Articles - February 2012
It was a Thursday in 2003 when Jackson Mac Low and Anne Tardos were giving a reading and conversation at the Buffalo Poetics Program — billed as an eightieth birthday celebration for Mac Low — and someone asked him about his early poem “Sonnet of My Death.” I don’t recall exactly the question, but most of us in the room were disconcerted by it. It wasn’t really about his work, but rather about his views on the afterlife, ostensibly meant to square the content of his poem with his Buddhist devotion to notions of impermanence. Later, alone in a car with Mac Low and Tardos, without thinking it through but with great conviction, I blurted out, “It wasn’t a question about death, it was a question about life,” and that seemed to alleviate lingering frustration. We all agreed, maybe just in consolation, that all questions about death are really questions about life.
My remark now seems explicitly to have stemmed from my obsession with the dialectic between overt motivation (e.g. modeling Buddhist values) and nonintentionality (e.g. procedural composition and “chance operations”). For Mac Low, a primary motivation was to evacuate from the writing process the traces of ego associated with Kantian “taste,” where taste acquires predicative value. As when living life to death, one can’t really hypothesize about the results of composition except quantitatively, never qualitatively. And Mac Low was adamantly interested in poetic quality, prosodic features, aesthetic effects. He sought to make a “thing of beauty,” as his final poetics statement makes abundantly clear. Tardos was right to make Thing of Beauty the title of his posthumous selected works (published five years after his passing, in 2009, by University of California Press), because in his lifetime he had so steadily, thoroughly, and variously disproven Kant’s categorical imperative that he could finally enjoy beauty for what it’s actually worth. And what is that? It must have something to do with the procreative capacity of interpretation, which Mac Low was ever more willing to indulge and affirm. As he put it during an (unpublished) interview I conducted with him in April 2001, “any good performer is … making the work each time, they’re always doing making.” I countered that “many people would call that interpretation.” “I know,” he replied, “That seems to me denigrating the work of the performer, in a sense. I was just listening to Beethoven played by Brendel, and it’s obviously a whole other way of thinking about the pieces, the same tempo marks and that.”
These remarks very near the end of Mac Low’s working life deserve comparison to those from the outset. The language, for instance, that he uses in “Some Remarks to the Dancers” of The Pronouns is explicitly extended to “readers.” As for the number of dancers required to realize them, in some the choice is “obvious” and in “many” it is “somewhat indefinite & [is] to be decided … by careful interpretation of the given text.” This entails “some definite interpretation of the meaning of every line,” abetted by the “seemingly unlimited multiplicity” of judgments as to “degrees of literalness or figurativeness. … [W]hile the text … is completely determinate,” the “actual” realization will be “largely unpredictable” (67–68). By involving interpretation in the constitution of a work, Mac Low retrieves it from its routine status as epiphenomena or, what’s worse, the opportunity to ingratiate presentiments or ideological predispositions. If this is what it means for a text to be “indeterminate,” he uses this interpretive imperative as paradigmatic of, he assured me, not just his own work but “all art.” Any question of his own work is really just a question about work.
When this essay was originally commissioned, and being asked to characterize the poetries of the aughts involving literary-critical projects that have preoccupied me in those ten years, I recalled these episodes from my acquaintance with Mac Low and his work. I have been working toward a theoretical and historical rapprochement between disability studies and radical modernist hermeneutics. For me the former revives the dialectic between social constructionism and proprioception that the latter so spectacularly negotiated from literary experimentalism to the linguistic turn of structuralist and poststructuralist treatments of society and affect. But the conundrum of life’s incessant novelty and the impudent alterity of death, a conundrum amplified by the question of life seeping into the question of work, suggested I think otherwise. It suggested a tangential thought I have now made a critical experiment, turning what was to be a statement on disability poetics into one on a possible new trend I am calling “new life writing.” As the aughts draw to a close, I have been particularly struck by the connections between conceptualism and autobiography or so-called “life writing,” connections that are (perhaps too) historically obvious (to notice) but have been recently, performatively repudiated.
Earlier drafts of this essay tested this claim by dealing, at length, with the tropics of conceptual writing (such as “allegory” and “failure”), the coincidence of Derridean problematics in disability and bio art discourses, and the way disability and poesis are mutually implicated when psyche and socius are transposed in and as ecosystems (whether these systems are of media or natural environment). But I’ve finally settled on the following survey of instances of new life writing that I hope will bring an even wider range of implications into focus, somewhat, while permitting this trend, if it has any currency, to debut where its work is accomplished, in the writing itself. If new life writing exists, it indicates that the proverbial duel between poltical commitment and aesthetic quality has become a negotiation instead. I cannot say what tempered the situation, and won't say tempers no longer flare, bearing in mind things like 2008’s Aggression conference at Small Press Traffic. But what was once the insuperable foil of writing’s authority (said Barthes circa May 1968) now seems a source of it, as if political commitment and aesthetic quality were mutual extremes of legibility. And significantly, if obscurely, in terms of that initial moment of conceptualism when Mac Low’s proceduralism mattered, that is in terms of intentionality as a process of identification, claims for agency, strategies of authorial relinquishment, dispersal and containment.
Important instances for this discussion are early-mid-1960s projects by Jackson Mac Low and later (1980s) writing by Hannah Weiner, both of whom acquired a new visibility and canonicity in the aughts; I’ll leap forward, through mention of other examples, to readings of work from the late aughts by Tan Lin and Brenda Iijima. Though Iijima’s work is associated more with ecopoetics and somatics, I think one of its primary tasks has been to conceive, in the writing process, a sense of “life” as linguistic-cum-epistemological conflict, so that in both texture and conceit it complements the quasi “life writing” of conceptualist Lin.
It is in the aughts that conceptual writing entirely disentangles the psychosomatic of lived experience from procedural strategy. This follows its expressed debt to historical conceptual art’s remit to emerge from the mechanical austerity of minimalism, to which it was a reaction, at times a reaction against disembodied rationality, at others against a parallel scale of artform to somaform. The barest description of these works would by today’s standards seem oxymoronic: procedural life writing, proprioceptive conceptual writing. In the 1960s, life writing was still called “autobiography”; the vast popularity of the memoir was not yet with us, but conceptual engagements with memory were enthusiastically carried out by the likes of Andy Warhol (a, A Novel) and Bernadette Mayer (Memory). Both were precursors for the aughts’ initial salvo of conceptual writing: Kenneth Goldsmith’s Fidget, and its companion piece Soliloquy, both of which I lack time to do justice to here. These works by Goldsmith attempt to exhaust the vital, intentional core of conceptualism by caricaturing, in photo realist mode, somatics. The works of new life writing I will treat here, though decades apart, and while part of the same range of conceptual impulses, are finally about a quasi-historical passage that conceptualism finds itself reckoning now: inheritance, succession, dying, and being born anew.
In his seventy-fifth birthday festschrift, poet-critic and scholar Joan Retallack surmises, despite “the fear of enjoying something in or about language that the author did not mean for you to enjoy in that way, compounded by the fear that said author didn’t entirely know the meaning of the meaning,” Mac Low’s work is exemplary of the ways “words extend the complex orderly and chaotic structure of the brain’s neural network … into the forms of our social world.” Thus it achieves “a spacious indeterminacy” of “reciprocal alterities.” A sort of new life. The proceduralism of contemporary conceptual writing descends from this emphasis, found also in Sol LeWitt’s contention as appropriated by Goldsmith, that “When an author uses a conceptual form of writing, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the text.” Yet for Mac Low, the “will” is everywhere operative in the performance situation; the ego, per se, is not purged so much as imbricated in the interest of an assumptive “good.” From “Essay Begun in 1965”:
[There is] a continuum from this “nearly pure initiator” — the so-called innovator — to the “interpreter,” whose primary goal is exact & precise actualization of the “initiator’s” intentions, insofar as they are ascertainable, whether from notation or from the “initiator’s” personal instructions. (The degree of “determinateness” is immaterial. Even the most “indeterminate” work has some determinatory intentions of its initiator embodied in it.)
Mac Low’s post-Cartesian blend of somatics and conceptualism strives for or responds to a circumstance so holistic and vital it begs to be called, simply, life. Neither the sum of experiences belonging to an individual nor the mystical force that animates matter; instead we should consider that if life is also these basically static categories, it must also be a concept of novelty checked by death and characterized by endurance (or duration). This is an insight crucial to, even following from, two texts by Mac Low, both “procedural,” both, as it happens, with “life” in the title.
“It is a simple life under the sun all day without decent water to drink or to wash in” is from 1963. Neither collected in Representative Works nor Thing of Beauty, it was probably only ever published in a handout from a performance of it at the New York Public Library on May 22, 1968, a program featuring David Antin, as well, and promising “reading[s] from old and new works, including tape recorder.” “The title,” Mac Low writes in a brief preface, “is a quotation from Herman Benson, writing in his extraordinary newsletter, Union Democracy in Action, about the plight of agricultural workers.” “It is a simple life” is a “chance-acrostic” poem; its vocabulary, line and stanza breaks are dictated by filtering a source text through a “seed text,” usually the title of the source text. An obscure text, we at least know that Mac Low singled it out for the event with Antin, who was at precisely this moment moving from similar deterministic compositional forms to his infamous “talk pieces” — c.f. “the london march” and “talking at pamona.” Antin becomes a sort of current affairs poet. Where the moment takes him becomes what he came to say, even and especially when he came to make art-historical pronouncements. With regard to Mac Low’s text, these talk pieces follow a reverse trajectory. They are not spontaneous discourses on a predetermined theme. “It Is a Simple Life” is a deterministic discourse liable to a “maximum of relatedness,” as he writes with regard to the performance of the next type of poem I want to consider, his “Daily Life” poems. Some lines from the text: “All to water to a without the a to is to to / day sun drink. / Day without drink. / It to life the is water. / It water in It to to wash or water sun all life decent …” The critical question is what is to be done — about migrant agricultural labor exploitation and about the laborious collision of articles, prepositions, pronouns, etc. Refusing to express its passion, the poem recombines the very elements that secure any claim upon life, begging the question that devolves under scrutiny, but persists even after transpositions so severe as to risk illegibility.
Click to view larger versions of manuscript pages of Jackson Mac Low’s “It Is a Simple Life.” Images of Jackson Mac Low’s papers courtesy of the Mandeville Special Collections Library, University of California, San Diego, where the poet’s papers are archived. Mac Low’s work is published here by permission of Anne Tardos, for Jackson Mac Low in trust.
The “Daily Life” poems are similarly a template for the generation of an exponentially infinite number of thematic relevancies. In a 1968 note to Jerome Rothenberg, to whom he was sending a carbon of the Daily Life method and an exemplary poem, Mac Low writes, “The ‘piece’ consists not so much in this particular list as in the concept of making such a list and using it to make poems by these or similar methods. I’ve been thinking, in fact, of making a new list drawn from my present daily life to make a few more poems relevant to now.” It was later in the summer of 1963, and then early the following year, that he codified the concept (procedure). The aforementioned “list” refers to the seed text, here spontaneously devised, based on routine utterances in the home among a couple, a family, and the world which radiates from it. His August 6, 1963, example, “Daily Life 1,” which is collected in both Representative Works and Thing of Beauty, begins:
|1. A. I’m going to the store.
|2. B. Is the baby sleeping?
|3. C. I’d better take the dog out.
|4. D. What do you want?
|5. E. Let’s have eggs for breakfast.
And so forth, to 26, Z, Red King, codes corresponding to combinatory methods detailed via the aleatory ploys “Letters,” “Numbers,” and “Playing Cards.” These instructions are printed alongside “Happy New Year 1964 to Barney and Mary Childs — A Daily Life Poem,” with passing reference to an “essay describing a method for using such lists as sources for dramatic presentations.”
A longhand copy of the essay is among the Mac Low papers at UCSD’s special collections. In it, Mac Low describes a method of scripting the play according to the interaction of each individual actor-participant’s personal list of daily life utterances, which then become “framework sentences” giving context to and cuing actions that make sense within the situation. The lists are arrayed (as the lines and stanzas of a daily life poem would be in the “letters” scenario) by “spelling out” one’s name. Note the outward trajectory from proper name, through one’s quotidian perspective, finally to the hustle and bustle of superimposed perspectives, which become generative of a “dramatic presentation,” a poets theater work and model of the good society. In his instructions, he insists that “actions should always be realistic & appropriate to what is being said,” such that both actions and speeches have “some justification”; “Great attention shd be paid by each participant to everything that is said & done by everyone else as well as by himself.” When the framework sentences run out, you do as little as possible and seize the first opportunity to exit, without rudely ignoring — by failing to answer — questions posed by others’ framework sentences. “Entrances,” on the other hand, “are to be made ad libitum.” Get in and get to work as soon as possible, he insists, even if this seems inappropriate — there is an etiquette for leaving, but entering is at once free and compulsory, like daily life itself.
The compulsive reiteration of the simplest commands, queries, and exclamations in any given daily life poem (or list of “framework sentences”) produces a jarring and even claustrophobic effect, as though one’s linguistic day-in-the-life were solely comprised of obsessive hectoring. In any event, Mac Low’s essay appears unfinished. He waffles on the range of what should be considered “appropriate” reason to enter or exit the community, as well as whether or not to encourage — through emphasis in the essay — use of a single list of framework sentences, his own. Crossed out, at the end of the draft, he ponders the eco-genetic import of the concept: “By analogy with natural science, if the particular performance be the ‘individual,’ a realization on the ‘methods’ level can be considered a ‘species,’ and the more general method (e.g. the ‘Letters’ method) its ‘genus.’” Then he offers his address should you wish to send him three dollars for a copy of “DAILY LIFE.”
Click to view larger versions of the essay accompanying Jackson Mac Low’s "Daily Life" poems. Images of Jackson Mac Low’s papers courtesy of the Mandeville Special Collections Library, University of California, San Diego, where the poet’s papers are archived. Mac Low’s work is published here by permission of Anne Tardos, for Jackson Mac Low in trust.
In another unpublished “DAILY LIFE” piece entitled “MUSIC FOR SINGER,” an “individual” takes us right inside the Bronx apartment of the poet and his then-wife, Iris Lezak, with their infant, plants, quips, and gripes. He uses the “Letters” method to spell out “Iris Mac Low.”
I’ll see you.
What did you say?
I’ll see you.
Look how this plant has grown!
I’m going to close the window.
I’m going to the store.
I’d better take the dog out.
Did somebody knock on the door?
I wish it wasn’t always so noisy.
Though organized according to the arbitrary placement of letters in a name, how oddly appropriate each stanza appears. Something is reiterated “because” it wasn’t heard the first time — and while we’re on the topic of what we’ll “see” we are invited to “Look.” The second stanza is a sequence of tiny promises that, cumulatively, define one’s familial stature. But before we get out the door, someone knocks on it, belongs inside, and yet, despite the exclamatory homecoming, a residual wish that things were different, at least not always “so noisy.” It’s tough to find a more suggestive love poem. The accident of the proper name equally dictates the predicative value of the supposed randonnée that shapes a day in the life. The chance synchronicity of semiotic cue and lived experience is precisely the center of new life writing’s focus.
Hannah Weiner and Kitella, 1967. Photo copyright © 2002 by Carolee Schneemann.
A landmark of this development from historical conceptual writing to new life writing is Hannah Weiner’s Page. Weiner spent the latter half of the 1980s writing it, finishing in 1990. Its texture is similar to that of her best-known project, the Clairvoyant Journal, yet it differs in several important respects. First, it concerns her immediate family, based in Providence, Rhode Island, rather than her artistic community in New York City. The familial context is the setting for a reminiscence and self-reckoning of her life as a writer to that point, making every semiotic cue in Page doubly anecdotal. In 1984 Weiner’s mother passed away. A year later, so did her aunt, to whom she was also quite close, spending extended summers with both for at least the previous fifteen years. She and her “big brother” survived them. Calling him this despite that she was the older of the two sometimes indicates a negotiation over inheritance of an estate, and certainly a shuffling of the familial hierarchy. It also indicates a conflict between heredity and inheritance, a crisis of succession. She is the diminutive “sis” or, very infrequently, “Sister,” capital S. A good deal of the self-referential, metacritical voice in the poem — a long, three-part serial poem — concerns what “mother would do,” i.e. what she would say or write. Weiner struggles to translate this conditional into an imperative, which is an ubiquitous feature of mourning. The thing to do is what they would have wanted done. Hence the mourner is at an epistemological impasse, dying wishes recast as replies from succeeding “generations.” Knowledge is information in the interest of a choice; for Weiner, the occasion necessitating the choice is what differs, not the condition of knowledge per se, because Page is a memoir (a genre necessarily nostalgic ahead of time); what is wanted to be done becomes an assertion of what has been done. Like the recently unearthed Book of Revelations, the subject matter, as Revelations editor Marta Werner puts it, “is lateness. … [I]n place of the illumination of ultimate mysteries, in place of the Parousia that lies at time’s end, Weiner instead reveals the way in which the world comes into being — or rather, into hiding — as an unseeable totality.” 
A second difference from Clairvoyant Journal is formal. Page is written in verse lines, with a standard three-keystroke spacing between phrasal or lexical units adding to the linebreaks a prosodic and ideational level of signification. And third, the trivocal “large-sheet,” page-as-field format of the Clairvoyant Journal accounts for each voice with standard lower case, all capital, or underlined/italicized text. In Page, at any given moment there are only indications of two separate voices. Superscript or all caps, the two never coincide. The first instance of the superscript reads “parasentence above the” (4). A paragrammatic companion tracing something of the memory of the recently deceased, there is always something “twice” to a line. Later, caps appear and seen words are transcribed, transposed from the ambient event of writing and onto the page, as in her work of the seventies. There is very little superscript, in fact. And the transition from one other to another indicates a partial reemergence of clairvoyance over the latter half of the decade, as though, as many who knew Weiner will tell you, it had periodically subsided. Whole projects were undertaken during these periods, for example Weeks (1986). The episodic integrity of PAGE is reinforced by her claim in her letter accompanying the finished manuscript: “So clear I didn’t number in order. In order sequence written honest.”
