning of this essay we noted how the lyrical impulse finds its way into any number of disparate poetics because, presumably, it is perceived as a, if not the, primary site of the aesthetic per se. We also noted that it is precisely because of its aestheticism that the lyric and the lyrical impulse have been viewed by some poets as incapable, or inadequate to the task, of representing the social, political and cultural crises of the modern era. In the context of Before Our Eyes, however, only the law of the lyric, the common measure of compromised, inauthentic selves, appears inviolate. Moreover, it provides plenty of opportunities for the self-lacerations of guilt: in the face of the interminable tragedy that is human existence, the poet, shorn of his prophetic-sacred powers, can only play with language: “What / do I see? A baby’s / mysterious inability to open his eyes. / What do I do? / Mysteriously, a month-old baby / can’t open his eyes.” (41)
After so much apparent exhaustion before the ordinary horrors of daily life (“you won’t kill their love of the actual”), can the prophet be blamed for retreating, however momentarily, to the play and pleasures of the poet, from both secular and sacred law to the law of the lyric, especially since he has already discovered that, at a certain point, the secular, sacred, and aesthetic realms of adjudication intersect? As we will see below in a poem that marks a crucial transformation in the way the poet imagines the three sets of laws he tries to serve, the word “sentences” will mark the site where the secular, sacred, and aesthetic meet. This is not, however, a meeting of equals. Here, the human realms of the secular and aesthetic are inflated, the sacred, deflated, and so the poet praises the ordinary earthly light of perception, knowledge and what’s “before our eyes”:
And that’s the law. To bring to light
most hidden depths. The juror screaming
defendant’s the devil staring at her
making her insane. The intense strain
phrasing the truth, the whole truth, nothing
but sentences, endless sentences. (43)
Here, the roaring God of the prophet-poet gazes upon its reflection in diminutive form, a “juror screaming”; both are, as we have seen, town criers, wracked with anger, anguish, and however futile their bellowing, bellow they must. Each has only the power to hand out, write out, “endless sentences,” or as the poem’s title makes clear, to enact “Variations on Variations on a Theme.” This poem is a turning point in the book and in Joseph’s career. It signals his farewell to the prophet-poet, which will not mean the end of social critique, as Into It makes clear. Rather it marks another scene of instruction: the impotence of the poet in the face of the actual is converted into the very source of his transcendental powers. But first, a last prophetic gesture of refusal:
… the sun continues its journey. You won’t
kill their love of the actual. Let them go
conquer the world, march with Alexander:
there is Ur, the Chaldean city, a bronze
flake on a rock; there are millions, millions
plunged and numbed by dreams of blood. (44)
This “last” gesture is repeated in Into It, for like all performances (including linguistic) within the temporal world, terms like first and last can only refer to idealized terminal points “outside” this hell of repetitions. But hell this is, and so, too, repetition: “The realization — the state of the physical world / depends on shifts in the delusional thinking / of very small groups” (25) and “I know of no // defense against those addicted to death” (36). As we will see more forcefully, more explicitly, in Into It, Wallace Stevens will have already become the enabling muse that justifies this swerve, this movement “away” from the “actual.” Taken together, the lines above clarify the first poem in Before Our Eyes: the phenomena of beings cannot be conflated with the “actual” since, for Joseph, the former refers to the occulted, which must be revealed (in the court, in the poem, and so forth) while the latter refers to the occulting sediment the world takes for the totality of existents. I believe the Heideggerean language is appropriate here since Before Our Eyes shuttles back and forth between occultation and revelation, between warring ideas of lawlessness and lawfulness, between those who obfuscate and those who clarify. However, exactly what these terms mean, exactly what is being occulted, being revealed, is a matter of perspective, positioning, whose borders or parameters constitute legality and illegality, licit and illicit, fidelity and infidelity, etc. Joseph cannot give himself entirely over to lyric clarity, which would be tantamount to conflating the legal and illegal, licit and illicit; at the same time he distances himself (somewhat) from epic occultation, from the supposed purifying oppositions of legal/illegal, licit/illicit, and so forth. Hence the movement toward a diminished prophetic mode, diminished precisely to the extent it confines itself to, even as it tests the limits of, the lyric. As a result, this inflated lyric (the lyrical), this weakened epic (the epical), will always risk a bloated rhetoric and enfeebled ethos as it returns to the scene of instruction.
The scene of instruction has its instructors, however belated: no doubt his wife, a painter, Ovid, and Stevens, our Virgil of the post-Romantic imagination. We can thus read the second person pronoun in the penultimate line of “Variations” in the plural: “Within the intensity you showed me / both cloudiness and transparency can be painted” (45). This motif will dominate Into It, from the aesthetic play of poems like “The Bronze-Green-Gold-Green Foreground” (“opaque, though clear, painted language”) to the political commentary of poems like “The Game Changed” (“Neither impenetrable nor opacity / nor absolute transparency. I know what I’m after.”). Transparency, opacity — which of these, we might ask, validates the secular, the sacred? Within the secular realm there is an entire history that has validated transparency and clarity as the sine qua non of Western poetry in general, the lyric in particular. However, as we indicated above, the sacred realm, especially (but not exclusively) the religions of the (closed) Book, elevates “cloudiness” to a principle of fidelity in relation to the occult (we see as through a glass darkly, etc.). Thus, what may be generally lawful in the secular realm, transparency — whether we mean the world of legal opinions or aesthetic judgments — is generally lawless in the sacred — and vice versa. The qualification “generally” is necessary here because if things were that simple, an algebra of equivalences among transparency and cloudiness, secular life and sacred hope, one could easily render unto Caesar what was Caesar’s, unto God what was God’s, and, for the artist, unto aesthetics what was aesthetics’. But in actuality obfuscation and occultation serve, for example, the state apparatus — including the legal system — quite well, and clarity and revelation have been used to justify political and religious wars, for example, since time immemorial. Hence both transparency and cloudiness must be used cunningly by the poet, that is, at the “right” time, in the “right” place, just as the political, literary and religious powers do.
In Before Our Eyes, “Sentimental Education” attempts to enact this strategy, cleverly deploying both transparency and opacity. It begins with a return to the past, to Detroit and the scene of instruction, a spiritual initiation sans religion:
… My baptism by fire
in the ancient manner,
at my father’s side in a burning city,
nothing sacramental about it. (33)
The simple past tense shifts into the prophetic-epical mode of the past perfect — “But first, back to Henry Ford” — and then a proleptic leap — “But back, first, to Marvin Gaye, / during an interview in Brussels” (34). The tone of these lines is one of compulsion, as though the poet is forced to return, here, to two of the enabling figures of a particular history, Detroit’s, yes, but also a general, if capsule, history of the United States in the first half of the twentieth century. What is “occulted” and “unveiled” here, what remains hidden and open, like Poe’s purloined letter, is the common denominator of the factory system: Ford Motor Company and Motown Records. A prophet here, the poet reveals and hides this tacit conjunction by sleight of hand (“But first, back …” and “But back, first, …”), by bait and switch:
Of the world-famous Highland Park Plant
Otto Moog, the German engineer,
in 1923 proclaimed (Vladimir
Lenin thought so too): “No symphony
compares to the music hammering
through the colossal workplace”
— proof, so to speak,
that speech propels the purposes
by which it’s been shaped. (34)
The conjoining of compulsion and volition, imperative and subjunctive, in the last two lines “fulfill” the promise of Ford and Gaye, the Motor City and Motown, as the price of greatness, determined and willed, like the relationship between the grammatical variations on the “simple” past. The shuttle effect — from New York to the Detroit of “first” Ford, “then” Gaye, from the “symphony” of old Europe to the “music hammering” of upstart America — is compelled; not so the next-to-last stanza where the return to the past is willfully summoned forth:
Back to, because you want to,
Grand Boulevard, excessive sky
hot and indigo, poured out
We have returned to the lyrical mode which, according to the tradition of Western literature cited above, demands clarity, transparency. However, this mode cannot be realized as an ideal for the poem besieged, like the poet, by epical impulses from within; it will have already been, will always be, infiltrated by what it supposedly had fortified itself against: the first five predominantly prophetic-epical stanzas. Here is the rest of the sixth stanza:
Grandpa lifts you into his arms,
small as a single summer Sunday,
a kind of memory trance truly
dark, deep and dark, steel dark,
not as pure, but almost as pure,
as pure unattainable light. (35)
How to make a heaven of hell? By repeatedly insisting — “not as pure,” “almost as pure,” “as pure” — that that which is “steel dark” is “almost as pure, / as pure unattainable light.” However, as Joseph’s use of commas is rigorously purposeful, we risk misreading these lines if we ignore that last comma; it blocks any facile reading that would turn those last two phrases into one: the apophantic “as” serves as an impasse to the simile “as.” An essential difference between these last two clauses is maintained; so too the difference between the first stanza’s reference to light — “Detroit’s achromatic / sky …” — and the sixth’s stanza’s reference to “pure unattainable light.” A sky without color can still emit light, which is why, to the young Joseph, it “glowed,” even if it does so because “the city is burning” (33). Hence the necessity of affirming the dark and the light, the “achromatic sky” and “excessive sky / hot and indigo.” Here is the movement of memory from scene to scene, from the simple past of the father to the past perfect of the grandfather, from a city burning to “a single summer Sunday,” however “small.”
Thus, as seen above, the formal strategy of blending the prophetic and sacred with the lyrical and personal will demand the suspension of temporality to a “now” and the reduction of spatiality to a “here.” In earlier poems like “Then” the procedure was achieved by repetition; we will see this procedure again (e.g., “Why Not Say What Happens”). In “Sentimental Education” the procedure will depend upon “a kind of memory trance.” This “trance” functions along the historical axis in the same way both “transparency” and “opacity” function along the spatial axis: they both collapse perspective toward a single moment, a single “here.” As such, the “trance” functions as a kind of mimicry of paradise where time and space are forever ceasing to exist. For example, although I have linked the simple past to the father and the past perfect to the grandfather, I want to stress that it would not matter if the memory of a summer Sunday with the grandparent occurred “after” the riot associated with the father and the grocery store. The terms of tense, as noted above, refer to idealized states “outside” history in “some kind of memory trance.” Even if that “summer Sunday” occurred, say, in 1970, it is still, literally, for all intents and purposes, prior to the father inside his burning store in 1967. For the period of absolute happiness is always before. In Joseph’s mythic cosmogony, this “before” applies even to the eternity of paradise. Recall that the epigraph/poem that opens Shouting at No One describes temporal events in heaven. There “is,” apparently, a happier time prior to the happiest timelessness promised by all the major world religions. Not only memory, then; history, too, “works” this way, or rather, is worked this way. The point of ritual celebration — the Fourth of July — or mourning — 9/11 — is to insist on the eternal presence of the past, which is why a year (1776, 2001) is rarely attached to the epigrammatic and sacralized event. In memory, as in history, in condensation, as in abbreviation, the health of the (psychological/social) body depends upon “some kind of memory trance,” some mode of suspended disbelief that would collapse outside the hermeneutically sealed spheres of memory and history. Thus, as a poem like “In a Fit of My Own Vividness” suggests, a “memory trance” cocoons the poet within the scene of the crime — “So much for a family market / reduced to the poverty line / by a freeway” (46) — even if “This discord enacts no measure,” another swerve from the actual which cannot be melded to an aesthetic. Yes, “There’s refuge in observation,” if “Just That” and nothing else since, as,
… It turns out
Joseph’s Market is as free as the boy with one arm
kissing the tangerine my father gives him.