Weiner used puns as a means of investigating the drifting cohesion of language and consciousness, the intentionality of speech, reading, writing, and listening, as her Code Poems from her early conceptualist period most obviously demonstrate. The “articles” in Page — “articles” is the title of one section of the book — play upon a fascination she had with the hub of these acts: publication — public language, such as we all might see or hear. “Article” also names the designations of definite and indefinite, subject and object. Naming the designations and designating the name are quite possibly identical acts, but the name, famously obdurate and opaque, embodies the “obediently … honest … conflict.” In this linguistic-cum-epistemological conflict Weiner casts Charles Bernstein as the “hero.” It is to him she addressed her cover letter, entrusting him to see the series through to publication. Yet she signs the letter “Hannah Weiner plus object” — and this signature is reproduced in the book. The inscriptional gesture concerns the ethos that authorizes the heroine as a role within the real, an enclosure or attachment. It is not just that “article” is a polysemous word. A pun is effective to the degree we misidentify one such valence. Puns rely on similitude in order to evoke disjunction and multiplicity. Populating the text’s “public” with author figures objectifies lives as it indexically affirms them.
In Clairvoyant Journal voices collide to create another species of pun: the neologism. In Page the neologisms are the result of reflexive “pages in conflict,” as the first and last sections “page” and “same page” illustrate; similitude is a “convers[ation].” We have, in “Hannah Weiner Statement,” the second half of the dual preface, “adempt” — adept and attempt, I think — and “sumit introyou” — sum, submit, it, and so forth. “ohboy” and “obey” rhyming nicely with “histry sumit despoyed.” As Weiner puts it, these are “seen as i words,” shifting signifiers for the antiheroic roles of a participatory readership. A hierarchy subsists all the same; it is “Mother” who has the first word, or rather is the first word to come between hero and heroine — “Mother teaches simple see introduction enclosed” — that is, see the additional “object.” Together, the “Dear Hero” letter and “Hannah Weiner Statement” plot out the central conflict by decentering contiguous lives through its morbid “perverse period” as well as its novel “introyou.” The drama concerns how “adept” the “attempt.” The eponymous first section is a chronological reckoning of her published output to that date, which instigates a temporal crisis, a “histry”:
in our silence well we dont cancel this girls
page this little book returns sis Im
sis please be
honest with yourself practical very careful
have you been a leadership subliminal
leadership carefulis often sis youre in
a hurry are you being written (3, 6)
In the attempt to differentiate the past from the present, The Fast from “this poem,” Weiner worries the distinction in terms of the future, also retrofitting this memoir to clairvoyance-cum-“clair style” (the abandoned format of the Clairvoyant Journal) — the predicative value of clairvoyance, an aspect of the phenomena emphasized with newfound gravity in light of her mother’s passing. “Careful” says the “parasentence.” What is “languageship” if not a return of the word to itself in writing, the utterance’s afterlife where “leadership” risks didacticism. Hereditary clairvoyance means “you” is becoming “mother” as a psychosomatic act of posterity logically dependent on the difference between inventiveness and the fact of a life where there was not one before. Weiner recursively resigns herself to the fact that her becoming-mother is writerly, is wholly dependent on squaring the difference between creativity and procreation: “did you ever have speedfreak / analysis with a doctor pregnant who were you” (21). This “quarrel” of difference and sameness — which she comes to call “alteritive” — allows Weiner to take as axiomatic the first line of the subsequent poem: “youre very different watch yourself,” a condition that, in the struggle for “control” and the deciphering of the “secret alteritive” to follow, appears as “subliminevocareful” (7).
“[U]underwefit language” is the parasentential “indescribable” that “mother would scribble / inabove”; “mother would be more careful,” perhaps, and so Weiner inscribes a wavy line in place of a noun: “on the [scribble] thats what it looks brain discontinue / I got shots I had abortion I had to quit / thats what woman writes” (11). From young girl to woman, the passage is marked by the frustrated maternal “leadership” that provides the bulk of the book’s drama: “mother / do you forgive did you forscribe did you / describe situations any be more practical” (10). “sis … please be honest with herself … switch sisters … young woman,” Weiner’s aunt, Weiner’s self, becoming mother in terms of guardianship before the inheritance is, apparently, assigned to “big brother.” Mother speaks “inabove”: “poet continue in trance” (15). Weiner writes herself in to the scene of hereditary transference: “sis Im making a funny little girl sis it’s a / big little trouble print sis I had the / advantage of them we twice” (17). Twice the same, as recurrence rendered in “simple” integers must be — pages counted, serial, in sequence, “like language repeats … soblete” (22). Similitude and identity are functions of obsolescence where the false promise of temporal identity that death betrays, “some distinctive person matches,” and “like language” is obeyed (23). The author figure is called to reckoning by language. “[W]hat a lesson to be a / subjectover a manuscript enclosed enclosed” (27). Where in previous books involving motherhood — Spoke especially — she referred to her project as a sort of “novel,” near the end of the eponymous first section of PAGE she admits “sis I cant write a novel anymore until sis / death someone else suggests it” (45). “[T]o do for yourself when your mother dies,” she concludes, is “to handle it like someone” and “make yourself a poet” (46).
By this time, Weiner is recounting the period in which she composed Weeks. Like Page, Weeks concerns seeing one’s life passing before one’s eyes. It is literally a chronicle of sitting before a television set. In keeping watch over Weeks, Page draws a more concise and dire conclusion: “see words / on television must be correct program / like news … hannah thats hard believe keep / secret bullshit why struggle feel guilty / when I die I may be” (60). In the final poem of the “plus title” section, the inheritance is completed: “mother / born and educated november 4 1928,” sis’s birthdate, “two die” (66). She concludes the penultimate section with the “quaint” humor that sweetens the irresolvable dilemma, comparing her signature on the postmortem settlement papers to putting herself under contract as a writer — an analogy, as I see it, between clair-style praxis and serving as an agent of the wire services (109). “Hannah puts her name at the end signed silence” (116). But before this, she announces a sequel, “ONEMORESERIOUS PAGE,” which is the final section, “SAME PAGE.”
This section wants to “keep me alive twice,” folding the puns, caps, and oxymoronic, palindromic event of survival into hardly legible lines sans spaces (124) … “I repeat literature … sismotherwords” (132, 133).
* * *
New life writing can be seen as a continuation of radical modernist practices as they abut the conceptualist moment. In 1967, Louis Zukofsky called “A” “a poem of a life / — and a time” and spoke of its ensuing sections as “words still to be lived … as one breathes without pointing to it before and after.” On one hand, there is in this conception the fusty notion that even as indices of historical particulars, poetry transcends them, “braves time” as Zukofsky critic and biographer Marc Scroggins puts it. On the other, as this poem matures, so “life” is redefined as a “special sense of duration,” a life course. Such early examples of what I’m calling new life writing articulate something that recent works of conceptualism and autobiography do: reassert the interdependence of proprioceptive élan and conceptual austerity, lived experience and proceduralism.
Just a few examples of new life writing that are, to speak plainly, newer: Dolores Dorantes’s long form poem Dolores Dorantes structurally is as complex as anything in Gertrude Stein’s most hermetically autobiographical works; Juliana Spahr’s The Transformation might be another example of new life writing, with moments of loopy exhilaration comparable to Craig Dworkin’s supposedly “unreadable” Parse; Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, a major influence on Spahr’s writing, reads today as though it could have been conceived in the aughts of the twenty-first century, rather than the late 1970s conceptual and performance scene; some of CAConrad’s somatic poetry exercises seem germane here, as well as Mark Nowak’s visceral, collaborative, and procedural texts; Tracie Morris’s performances are undoubtedly as conceptually rigorous as they are actuated on several experiential planes; Susan Schultz’s Dementia Blog and Renee Gladman’s toaf (to After That) pick up where Bernadette Mayer’s Memory and Studying Hunger left off, collapsing commemoration and innovation into prose as thoughtform. Lyn Hejinian’s My Life and My Life in the Nineties undoubtedly do the same, though with a “conceptual,” numerical, and procedural precision that evokes dendochronology rather than autobiography.
New life writing might not be a specifically US American trend. I am thinking of two North American poets: the Canadian Christian Bök and Mexican Ofelía Pérez Sepúlveda. Bök’s “Piecemeal Bard” sees new media conceptualism as an extension of Oulipo-inflected poetics of constraint, but with more up to date claims regarding the ramifications for the agency of authors and readerships: “When cybernetics has effectively discredited the romantic paradigm of inspiration, poets must take refuge in a new set of aesthetic metaphors for the unconscious, adapting by adopting a machinic attitude, placing the mind on autopilot in order to follow a remote-controlled navigation-system of mechanical procedures: automatic writing, aleatoric writing, mannerist writing, etc.” Elaborating on the deployment of automated compositional tools by late-twentieth-century conceptualists like Mac Low, John Cage, and George Hartman, Bök asserts that “prosthetic automation does not simply assist in the process of writing, so much as replace the concept of writing itself. The text is no longer simply a message produced by, and for, a reading person, so much as it is a program compiled by, and for, a parsing device. … We are probably the first generation of poets who can reasonably expect to write literature for a machinic audience of artificially intellectual peers” (15, 17). Now at decade’s end, Bök is working on a rather literal revivification (or vivisection?) of cybernetic artifice by seeking to encode a poem directly into the DNA of bacteria that will not only outlast its author but perpetuate and succeed itself by birthing a poem in response, ad infinitum.
By contrast, Sepúlveda’s 2000 series Funerarium, set in a quasi-necrophiliac metaphysical laboratory that resembles a factory-like coroner’s theater, dramatizes both the poet’s inspiration and a readerly intentionality by permuting the romantic caution — “we murder to dissect.” The poem constitutes a neo-baroque play of identification between eros and death; the series is about a self in dispute with its romantic self-regard. Excerpts from the third and fourth sections exhibit, literally, the morbid erotic charge of new life as gendered, yet beholden to the general text of self as it dissipates into its particular “reasons”:
She is of the continent, around her everything is light and I observe her
atop the slab in the image of her body.
I am pleased by the landscape of the lingering down between her legs.
May this be the night and I her guide.
Atop other tables new cadavers, in other rooms new surgeons.
They seek reasons …
I hold a piece of paper and a knife …
I approach and dissect and kiss the striated organ, I kiss her feet, then her
but butterflies of death come into me and I write in the notebook that an
attack of the myocardium,
that between her lips was as much death as there are insects populating my
Let’s call him something …
Let’s observe the concretion and the utter expression of dream and
Without angels or mirrors.
Without false devotions, just a lizard resting between the legs…
Let’s say that the light travels along its legs and articulates tendons,
renews them, dies them.
As different as the surface values of Bök’s constraint-based work and Sepúlveda’s freely engaged lyricism are, they do not present uniform views of the metaphysics of life; Bök presents an apocalyptic check on Liebnitzian plenitude, while Sepúlveda flirts with the Kantian suggestion that nature acknowledges the attention we grant it. Their readership might equally agree that while we can’t know what life is, living (writing) is a matter of positioning one (another) to acquire such knowledge. Therein, simply that ineffable epistemological quality we call beautiful has endured in this decade, and these are just two overt if variously turgid examples of its fate when its putative ameliorative force is put in service of the social. Praxis, for both poets, resides in respectfully and progressively conflating what the French theorist and art critic Yves Michaud calls “the metaphor or the staging of science” with the “real … transgenic manipulations” of bio art:
To see the artist, filmed in a white outfit in a research center, commenting sententiously on his or her work and his or her ideas does not give an innocent representation of either the artist or of the scientist. It not only makes the artist a “knower,” “showy” in a classical representation of his or her mission (very nineteenth century, a mage and romantic prophet, cold and clean in light of pasteurization and immunology), but also makes the scientist a wondermaker, largely immunized against what effectively determines most of the scientific research today — the competition between research teams and the profit of investors.
Although the most prevalent model of poetic research today is the creative writing industry where perhaps certain MFA and PhD programs constitute “research teams” and institutional cash cows like the Poetry Foundation and the Associated Writing Programs or Modern Language Association serve as hubs for material and ideological investment, the return of conceptualism to the domain of life and the ambition of novelty relevant to this domain is rather invested in certain utopic engagements because it has, even beyond its bedrock critique of embodiment, a new concept of life as its motive.
Reviewing her 2010 collection If Not Metamorphic for Tarpaulin Sky, Patrick Dunagan lauds the sophistication of Brenda Iijima’s interrogation of “the connections between perceptions and how they pass through consciousness via the body,” differentiating her project from what he calls “easily-packaged-for-reader-consumption-introspective-gleaning trite,” which he claims to be, at present, endemic. Dunagan ends his review with a perfectly apt evocation of Charles Olson, quoting him, in fact, and calling their project a shared one. I think the comparison is apt and, paradoxically, timely; in 2010 Iijima’s book is published and so is the unfinished “Projective Verse II” (edited by Olson/Whitehead scholar Joshua Hoeynck). In some of the more metaphysically strident and ecologically minded declarations of the proprioceptive method he famously espoused, this unfinished text does lend insight into what I take to be the indicative poem of Iijima’s book, “Tertium Organum.” Olson:
By strain I mean what happens literally to the body’s geometry. You know, off-balance etc. The wit(ness) of the body … suddenly the field of construction is a field as experience itself! … A poem, then, can be, if called & seen as a strain-locus, as appropriation of the straight lines, flat loci, & time factors of anything it now is, including the tensors of sound each word its uses then make a new “world” of (an occasion being no less than whatever algae or brown kelp in “life” used to discover herself, and began. … What makes it worth doing … is the new relationships, unrealized in our experiences [which] through the poem introduce into the universe new types of order.
If what in mid-twentieth century found one “off-balance” so pervasively that, “you know,” it went more or less unmentioned, in the aughts it equally contaminated the circuits of self-discovery — experience itself — that which seemed once life-engendering. In other words, the reification of the observer’s paradox is upon us. It deserves recalling the post-Euclidean paradox of finding oneself in the field one had put under observation, complicating and resonating within the results, culpable in all that followed Whitehead’s debate against Einstein and the “discovery” and militarization of the atom.
The title “Tertium Organum” is borrowed from the Russian mystic P. D. Ouspensky’s major opus, which braved the ridiculous extremes of Einsteinian relativity and posited a systematic ethics based in an understanding of the fourth dimension (temporality), a major point of contention for metaphysicians like Whitehead and Henri Bergson. Ouspensky’s morality is proprioceptive only to a certain in fact hermetic end. Iijima’s appropriation is, as Dunagan points out, a timely reversal. While on the surface utopic, the poem begins “Roughly everywhere, sky / border, borderland sky,” grafting topos to topos, intersecting in an “indictment” of “each encasement” of natural “law” — “A sentence can’t handle this fall” (51). Hence, her updating of “open field” poetics: Iijima’s verse makes use of the visual field of the page in a way that has been rarely seen in recent years. Unafraid of the overdetermination of idiom, she proposes writing as “Ethics pursued by other means” (58). Exploding and variously returning to a columnar structure which more than a little recalls Williams’s breath-based line (a precursor to the truly “open” field to come), she seeks to “Shrink the definition of death” (57). Shrunk to the binary structure of the determinate/indeterminate, mirrored in the very indentation/grid one reads, writing becomes an heuristic cycle whose instrumentality asserts that momentum is novelty; there is no life where there was not one before.
Unlike nature poetry, there is no operative imagery here, at least not in a conventional sense. Instead, the list permits the reading eye to do what the language seems to wish upon itself. Nominals go verbal: wave might as well be an imperative, tenses sliding via phonemic autosuggestion right into and out of substantives, to conclude with a gerund poised exactly between the two. This would-be (procreative) imagery comes in for scrutiny in the very act of procreation contemplated in the poem, rendering the whole allegorical in the sense that conceptualism has been found to rewrite itself in terms of its figural meaning.
Sex glistened in a theory
slated for production I has been extricated from
gesture, endures as a symptom
began a sexual relationship with the earth
cherry of this adolescent girl
we swirl, girls …
Water mixes sex
Mistress metamorphose me and my
I shall be living always (62, 63, 66–7)
So the proprioceptive subjectivity is a function of endurance rather than of simple (arrested) locus, which permits the idiomatic (“cherry,” “tricks”) to live its symptom. What is narrated in the poem is not a set of interconnected lives, nor a “theory / slated” of the organism (a mystical life force). What is narrated is a mode (“always”) that can, for lack of a better term, be called “living.”
The circulatory systems of trees lay here
as sexy as elbow
frothy insect delivery
fiction … prophecies … lunatic
heavy frothy waves …
Ruby hard-wired jewel box
rebellion (71, 72, 74)
Like the “Anesthetized truly, Lake Shore Drive” of my hometown Chicago, the chimera of bordering ecosystems is psychosomatically reinforced by the very “Erotic / rebellion” that “Otherwise” holds such promise (75). How does one subvert or extend an open field, anyway?
Two texts usher in congeniality as various specifics
of meaning begin to meld. Essentiality becomes
So, among the brook and hemlock outcroppings
wildness hindered unhindered and spiraling
dance spur beyond an abyss of an act itself
animal vitality freely — objects are blind effects …
Forests have no detritus (75, 76, 88)
The tertium organum then subverts itself in its existential (rather than essential) recycling, “blind effects” consecrating what has no remainder, no anterior motive or reference. Two “touching” sections of the poem, almost exactly midway through it, shore up, as it were, the gendered idiomatic play of the poem. Wittgenstein’s observation that that which dare not speak its name sits precociously on the surface of the visible — what can be shown cannot be said — leads to the seminal hypothesis of the book as a whole (which is a negative, “If Not …” hypothesis):
That is when
your mother who is a man
who your father
could have been (84)
An entire stanza/section, the clause would appear truncated, grammatically, but its logic has been developed throughout. The rest of the poem, bookending this section, predicates it. One reads “Tertium Organum” radially, a reading method that “could have” been at play all along the linear route through its pages. The columnar verse form amplifies as much, allegorizes the text.