The entire place — upside down. Only money
and credit move around, part of the future. (61)
The actual is confined to place and time; not so “money and credit.” But what of language, one of the realms of the aesthetic? As it turns out, it too belongs to the actual: “You wait and see. That language doesn’t work / anymore, its century is over” (61). Note: Joseph leaves open the possibility of some other language that might be put to work inside history. The specific reference in the poem is to the language of industrialized or monetary capital and one of its foundations, the small proprietor. The shift to financial, that is, liquid, capital renders its older, more material, sibling marginal, if not irrelevant: “As for the economies on which my parents’ lives depended, / they won’t be found / in any book” (29). These lines, from “Why Not Say What Happens?” in Into It, echo the divide between memory and history, ground and figure, monetary and financial capital, and so forth. As we will see when we return to Into It, the same will be said of the normative language of transparency, the traditional lyric mode, even as the poems in that fourth book, infused with a lyrical impulse, represent some of Joseph’s most transparent and most opaque language.
Given that these essential revisions of lyric transparency and epic opacity may be found in the toolbox of both the civilized victors and barbaric losers of history, we find ourselves in the presence of that old saw: can the tools of the master dismantle his house? Can obfuscation and clarification, used so well by the economic, political, cultural and, not insignificantly, literary powers, be used with cunning by the artist who offers his work as social critique and enlightenment without the pretense to, or hope of, prophecy? The question is, obviously, rhetorical; it remains open to a future never absolutely determined in advance. Still, the issue arises for most poets at some moment in their careers and Joseph is no exception.
In his most recent collection, Into It, Joseph confronts this question with what appears to be, at first glance, a concession to transparency: “Why Not Say What Happens?” While “A Sentimental Education,” from Before Our Eyes, faithfully reproduces, even as it condenses, the philosophical, if not empirical, flaws intrinsic to Flaubert’s, Rousseau’s and Sterne’s projects, the new book’s “Why Not Say What Happens” explains both why the poet must say what happens and why he cannot. This poem begins within, so to speak, the endless sentences” of “Variations on Variations on a Theme,” in a mock-prophetic-epical mode:
Of icons. Of divination. Of Gods. Repetitions
without end. I have it in my notes,
a translation from the Latin, a commentary
on the Book of Revelation — “the greater
the concentration of power on earth,
the more truth is stripped of its power,
the holiest innocent, in eternity,
is ‘as though slain …’”
It has nothing to do with the apocalyptic.
The seven-headed beast from the sea,
the two-horned beast from the earth, have always —
I know, I’ve studied it — been with us.
Me? I’m only an accessory to particular images. (24)
Framed by the signs of original sin (“Of icons,” “particular images”), by the desire for knowledge, the poet, stripped of divine prophetic powers, only has access to an enfeebled scholarly apparatus (“a translation from the Latin, a commentary”), to “Repetitions / without end.” He is thus, de facto and de jure, an accessory before and after the fact of the crime. Still, this gnostic, however much a diminished knower, knows something: we were always ahead of ourselves. The future anterior of prophecy is thus rendered superfluous — “it doesn’t take much these days to be a prophet” — for monstrosities “have always — / I know, I’ve studied it — been with us.” The last days, the end times, are “now,” as is the past, which “has no existence / except in the present.” History, as we know it, is over — perhaps fulfilled, perhaps simply irrelevant. In either case the prophet is essentially unemployable. But what of “History For Another Time”? Humankind may have run its course but not existence, or “life,” for new worlds, new possibilities, already exist:
… If the creation
of the universe happens outside time,
it must happen all the time, the big bang
here and now, the foundation of every instant …
Here, now, at the end of history, the temptation to interpret the apocalypse in fire-and-brimstone terms would erase the admittedly self-serving distinction between the lawful and lawless. Joseph insists, however, on the distinction, however self-serving:
nor laughter is much help, either. You need only
be approached by one of the beggars
in Pennsylvania Station to see that certain rules
prevail in our midst. Still, I,
for one, don’t condone cut-off ears … (61)
No prophet could — except as a form of judgment after one’s words fall on deaf ears. The hardened hearts of a stubborn people are themselves so many “cut-off ears,” severed from the many-headed, headlong plunge into greed, selfishness, murder, terror, etc. Thus, as foretold above, the withdrawal from the world is accomplished in Into It via two paths of retreat: “into” the play of aesthetics and “into” the trances of memory. These maneuvers can only be justified before the law by presenting a compelling case for withdrawing; hence, Into It is Joseph’s most prophetic and lyrical, “political” and “personal,” book of poems. And as we have already seen, and see again in “Why Not Say What Happens,” Exhibit A is the fate of Joseph’s Market:
My father? My father was a worker. I can still hear him
getting up in the morning to go to work.