The poem’s objects (would-be images) now proliferate.
Now we ruby and blend
you ruby I reminisce
designated for rigors
risk axis — tear out mind loosely by engaging
ears Semblance, a bare relevance
held together …
With all that spawns finality
happenstance is cropped
Tears are integers of feeling
The simulacrum demands this expulsion (101, 104)
The poem’s objecthood solicits its corresponding subject, exactly us. And with a readership at its epicenter (like Bök’s parsing machines stemmed from authorial mechanisms), we must “risk axis — tear out mind” and assume the simulacrum we deserve. The poem recuses itself of its own witness work. And this is what makes the “ruby” and “cherry” images less poetic imagery and more an interpretive imaginary. It obliges us to meet it with a promise so familiar as to appear a “reminisce[nce].” Weiner might have called this obedience, but the connotation of such a term seems extravagant in Iijima’s case. Rather, it is a structure of recurrence and desire that aligns it with other examples of new life writing, even those with apparently different aesthetic values or political commitments. Which brings me to the last example I can offer here.
A prose memoir or, as its catalog copy reads, “a conceptualist take on immigrant literature,” you wouldn’t initially recognize that Tan Lin’s Insomnia and the Aunt was an installment in a project with implications for contemporary poetry, unless you knew of its place in his ongoing “Ambient Stylistics” project. The first book in that project, Blipsoak01, scrolls verse across page spreads rather than the silent grid of traditional prosody, collapsing metadata and imagery. Seven Controlled Vocabularies, the next, contains mostly prose and reminds one of Heriberto Yepez’s contention, in “Poetry in a Time of Crisis,” that “poetry exclusively occurs when it is discussed. [i.e. ‘Poetry’ as a privileged structure is an anachronistic notion. I can only stand poetry in the context of prose].” Insomnia and the Aunt extends the generic but also the argumentative reach of Seven Controlled Vocabularies, so to understand the newer of the two, the memoir, the former deserves some attention here.
The first section of that book, “A Field Guide to American Painting,” entertains the “forms of non-reading” the environment (or ambience) accommodating contemporary media exchanges (literary production) might take; but a characteristic ploy of the book is to advocate for the ambient as a style, hence periodic reference to ambient music tropes, such as dub (overlay/splicing/phasing) techniques, to mimic the textual condition of contemporary poetics: “Poetry should aspire to the most synthetic forms” (26). Always on analogy with other art forms, especially those tending toward design (new media, architecture, e.g.), Lin gives poetry an ultimatum with respect to its relevance in a time-space rendering most reading acts as subliminal, a kind of involuntary looking — the placards in public buildings, the advertisements on sides of buses half-noticed from the sidewalk, the peripheral semiosis of Facebook, and each and every reading practice that produces, for the economic superstructure, a demographic trace of a non-self. But in a fittingly soothing, nondidactic, even encouraging way that transmogrifies instead of personifies.
Private spaces are over-elaborated and under-inhabited. Public spaces are under-elaborated and lack sufficient feedback. Things that are living vs. things that are dead vs. languor.
For this reason, poetry (like a beautiful painting) ought to be replaced by the walls that surround it and doors that lead into empty rooms, kitchens and hypnosis. A poem should be camouflaged into the feelings that the room is having, like drapes, silverware, or candlesticks …
It would be nice to imagine a painting that didn’t need to be looked at but could be sampled, like the newspaper, the television or the weather … As anyone who has ever sequenced a painting will tell you, perceptual mistakes are never sublime. A painting should expire just before we look at it, just like the drapes. The most annoying thing at an art museum is always the wall with a painting hanging on it. (26)
… The interval [of “a strobe light going off”] can be beautiful because the interval can be dubbed. Relaxation like non-designed home décor, has no real bounds. It supplements that thing known as real life. That is why it is so pleasurable to read.
Someone (I think) said the time for poems written with words and the era of reading poems with feelings in them is long gone. Today, no poem should be written to be read and the best form of poetry would make all our feelings disappear the moment we were having them … televisions and computers do this … (24)
… It would be nice to create works of literature that didn’t have to be read but could be looked at, like placemats. The most exasperating thing at a poetry reading is always the sound of a poet reading. (16)
The dystopic lull Lin seemingly reinforces and explains ceases to seem so new after all, once one recognizes that ambient stylistics responds to a sociopolitical environment in which reinforcement and explanation are redundant activities, because permission is granted ad libitum, i.e., where permission was never required (like entrances/exits to/from Mac Low’s “daily life”). Literature attains, then, to the status of information, the quality of the contemporary quantum of social mitigation, which Lin often poignantly associates with racial and intercultural identity politics (the first of the Library of Congress metadata tags for the book, printed incongruously on its cover, is “China — Poetry” and the second is “Mass Media and Language”):
In the world outside the west, it is understood that all reading practices shall be non-time-based and decorative. In that way they can be made ever more abstract and vague, like the non-illusionistic theatres of the east … Generic information is perfect information. Most books, unfortunately, are very imperfect: that is why they are read more than once. The surface is simulated, i.e., restricted by its own surface reflections/variants or logos/editions. (102)
The surface should be allowed to shed the burden of ethical depth, to be “perfect” where the illusion of perfection is too peculiar. The fluidity of the surface matches the attraction to identity construction, and disintegration, that has been, until Insomnia’s appearance, a displaced motif of “Ambient Stylistics.”
On the New York City program Ceptuetics Radio, reading with Kareem Estefan from another book in the series, plagiarism/outsource, Estefan asks Lin about the subject’s compromise, as such, and the paradoxical use of autobiographical details in his writing. The demands of new media dovetail, he replies, with Asian-American “notion[s] of identity”; identity has to be “invented,” and there is a tradition of this “ever since the ‘Paper Sons’ episode … when the records were lost in 1906 and people had to reconstruct a whole series of lineages based on imagined relatives, which was — they were able to bring relatives [from China to the United States], they weren’t really their relatives.” Like the RSS feed piping chatter surrounding the death of film star Heath Ledger — source material for the book — celebrity is a cipher around which anonymous (plagiarized) affect, or family, national, and racial identity are organized. A poetics arising from this recognition would be a poetics of readership, concerned with “how can one read something and participate in it somehow … It’s not really literature. So much of what we read on any given day, it’s not sort of considered meaningful, it’s not eternal, it’s not meant to last. And yet we — I find that I’m incredibly affectively attached to a lot of this material.” Lin even mentions a favorite exercise, “I would rewrite NYTimes stories very loosely and pretend that they happened to me.”
This deployment of social autobiography is precisely why “Ambient Stylistics” and “Tertium Organum” can be legibly called conceptualist projects. Conceptualism in writing, as poet-critic Thom Donovan would have it:
Whereas conceptual art prioritized the dematerialization of the art object as a means of overcoming art-as-commodity, conceptualist practices in recent poetry deconstruct the authority of author and text by prioritizing ideas as the principle source of a work’s authority. Doing so, conceptualist writers invite their erstwhile readership into a discourse about poetry’s function as a site of institutional, epistemic, pedagogical, and social authority (rather than into debates about how “good” or “bad” a poem may be).
But the ideational/(craft-based) formal dichotomy was, from conceptual writing’s outset, exhausted by proceduralism. By the aughts, this dichotomy emerges in the wake of the battle against commodification, the literary commodity having been sublimated by the dematerialization of readerly attention as well as capitalist exchange. Kenneth Goldsmith, also in the virtual pages of BOMB, exploits this abnegated materiality by means of analogy with the reification of creativity (in the persistence of enlightenment values of personal expression), which opportunely abnegates the matter at hand:
Conceptual writing treats words as material objects, not simply carriers of meaning. For us, words are both material and carriers of meaning; it’s language and you can’t get rid of meaning no matter how hard you try. This is made manifest by the digital environment where, since the dawn of media, we’ve had more on our plates than we could ever consume, but something has radically changed: never before has language had so much materiality — fluidity, plasticity, malleability — begging to be actively managed by the writer. Before digital language, words were almost always found imprisoned on a page. How different today when digitized language can be poured into any conceivable container …
Rather than the content-provider of old, today’s literary author holds a sort of lower-middle-management position that affirms organizing principles, concepts. Were we to elaborate the affinities of Lin’s recent work with conceptual writing, a similar analogy is required. In an April 2010 interview featured on the Poetry Foundation website, Lin does just this, but extends it to an immigrant/familial life course:
Thus in 7CV, the concept of the book is mildly operant, but generally and among other functionally differentiated reading platforms, so the book is an image created by a controlled vocabulary system. What is a book? Something that categorizes and controls data and organizes specific reading formats: i.e. the book is a generalized reading environment … coupled to various publishing mechanisms, printed- and non-printed formats, people, meta data tags, wives, genres, TV, the “spectral” cinema, scanners, Chinese people, etc. One might call this “poetry,” but one could just as easily call it “literary studies,” “fiction,” “obit,” or “family.” So in 7CV you have various and conflictual reading practices, and a lot of this is not reading in the sense of what most people think about as “reading a book of literature by a poet in a book published by a university press.”
Insomnia and the Aunt, as a logical extension of Seven Controlled Vocabularies, parses adoration, dissipation, and assimilation from the same (Google reverse-searched) nostalgic predisposition that social media entrepreneurs (each instantly monumentalized in narrative caress) exploit. What if, say, my fatal anonymity were overcome? What if, then, I could raise capital and, indeed, be a contender? And even if the contest had another outcome, I would have affirmed the meritocratic promise of “free trade”? Kickstarter. The democratization of “futures” is a fee structure of personality, a subjection of life-course to profit motive, where to nap is to die; one is never not on the clock. The aunt’s universe of commodity exchange, as a motel-keeper in rural Washington state, is already, if in miniature, insomniac and based on endurance more than labor time. She likes that she isn’t the professional she was in China — no one sleeps in motels — she rents time to oneself. In this sense, she is a perfect structural cipher for reality television, about which Seven Controlled Vocabularies contains a long and hilarious analysis whose conceptual adjacency to poetry is either chilling or invigorating, depending on who you ask.
Being on reality TV is the newest format of class-based identity branding in which people become goods, work is alchemically “removed” from life, and labor is camouflaged as a mediated, i.e., prime-time, leisure format …
The networks are well aware that subjective events like emotions are relatively easy to control and standardize in a viewer … it’s the void at the center of the viewer’s experience that counts. As most network executives can tell you, the mediation of a life on television — like an emotion — is short-lived, and the reality behind the play reality is hardly a luxury because it is about transforming something into nothing: each minute of the viewer’s unpaid leisure time becomes work time in order that we may resemble quasi-celebrities like ourselves. (122, 222)
Insomnia and the Aunt chronicles our nephew-narrator’s overnight hours spent with his aunt in front of a television in the Bear Park Motel office. She is “half-Chinese, half-English,” and it is unclear whether she is related to his mother by blood or “just a Chinese auntie.” The unnamed aunt’s invitations extended to the unnamed mother are written on post cards; the book is illustrated with numerous photos and postcards, each of which is not quite what is mentioned in the text, but a generic stand-in. The aunt is described in a photo wearing a “white cowboy hat and dark sunglasses,” whereas the book opens with a photo of a young man and older woman, hatless and prim, both with warm, not happy, facial expressions, but perhaps one generation previous to the late-twentieth-century adolescence evoked by the text. Numerous motor lodges are depicted, none of them the Bear Park which, being located in the town of Concrete, Washington, is signaled by the first postcard, of the Lake Washington Pontoon Bridge in Seattle, the “only concrete pontoon bridge in the world,” according to the card’s caption. (As the facing text depicts the nephew-narrator embarking in a rental car, heading out from Seattle’s airport toward Concrete, the route is unlikely to take him over the bridge.)
A simulacral scrapbook, Insomnia and the Aunt’s illustrations float in an illusionistic embarrassment which, like the photo of the non-nephew and anti-aunt, evokes a temporal quandary to match the bewildering durance of insomnia itself. This is mirrored in the generic oscillation between (nephew’s) memoir and (aunt’s) biography. If the visual apparatus resists facticity, the narrator’s groping for a suitable backstory for his beloved relative is continually frustrated. And it would stay that way if the dissipating traces of his memory didn’t fall into a relief — like a Man Ray “rayograph” — illustrating an apprehension of love. The apprehension is the cumulative effect of a set of moments of simple comprehension. One such moment follows an account of the aunt’s “linguistic life, the only part of her that I can recollect,” and the one which
makes her appear as a type of linguistic biography that is not much written today but was prevalent during the nineteenth century, a biography where nothing is awestruck because nothing is hidden or concealed from view. In this sense, my aunt resembles the biography of a dead person where the dead person has somehow forgotten to die. She speaks casually, like the speech of a language without a speaker. There is no original Chinese word for “motel,” and no Chinese word for “concrete” either, and so my aunt pronounced the English words as if they already existed in Chinese, thus making out of them a concrete poem …
As any linguist can tell you, it is possible to read a thing without being able to speak it and it is possible to speak a thing without knowing what it is, and this is in fact how many people learn their second and third languages, which they suddenly hear, as if for the first time, when the meanings to words pronounced for hours in a classroom are delivered by a dictionary into an understanding. And this is how my aunt’s understanding of her life in America was arrived at, as a delay in the speed of an understanding.
Ostensibly “Asian” insofar as one is “good at killing emotions,” the aunt’s “uncontrollable wailing” at the arrival of the nephew is one of the only “actions” of the book (beyond viewing television, writing poems, reading them, and stocking a vending machine), and “give[s] off, like the paradox surrounding a guess, the appearance of slightness inside moments that have already happened …” “Asians never stare into your eyes through the glass of a TV screen” except as reruns, spent affective relays whose truth value becomes a figure for and of the television’s mediation of practically everything in the book. The screen’s teleportation effect summons extinct memories like the sentient ocean of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris.
As such, celebrity speech functions like the wishes of the dead do in Weiner’s Page. Robert Redford and Paul Newman, especially, and the spectral voice of Ronald Reagan bleeding over from the obscure uncle “Bing-bing’s” room. “For my aunt, and I think for Robert Redford, lying was a specific thing, like a baby crying in a room or an animal with a soul or, at the least, those mental states that scientists believe trigger particular actions …” (A postcard of Reagan the actor feeding a baby’s bottle to a chimp illustrates this passage.) Reportedly Redford’s process involved the body lying to the mind rather than the reverse, but here the process is reversed, thus acting is distinguished from truth; “lying is the most sincere way of expressing oneself, and the best way anyone has of connecting one thing to another. As Paul Newman said, lying is a highly flirtatious and mechanical form that the body has of creating a gene pool. For this reason lying is never natural (in the reproductive sense) …” Here we find the first of ten footnotes consisting of Google reverse searches that bear only the queasiest pertinence to the passage that happens to share their diction: a blithe search term brings up police lie detection truisms, such as excessive speech to paper over the truth. The nephew is led to assert that, “distinct from the somaform,” the eyes, though “everyone thinks you can make love with” them, really are only a vehicle for lies: “To lie and have sex at the same time is one of the greatest things anyone can do.” The erotic charge of the aunt and nephew’s overnight vigils, otherwise tremendously bland, binds the “genealogical” to the grammatical perspectives contemplated and deployed through the narrative. It “holds the parts of a family together,” like a sentence.
The paratactic — “involuntary and achronological” — viewing routines caused by poor reception conditions the syntactic “anthropological dumb show” of the networked programming. For instance, during an episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom on African game animals, the mercilessly prolonged death of a gazelle (a lion is toying with it) finds the nephew squirming, but the suspense is lost on the aunt. “Already dead,” she bluntly explains.
My aunt has trouble understanding when something is dying on TV and when something is dead in real life and that already dead is not the same thing as the fiction of watching it on TV. “They won’t show that on TV.” “Gazelle. Already dead,” my aunt says. She adds, “not already dying.”
Likewise, the aunt “dislikes live broadcasts” because they “feel canned … as if they have been rehearsed once in real life and once on television, or, in other words, once in somebody else’s life and once in ours.” Hence this “aunt seems to be a part of the anthropology of somebody else’s TV set.” The truth-value of “the aunt” rests on its lack of specificity. The television in this memoir/biography is not a conduit of images, then, but a specific object, a piece of “furniture that moves like a glacier through American life, picking up all sorts of magnetized debris … America … basically is the TV, which is why she decorates it.” It is also why, given the canned quality of even purportedly real time transmissions, such as reports of the Vietnam War, the aunt “has very few memories of violence or even racism in America. TV has made her forget all these things.”
But the great highlight of their viewing recalled here (with the possible exception of a “shiatsu guy” stunning an MTV presenter ill-prepared to translate/convey the metaphysical reality of their physical propinquity) is the Late Show with Conan O’Brien. O’Brien’s social ineptitude and dismal sense of humor are, rather than lampooned, made a figure for the “uses of pleasure” and “versions of happiness I thought a family would have.” His lack of timing is a cherished emotional “delay” in the “communal family chore” of laughter and crying, “which is why the networks invented laugh tracks and why in certain countries you hire mourners to come to a funeral and weep for you. Less distant relatives like my aunt are usually too grief stricken to grieve in the present, which is why most grieving takes place long before or many years after someone has died.” In the meantime, the “relaxing” effect of television stems from its use as a repository of lies, its nonillusionistic mechanisms. “TV, and I think all TV is great, is not about having emotions but escaping from your least predictable emotions.” And in a nod to Eliotonian impersonality, Lin adds, “Of course, only someone who watches a lot of TV like my aunt knows what it means to escape from an emotion.” Just as it “has taught her how to lie,” it has “helped her invent a new life,” an example so enduring that the nephew-narrator admits, in the eleventh footnote (the only non-Google reverse search),
I still prefer, to this day, reading anthologies rather than individual books. A poem like a person in an anthology has forgotten its author. Like a rerun or a flea market photo, it receives coaching from things next to it that probably don’t like or can’t understand it.