Sadness, too, has to be learned,
and it took my father time to learn it,
but he did, though when he did
his tears were never chronic. (29)
Sandwiched in between police brutality, terrorist threats, 9/11, his grandmother’s death and the over-mortgaged house of mirrors that is capital (“a dream, it’s a dream, the dream / of a dream song, the dream of a dream”), this memory trance (“My father? My father,” “but he did … when he did”) serves as a bulwark against a world too much with, too much for, too much against, the poet. This world has many faces, none of which is perhaps more riveting than the one described in the extraordinary last section of “Why Not Say What Happens.” Here, the commodification of nature — the first mode of primitive accumulation — reaches a fever pitch in the monstrosity of the factory figured against a sunny backdrop blending memory, perception, and illusion:
I remember it — the gold burnt gold,
the gold on gold and on white and yellow,
an incandescence condensing the sunlight,
outburning the sunlight, the factory
molten, the sun behind it, in it, thin,
gold, pig iron, a spray of fire, flywheels
revolving through the floor, rims almost
reaching the roof, enormous engines
throwing great pounding cylindrical arms
back and forth, as if the machines
are playing a game, trying to see how much
momentum can be withstood before one
or the other gives way. (32)
Here the factory is not only one site among many where the abstraction of human labor finds its material form; the pitched swings of the flywheels conjure up some wild, insane, coupled dance always about to fly apart and reengage as the sweet science. Dancing or boxing with the actual, the poet remains engaged, implicated, a latter-day Ezekiel who realizes the vanity of both lyrical expressionism and political critique. The irrelevance of the aesthetic is analogous to the impotence of the prophetic. Yet, following Stevens, whose words serve as the epigraph to this book, the poet/lawyer, aesthete/prophet, chooses, is chosen, by the former. Hence the crowning irony, actuality’s crown of thorns: all that is actual melts into aesthetics. The revenge of the aesthete is that he finds beauty in the secular; the secular is adorned with precisely that for which it has no use:
The sky blue, dark blue
yet pure in color, not blackened
or tarnished, above the low, old
buildings, like a painting of something
solid rather than the solid thing itself,
a high and low composition. But what
light there is in that landscape … (32)
Aestheticized, the actual withers beneath the dismissive glare of this latter-day prophet: “A monk, say, of Hue, who, to protest / the killing of innocents, is dragging / an altar — yes, it was, Hillside Avenue. / So what else is new?” In the next stanza, part 2, the poet admits that “Two things, the two things that are interesting / are history and grammar.” One can manipulate the latter, not the former: “In among the foundations of the intelligence / the chemistries of words: ‘The fault lines / of risk concealed in a monetary landscape …’ / What of it?” (6) The world-weariness evident in these lines from “When One Is Feeling One’s Way” leads to the temptation to reduce history to the repetitions of the same:
Nothing but the same resistance
since the time of the Gracchis —
against the arrogation by private interests
of the common wealth,
against the precious and the turgid language
of pseudoerudition (thugs,
thugs are what they are,
false-voiced God-talkers and power freaks
who think not at all about what they bring down). (6–7)
The endless tragedies that constitute history may well be worth bringing to light — even in the Ezekiel-Jesus-Marx rhetoric — but this negative service pales next to the nigh-pure light, the “endless sentences,” of the lyrical aesthetic which, at its most abstract, can paradoxically create its own positive, concrete, world. Thus the very next poem is the aforementioned “The Bronze-Green Gold-Green Foreground” and it begins as homage to a unique aesthetics:
The bronze-green gold-green foreground:
what can only be said in that language,
opaque, though clear, transparent language. (9)
The refuge of this singular image which both occults and reveals becomes, traditionally, a kind of Grecian urn, gesturing toward a beyond, an outside of history, as the very next poem, “I Note In A Notebook,” suggests. Here, repetition is a comfort:
Pink sunlight, blue sky, snowed-upon January morning.
The romantic restated — a woman and a man
by themselves, each alone in the other. Those
transcriptions of the inexpressible — perhaps
the experience of having heaven
is just simply perfect luck … (10)
As a great epic-prophet poet like Wordsworth knew, the “romantic restated” must be foregrounded against a world too much with the two. Tragedy depends on the sublime, puny human desire up against, and outmatched by, forces (historical, natural, divine, etc.) scarcely conceivable. Thus, the very next words in the poem tiptoe outwardly, tentatively, to encompass other possible modes of the “romantic restated.” One may access the romantic alone, insolated, like “ice floes” on Belle Isle on the Detroit River or, as one, “a figure in motion, / muted reds and grays” in Angel Park. But in stepping outside the lyrical cocoon of “a woman and a man / by themselves,” the poet cannot prevent his perceptions and memories of the world from rushing headlong toward the epical. Thus, once again, memories of his father, of the Twin Towers, flood the romantic island. But the contamination of the romantic by the political defines epic, if not prophecy (the holy is contaminated by sin). Thus the poem ends with a heroic gesture toward this tainted romance, toward epic, suggesting that like the dialectic of opaqueness and transparency, the two may interpenetrate in the secular realm. The “perfect luck” of “having heaven” notwithstanding, this is not the one-way possession of the narrator by a roaring God:
turn, so great a turn — her voice in him,
his voice in her — the vista, a city,
the city, taking a shape and burning … (11)
The complement of the other’s voice in one is an instance of the lyrical impulse understood as communication between humans. It is neither the monologue of self-expression (the traditional lyric) nor the monologue of an inspired prophet (the traditional epic). However, since the “vista,” the background, is, in the epic-tragic mode, always “a city,” indeed, “the city,” one may imagine New York City in 2001, Detroit in 1967, Rome at the end of the empire, or, in more literary terms, the Los Angeles of Day of the Locust. Tod’s painting of the burning city of Los Angeles appears prophetic when the city burns at the end of West’s novel. Here, Joseph’s sparse rendition of 9/11 is equally stirring if only elegiac (because belated). The endless return of “Nothing but the same” in both the secular and aesthetic worlds? Exactly halfway through Into It, the poem “In A Mood” concludes with another, or the “same,” apocalyptic gesture: “A man and a woman beside the river … / A line consisting of the burning sky, // a sky on fire … the sky is on fire! / Then what, and then what, unfolded …” (34)
A mere “man and a woman,” their lyric potentialities, can never appease entirely the poet who was born with a God roaring inside him. That internal(ized) law cannot be satisfied by the throes of romantic love. Thus, it is hardly surprising that Joseph must still, this late in the game (which indeed has changed), defend the very possibility of poetry under the “endless sentences” of wartime:
And, yes, it brings to mind I am constantly aware of,
in making the poem, Brecht’s point, to write about trees —
implicitly too, to write about pleasure —
in times of killing like these is a crime;
and Paul Celan’s response, that for Brecht a leaf
is a leaf without a tree, that what kinds of times
are these when a conversation — Celan believed a poem
is a conversation — what kinds of times are these
when a poem is a crime because it includes
what must be made explicit. (12)
At the end, in the last days, all is, or should be, revealed. The poet-prophet is responsible for making sure that the sinful, the defilers, the bosses, murderers, and muckrakers, have a last chance for salvation. But here, at least, the prophet has vanished, replaced by a conversationalist, a lyric poet for whom the lyrical impulse is not self-expression but dialogue. Still, as we have seen, the promise and hope of conversing with “those” others, instilled in these lines from “Inclined To Speak,” a title that itself marks the exact middle between compulsion and choice (inclined to kneel in prayer or arch his back, the better to bellow?), are immediately undercut as the poet admits to his failings as a prophet, as even a conversationalist, or admits to our failings as hearers, as though we too walked around without ears:
The immense enlargement
of our perspective is confronted
by a reduction in our powers of action, which reduces
a voice to an inner voice inclined to speak only
to those closest to us. (12)
Here, the circle seems complete; the curse of knowledge, as the gods tried to tell us at the beginning of history, is that it is the knowledge of all we cannot — or will not — convey or do. From the “voice” of a roaring God to the “inner voice” of lyrical outrage, lyrical resignation, this Joseph is perhaps not worthy even of Joseph Joseph whose name, while bearing the stamp of repetition as the principle punishment of hell, also bears the insignia of God, the great “I Am Who I Am.” Like Lucifer, like Satan, like Beelzebub, Lawrence is singularity fallen into temporality, a first and last name: Lawrence Joseph. As for “those closest to us” — are these other poets (the literary references escalate in Into It), other artists — including his partner, a painter — and other friends? The lyrical turn will not be the last turn — we are only at the beginning of this book — but it does augur a tendency throughout Into It, a predilection toward, for, the personal, the aesthetic, a turn of the heart, if not the head, away from the world and toward those “closest to us.”
In Into It, then, the need to be “explicit” seems to have less to do with prophetic/political responsibility than with the desire to make the case: turning away is justified by both the horrors of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the “same” horrors that comprise history, and the irrelevance and impotence of the epical-prophetic voice. Moreover, the facticity of the event which hits too close to home, which has not been temporalized, spatialized, “enough,” resists its historicization and thus, by association, if not implication, its aestheticization: “What isn’t separated, what isn’t / scribbled, what will not be metamorphosed, // reduced, occurring, it will be said, / unyieldingly fixed, unyieldingly present” (37). Call it the revenge of the actual. Under these circumstances the law of the lyric and the law of the epic appear inadequate to the task of rendering what resists representation. Under these circumstances, then, senility — “The past / rearranged by hardening arteries” — or catatonia — “some kind of memory trance” — may be two examples of that “perfect luck” of “having heaven.” To be wounded by history is not the same thing as knowing — or here, not knowing — that one has been wounded by history. This “heaven,” a diminished paradise, can be reached by the “perfect luck” of senility or the catatonia of a “memory trance.” By making explicit the tenor of these end times, the epical prophet fulfills his duties, his responsibilities (“But, don’t forget, there’s evil. / Do you think a muse // will avoid evil? One’s imagination / polluted, one’s imagination unhinged?”) (47), freeing the lyrical poet (“The world once more / the means by which the meek are to be // brought to their knees. Not the poet / espousing simplicities, shifting the props.”) (52). He can turn back, retrace his steps back over the mountain, even though he can never return to Egypt. But in turning back, in retreating to the desert, the poet disappears and the prophet returns. In the desert, life thrives, teems, however discredited. “There,” the prophet can make, or find, oases, even as, and because, he implements his own spartan, if hardly draconian, laws:
When this time comes to an end, what I don’t write
will not exist. I did my work, lived
as if the day, my own day, had come. I was, I am,
who I will be. I will not be eternally condemned. (52)
In the last poem of Into It, “Once Again,” we find ourselves in a proto-Stevens poem, human beings beneath a sky emptied of the divine. This poem accepts, as it repeat, our inescapable destiny: to make new myths — “endless sentences” — to replace the old ones. “Once Again” we finds ourselves borne forward on the “current” of a “sky,” as if we had no other choice but to give in to our fate, to our faith, for what always remains “before our eyes” is precisely what remains out of sight: “The sea is beyond // the sunset’s light —” Earlier, in our discussion of the poem “Why Not Say What Happens,” we noted that the conflicted lawyer/poet/prophet discovers in language the site where the secular, aesthetic and sacred intersect. There we cited the phrase “endless sentences” as one of those intersections. Faith would be another word necessary to the myths of all three realms. Still, there are “sites” where the conflicts among the three systems remain unabated. For example, the strophes of verse resist, however futile, “Fate’s precisive wheel revolving, / force’s writhing wheel” (66). Moreover, in opposition to the obfuscating repetitions of the secular (“Capital? Careful! Capital capitalizes”) (30) or the transparent fantasy of personal salvation (“The final words of the book are being written — / have I made it? — light and sorrow and dream”) (50) that underlies religious fanaticism, the poem,
… is the dream, a dream technique;
the primary soul-substance
on which our attention is fixed —
supernal, metaphysical — in other words,
as we have seen,
of mythical origins. (66)
The inadequacy of the aesthetic to represent the actual is compensated for by its dovetailing with the “supernal, metaphysical — in other words” those “endless sentences.” For secular law, as much as aesthetic law, rests, finally, on metaphysical foundations, on faith, on assumptions which are given to us in advance. The inadequacy of the aesthetic — whether we mean its limited abilities to influence or to represent — is only an instance of the inadequacies of the secular and sacred. There was never any secular justice for the burning of Joseph’s Food Market. Even if there had been a trial of the perpetrators, no legal brief could adequately “represent” the labor that went into the building up of Joseph’s Food Market (hence the “compensation” of money for “pain and injury”). Likewise, no prophet could adequately represent the outrage of a roaring God. And indeed, insofar as God apparently needs representatives, the divine itself cannot avoid the inadequacies of mediation (a son, a prophet, etc.) of language.
We are left then with “a woman, a man, / love’s characters, the myth // their own” (67). We repeat the story of love despite, because of, all its foibles. It is, for better or worse, our story. In this narrative, we are “characters” pitting our wills against fate, and as with any good detective or mystery or romance, we know the outcome. The pleasure we derive from living out this story is precisely in the living out. In this story, repeated ad infinitum, we use words, use dialogue, to propel the narrative forward even as we know all too well the inadequacy of language to represent our thoughts and feelings, our dreams and fears. In this story every other narrative — including those collected in books — serves as potential, if inadequate, mirrors of who and what we imagine — in the strongest sense of the word — ourselves to be. And though the Book is often an emblem of a law we swear by, we know that “love” is finally one of our ineffable dreams:
We place our hands
on the silence
and, once again, repeat the vow.
1. Though she does not reduce the debates about the function of poetry during the 1980s to infighting over familial law, Lisa Steinman is concerned with the underlying ontological and epistemological strata that link poetics often defined in opposition to one another. See her article “‘Telling the Time’: Narrative and Lyric in the Poetry of Lawrence Joseph.” More generally and specifically, my ideas regarding the persistent lyrical impulse in contemporary American poetry owe a great deal to my reading and my understanding (not his, so he is absolved of responsibility) of Norman Finkelstein’s two books on the lyric tradition and the utopian gesture of that poetry. See his Lyrical Interference and The Utopian Moment in Contemporary American Poetry.
4. I am thinking of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s two most famous “Standard English” poems, “Sympathy” and “We Wear the Mask.” While the latter is generally read as referring to the price African Americans pay to enter a predominantly white public sphere, I read both poems as also referring to Dunbar’s frustrations that only the “lowly lyrics” of his black dialect poems were well received during his lifetime. Dunbar aspired to poetic greatness which he conflated with writing in standard English.
5. Below I note that the prophetic is not, strictly speaking, a literary genre; it belongs to theology. In acknowledging this division I concede to the historical secularization of poetry in the West. As my argument will make apparent, poets have not always conceded this division, however institutionalized it may be.
6. Of course, ruled-based or chance poetics are explicitly constrained; they are clearly driven by laws of composition (even if the law is that there are no laws). Because they represent the only mode of poetics potentially absent of any lyrical content these modes have often been deemed — by both detractors and proponents — as an “anti” or “non”-poetics or poetry. This suggests that the lyric is considered a necessary, if not sufficient, component or attribute of poetics and poetry per se.
7. A cursory reading of the writers assembled under the manifesto In the American Tree (Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 1986) shows how motivated so many of the pieces are. This is an effect of not only habit — we have had almost a quarter of a century to learn how to read this anthology — but also of the interminable nature of the Language writing project itself. Olson wrote that he was after “the getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego.” That participle indicates that Olson was aware of the ongoing nature of his project which he dubbed objectism.
8. See Harryette Mullen, Recyclopedia (Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2006), and Carl Phillips, In the Blood (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992). Justifiably or not, almost all the articles in the original 2009 University of Cincinnati Law Review symposium that are concerned with an overview of Lawrence Joseph’s four books of poetry (some include a fifth, the selected, in their analyses) generally see a movement from the personal and local to the social and historical over the course of his career as a poet.
9. Norman Finkelstein argues for a generalized religious — not just spiritual — turn in twentieth-century poetics and poetry in his recent study On Mount Vision: Forms of the Sacred in Contemporary American Poetry (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2010). None of the poets I cite are part of his study which focuses, in part, more narrowly on what we might call the “Duncan line” insofar as it includes Spicer, Palmer, and Mackey, among others. Roger Gilbert also discusses the “turn” to religion as it manifests itself as the term “angel” featured in the titles of a plethora of books of poetry (he lists nearly twenty). Gilbert considers this phenomenon as less an indication of a return to traditional religion than a generalized elegy for the demise of spiritual transcendence. In these poets’ titles and poems, angels seem to mediate between “lyricism and dissonance, tradition and its subversion.” See his “Awash in Angels: The Religious Turn in Nineties Poetry,” Contemporary Literature 42, no. 2(Summer 2001): 239–269.
11. As the term identity politics suggests, to focus on one’s “accidental” attributes within aesthetic forms is perforce to “contaminate” the aesthetic with the political, for the aesthetic is presumed to be concerned with the “essential” attributes of human existence. Though New Criticism is often cited as the primary source of this line of thinking, it, in fact, can be traced back to the very origins of the Enlightenment.
12. Richard Hugo’s influential book The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing (New York: W. W. Norton, 1992) can stand in here as an exemplary argument, within the lyric tradition, of the immanent and transcendental resources associated with the poetry of place.
13. Andrew Krivak labels this prophetic tradition “Catholic,” by which he means a visionary poet with a “necessary kinship to the social and the contemplative poets.” Since so many non-Catholic, to say nothing of non-Christian and non-religious, poets in the visionary or “contemplative” tradition are also concerned with the “social,” Krivak’s reductionism seems to be merely a form of imperial annexation even if, in the case of Joseph, it is valid. See Krivak’s “The Language of Redemption,” Commonweal 130, no. 9 (2003): 12–16.