No one considers real life a given, but in an age of reality programming and social media the high modernist imputation of numerous realisms echoes in the refractory mediation of postmodern experience. If lived experience is basically entrepreneurial, which is I think how Lin describes it, transgression is redundant. Any realism is redundant, which leads to the temporal paradoxes first essayed in Seven Controlled Vocabularies and then exploited in Insomnia and the Aunt. New life is not reinvention, claiming an epistemological standpoint, e.g. disability, hyphenated ethnic-nationality, or class consciousness. Insomnia and the Aunt displaces immigrant witness work with a view toward the way ego broadcasts citizenship and identity. In this sense, it is one of the most sophisticated adjudications of contemporary “life,” both a prospect contingent upon its environment’s obsolescence and a supple contraption consisting of meta data, affect, and the event horizon of (re)birth. And this is why, like Iijima’s ecopoetics, it demands an ethics of — rather than protest against — reification.
2. The poetics Mac Low describes sounds uncannily like the poetics of “deterritorialization” described by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari: “When Glenn Gould speeds up the performance of a piece, he is not just displaying virtuosity, he is transforming the musical points into lines, he is making the whole piece proliferate … [in] a transversal movement that sweeps one and the other away, a stream without beginning or end that undermines its banks and picks up speed in the middle” (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, vol. 2, trans. Brian Massumi [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986], 8, 25). The refusal to relegate interpretation to epiphenomenal events of literary production is the first in a set of precursors to a concept of “new” life.
3. The premise of scrutinizing the aughts would not have occurred to me without this commission which, since it was separate from my offering the essay that resulted, deserves mention and even produced the following description as offered to Al Filreis of Jacket2. I wrote, “it grew from thinking about disability poetics, abandoned that discourse in particular, and then conceived a generalized trend tentatively called ‘new life writing’ that closes a gap between expressivist and conceptualist poetics. It is something of a proposal — the concept or trend of ‘new life writing’ is in the works as the essay moves along. So its claims are a bit open-ended, designed very specifically to provoke rather than summarize (unlike other trend-spotting proposals e.g. ‘Elliptical Poets’). It is not polemical, but not entirely speculative or scholarly (somewhere in between). It is perhaps slightly idiosyncratic, then, but I think that’s one of its virtues. The glass half full: it is as theoretical as it is a work of literary criticism. Still, there is very little recourse to ‘critical theory’; it doesn’t put the works I analyze in the service of existing theoretical discourse that nonetheless spirits it. A companion essay is possible at some point (if I can find the time) that does the work of folding ‘new life writing’ back onto disability studies discourse, which has a wealth of important arguments concerning what is more traditionally thought of as ‘life writing.’”
4. On conceptual writing as allegorical writing, see Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman, Notes on Conceptualisms (New York: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2009), and Steve Zultanski, “Polemic for P-Queue,” P-Queue 7 (2010): 89–98. Both make “strategies of failure” central to the “poetic” ethos of conceptualism. See Owens for a fuller discussion of the link between the avoidance of epiphenomenal hermeneutics and allegory: “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism,” October 12 (Spring 1980): 67–86; “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism Part 2,” October 13 (Summer 1980): 58–80. For the reemergence of Jacques Derrida’s work in disability and other sociopolitical identity-based discourses, compare his trope of “the time of the promise” in Robert McRuer, Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability (New York: New York University Press, 2006), and Judith Butler, “Finishing, Starting,” in Derrida and the Time of the Political, ed. Pheng Cheah and Suzanne Guerlac (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), 291–396. Cary Wolfe’s contribution to bioethical quandaries of bio art is informative; he revisits the famous Austin-Derrida-Searle debate, treated at length in Derrida’s Limited Inc. (trans. Samuel Weber and Jeffery Mehlman; Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1988) and haunting such later and fully germane essays as “Psyche: Invention of the Other” (in Psyche: Invention of the Other, vol. 1 [Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007], 1–47). See Wolfe, “Bioethics and the Posthumanist Imperative,” in Signs of Life: Bio Art and Beyond, ed. Eduardo Kac (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 95–114. I point to Brenda Iijima’s use of disability as a critical category of ecopoetics in note 32 below.
6. Kaplan Harris, “‘JGT Very glad of your company’: A Sequence of Code Signals for the Conceptual Writing of Hannah Weiner,” paper presented at the Hannah Weiner Symposium, Buffalo, NY, October 29, 2010.
8. See Andy Warhol, a, A Novel (New York: Grove Press, 1968); Bernadette Mayer, Memory (Plainfield, VT: North Atlantic Books, 1975); Kenneth Goldsmith, Fidget (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2000); and Goldsmith, Soliloquy (New York: Granary Books, 2001).
10. Goldsmith, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Writing,” Electronic Poetry Center.
12. See Tyrus Miller, Singular Examples: Artistic Politics and the Neo Avant Garde (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2009) for a brilliant analysis of Mac Low’s quasi-intentionality as it impinges on discourses of incarnation.
13. Mark Priestley appropriates a standard sociological usage to propose a “life course” approach to disability. Social institutions and independently driven transitions from “stages” of life dialectically produce “a critical understanding of disability” that, as the course between these stages comes into focus, renders “life” an extensive (social and ontologically changeable) rather than an intensive (individual and ontologically static) quality (Disability: A Life Course Approach [Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2003], 26–27). Priestely’s chapter “Life, death and disability” is especially evocative; it permits us to critique “life expectancy” as an atemporal normalization of, not least, poetic agency in light of its relinquishment, dispersal, and democratization on conceptualist grounds. Life course has a crucial conceptual affinity with bio art that might also delineate new life writing. Both bio art and conceptualism face the ramifications of working outside of “the well defined domain of objecthood — but rather in the more complex and fluid zone of subjecthood” (Eduardo Kac, “Art that Looks You in the Eye: Hybrids, Clones, Mutants, Synthetics, and Transgenics,” in Signs of Lie: Bio Art and Beyond, ed. Kac (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007], 12). Though the distinction between “living art,” say of Eiko and Koma (Naked) or Vito Acconci (Follow Piece), or conceptualism, both of which use traditional (if sometimes “new,” i.e. digital) media, “bio art is in vivo,” creating “new life” objects as much as “new subjects,” such that its emphasis on “the dialogical and relational” qualities of embodied components that will enter and alter evolutionary processes writ large to encompass the sociopolitical fields of global networks shape the “material and formal qualities of art” itself (3, 9, 19). Like biology per se, whose purview is the continuum of the somaform rather than abberrance or medicinal correction, bio art — but by analogy disability culture and conceptual poetics — challenged the “assumed typicality” of beauty and merge representation with poesis at ontic extremes (from the sign to the cell). Cybernetic, biotechnical, and pathogenic infiltration of the circuits of conventionally defined artistic agency come into focus when “new” modifies “life” at any distance, as it did at the turn of the last century when scientific positivism confronted the novel’s charge, via Emile Zola, of “heredity and environment … to exhibit man living in social conditions produced by himself, which he modifies daily, and in the heart of which he himself experiences a continual transformation,” begging the question of “determinism” and “vitalism” (The Experimental Novel and Other Essays [New York: Cassell Publishing, 1893], 21, 18).
14. Mac Low, “It Is a Simple Life,” MSS 180, box 49, folder 23, Jackson Mac Low Papers. Archive for New Poetry, Mandeville Special Collections, University of California at San Diego Library. In an odd coincidence, the poem was dedicated forty years to the day before Mac Low’s eightieth birthday celebration at Buffalo, when we concurred that questions about death are questions of a life; 1963 is also the year that Weiner claims to have begun writing poetry.
18. See Hannah Weiner, Page (New York: Roof Books, 2002), Clairvoyant Journal (New York: Angel Hair, 1978), and The Fast (New York: United Artists Books, 1992); Marta Werner, “The Landscape of Hannah Weiner’s Late Work,” Jacket2 (April 7, 2011).
In a 1995 exchange with Bernstein for his Linebreak radio program, Weiner insists on the collusion of new life writing and conceptualism:
HW: When I became clairvoyant I just started keeping a journal of everything that was happening.
CB: What interested you about the kinds of diaristic materials that would normally be excluded from poetry, that you’ve put in? The things that most people would edit out. Lots of the Clairvoyant Journal consists of things that in a conventional poetic and literary context would be edited out.
HW: It came from conceptual art, when there was an idea in the late 60s and early 70s to document everything. Or to make documents of things. And so that’s what I did. And then I edited out. For example, The Fast, I edited out forty-five pages from a thousand handwritten ones. And there’s another book following that that’s coming out soon.
19. For analyses of the role of “seen words” in Weiner’s “clairvoyant” writing, see Judith Goldman, “Hannah=hannaH: Politics, Ethics, and Clairvoyance in the Work of Hannah Weiner,” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 12, no. 2 (2001): 121–68, and Patrick Durgin, “Avant-Garde Journalism: Hannah Weiner’s Early and Clairvoyant Journals,” in The Early and Clairvoyant Journals, Archive for New Poetry, UCSD Libraries Special Collections, 2004.
21. Weiner, Code Poems (Barrytown, NY: Open Book Publications, 1982). See also Rodney Koeneke, “Hannah Weiner and Basic English,” Electronic Poetry Center.
22. Yet in her later projects, Weiner was especially fond of neologisms. In her stories of astral visions and conversations with or about her friend “Paw” the polar bear, for instance, they playfully further plot, emplot voices, and even set micro-prosodic parameters: a very suggestive example being her reference to herself as “ma,” picking up a convenient rhyme. Her biographical preface to silent teachers / remembered sequel (Providence, RI: Tender Buttons, 1994) ends with a golden nod to the self-congratulation inherent to the genre of the short bio: “gosh ma shes a real female tarpsichordist.”
23. Louis Zukofsky, Prepositions + The Collected Critical Essays, ed. Mark Scroggins (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 2000), 228. William Carlos Williams, in Spring and All (in The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume I: 1909–1939 [New York: New Directions, 1991], 177–236), definitively develops the motif of a life where there was not one before as a model of radical modernist aesthetic inventiveness:
One by one objects are defined —
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf
But now the stark dignity of
entrance — Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted, they
grip down and begin to awaken
In a 1929 letter detailing “our need” to preserve this and other, eventually extracted, verse sections of Spring and All for a planned collection he would edit, Zukofsky pointed to “To Elsie” as a “complete poem” (The Correspondence of William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky, ed. Barry Ahearn [Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2003], 40). This putative “need” is really a revisionary collocation of lines into a poem of a life and not a “repetition of a group of poems” (ibid.) It could be said that Zukofsky’s proposal was akin to appropriative, recombinatory conceptualism, though he made the mistake of seeking permission from the author. In other words, the “poem of a life” is not an accumulation, not a career retrospective, but a critical intervention motivated by a successive generation.
26. Sianne Ngai has written on Spahr’s “networked” autobiography in light of actor-network theory; see “Network Aesthetics: Juliana Spahr’s The Transformation and Bruno Latour’s Reassembling the Social,” Modern Language Association, 2008. Paul Stephen argues that Dworkin’s prior work of conceptual writing, Dure, “enacts something along the lines of a return to expressive autobiography.” See “Self-Portrait in a Context Mirror: Pain and Quotation in the Conceptual Writing of Craig Dworkin,” Postmodern Culture 19, no. 3 (May 2009).
27. See Dolores Dorantes, sexoPURO / sexoVELOZ and Septiembre: A Bilingual Edition of Books Two and Three of Dolores Dorantes, trans. Jen Hofer (Denver and Chicago: Counterpath Press and Kenning Editions, 2008); Juliana Spahr, The Transformation (Berkeley, CA: Atelos, 2007); Craig Dworkin, Parse (Berkeley, CA: Atelos, 2008); Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictee (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001); Susan Schultz, Dementia Blog (Philadelphia: Singing Horse Press, 2008); Renee Gladman, To After That (toaf) (Berkeley, CA: Atelos, 2008); Lyn Hejinian, My Life (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2002) and My Life in the Nineties (New York: Shark Books, 2003).
28. Christian Bök, “The Piecemeal Bard Is Deconstructed,” Object 10 (2002), 11.
29. Bök, “The Xenotext Experiment,” SCRIPTed 5, no. 2, #227 (2008).
30. Ofelía Pérez, Sepúlveda, “Four Poems,” in Sin puertas visibles: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry by Mexican Women, ed. and trans. Jen Hofer (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003), 168–71.
32. Patrick Dunagan, “Brenda Iijima’s If Not Metamorphic reviewed by Patrick Dunagan,” Tarpaulin Sky. The conceptual reach and procedural rigor of this stance is echoed in Iijima’s essay “Metamorphic Morphology,” where she “propose[s] the term re-enable-ment” to point to the epistemological values of the poles of “ability” under scrutiny by the social model of disability studies: “Dysfunction can bring about different sorts of functionality that rebel against categorization.” See Iijima, “Metamorphic Morphology,” in eco language reader, ed. Iijima (Callicoon, NY: Nightboat Books, 2010), 277–78, and Iijima, If Not Metamorphic (Boise, ID: Ahsahta Press, 2010).
34. Heriberto Yepez, “Poetry in Time of Crisis.” Yepez’s Wars. Threesomes. Drafts. & Mothers. (New York: Factory School, 2007) is exemplary new life writing.
35. Tan Lin, Blipsoak01 (Berkeley, CA: Atelos, 2003), Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2003. The Joy of Cooking (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2009), and Insomnia and the Aunt (Chicago: Kenning Editions, 2011).
36. Tan Lin, appearance on Ceptuetics Radio, September 24, 2008, PennSound; see also Lin, Heath: plagiarism/outsource, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, Untitled Heath Ledger Project, a history of the search engine, disco OS (La Laguna, Canary Islands: Zaesterle, 2007).
37. Thom Donovan, review of Notes on Conceptualisms, Bombsite, March 18, 2011.
38. Katherine Elaine Sanders, “So What Exactly Is Conceptual Writing?: An Interview with Kenneth Goldsmith,” Bomblog.
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.
Lawrence Joseph's poetry of urgency
What follows are two lawyer jokes widely distributed on the internet:
Your attorney and your mother-in-law are trapped in a burning building. You only have time to save one of them. Do you: (1) have lunch? or (2) go to a movie?
A man was sent to Hell for his sins. As he was being taken to his place of eternal torment, he passed a room where a lawyer was having an intimate encounter with a beautiful young woman. “What a ripoff,” the man muttered. “I have to roast for all eternity, and that lawyer gets to spend it with a beautiful woman.” Jabbing the man with his pitchfork, the escorting demon snarled, “Who are you to question that woman’s punishment?”
What’s important in any joke is not so much the punch line as the uprush of recognition that occurs after the punch line, as compressed subtextual connections come to us with the surprise of a vulgar epiphany, but an epiphany no less. When we talk about jokes we might say, “Did you get the joke?” — as if a joke were something that we could physically handle, pick up, and carry, or as if a joke must be something that we are responsible for retrieving. Given that many jokes are pressurized narratives, they have been routinely compared to poetry, which often depends on concision and a charged subtext.
Certainly there are few narratives more compressed than jokes, unless we’re talking about poems. As Robert Frost wrote in his notebook: “The Poem must have as good a point as a [sic] anecdote or a joke.” The structure of a joke depends on conceptual embedding, and more often than not, as in the lawyer jokes quoted above, a violation of a fleshly boundary is at least implied. Lawrence Joseph’s poems are hardly about joking matters, but they too are composed of condensed narratives that depend on heightened references to the vulnerabilities of the flesh and complex cues that defeat our initial expectations — and reveal what otherwise might be obscured. As Joseph insists, “that’s the law. To bring to light / most hidden depths.” Not only do Joseph’s poems depend on subtext, much as in the shell game of a joke, but they enact and reflect on the sensation of what he calls “pressure” — the invisible but felt experience of our contemporary situation. His poems are structured so that they arrive with something close to physical weight for some readers. What Joseph gives us could be called the enactment and articulation of pressure in embedded narratives. As he writes in “History for Another Time,” “Pressure is what / it’s about, and pressure’s incalculable — / which eludes the historian.” He figures contemporary reality: “A slow, shapeless wheel is what / it feels like, the pressure deep and silent.” In either overt or covert ways, Joseph focuses on “The arrangement of power, the immanence / of the pressure.” Violence appears in his poems through images of a broken arm, a slit throat, the abandonment of a child, or the results of “Technocapital war [as] a part / of our bodies, of the body politic.”
In The Mirror of Justice: Literary Reflections of Legal Crises, Theodore Ziolkowski traces what he calls “moments of crisis in the evolution of law when the entire system is being challenged.” In such “legal works,” he tells us, “it is not the facts that are in question but the values by which the facts are to be judged.” In Joseph’s poetry the point of crisis involves narration itself: how we tell what we know, what voices we trust, and what untrustworthy voices become part of the story. As he asks in “Woodward Avenue,” “So many voices, which of them to be taken / seriously?” In a period when our descriptive resources are stalled, and when explanatory structures are sliding away from comprehension or are so reductive as to have little bearing on our lived experience, Joseph writes poems that embed the accumulated trauma of generations and the condensed experience of contemporary reality as it is experienced on multiple levels. He constructs harrowing and loosely connected speculations in the midst of sensual images that perform in tension with his explicit lines of argument. There is a generally wide field of intelligence at work in many of his poems, with elastic results: abstract contemplation, reflections on physical violation, and a painterly resurfacing of the visual field. What makes these poems anything but straight chronicles has to do with Joseph’s assembling of moments of trauma that accumulate, repeat in different contexts, and prove dynamic.