14. For Norman Finkelstein, Joseph’s narrator(s) is a latter-day flaneur, a Baudelairean consciousness roaming among the urban crowd to which he longs to be connected but for which he has utter contempt. See Finkelstein’s “Ground Zero Baudelaire” elsewhere in this symposium on Joseph.
15. Nonetheless, Lebanon, especially its civil wars, also figures prominently as a motif in Joseph’s oeuvre. Frank Rashid emphasizes Joseph’s wider geopolitical and historical context in his article “Transparent Eye, Voice Howling Within: Codes of Violence in Lawrence Joseph’s Poetry,” PMLA 123, no. 5 (October 2008): 1611–20. Rashid also emphasizes that the themes in Shouting at No One surface repeatedly throughout Joseph’s work, implicitly rejecting any “developmental” model for understanding the four books of poetry.
17. This atemporal, “eternal” locus of this poem appears on an unpaginated page prior to part 1 of the book; pagination, enumeration, is another index of the fall into time. Joseph, Shouting at No One (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1983).
21. In Into It (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2005), Joseph asks, rhetorically, in “Woodward Avenue,” a poem that refers to the main thoroughfare dividing east and west Detroit, “Am I not correct in saying that for purposes / of insurance there was considerable dispute / as to whether it was a war, a riot,/ or an insurrection?” (16).
22. Eric Selinger suggests that the slow breathing of the father, contrasted with the angels’ breath in “I Was Appointed the Poet of Heaven,” is another sign of the poet’s demotion to the fallen world. As far as I know, Selinger is the only critic of Shouting at No One that gives this poem the careful, meticulous reading it deserves. See his essay “Several Kinds of Chronicler, He’s Been: The Books and Selves of Lawrence Joseph.”
24. Hence Stephen Dedalus’s idealized concept, per Aquinas, of the aesthetic as “certainly a stasis and not a kinesis.” As we recall, Stephen goes on to define an evolutionary concept of the aesthetic, per Aristotle, that depends on the gradual extinction of the artist’s “personality” and its regeneration in “characters. Thus the dramatic form is the highest or final form toward which the literary arts aspire. As for the “epical” (the exact form of the word Joseph employs), it is the nodal point between the lyrical and dramatic. To the extent Joseph’s poetry is filled with multiple voices, especially in Into it, one could make a case that his work in general becomes less and less “autobiographical” with each book. I argue differently; for me each book evokes the lyrical, the epical and what I deem as the prophetic. I neither affirm nor deny the argument that the later work teems with “other” voices. See James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (New York: Penguin, 1976), 207–15.
26. At the end of Into It, in the poem “Once Again,” a title that, like the “secret,” can be read in at least two different ways, with two different registers, neither of excludes the other, the poet appears to choose the silence of human love over the living speech of divine prophecy.
27. How to live as a Catholic under a predominantly Protestant society is a motif in Joseph’s poetry we cannot pursue here; suffice it to say that the prophetic epical alter ego is largely if not entirely Catholic in orientation and content.
28. There is, however, at least one notable exception in Stevens: “The poem refreshes life so that we share, / For a moment, the first idea …” This qualification from “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” in The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (New York: Vintage Books/Random House, 1982, 380–408) determines the necessity of the transience of all reality, including language, Hence poems must be constantly written, constantly reread, to reach, “For a moment,” that “first idea.” This is quite different from Joseph’s “For the time being,” written under the pressures of an apparent endless parade of human disasters, foibles, and calamities. In brief, Stevens’s supreme fiction displaces the myth of divinity as the final cause or end of human triumphs and failures; in “Two or Three Ideas,” from Opus Posthumous (New York: Vintage Books/Random House, 1982), he writes, “To see the gods dispelled in mid-air and dissolve like clouds is one of the great human experiences” (206). Joseph’s desire to focus on just what’s “before our eyes” is a form of responsibility to human existence but also, as I argue later, a form of case-building to justify the lyrical turning away from larger social and political realities even if the transitory per se outrages the prophetic/epical id, always looking back toward the past, toward the pre-birth amniotic warmth of the womb, the pre-conception eternity of paradise.
29. That is, sometimes the alter egos and sometimes the ego is the figure of sacred prophecy, and so on. Truth to tell, however, it is rarely the ego since this is the social self constructed to facilitate one’s public offices. Unlike, say, Denmark where it is possible to be “employed” as an artist by the state, that possibility rarely (there are the “temporary” employment opportunities of NEH, NEA and other federal, as well as some private, grants) holds in the United States.
30. This Aristotelian term is used by Stephen Dedalus during his discussion of aesthetics in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (see note 17). Joseph himself has used this term to describe his own ars poetica.
31. A number of commentators have noted the motif of the double in Joseph’s poetry. See, for example, Fred Muratori’s review of the selected Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos: Poems 1973–1993 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2005), in American Book Review (“Self and the City,”September–October 2006, 16–17, and Michael Stanford, “The Cyclopean Eye, The Courtly Game, Admissions Against Interest: Five Modern American Lawyer Poets,” 38, Legal Studies Forum. Michael Stanford, “The Cyclopean Eye, the Courtly Game, Admissions Against Interest: Five Modern American Lawyer Poets,” Legal Studies Forum 30, no. 1/2 (2006): 9–45.Eric Selinger also discusses the double in his article cited above.
32. The poet is poised, then, “between” the Imaginary and Symbolic Orders, precisely the “field” of play. Thus, from a Lacanian perspective, the poem gestures toward the amniotic even as it, from a Freudian perspective, aspires “to myth” (Selinger, “Several Kinds of Chronicler, He’s Been”), to an order either pre-birth (as we see, for example, in Wordsworth) or after life: post-postlapsarian. Selinger’s emphasis on the preposition reminds us, as I argue throughout the article, that reunion with, or achievement as, myth is, by definition, impossible. See Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. Jacques Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978).