A scene in Don DeLillo’s novel Falling Man contributes to our understanding of Joseph’s poetry. In DeLillo’s novel a man who escaped from inside one of the towers of the World Trade Center on September 11 arrives at an emergency room. A medical technician picks glass out of the character’s face and begins to talk about the aftereffects of suicide bombings:
In those places where it happens, the survivors, the people nearby who are injured, sometimes, months later, they develop bumps, for lack of a better term, and it turns out this is caused by small fragments, tiny fragments of the suicide bomber’s body. The bomber is blown to bits, literally bits and pieces, and fragments of flesh and bone come flying outward with such force and velocity that they get wedged, they get trapped in the body of anyone who’s in striking range. Do you believe it? A student is sitting in a café. She survives the attack. Then, months later, they find these little, like, pellets of flesh, human flesh that got driven into the skin. They call this organic shrapnel.
In the technician’s account, pieces of the body — now a corpse — of the murderer-suicide are lodged in the innocent bystander’s living body. As such, the witness is inhabited by death and, in a sense, cannot escape the suicide bombing even if she has escaped with her life; she is inhabited by the bomber’s flesh, and that dead flesh itself may work to the surface of her living skin.
How does this horrific anecdote from DeLillo illuminate Lawrence Joseph’s poetry? In much of Joseph’s poetry a narrative of violated flesh emerges. The psychic pressure of recalled and predicted violence in the United States and the Middle East occupies poems not only as explicit subject matter but as a constituent of formal organization in which fragments of embedded particulars — narrative accounts, bits of dialogue, references from numerous sources — are made dynamic, as in DeLillo’s account of the “pellets” of bombed flesh that bury themselves but eventually “develop,” revealing themselves in a living human body. The dead past enters the living and “works” its way into both the present and intimations of the future. The past, our reimagining of the past, and our speculations about the future, are not suspended but circulate. We might turn to one of Joseph’s lines for an example of how experience is rendered as both physically embedded and volatile: “I don’t know about you, but it all goes through my skin.” The perpetration of violence and the perpetrators themselves burrow into the poems’ structures and the speakers’ psyches. Poetry exists here as a collection of fragments recast in ultimately nightmarish terms, as violence to the flesh is internalized but not inactive.
Joseph reminds us, then, of the fact that we cannot escape one another. Bodies, however individual and apparently free, affect other bodies; contact turns into impact. In “Unyieldingly Present,” for instance, the scene of violence is refracted into sensations of pressure as violence is “encoded in the brain,” and yet our perception of violence is unstable in terms of how we might think it is structured: “Is it that reality, disjointed // cannot be discerned, or that consciousness, / disjointed, cannot discern it?” Our perceptual faculties may be inadequate to our reality. The syntax of language and the syntax of history are obsessively dwelled on as Joseph engages in “The act of forming / imagined language resisting humiliation.”
I’ve chosen the word embedded as only a partial, but I hope resonant, description of a dominant element in Joseph’s poems. The American Heritage Dictionary (2001) refers to primary definitions of embed as “To fix firmly in a surrounding mass”; “To enclose snugly or firmly”; “To cause to be an integral part of a surrounding whole”; “To assign (a journalist) to travel with a military unit during an armed conflict”; and, finally, from biology, “To enclose (a specimen) in a supporting material before sectioning for microscopic investigation.” Each definition takes on metaphorical life in Joseph’s poetry. Tellingly, his most recent collection is titled Into It — with its suggestion of entering an interior. “It” is a troublesome pronoun, ungendered, used ambiguously for singular or plural, for the living or nonliving. The preposition “into” designates an immersion — whether into Dante’s inferno or a traffic jam; into Henry James’s “the world of creation” (cited in Joseph’s epigraph to Into It); or into a pair of pants or a prison sentence — or, given this poet’s preoccupations, into an interior decimated by September 11.
During the early days of the Iraq war the term embedded took on renewed life with the advent of embedded correspondents, news reporters who traveled with military troops and were protected by troops. Whatever one thinks of the ethics or the outcome of the practice, the term in relation to news reporting has come to suggest a desire for authenticity even as it suggests a deeply ambiguous and suspect position — a witness to some immediate effects of combat and yet a witness whose objectivity may be sacrificed. The term embedded correspondent, however, assumes metaphorical complexity if we apply it to Joseph’s poetry — for he is a poet seeking lines of correspondence, certainly, while he assumes a position that differs markedly from that of the embedded news reporter, given that he so thoroughly complicates our notion of what it means to report or to witness an event.
Although Joseph’s poetry is incised with fragmentary materials that serve as evidence of our contemporary moment, this poet does not compose what reliably could be called a poetry of witness, the term that has been used in popular forums for more than two decades for much of politically charged poetry. The term poetry of witness may suggest an unimplicated and reasonably objective access, an ability to maintain control of the body while speaking of atrocity and injustice as an on-the-scene eyewitness who records but is neither victim nor perpetrator. Joseph is not a poet of witness in the conventional sense because he is implicated in the scenes that he enacts: suffering is embodied with a familial bearing; his speakers are not under protection. Nor does he write a poetry dominated by the eye, as suggested by the common term eyewitness. Despite the painterly disposition of much of his work, he focuses almost as fully on sounds as on sights, representing the peculiarities of speech and the dynamics of heightened listening. For Joseph it is not so much what the speaker sees as what he hears while he sees — and what he imagines. Seeing may even be the perceptual act performed in his poems to relieve the pressure of the heard; seeing may offer a reprieve from the noise of violence.
This is a poetry that deplores fanaticism and presents structures that allow us to come closer to enacting in language aspects of contemporary experience to which we have yet to find a way otherwise to respond. The factual in his poems — and even the act of thinking about what occurs — initially shines with the aura of the fantastical, but what seems nonreal soon takes on the imprint of the actual. In the midst of trauma, the mind balks; we have to be convinced that we are having the experience that outrages our sense of physical and mental integrity. The sensation of violation that he writes about is not static, but reemerges as he reminds us, through unremitting images and intimations of future loss, that the story of the body’s vulnerability is the story of history. The Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska’s poem “Torture” speaks of the human body in a way that may elucidate this direction in Lawrence Joseph’s work:
Nothing has changed.
Except for the courses of rivers
the contours of forests, seashores, deserts, and icebergs.
Among these landscapes the poor soul winds,
vanishes, returns, approaches, recedes.
A stranger to itself, evasive,
at one moment sure, the next unsure of its existence,
while the body is and is and is
and has no place to go.
In Joseph — whose poetry is ordered through complex imagistic and voice overlays rather than through a contemplative singular voice mulling human limitations, as in Szymborska — the perception of the body’s vulnerability is as acute as any in contemporary literature. As Szymborska insists, the body “is and is and is / and has no place to go.” Or, as Joseph informs us in “Rubaiyat”:
I want you to watch carefully
what I am saying now — are you
with me? An inch-long piece of steel,
part of the artillery shell’s
casing, sliced through the right eye
into his brain, severely damaging
the optic nerve of his left eye,
spraying bone splinters
into the brain, making him quick to lose
his temper, so acutely sensitive to pain
the skin on his face hurts
when wind blows against it
The predecessor who is most “unyieldingly present” for Joseph is Wallace Stevens. Indeed, seldom has one poet made a more transparent homage to another as fully as Joseph does in regard to his modernist predecessor and fellow lawyer, particularly in reference to “Of Modern Poetry,” in which Stevens famously argues that poetry
[…] has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
The women of the time. It has to think about war
And it has to find what will suffice.
“Of Modern Poetry” is echoed, challenged, and transformed in a new key by Joseph, who is intent on charting the urgency of the project that presses upon any serious poet: remaking our narrative and descriptive resources to take into account the particularities of our present situation and the legacies of history. In writing of poetry in previous centuries, Stevens tells us “the scene was set; it repeated what / Was in the script.” In a play on that line, Joseph tells us “reality changes the script” and, in another poem, “And so on, the script proceeded.” In “The Bronze-Green Gold Green Foreground” his revision of Stevens becomes: “The code changed again.” With his focus on “a morality of seeing, / laying it on,” Joseph enacts a sharpening of sensibility that opposes our muted understanding of violence. In a famous phrase, Wallace Stevens told us that he writes a poetry of places, not people, whereas in Joseph we are more likely to find that his places are intensely peopled. Yet Joseph refuses to shed the human need for beauty as it is experienced in places. His is not a misreading of his predecessor, in Harold Bloom’s sense, but a reformation: tradition rotated with a difference.
Elaine Scarry has written about a conception that Joseph puts into circulation next to violence: beauty. Scarry argues that beauty and justice are interrelated and that an awareness of beauty can spur an urge toward generative activity. As Scarry notes, “Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people.” But I would argue that, in Scarry’s own language, violence “brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people.” Along with embedded narratives of violence in many of Joseph’s poems appear moments of heightened attention to beauty, or what we might call a sudden movement toward an aesthetic that defies the seductions of violence. This movement happens so often in his poems that we may grow accustomed to looking for the swift glimpse of a fully realized moment: “The shock of beauty / is what turns the game around.” Moments of uplift are charged as refreshment, not as escape but as recognition of another lived reality that requires attention: “beauty, the answer, if you must know.” The particulars that animate this conception may recur as simple emblems: “The sun ablaze on the harbor” in “In It, Into It, Inside It, Down In,” or “whole lots of amplified light” in “When One is Feeling One’s Way.” Lilacs, bridges, poplars, the sea, roses, the moon, a garden, the harbor, a marriage — the reverberant images of lyric poetry — are called up. Beauty in these poems moves us out of devastation, even if we are soon again immersed in a contemporary reality that Wole Soyinka has described aptly: “Constantly immersed in the cumulative denigration of human sensibilities, only to have one’s most pessimistic predilections topped again and again by new acts — or revelations — of the limitless depth to which the human mind can sink in its negative designs.”
Which bring us to the question — suspended until now throughout this discussion — of genre, and of Joseph’s choice to remake narrative possibilities within poetry as his primary genre of choice. Some writers, perhaps most writers, simply have relatively little choice of genre. The fiction writer or poet may write the occasional essay but is likely to experience some sense of inhibition while writing outside his or her primary imaginative form. As A. Alvarez points out, “The art of poetry is altogether different from that of prose, just as writing fiction is different from writing nonfiction, and literary criticism is different from them all.” In Joseph we have a writer adept at multiple genres. He writes poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, as well as the most challenging legal rhetoric. Why a writer gifted with linguistic talents in multiple forms chooses poetry as his primary imaginative genre may get at the heart of the challenges that the genre and our contemporary situation pose: How can we live in the midst of a reality that outpaces our ability to comprehend it? How can the ancient springs of poetry — rhythmic language shaped to be remembered, language that often assumes nature as emblem — survive in a culture that disintegrates memory and nature, a culture in which there is too much to remember and a surplus of unnatural stimuli that clamors for our attention, but that may not be worth remembering? And why choose poetry which baffles certain narrative impulses and remains under-read and undervalued as a genre, if we judge value by attention given within a culture?
Joseph’s poetry spans a literary period, still ongoing, when some of the more vital poetics appear suspicious of narrative, define themselves against simple cause and effect as mechanisms for understanding, and dedicate themselves to an ongoing project to deflect unitary consciousness. But what Joseph’s poetic narratives accomplish with their focus on accruals of sensory perspectives is a realization and dramatization of what it means both to live in a particular time and place and to find one’s consciousness stretched by a developed awareness that the self isn’t splintered so much as multiplied over time and space. In its urban milieu, Joseph’s poetry gives us a lyric voice pulled by the gravity of living simultaneously and fervently on several spatial and temporal planes: “Then what, and then again what, unfolded.” He suggests that what is real is not only an actual event but our imagining of it, “feeling one’s way” as time works in two directions: “Time flows, is flowing, forward and back.”
Poetry as Joseph’s genre makes palpable the psychic pressure of heightened contemporary experience and presents in an imagistically associative manner the impression of living at a rate and a speed that other genres may not supply. Poetry demands we put sustained pressure on our imaginative and linguistic resources, that we call up mental images of a sometimes incredible density, that we actively attend to both the shapes of mayhem and the shapes of controlled order as they are enacted in language. In poetry more than in any other verbal genre, readers bring an expectation that not only do all elements matter down to the comma and the white space at the end of a line and between stanzas, but that each of those elements, no matter how widely spaced, tugs at other elements and conditions the whole. The poem is an echo chamber where we listen to the reverberations that otherwise dissolve into the white noise of anxiety. For all the innovations that we speak of in poems, the genre remains the one where space and time are most acutely accented, and where expectations of concentrated attention are most sought. Through a narration of layered time, Joseph’s poems mimic both the quick-order changes that bedevil us in our present landscape, and the way certain facts cannot be transformed. He holds the potential to address what Soyinka calls “the shrinking ethical space that is still left for humanity.” His poetry is squarely within his historical period, but it interrupts any temptation to allow complexities of history simply to wash over us. Instead, he draws us into a deeper awareness of our need to be peculiarly active participants as we read, burrowing into language, coming closer to inhabiting words as sources of meaning that open up memory and imagination in ways that are culturally conditioned and yet hold the possibility of being intensely individual.
Joseph manages, then, to pull off two feats at once: to register the speed, variety, and multilayered aspects of lived experience, and to contain those densities within a medium that is unrepentant about the linguistic demands it places upon anyone who wants to contend with it. At points, the experience of reading his poetry is like climbing down stairs to open a door, whereupon we climb down further and find another door, and then another. As the title of his most recent collection suggests, we are entering into it, summoning reserves of ingenuity to question how we use language and what the stories we make are ultimately for.
In turn, Joseph uses his primary genre to expose and roughen the grain of one of the key assumptions often attached to poetry: that poetry tends toward an endless play of transformations through the vehicle of metaphor. As Joseph insists, our own physical vulnerability tells us that we continually face limitations upon our willingness to change or be changed. In his epigraph from The Metamorphoses Joseph invokes Ovid’s summons: “give me the voice / To tell the shifting story.” Nevertheless, Joseph’s poems express an uneasiness about transformative shifts, an uneasiness that is palpable even in his references to money, that ever-vexing vehicle of transformation. He refers to “law which ‘distributes / money to compensate flesh.’” In “I Pay the Price” he writes, “I live in words and off my flesh / in order to pay the price.” Famously, Wallace Stevens said, “Money is a kind of poetry.” But what happens in Joseph’s poetry is a realization that some things cannot be changed into other things, that some events resist all our attempts at metamorphosis: wounding and death create undeniable, unalterable facts that are not subject to transformation. Often in these poems his speakers make uneasy accommodations with the urge toward transformation because transformation remains so unfailingly suspect: “What isn’t separated, what isn’t / scribbled, what will not be metamorphosed, // reduced, occurring, it will be said, / unyieldingly fixed, unyieldingly present.”
Of course we can argue that poetry is simply not the most efficient way to tell a story, if we think of a story as a sequence of events in which the beginning, middle, and end can be easily navigated. In Joseph’s poetry each story or sliver of story is lodged among multiple stories and multiple interpretations and remains suspended, as stories refract upon stories: “Simultaneity requires the use of a topological / logic. Time compressed — interactively escalated / to maximum speed.” These poems are not fragments shored against our ruins, but fragments whirling in ruins, and yet seemingly indestructible in terms of the way the mind is imprinted with the felt pressure of psychic trauma. The rich interior world of associative correspondences is violated by an external world; the poem becomes an active assemblage in which we can trace the effects of that violation. Giorgio Agamben in The End of the Poem argues that poetry “tenaciously lingers and sustains itself in the tension and difference between sound and sense.” We can reverse that supposition and argue that poetry inserts itself in the realm between silence and non-sense. Joseph’s poems are tense with the possibility that an affront to sense and meaning, in the form of ultimately senseless violence, may intrude at any moment. Emily Dickinson’s ability to “dwell in Possibility” takes on a new cast; Joseph suggests we are dwelling in possibilities of endless violence.
In “Working Rules for Lawyerland” Joseph begins his list with Rilke, who writes: “Don’t be confused by surfaces; in the depths everything becomes law.” He follows quickly with Gertrude Stein in two rules, both of which concern narration, writing of Stein’s Wars I Have Seen: “Stories within stories within stories within […]. A means by which to broaden and deepen (and concentrate) time and space (including the temporal and spatial dimensions of language).” Surely the aesthetic strategy he locates in Stein seems to be his project in both his poetry and in his genre-defying book Lawyerland, and even in his notations pairing Rilke and Stein, which suggest the breadth of his own interests and the compression of his influences. Rilke’s attachment to spiritual depths and intimations of unseen presences is cross-referenced with the hardy flat surfaces and linguistic experimentation of Stein. In the same piece, Joseph cites Frederic Jameson’s argument about the role of doctors as literary characters in modernism, asking that the reader substitute the word lawyers when Jameson cites doctors as professionals who have the ability and the responsibility “to penetrate […] sealed and disparate social spaces, to visit the rich as well as the unemployed, to listen to the voices of workers as well as those of bureaucrats and politicians.” This focus on both entering into and “mapping” social space — of both propulsion through boundaries and of creating blueprints of boundaries — reflects Joseph’s extraordinary ambition to be immersed within a situation and to be able, at the same time, to find patterns, to discern the contours within repetitions, and to present the poem as the appropriate focusing agent for that attempt.
An account of a science experiment may prove at least suggestive in this context. In an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, David P. Barash refers to studies in which a rat in an electrified cage is shocked repeatedly. Eventually, the rat succumbs passively to its miserable situation. As Barash tells us, “When autopsied, the animal will be found to have oversized adrenal glands and, frequently, stomach ulcers, both indicating serious stress.” What is surprising about the experiment, as Barash describes it, is what happens if the rat has access to a stick. If the rat gnaws on a stick, an autopsy of the rat will show a smaller number of ulcers and less enlarged adrenal glands than those in the autopsy of the rat denied the stick. In the final stage of this gruesome experiment, two rats share the electrified cage. When shocked, they do not grow apathetic but fight each other. Barash tells us, “at autopsy, their adrenal glands are normal, and, moreover, even though they have experienced numerous shocks, they have no ulcers.” His conclusion? “When animals respond to stress and pain by redirecting their aggression outside themselves, whether biting a stick or, better yet, another individual, it appears that they are protecting themselves from stress.”
As Barash argues, “When an individual suffers pain, he most often responds by passing it on to someone else. When possible, that ‘someone else’ is the perpetrator, the original source of the pain. But if this cannot be achieved, then others are liable to be victimized, regardless of innocence.” That is, we pass pain on to others for reasons that are at least partly biological. If the experiment can be applied to humans, this suggests that our biology may urge us to take our problems out on others — that such an urge runs rampant unless it is channeled, and that to punish wrongdoing is a biological need, difficult to control. We tend to overcompensate. We may be prone to “redirect[ing] aggression,” finding scapegoats and assigning guilt even to the innocent. In what appears to be a related insight, Theodore Ziolkowski points out that the biblical injunction “an eye for an eye” was originally meant to curb excessive violence by insisting that only equivalent violence be enacted; break my arm and I break your arm, but I don’t wipe out your entire family.
It seems to me that Joseph’s poems are, in some ways, about refusing to engage in a circuit of redirected aggression. His poems implicitly ask us to resist passing on violence by learning to use our narratives in a more multidimensional way than the narratives that rise before us in unbroken media succession. If telling stories is one of our ways “to chew on a stick,” the more stressful our reality, the more we may need stories that allow us to increase our awareness of whatever electrified cage we happen to be in.
I began this discussion with references to jokes, and I noted how Lawrence Joseph’s poetry shares, like much good poetry, something of a good joke’s extreme concision, charged subtext, and physical impact. But in effect, Joseph’s poetry ultimately creates the inverse of the joke. Since Freud we have tended to think of the function of the joke as a release of psychic pressure. That’s what laughter is for: physical release of an event that occurs in the mind. But the pressure in Joseph’s poems, even when violence is paired with painterly aesthetic illumination, is not released or dispersed but contained in circulation, awaiting response and recognition. Under some circumstances, “Poetry’s not what’s made impossible / […] — laughter is,” Joseph tells us. The contemporary pressures, the conflicting perspectives that he negotiates, are addressed in “transcriptions of the inexpressible.” Poetry aspires toward the inexpressible and yet intimates our yearning to render in language the experience of our lives in more capacious form. We don’t need anyone to do our worrying for us, but we do need new imaginings that are deeper than anxiety. It is in those new imaginings that Lawrence Joseph’s poetry attains its greatest urgency.
2. “Lawyer Jokes: Punishment,” Jokes at VariousStuff.Net. As the tenor of these jokes suggests, lawyer jokes harbor signs of our culture’s conflicted responses to lawyers: a mixture of attraction and aversion, admiration and envy.
Narrative and lyric in the poetry of Lawrence Joseph
Here is one version of Lawrence Joseph, an excerpt from the profile that appears on the St. John’s University School of Law website:
Joseph was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1948. His grandparents were Lebanese and Syrian Catholics, among the first Arab emigrants to Detroit. He was educated at the University of Michigan, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa with High Honors in English Language and Literature in 1970, and received first prize in the major Hopwood Award for Poetry; Cambridge University, where he received both Bachelor and Master of Arts degrees with First Honors in English Language and Literature, in 1972 and 1976 respectively; and the University of Michigan Law School, where he received a JD in 1975. He then served as law clerk to Justice G. Mennen Williams of the Michigan Supreme Court. From 1978 to 1981, he was a member of the School of Law faculty at the University of Detroit. In 1981, he moved to New York City, where he was associated with the firm of Shearman & Sterling. At Shearman & Sterling, his practice included securities, bankruptcy, anti-trust, mergers and acquisitions, products liability, and real estate litigation. Joseph has published and has lectured extensively in areas of labor, employment, tort and compensation law, jurisprudence, law and literature, and legal theory. He has served as Consultant on Tort and Compensation Law for the Michigan State Senate’s Commission on Courts, and as Consultant for the Governor of Michigan’s Commission on Workers’ Compensation, Occupational Disease and Employment, and has received a grant from the Employment Standards Division of the United States Department of Labor to write on workers’ compensation.
And here is another biographical description of Lawrence Joseph, from the Academy of American Poets website:
Joseph was born in 1948 in Detroit, Michigan, and received his BA and JD from the University of Michigan. He also earned a BA and MA in English from Cambridge University. He is the author of the books of poems Into It (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos: Poems 1973–1993 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), Before Our Eyes (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993), Curriculum Vitae (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988), and Shouting at No One (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1983), which received the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize. He is also the author of Lawyerland (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997), a book of prose. Among his awards are a Guggenheim Fellowship and two National Endowment for the Arts poetry fellowships.
It’s not that we have portraits of two different men born in the same midwestern city in the same year. And admittedly I have taken excerpts from the two biographical sketches, although I have not misrepresented the relative longwindedness of the law school biographical sketch (four long paragraphs compared with the Academy of American Poets’ one brief paragraph). Yet although the first description does go on to mention the poetry books and prizes, while the second ends noting that Joseph teaches law, there are salient differences. Most obviously, St. John’s University is interested in letting its audience know which areas of law Joseph covers and touting his expertise and experience as a lawyer, while the Academy of American Poets is sending its readers to the literary Joseph, with less vested interest in promoting him as one of the Academy’s selling points. To use the vocabulary of literary critics, the story is the same (that is, the person, settings, and happenings) but the plots — the order in which the story is told or narrated, the representations of the story or, more simply, the narratives as well as the narrative discourse or the story-as-told — differ.
The literary vocabulary above is not uncontested, I would add, and almost all critics admit that to propose stories just exist in some way “out there” while stories-as-told are each constructed differently raises ontological, even metaphysical, problems. Even given the obviously different rhetorical ends for which the biographical notes with which I began were crafted, that is, leaving aside the question of audience, to assume the biographies tell the same story differently still raises the question of whether the “real” Lawrence Joseph is a transplanted midwestern American of Lebanese-Syrian descent who has done well both in his career (focused on labor, employment, tort and compensation law, jurisprudence, and legal theory) and in his literary avocation. Or is he a poet who — like most poets — has a day job? Or is there some other way of talking about the self that would, on one hand, allow for the fluidity of our and others’ construction of our selves without, on the other hand, denying that the stories, the facts, the dots we connect in order to construct narratives, do exist, often stubbornly and despite us as (to quote Wallace Stevens) “the gray particular[s] of [our] life”? While literary critics usually find most interesting what we come to know by looking at narrative discourses (what the speaker foregrounds or elides, the tacit implications of tropes or diction) rather than the ontological status of the stories behind narrated variants, the issues raised by narrative discourse are nonetheless ontological as well as epistemological; the very word “narrative” comes from the Latin gnārus (“knowing,” “expert,” “skillful”) and narrō (“relate,” “tell”) from the Sanskrit root gnâ (“know”), as Hayden White points out. In short, narratives always, if sometimes unwittingly, call into question both what we know and how we know it.
I dwell on the kinds of questions raised by the very mention of the word “narrative” in literary critical circles because ontological and epistemological questions inform Joseph’s poetry from the start, even as the poems become increasingly self-conscious about the ways in which the self exists precisely in narrative discourse (what Joseph later calls “the increasingly complicated ‘poetic space’ between ‘subject’ and ‘object’”) or the ways the self negotiates the stories of which it is part. Which pressures (personal, professional, poetic, and historical) form Joseph’s story, inform his questions, and shape the language in which he explores questions are what interest me here. Or, more precisely, the complexity of “the pressure of reality” (another Stevensian phrase) is what interests me, and — as I hope to indicate — what seems to be part of what interests Joseph in his poems, as well.
Surely shifts in legal theory inform Joseph’s developing poetics. However, despite the fact that this essay originally appeared in a law review, I am not here concerned with comparing literary and legal theories of narrative, even if it is worth noting that Joseph himself offered just such a comparison in his 1993 essay “Theories of Poetry, Theories of Law.” Still, what I want to discuss here is how the ways in which people were able to talk about “what is” shifted over the course of Joseph’s literary career to date. In particular, it is significant that Joseph’s first two books — Shouting at No One (1983) and Curriculum Vitae (1988) — appeared in the 1980s, when in the world of American poetry at least three theories about poetry’s task and about poetic language competed for poets’ attention. In other words, not only would Joseph’s professional c.v. have been different in 1983 and 1988 — the poems that appear in his first volume were written while Joseph was in law school and first entering the legal profession, while the poems in his second volume were largely written after he moved to New York City, first as a practicing lawyer and then as a teacher of law — but expectations about how poetry should sound and what it might hope to accomplish were at the time in flux and in contention. This would have been especially obvious to someone whose poetry was first published, as Joseph’s was, by the University of Pittsburgh Press, known in the 1980s for its championing of lyric poetry and especially of so-called poetries of witness, or testimonial poetry, which is to say poetry grounded in or representing the gritty experience of the less privileged, responding to calls heard more broadly in the academy as well as in poetry circles for previously underrepresented voices to be published, anthologized, and taught. Certainly to write the kind of poems Joseph wrote in the 1980s was to take a certain position on how poetic language should work as well as on what it should talk about.
Some background, then, on the literary battles of the late 1970s and the 1980s is useful here, before looking more closely at the work in Shouting at No One and Curriculum Vitae. There was in the period what many (some with praise and some with dismay) called a “mainstream” lyric style, sometimes called the style of the “scenic” lyric, meaning descriptive poems that become occasions for crafting intense, emotionally charged scenes or that aim at the effect of intensity. Richard Wilbur’s “Poetry and Happiness,” for example, remarks on poetry’s origin in the need for “deliberate human meaning,” and sees in poetry “a longing to possess the whole world, and … to feel it,” “to produce models of inclusive reaction,” and, at the same time, to offer a “discovery and projection of the self,” linking all of these impulses centrally to description and further linking descriptive power to a quest for “conversancy or congruence between self and world.” Wilbur goes on to address that which he thinks poetry arises from and nourishes in its readers, namely “a vital sense of community” and a “model of felt experience.” Between the mid-sixties and the mid-to-late eighties, Wilbur’s poetics (like the style of many of his poems, also closely allied with the scenic lyric) would hardly have surprised readers attuned to expressive theories of poetry in confessional verse, American versions of surrealism, or so-called deep image poetry, represented variously, along with Wilbur’s ideas about poetry, in Donald Hall’s anthology of essays on poetics, entitled Claims for Poetry, by writers such as Sandra Gilbert, Richard Hugo, W. S. Merwin, and Charles Simic.
On the other hand, Ron Silliman’s seminal piece “The New Sentence” — despite that fact that a shortened version of the 1979 essay is included in Hall’s collection and despite Silliman’s genealogical claims, looking back to the writings of William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein among others — sounded new in the late 1970s and early 1980s. At first blush, “The New Sentence” seems simply to dismiss Wilbur’s poetics, questioning the idea of selves, of reference, and of ordinary procedures for constructing human meaning, arguing for the “limiting of syllogistic movement [and for writing that] keeps the reader’s attention at or very close to the level of language, that is, most often at the sentence level or below”; Silliman thus promotes the ways in which what is now called Language poetry resists — even as it calls attention to — more typical or less self-conscious forms of reading that involve “linguistic integration.” Yet Silliman also insists on the ways the poetry he admires can “suggest the internal [i.e., syntactical] presence of once exteriorized poetic forms” and “incorporate [while defamiliarizing; Silliman might add rematerializing by recontextualizing] “ordinary sentences of the material world.” There are also implicit truth claims made about Language poetry’s representational power, however stylistically unconventional; of Stein’s “Custard,” for example, Silliman writes: “The portrait of custard is marvelously accurate.” This is in part a joke, since custard is a perfect emblem of instability, despite Silliman’s skepticism about language as stable or referential. It is also in part an act of defamiliarization, since the literary style of Stein’s portraits is not what we think of as representational. Yet the claim to “accuracy” remains. Finally, too, Silliman’s essay focuses on “the collective work and interinfluence” of his poetic community’s endeavor, which, he implies, thus connects writers with one another, while the community’s “new sentences” are meant to refashion readers’ awareness not so much of the languages of the everyday world but of how reading normally moves from language (or away from language) to integrative meaning.
The above précis flatten Wilbur’s and Silliman’s poetics in some ways while, I hope, still making clear that Wilbur and Silliman have quite different responses to “integration” or “congruence” or “feeling” in or as the goal of poetry. Most distinctively, perhaps, in opposition to Wilbur’s emphasis on feeling (or “felt experience”), Silliman replaces the rhetoric of feeling or emotion with that of “ambiguity and polysemy,” features of language, or of the interaction of language and reader, not of individual subjective states. At the same time, both Wilbur and Silliman focus on the tendency to move toward integration or meaning, especially while reading or writing poetry, even if the former wants to celebrate and the latter to resist this tendency. Further, although Wilbur proposes a range of projects for poetry (from praise of the outside world to self-discovery) and Silliman focuses how language is processed by readers, a more overtly interactive image of the relationship between worlds and selves, both see the border between worlds and selves as poetry’s territory (even if speaking of “world” and “self” introduces a vocabulary Silliman’s early writings eschew). Indeed, Silliman’s “world” — that with which poetry connects a reader — is first linguistic, not that toward which language might be understood to gesture. Nor is Silliman’s “self” Wilbur’s, but closer to what Jed Rasula — also associated with Language poetry — describes when he writes that “subjectivity is simply the most acutely engineered of … our technologies.” Still, even Rasula’s use of the personal pronoun (“our”) and his assumptions about the political work done by Language poetry, as that which unmasks the internalized operations of late capitalism, make claims about how agency and truth-telling are central to poetry, claims — unlike the poetic style promoted by Silliman and Rasula — with which Wilbur would not wholly disagree.
There were other positions about what good poetry should do and sound like staked out in the eighties, schools that saw themselves opposed to both Language poetry and to at least some scenic lyric. For my purposes here, the most interesting was the short-lived (or at least short-lived theorization of the) school of so-called New Narrative poetry, related to New Formalist poetry, and featured in Mark Jarman and Robert McDowell’s journal The Reaper (published from 1981 to 1989), which resisted what was seen as the “navel-gazing” of free verse scenic lyrics and promoted images used in service of what Jarman at the time thought of as more accessible or populist poetry, poetry that could memorably tell stories (by which Jarman and his coeditors meant that poems could and should capture their readers’ attention by paying more attention to characters and story than to narration). The exchanges between proponents of these different schools tended to be acrimonious. Still, looking at the ways in which Jarman, Wilbur, and Silliman or Rasula locate poetic power actually underlines how their claims are not only that poetry concerns “what is” (aiming at some form of “accuracy” or truth telling) but also that “what is” finally involves the meeting of what might be called an agent with a world (social, linguistic, or material), a meeting arrived at — or described — in terms of feeling or seeing, even if seeing, in Silliman’s case, is most often related to seeing through the usual ways in which we represent inner and outer worlds.
So what has the above to do with the poetry of Lawrence Joseph? I began with two portraits of Joseph in order to talk about literary definitions of story and narrative, as well as to discuss how these definitions raise ontological and epistemological questions. I then turned to a different genre, poetry rather than biographical sketches. I noted, first, that rhetorical style in poetry comes with its own entailments insofar as poets and poetry readers explicitly attribute different kinds of significance to different poetic styles. While I also argued that there was some perhaps surprising agreement among poets about the ends of poetry, it is also almost certainly true that most of those on whose essays I have drawn would not accept my sense that they agree with one another. And they certainly did not in the 1980s agree on how poetry should work or sound, even if they all assume that poetry is a site for negotiating between individual selves (however the self is defined) and some outside world (however that world is defined). In short, I proposed that there seems to have been agreement about what poetry is for, namely to negotiate — or model the negotiation — between individual subjects and the world in a way that centrally involves feeling or insight. At the same time, textual practices distinguish different types of poetry, and — although these different practices may move different communities of readers in similar ways — the style of poems matters. Finally, I offered the above short digression on American poetry in the 1980s in order to show that the way in which style matters is culturally defined, shifting over time as well as over cultures. So, to read Shouting at No One and Curriculum Vitae as they were first read requires knowing that both volumes would have been seen by their first readers as forms of scenic lyric and as involved with the identity politics of the period, and that Joseph would have known this.
I will concentrate here on the first volume, not because Joseph’s first two books are indistinguishable but because it is the book that first set readers’ expectations about the kind of poetry he wrote and because both of the first two books were written and circulated in roughly the same literary world. The poems in Shouting at No One most obviously root themselves in Detroit, with references to factory work, to class and racial divides, and to the Detroit riots. We are invited to read the poems as at least quasi-autobiographical, despite the fact that the first person is not always used. Still, the very first poem of the volume, “Then,” tells the story of Joseph Joseph fleeing Joseph’s Food Market while “fire was eating half / Detroit” (7). The story told (or as told) is not simply that of Joseph Joseph, however, nor of his father, who is also described. It is more broadly a poem about the breakdown of civic order in Detroit. “Had you been there,” the poem says, “[y]ou would simply have shaken your head / at the tenement named ‘Barbara’ in flames / or the Guardsman with an M-16 / looking in the window of Dave’s Playboy Barbershop” (7). Including sites from “Dave’s” to “Van Dyke Avenue” or “UAW Local 89” (in “Driving Again,” 9) to “the 7-Up Cadillac Bar” (“I Had No More To Say,” 11), the poems consistently mention the particulars of working-class or lower-middle-class life in a working- or lower-middle-class city. On first reading, then, the details establish the poems’ ability to bear witness to the broken lives and the broken city, as well as proposing a connection between lives and places.