34. Nathanael West was among the first literary artists to realize that the philosophies and values associated with the traditional humanities would resurface, however abbreviated, in the modes of popular culture, rendering the literary prophet — and West, for all his cynicism, can be read as a prophet — superfluous. Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust (New York: New Directions, 1962).
35. Is it mere coincidence that the Lacanian reconceptualization of the Freudian fort/da as objet petit a occurs in lines about an infirmed infant, one not “blind” but simply unable (unwilling?) to open its eyes? This poem alone deserves an essay. For now we will just affirm Freud, Lacan, and Derrida, to say nothing of Dickinson, Stevens, H.D., Duncan, Howe (Susan), Mackey, and a host of others: the playing with language is an index of the fact that the play of language resists the intelligence almost. A fixed, rigorous language, what hovers beyond the grasp of every Tower of Babel and Twin Towers, every spire and minaret, like “pure light,” is, as Joseph himself makes explicit, “the unattainable.”
36. Stevens himself makes this point in his essay on the poet, poetry and social responsibility, “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” in The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination (New York: Vintage Books/Random House, 1965). Joseph buttresses Stevens’s argument throughout Into It; see, for example, the opening of ”Inclined To Speak” where Celan’s retort to Brecht is generalized as every post-Holocaust poet’s response to Adorno’s severe injunction regarding poetry in an age of systematic terror.
37. As we will see below, this swerve “away” from the “actual” will demand a hearing before the law. Thus the focus of many of the poems in Into It will indeed constitute a confrontation with, a putting on trial of, the “actual.”
38. The analysand who is supposed to know arrives at self-knowledge by way of a detour through the other, the analyst. Outside the psychoanalytic space (an office) and time (an hour) the others are, for the artist, other artists, other “significant others,” however delayed their arrival at the scene of the crime and instruction.
39. What is terrorism and military adventurism but the deliberate occultation of “divine” purpose, divine “right”? God promised futility to His messengers; He would harden the hearts of the backsliding Israelites to prophecy. So too the architects of state-sponsored and tribalized slaughter; the lines in the sand will be drawn in blood.
41. As Eric Selinger pointed out in his commentary on a draft of this essay, the poem is a revision of Robert Lowell’s poem “Epilogue” which contains the line “Why not say what happened?” Selinger notes that the present tense of Joseph’s title suggests that memory, as the underpinning of post-Romantic lyric, won’t be the crucial term here. According to Selinger, “What happened can be clarified by memory, turned into representational art; what happens is messier, has more vocabularies and systems at work at any given moment” (note to the author). Since the Lowell poem concerns the problem of fidelity of perspective and concerns, in part, the painter Vermeer, it is not surprising that Joseph, whose wife is a painter and whose book Into It is full of “painterly” images, revises Lowell to suit his purposes.
42. I take “A Sentimental Education” as a reworking of the nineteenth century’s concern with the risks of formal “learning” as evinced in Flaubert’s and Rousseau’s projects (A Sentimental Education and Emile; Or Treatise on Education) in relation to both the eighteenth century’s concern with this issue (Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey) and, a century earlier, Milton’s “forensics” poems, “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso,” which debate the two forms of heroism available to men: military distinction or excellence in letters and arts. An Enlightenment value, sentiment, like sympathy, is conceived of as one of the essential attributes of “human nature” even though both, like “book learning,” must be cultivated. The implicit tension at the heart of the terms — an essence subject to the accidents of cultivation — can be seen in the major literary texts that debate, as it were, the value of the literary “text”: from Spenser, Milton, and Shakespeare to Sidney, Pope, and Blake. Of course, this “debate” is one of the central issues at the heart of the high modernism of Pound, Eliot, and Stevens. See Gustave Flaubert, A Sentimental Education: The Story of a Young Man (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile; Or Treatise on Education (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003); Laurence Sterne, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (1768), ed. Graham Petrie (New York: Penguin, 1768); John Milton, Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (Indianapolis, IN: Odyssey Press/Bobbs-Merrill, 1957).
43. As the stakes rise in the social, cultural and political conflicts that beset the world, the romantic image, the singular detail, offers respite. From the perspective of the world, this kind of response can seem trite, if not irresponsible. Thus David Yezzi’s review of Before Our Eyes is entitled “A Morality of Seeing,” taken from the book’s eponymous poem, and it sets the tone of his piece. Generalizing from this single line in a single poem, Yezzi praises Joseph’s social conscience as enacted in most of the poems in the book; his only complaint is precisely when Joseph offers “pure” romantic images and details, so much “uncut sugar” after the poet’s castigating “salt.” Yezzi misses the import of the last lines of “Before Our Eyes”: “For the time being/ let’s just keep to what’s before our eyes.” The “sugar” isn’t, as much as the poet might desire it to be so, “uncut.” The romance, no more than the epical, cannot be read, because it does not appear, in isolation in Joseph’s work. Those brief moments of apparent bliss or respite, of “uncut sugar,” are just that, moments. Even though Yezzi, like some other critics, reads “Our Eyes” as indicative of the poet’s broadening perspective in his third book, that “Our” is always in dialectic with the poet’s “my.” In this regard, the difference between the first two books and this third book is Joseph’s insistence here that others adopt his strategies of silence and cunning (if not exile). The lines right before the ones quoted above read, “The soft, subtle twilight / only the bearer feels, broken into angles, / best kept to oneself.” That “oneself” mediates “our” and “my”; it is both the other and the self. See Yezzi, “The Morality of Seeing,” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 19, no. 2 (1994): 83–90.