How to bear witness is a question that is not explicitly raised, but it is a question that the poems might lead us to ask, especially in light of the above-mentioned arguments in national literary circles about poetic style and about what might count as “accuracy” when it comes to language or to representing worlds and people. For example, the narrator tacitly provides us with one of his purposes in “It Will Rain All Day,” which asks:
do I want, driving through streets
past bars where fifty-year-old
truck drivers sip whiskey
and don’t feel like talking,
past houses where chimney smoke
reveals fires and rooms I will
never know? (17)
The narrator in the passage above explicitly says there is some knowledge about others — other lives or ways of living — he does not have. At the same time, he knowingly states the age of the truck drivers in their cups, and he knows how they feel (they “don’t feel like talking”). While the latter gesture both shows the narrator’s empathy and draws us in precisely by not claiming to know everything, one can still say that the truckers essentially serve as telling details just as the various named Detroit bars, factories, and streets do. There is a larger cast of characters in Shouting at No One: not just truckers or Joseph Joseph or immigrant memories of Lebanon (see “The Phoenix Has Come to a Mountain in Lebanon,” 25–29) — details that we are again invited to associate with Joseph’s personal history — but others like “Thigpen” (15), “Lopez” (21), “Louie, Son of Hanna Francis” (31), “Youmna” (33), and “Khatchig Gaboudabian” (36) are named. Again, this is a form of testimony, yet at the same time we, like the narrator in “It Will Rain All Day,” encounter the marginalized people of Detroit as part of the urban environment’s resistance to meaning, part of what we “will / never know.” Indeed, “It Will Rain All Day” ends:
I want to look
into the black eyes of the lone woman
waiting for a bus and say
something. I want my memory
to hold this air, so I can make
the hills with white hair
and the clouds breaking into blackness
my own, carry them with me
like the letters and icons
immigrants take in suitcases
to strange countries. (18)
The narrator here gives voice to one of the book’s desires (and that it is described as a desire suggests it is unfulfilled), namely the desire to look others in the eye, to be able to speak to as well as about others (“to say / something” instead of, as the title poem has it, “shouting at no one” ) and to lodge what is witnessed in the speaker’s and the reader’s memories. That is, in effect, the speaker’s feelings not only testify to his response to urban blight, but also are offered to the reader, feelings that range from rage (the first poem ends with a “voice howling” ; see also “Not Yet” ) to despair — a fog erasing the details witnessed “says, / Who will save / Detroit now?” (33), as if bearing witness could be a form of salvation — to hatred and fear. In “There Is a God Who Hates Us So Much,” the narrator says: “I was a system of laws / I hated, a boy / afraid of burning / in a city that was burning” (47), presumably drawing on Joseph’s own Catholic upbringing but also referring to the various codes — religious, civic, and legal (if not yet explicitly stylistic or linguistic) — that seem to do no good.
The book’s poems, however, do tacitly propose to do some good precisely by bearing witness to both the speaker’s inner “burning” and to Detroit’s other burnt-out citizens, and in calling attention to what has set these fires burning. The poetics, further, are closely tied to the way visual images and local details are used, familiar from the work of other poets like the early poems of Galway Kinnell (for example in The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World) or of James Wright, as well as of Philip Levine, another poet whose work is commonly identified with Detroit. As an example, let me take one of Levine’s best known poems, “You Can Have It,” which chronicles the speaker’s brother, age twenty in 1948, home after a late shift at an ice plant with “hands / yellowed and cracked” and “crusted with dirt / and sweat” (64). Following his references to Detroit as a (Ford) company town, and to idiomatic speech (the title draws on the brother’s verdict on his life), toward the end of Levine’s poem he offers images that — like the images of hills and clouds and the simile comparing a sense of having a place to other more physical signs of personal contact like icons or letters at the end of Joseph’s “It Will Rain All Day” — give us a moment of urban pastoral:
The city slept. The snow turned to ice.
The ice to standing pools or rivers
racing in the gutters. Then bright grass rose
between the thousands of cracked squares,
and that grass died. (65)
With a nod to Whitman’s leaves of grass (as well as to Wordsworth’s London seen from Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802), Levine’s transparent speaker most obviously stands in for a larger sociopolitical class. Still, Levine’s snow and ice, his stagnant pools, gutters, cracked pavement, and dead grass, are offered as images of themselves, as metonymic. If the “gutter” and the “cracks” tempt us to more metaphorical articulations — these are the lives of people who have fallen through the cracks or into the gutter — the sheer amount of detail allows readers only a momentary glimpse of a symbolic register. To draw for a moment on psycholinguistics, at the stanza break we perform a “breadth-first search” (gathering the ways in which ice and sun, a sleeping city, a river, and “bright grass” might invoke Wordsworth’s London all “bright and glittering,” its “river glid[ing],” and its “very houses seem[ing] asleep” or Williams’s frozen dirt and grass in poems like the 1930 “The Flower” or, again, Whitman’s leaves of grass) before the syntax pushes us on to a “depth-first search” that “gambles … about the alternative most likely to be true.” Poems like Levine’s (perhaps all poems) depend on the fact that some of the alternatives ruled out will nonetheless resonate in a reader’s consciousness. But finally Levine’s gutters and cracks are from Detroit, not from Williams or Whitman or Wordsworth, although the way in which such details are used is drawn from earlier poets, especially when the idiomatic American expression — the working-class voice and gesture — of the title are taken into consideration. That is, Levine’s language is identifiably poetic language in large part because it sounds (and works) like the language in other poems (in Levine’s case, especially Williams’s language), including the ways in which it both flirts with and resists certain modes of symbolic identification. Many of the details in Joseph’s early poems, like “the barbed wire, rusting / scraps, stacks / and stacks of pallets” (from “Fog,” 33), work similarly.
More importantly, what is at stake in the style of such lyrics is the tacit claim that the poem can make its audience feel how the aesthetic and the social complement (or perhaps voice) one another. To quote Robert Kaufman, left critiques of less accessible poetry tend to rest on “an essentially Enlightenment and progressive notion that useful presentations of social, political, historical, and cultural reality should be offered in as clear and communicable a manner as possible — so that the greatest possible number of people can share in such knowledge (and so that they can, should they so decide, attempt to use that knowledge to change the world).” In part, the poems in Shouting at No One fulfill such calls for clear, accessible presentations with the further hope that readers share the feeling of the speaker, that they, like the speaker, feel angry about how the city offers its citizens no redemption outside of places like the “Resurrection Lounge” (“Do What You Can,” 57), with the corollary that they feel themselves able to act on their felt knowledge. There is, however, also another way of reading the poems, as attempts to restore passions deflected or repressed. On this reading, we, as readers, eavesdrop on a more intimate conversation, although presumably with similar results for us, namely that through an act of compassion we feel with the dramatized speaker for the disenfranchised, including at times the speaker himself, made human and humanly engaging in the poems. Like the style and the poetics, the ideological underpinnings, or hopes, of these poems are that the aesthetic and the process of writing can open a new subject position for both writer and reader. Such hopes about what poems can do are perhaps most succinctly stated in a passage from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” where William Carlos Williams insists: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”
When Curriculum Vitae appeared in 1988, it seemed to operate similarly, although, as the first poem of the volume makes explicit, the primary setting changed to “New York City, / during the nineteen eighties” (66). Cambridge, London, and (again) Detroit also appear in some of the poems. The sense of personal, scenic lyric still remains, however. The title poem opens, “I might have born in Beirut, / not Detroit” (69) and continues on to say “I remain many different people / whose families populate half Detroit” (70); “In This Time” returns not only to Detroit but to Catholic school Latin lessons (84) while issues of race, class, and personal identity circulate even more explicitly through lyrics like “Sand Nigger” (90–92). “Let Us Pray” begins, starkly, “My name is Lawrence Joseph” (108). At the same time, the world of Curriculum Vitae is larger than that of Shouting at No One, not simply because of the multiple settings but because there are more references both to what might be called the national news — interest rates, war, television broadcasts, bits of overheard speech — and to what might be called an interior life, that is, among other things, to books and authors, such as Céline (97), Simone Weil (100), Saint Augustine (102), and Baudelaire (107). Whereas the focus and language of Shouting at No One appear bound to the poet’s Detroit, Curriculum Vitae, at least tacitly, seems both to align itself with issues we would now say are issues of identity politics in the style of the scenic lyric and, at the same time, to question that alignment. Or at least this is the effect when we return to the quotation from Wallace Stevens that prefaces the volume: “Both in nature and in metaphor identity is the vanishing-point of resemblance.” Stevens did not quite mean by “identity” what we might mean by talking about personal or ethnic identity. His is a more metaphysical claim, among other things about the differences between things and things as seen, like the difference between story and narrative, which Stevens saw as opening a gap that sparked the imagination and so poetry. Joseph’s knowing adaptation of Stevens’s aphorism is itself an example of Stevens’s point, which is to say it opens a gap between what Stevens presumably meant and the connotations brought to mind by the use of the word “identity” in the US in 1988, when the book appeared. The poems, the style of the poems in the late eighties, and the very title of the volume first focus us on the problem of defining a social or personal self, but they also show us a world where one’s past and one’s social identities (as Lebanese-American, as lawyer, as formerly lower-middle-class) do not seem easily summed up; the book thus questions the way biographical sketches or curriculum vitae seem to freeze and so misrepresent selves that are not captured by bare or static lists of facts. These poems do still present themselves as a form of bearing witness, but with an increasing emphasis on the ways world and narrator are in flux in themselves as well as in relationship to one another. In other words, the pressures of reality and the language of individuals pressing back are not represented as unchanging.
In the nineties, moreover, things again changed in the world of poetry as in the actual world. Ideas about the fluidity of the self and styles seen to acknowledge that fluidity were suddenly everywhere. In 1998 and 1999, Stephen Burt was asked to introduce recent American poets to British readers and challenged “to invent a school”; half tongue-in-cheek, he introduced the term “Elliptical poets” to characterize younger American poets. On Burt’s account, Elliptical poets are those centrally concerned with questions of epistemology and language, who avoid straightforward narratives or confessional lyrics, and yet who use Language writing of the sort Silliman champions, or at least “a ‘Stein tradition’ of dissolve and fracture,” as a resource, rather than to bolster or embody a theoretical position. When Burt’s essay “The Elliptical Poets” first appeared, it circulated widely not so much because it announced a new school (despite the question under the title of the article on the journal’s cover, “new school or new spin?”) but because it seemed to affirm what most readers of journals featuring American poetry in the nineties already heard: a shift in younger poets’ practices, which no longer were informed by (even if many were aware of) the more theoretically driven battles over poetry in the eighties between New Narrative, New Formalist, Language, and so-called mainstream poets. If, then, Joseph’s third book, Before Our Eyes — published early in the decade — sounds a bit different, one might speculate that he was not only developing his thinking about the questions of self and identity first framed in his earlier volumes but also well aware of the new options abroad for what poetry raising such questions might sound like.
An interest in language per se and an awareness of debates about the significance of poetic style clearly surfaces in Before Our Eyes. The first poem, also the title poem, is in conversation with then-current theories about poetry. Before Our Eyes opens with a striking visual description of sky and weather and the look of a landscape, including the “pink flesh” of fish in a fish shop, but then turns explicitly to talk about both social and poetic linguistic codes:
The point is to bring
depths to the surface, to elevate
sensuous experience into speech
and the social contract. …
By written I mean made, by made I mean felt;
So you will be, perhaps appropriately,
dismissed for it, a morality of seeing[.] (125)
In this passage, what is “before our eyes” as readers is speech, which we are told is itself sensuous: felt and constructed. As “Admissions Against Interest” puts it, the narrator of these poems is “late at [his] singing, / too much to the point, but now [he’s] seeing / words are talk and words themselves / forms of feeling” (134). That is, the words of the poems no longer simply focus us on description or use telling details as they were used in the first two volumes. We have, at least as often, details about the act of telling. On the one hand, this is no surprise. Before Our Eyes appeared in the nineties; it was not a University of Pittsburgh publication but from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in New York; and it addressed readers whose ears were by then attuned to what Burt later called poems centrally concerned with questions of epistemology and theories of language. On the other hand, the book neither gives up on subjectivity (in the sense of representing interiority) nor abandons the suggestion that however difficult to represent or malleable they might be, there are both social and physical worlds with which subjects interact and by which they are formed even as they reform what is seen in language. As Joseph puts it in “In a Fit of My Own Vividness”: “It’s hard to throw off what you’re subject to” (157), presumably including both the sense that there is a world that impinges on you and the sense that you are a subject. Importantly, this is not the left-leaning Enlightenment view, with its prescribed style seen by Kaufman to inform scenic lyrics. As Joseph writes in “Movement in the Distance Is Larger Up Close”: “Enlightenment? I’ve got mine, you’ve got yours” (173). But it is not quite Language poetry, either. It is “too much to the point.” Nor is it Burt’s Elliptical poetry (which Craig Arnold cuttingly characterizes as “Language-Lite”) insofar as it is committed to representation and to skepticism — and to thinking about both commitments. The poems say that “[t]hat language doesn’t work / anymore, its century is over,” that “[o]nly money / and credit move around, part of the future,” and that if money is what counts, poetry may not: “never expect to make hard cash from a poem” (“Just That,” 169). Yet the poems nonetheless press back against such skepticism with their insistence on “the morality of seeing” and their refusal to deny that there are moments when self, world, and language seem (even for skeptics) to converge.
It is not skepticism alone but a “violence without” — Stevens’s phrase — against which the poems found in Joseph’s fourth book of poetry, Into It, most clearly “press back.” At the same time, pressing back against the world’s political and socioeconomic violence after 9/11 increases the worry heard in Before Our Eyes that conditions do not seem auspicious for poetry:
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.
What is seen, heard, and imagined
at the same time — that truth. (“Inclined to Speak,” 12)
Joseph’s syntax in this passage presents the poem itself as a conversation, or as conversational, not as descriptive per se, although there is also a distant echo of Pound’s definition of the image (“that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time”). More explicitly, pleasure (tacitly, beauty as well) is offered as what the times may need and even, insofar as what is “seen, heard, and imagined” is what is truly known, as a form of truth. Yet the violence of the times does not disappear from view or from consideration in these poems, by any means. In the title poem that opens the volume, “In It, Into It, Inside It, Down In,” a woman’s voice, in Williamsesque plain speech, asks why “the weight of violence / is unparalleled in the history / of the species” (4), even as the next poem, “When One Is Feeling One’s Way,” counters: “So what else is new? … Nothing but the same resistance / since the time of the Gracchi” (6).
Indeed, the epigraph to Into It comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses: “give me the voice / To tell the shifting story.” Joseph thus focuses on what could already be heard in Before Our Eyes, namely a metadiscourse on image and narrative in poetry, even as the poems themselves do sing, do remain lyrical. More precisely, although Into It still uses and is still concerned with image (“clear, painted language”) and with those “places where the narratives began … there, / too, in the rain” (“The Bronze-Green Gold-Green Foreground,” 9), the poems are as focused on voice — offering a kind of rigorous meditation on history and the self’s ability to thrive — as on image or on story or storytelling.
At the same time, throughout the book, there remains a self-consciousness about how, more specifically and more contemporaneously, the stories-as-told of Americans with Arab backgrounds (like Joseph) shifted and are still shifting after 9/11. As “The Pattern-Parallel Map or Graph” — a poem that opens with images of detritus on Canal Street, but also includes Apuleius’s story of Eros and Psyche and cites Stevens’s commonplace book on necessity or fate — puts it, the poems attempt:
a linear polyphony forming harmonies in strange
developments. All kinds of different stuff, mixed
and fused, is where it’s at, chunks of vibrato …
Simultaneity requires the use of a topological
The “stuff” in question is not simply the aftermath of the World Trade Center’s collapse or the “strange / harmonies” of New York after 9/11, Apuleius, and Stevens. It is also the stuff of language, of the languages with which we position ourselves in the world. Throughout the volume, the voice of Into It tries on a series of personal, public, and literary languages, from the caustically dismissed “turgid language / of pseudoerudition (thugs, / … false-voiced God-talkers and power freaks / who think not at all about what they bring down)” (“When One Is Feeling One’s Way,” 6–7) to the descriptive language that paints urban beauty closely observed in a Precisionist manner — “half dark blue moon, half copper, / black stripes across it, above a round / neon clock next to the red and white / billboard in the shape of a toothpaste box” (“August Abstract,” 22) to the plain diction and largely end-stopped lines of Wordsworthian, Levine-like memory or testimony, reminiscent of Joseph’s earlier poetry:
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[.] (“Why Not Say What Happens?,” 29)
As Joseph writes in “Woodward Avenue”:
Like the man said. So many selves —
the one who detects the sound of a voice,
that voice — the voice that compounds
his voice — that self obedient to that fate,
increased, enlarged, transparent, changing. (18)
The self and its languages may be constantly changing in a changing and fractured world, the fractures by 2005 a matter not just of ontological or epistemological doubt but of historical fact. Finally, it is unclear whether the angle of vision in such a world determines truth or whether “[t]ruth determine[s] alchemies of light” (22). That is, as the question is posed in “Unyieldingly Present,” which speaks of those who fell from the twin towers: “Is it that reality, disjointed, / cannot be discerned, or that consciousness, / disjointed, cannot discern it?” (36). Joseph’s project is thus not just to write a poetry of “light and sorrow and dream … / [and] discourse” (50), all in flux — although it is that. What Joseph seems also to want to see “into” are the workings of the public and historical realm, even if (in an echo of Baudelaire’s or Eliot’s “unreal city”) he writes that it is “unreal, the extent to which / all political discourse is the same. Legal relations / arising out of economic relations — Engels, isn’t it?” (60). Engels appears not to explain but to show the poet trying on languages that might seem more real, more explanatory, only to conclude that “the era of after, or postmodernism — has proven / more difficult to configure” (“History For Another Time,” 60). The attempt to forge a poetry that can simultaneously think about and resist that unreality is most clearly framed in the poem that returns us to the epigraph from Ovid, “Metamorphoses (After Ovid)”:
Sometimes I feel a little dizzy, even
structurally unstable. The world once more
the means by which the meek are to be
brought to their knees, Not the poet
shifting simplicities, shifting the props. (52)
And yet, Joseph adds, “I compose as I feel” (52). In other words, these poems record the work of connecting the self to the world (both moving targets) feelingly. For Joseph in this book, as opposed to the testimonials of his earlier books, the “code changed” (9) and (in the penultimate poem) “The Game Changed.” The stakes seem to have been raised by such changes:
The intent is to make a large, serious
portrait of my time. The sun on the market
near Bowling Green, something red, something
purple, bunches of roses and lilacs. A local
issue for those of us in the neighborhood.
Not to know what it is you’re breathing
in a week when Black Hawk helicopters resume
patrolling the harbor.
Neither impenetrable opacity
nor absolute transparency. I know what I’m after.
A continuity in which everything is transition.
To repeat it because it’s worth repeating. Immanence —
an immanence and a happiness. (64–65)
The pun in “I know what I’m after” is telling; that is, Joseph writes after modernism, after 9/11, but also knows what he wants, which might be characterized as the contemporary equivalent of what Stevens’s “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” calls for in modern poetry: “It Must Be Abstract,” “It Must Change,” “It Must Give Pleasure.” The immanence to which Into It keeps alluding seems to be the merging of the eye and ear and feeling mind with the realities, the stories, that have escaped public and political discourse. One suspects this quest for a poetic world and language sufficient to resist or press back against the pressures of the times informs the persistent use of the deictic in these poems, as in the final poem, “Once Again,” which points us to “the sky / a current carrying us along, / heavy with that green and that black” (66, emphasis added).
Although Joseph does not mention Adorno’s skepticism about whether after Auschwitz — now, we might add, after 9/11 or postmodernism — lyric poetry can be written, he tacitly suggests a response to that skepticism, tracing how in the world of violence and (to use his post-Yeatsian term) disjointedness, poetry must be written to salvage an economy of feeling and reflection, one that can be set against larger intractable, inhuman, forces. In “Theories of Poetry, Theories of Law,” Joseph wrote that the “modernist self is partly constituted by language. Subjectivity does not exist on the surface of mirror-like language, but in the recesses of meaning expressed by new forms.” In light of his renewal of received styles in Into It, one might say that Joseph’s work is “after modernism,” which is not the same as being postmodern; the act of constructing the self (not the self or world narratively constructed or deconstructed and not self or world lyrically staged) is what the poems feature. As he puts it in the previously quoted passage from “The Game Changed”: “The intent is to make a large, serious / portrait of my time. The sun on the market”; this is a new, more self-conscious version of Adorno’s claim, from which I take the title of this essay, that lyric poems are “philosophical sundial[s] telling the time of history,” precisely by letting us read the shifting shadows cast by the pressures of reality. In Joseph’s poem, we read the act of reading, as well.
4. Indeed, the “what” and the “how” — “how to tell what one has to tell” — forms Gertrude Stein’s definition of “narration,” quoted by Lawrence Joseph as the second of his “Working Rules for Lawyerland” in the Columbia Law Review, vol. 101 (November 2, 2001): 1793.
7. The description of the circumstances under which the poems in Joseph’s first two volumes were written is taken from David A. Skeel Jr., “Practicing Poetry, Teaching Law,” Michigan Law Review 29, no. 6 (May 1994): 1755–56.
9. Richard Wilbur, “Poetry and Happiness,” in Claims For Poetry, ed. Donald Hall (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1982), 470–71, 476, 480. Although Wilbur’s essay was written in 1966, it nicely encapsulates assumptions informing what was celebrated or deplored as “mainstream poetry” through at least the 1980s.
12. Ibid., 394, 396. Those associated with this school would include Clark Coolidge, Bob Perelman, Barrett Watten, and Charles Bernstein, who coedited L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (published from 1978 to 1981 and collected by 1984 in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, in which a longer version of Silliman’s essay “The New Sentence” appeared).
13. Silliman, “The New Sentence,” 391. Stein’s portrait of custard — from Tender Buttons and quoted by Silliman on page 390 of “The New Sentence” — reads in its entirety as follows: “Custard is this. It has aches, aches when. Not to be. Not to be narrowly. This makes a whole little hill. It is better than a little thing that has mellow real mellow. It is better than lakes whole lakes, it is better than seeding.”
17. See D. G. Myers, The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880 (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1996), 163. See also Vernon Shetley’s trenchant analysis of the most audible debates of the eighties in After the Death of Poetry: Poet and Audience in Contemporary America (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), especially 19–20, 26–29, and the concluding chapters.
18. Shouting at No One appeared in 1983 from the University of Pittsburgh Press; it is reprinted in Lawrence Joseph, Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos: Poems 1973–1993 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005). Although, as I have noted, publication in the eighties by the University of Pittsburgh Press would have called forth different expectations from readers than would publication by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2005, citations are from the latter, more readily available volume.
19. “You Can Have It” was first published in Antaeus 30, no. 3 (1978): 113–14, and collected in the 1979 7 Years from Somewhere (New York: Atheneum), 64–65, from which I quote here. It also appears in the fourth edition of The Norton Anthology of Poetry, ed. Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter, and Jon Stallworthy (New York: Norton, 1996), 1650–51.
21. See Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language (New York: Harper Perennial, 1995). Pinker’s work was first brought to my attention by Ellen Bryant Voight, The Flexible Lyric (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1999), 123, from which I quote. William Wordsworth’s lines come from “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802”; William Carlos Williams’s “The Flower” appears in The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, vol. 1, ed. A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan (New York: New Directions, 1986), 322–25. The reference is to lines 11–22 of “The Flower.”
22. Robert Kaufman, “Sociopolitical (i.e. Romantic) Difficulty in Modern Poetry and Aesthetics,” Romanticism and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics (June 2003), Romantic Praxis Series, ed. Orrin Wang, para. 6.
26. I am not, I would add, suggesting that Joseph was specifically influenced by particular writers in the nineties. Rather, I’m suggesting that he knew his readers could hear what Burt calls a style of Steinian (for Joseph this would also be Stevensian) “dissolve and fracture” without immediately hearing the kinds of theoretical assumptions, including challenges to the very idea of subjectivity or feeling, with which such a style had earlier been associated. At the same time, it seems clear that the changes I find in the style of the poems in Before Our Eyes owe something to Joseph’s reading of John Ashbery’s poetry. He describes reading Ashbery’s poems in a 1992 review as follows: reading Ashbery is “like listening to an intriguing conversation, or returning to a piece of music whose powers you’re convinced of, to listen to parts of it, or the whole in relation to the parts — like focusing, for example, on the interstices between abstraction and figuration in a Modernist painting.” See Joseph, “The Real Thing,” The Nation 254, no. 15 (April 20, 1992): 531.
29. Lawrence Joseph, Into It (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005). All quotations are from this edition. The discussion of Into It that follows draws on Lisa M. Steinman, “So What Is Poetry Good For?,” Michigan Quarterly Review 45, no. 3 (Summer 2006): 544–59.
31. Baudelaire’s 1857 “Les Sept Vieillards” appears in “Tableaux parisiens,” part of Les Fleurs du Mal, and is cited in Eliot’s footnotes for The Waste Land (line 60). Eliot’s poem is widely reprinted, for instance in The Norton Anthology, where the passage in question appears on 1238.
34. I take my title from Theodor W. Adorno’s “On Lyric Poetry and Society,” reprinted in Adorno, Notes to Literature, vol. 1, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 46, where Adorno’s reading of two poems in order to illustrate his sense of how lyric poetry works is prefaced by his warning that “we are concerned not with the poet as a private person, not with his psychology or his so-called social perspective, but with the poem as a philosophical sundial telling the time of history.”
The books and selves of Lawrence Joseph
Critics often introduce Lawrence Joseph through his biography. David Kirby’s 2005 review of Codes and Into It for the New York Times, for example, musters geography, ethnicity, religion, and the law to make the poet seem at once exotic and familiar. First we meet Joseph the lawyer-poet: a hybrid guaranteed, even now, to catch the reader’s eye. (Twenty years ago David Lehman introduced Joseph to Newsweek readers in just the same way: “Do poetry and the law make strange bedfellows? Lawrence Joseph thinks not.”) Next, in a flashback paragraph, we learn that the poet “was born in Detroit in 1948, the grandchild of Lebanese and Syrian Catholics” and that his poems “speak of his family’s often trying experiences: the slights […] and the violence, especially the 1967 riot that left sections of downtown gutted and the wounding of his father, a grocer, in a 1970 holdup attempt.” After this appeal to pathos Kirby sketches Joseph’s literary career in chatty, even chummy language. “Not surprisingly, Joseph’s earlier writings include a lot of who-am-I poems,” the critic begins; over time, those evolve into the world-weary observations of an urbane attorney. “[A]s Joseph the lawyer makes his way up the ladder,” we learn, “Joseph the poet begins to use phrases like ‘financial markets’ and ‘decreased foreign investment’” and “the voice in the poems expresses malaise: ‘I make favors, complain, wear / a white shirt and blue suit. I’m tired.’”
But to introduce Joseph as “[t]he Catholic, Lebanese son of a Depression-era auto worker in Detroit,” as Michael True calls him in Commonweal, or as a grandson of immigrants who “himself worked in the auto plants,” as David Wojahn ups the ante in Writer’s Chronicle, is not simply to wrap him in the familiar contexts of ethnic identity and working-class authenticity. Nor, pace Kirby, need it merely inscribe him in a twice-told tale of social mobility and its discontents. This sort of introduction can also place him in a literary context. “It is not surprising, given his background, that his early work is considerably influenced by Philip Levine” Wojahn thus tells his readers; “[l]ike Philip Levine, that other Detroit poet,” writes Paul Mariani in America, Joseph begins by invoking urban particulars: “the 7-Up Cadillac Bar, Our Lady of Redemption Melchite Catholic Church, Seminole and Charlevoix and Mack Avenues,” and so on. As Joseph leaves behind this “skillfully rendered but familiar sort of personal lyric” for a more jagged, elusive, collagist poetics marked by “jump-cuts” and a “lashing together of lyric reflection with snippets of testimony,” he does so as part of a broader, decade-defining turn in American verse. “The sensibility at work in Joseph’s poems,” Roger Gilbert explains in his review of Before Our Eyes, “is that of a troubled aesthete, a connoisseur of light and color who keeps reminding himself that people are dying in the streets. The note has become a familiar one in recent poetry.” On this account, Joseph evolves from a patently autobiographical ethnic and regional poet such as Levine into a poet of “textured information” more readily comparable to Robert Hass, Jorie Graham, and Ann Lauterbach — all poets who write in the “disjunctive, contrapuntal, nervously skittering” poetry that Gilbert identifies as the “period style” of the 1980s.
This contextual narrative places Joseph both in time and in space. It makes the transition in his work correspond, more or less, to his relocation from Detroit to New York City; it lets him stand as a chronicler not only of the social reality that has surrounded him, but also of the changes in literary fashion. Nowhere in this story, however, do we hear about the ways that Joseph’s early work already stands back from the 1970s “personal lyric,” whether by embedding poems from this mode into mythic, high-modernist contexts, or (a volume later) questioning both the personal lyric as genre and the vision of selfhood it depends upon. Neither do we learn from it how his more recent books return to and revitalize that early religious, even visionary mode, bringing glimpses of unexpected depth beneath (or above, or within) the jostling surfaces common in poetry of “textured information.” The reductive smoothness of this contextual introduction, that is to say, needs to be ruffled by a counternarrative, one that accounts for the complexities within each volume, and also for the dramas of departure and return that constitute Joseph’s “breaking of style” from poem to poem, book to book, and literary self to literary self.
Tracing this counternarrative, we discover a poet who is a far less autobiographical, far more consciously fictive character than critics have described. Perhaps we should have expected this. “The ‘I’ in the poems,” Joseph has insisted, “is Rimbaud’s modernist ‘The I is another.’” But this spare, allusive proviso does not prepare us for the artful distance the poet maintains from the selves that he variously mythologizes and debunks, brings into focus and plucks from our grasp, in each new collection. The unit of composition for Joseph proves to be as much the book as it is the standalone lyric. Each collection revolves around a different central concern; or, rather, given the dialectical nature of Joseph’s imagination, each mulls over or works through its own distinctive set of “refractory contraries,” generally signaled by the opening gestures of each volume. To appreciate the poems in any given book, you need to read them in light of their titles, epigraphs, or opening poems, with those contraries at stake. To give each successive volume its due, you need to see how it introduces the poet freshly to his readers, not least by repeating and varying each introduction that has come before. In this essay, I will trace these selves and self-introductions in Joseph’s first three books, which function as a sort of triptych. The self we see at the close of Before Our Eyes is, to my mind, essentially the same as the one we encounter a dozen years later in Into It, however violently the world surrounding that self has changed.
“I was appointed the poet of heaven”: Shouting at No One
Clues to this contrapuntal story can be found in the few poetics statements and interviews that Joseph has used to contextualize his work. Compared to his contemporaries — Heather McHugh, for example, or Barrett Watten, both born, like Joseph, in 1948 — he has offered few such documents; given this scarcity, the consistency of the few we have takes on particular significance. In them, Joseph has doggedly insisted that his work be read in the contexts of international modernism, not just recent American literature. When interviewer Charles Graeber remarks that Joseph’s early poetry “reminds me topically of Philip Levine’s Detroit poems,” for example, the poet patiently counters that those pieces lie, instead, “in the tradition of post-Baudelairian ‘city’ poetry,” so that “ Detroit’ is, in the book, essentially metaphorical — an emblem, or code.” “I consider myself in the tradition of American poets who have written not only out of the American tradition, but out of traditions other than our own,” Joseph told the Poetry Society of America in 1998. When Contemporary Authors invited him to describe his poetry to the students who consult this reference resource, Joseph explained that he dreams of “embodying a cosmopolitanism.” The gathering of apothegms, observations, and epigrams he calls “Notions of Poetry and Narration” features more than a dozen European and Levantine authors, from Apollinaire, Brecht, Cavafy, and Dante to Ferdinand Pessoa and Christa Wolf. One figure in particular, the Italian modernist Eugenio Montale, gets quoted or cited fourteen times, making him a presence second only to Wallace Stevens in this crucial collagetext. (There is no sign at all of Philip Levine, Robert Hass, Jorie Graham, or Ann Lauterbach.)
Among the Montalean sources Joseph quotes is the germinal essay “Reading Montale” by the poet, translator, and editor Jonathan Galassi. The essay proves a useful guide to the untitled, italicized poem that opens Joseph’s first book, Shouting at No One: a poem, that is, whose typography and prefatory setting echo the famous untitled, italicized poem at the start of the Italian poet’s first collection, Ossi di seppia (Cuttlefish Bones). According to Galassi, this Montale poem, commonly known as “At the Threshold,” introduces us to the enduring narrator of the author’s major poetry, “melancholy, solitary,” an “old young man” whose relationships with history and other characters, both human and semidivine, the rest of the work will trace. It places this man in a resonant, shifting landscape, a coastal orchard, which will serve as the point of comparison for the poems’ later settings. (They grow more urban, or return to rural life; they invoke the sea or rivers or gardens, or again leave these behind.) Finally, the prefatory poem introduces us to the speaker’s core anxiety — a radical solitude that leaves him “extraneous to life,” buffeted by the indifference of history — and also to his characteristic turn to “a saving other,” a you whom he can address, and who can in turn “recognize him and thus rescue him from the prison of himself.”
Does any of this material — either Montale’s method or his underlying narrative — inform Shouting at No One? Here, too, a prefatory poem introduces us to the poet’s unnamed “I,” not in the paradisal “enclosed garden” of the Italian poem, but in heaven itself. “I was appointed the poet of heaven,” the text begins; “It was my duty to describe / Theresa’s small roses / as they bent in the wind” (3). The duty of beauty, we might call this, an aesthetic version of the submission to Spirit taught by Saint Therese, the Carmelite “little flower of Jesus.” Appropriately, Joseph’s verse aspires here to a mimetic free verse prosody, shifting in the second three-line stanza from a casually iambic tetrameter (“it was / my du / ty to / describe”) to a pivoting trochee that snaps the first image into focus (“There / sa’s small / roses”), only to resolve in a graceful, windbent pair of anapests (“as they bent / in the wind”). “A technique sheared of traditional poetic values,” Richard Tillinghast fretted in his otherwise positive review of Shouting at No One, but these lines suggest that those traditional values are quite consciously on display as the volume begins.
Having given us a whisper of paradise — and, in the process, of the limited, purely mimetic function of the poet to be found there — the poem takes its first turn. “I tired of this,” Joseph’s narrator shrugs, “and asked you to let me / write about something else.” The verb “write about” is only slightly more active than “describe,” but the torque of the enjambment before it, the liveliest so far, draws our attention to the change. So does the response that Joseph’s speaker receives to his request. Peremptory, Joseph’s first “You” calls the poet of heaven back to his original duty:
You ordered, “Sit
in the trees where the angels sleep
and copy their breaths
So I did,
and soon I had a public following:
Saint Agnes with red cheeks,
Saint Dorothy with a moon between her fingers
and the Hosts of Heaven.
Either God or a muse — and the difference means little, at this point — the “you” of the poem orders the poet to “sit […] and copy,” again with his attention focused on something spiritual, at least in the etymological sense. (If “wind” bent Theresa’s roses, now the poet must copy “breaths.”) Although the poet says that he complied, the lines that follow suggest otherwise. His lines grow expansive: first a proud pentameter boast (“and soon / I had / a pub / lic fol / lowing”) that lets human literary tradition, and not angelic breath, determine his cadence, and then, as the saints arrive, a pair of descriptions that refuse to echo traditional iconography. Saint Agnes is blushing, and missing her lamb; Saint Dorothy has traded her flowers and basket for a “moon” that resembles, by proximity to “host,” a communion wafer.
Inventive, disobedient, and idiosyncratic, the “poet of heaven” has built an audience for himself. The dimeter line that ends this stanza — “and the Hosts of Heaven” — lingers in self-satisfaction, echoing and answering the first markedly alliterative line, “[i]t was my duty to describe.” Provoked, the “you” abruptly intervenes:
You said, “You’ve failed me.”
I told you, “I’ll write lovelier poems,”
but you answered,
“You’ve already had your chance:
you will be pulled from a womb
into a city.”
To the “You,” loveliness inheres in the subjects of the poems, which their texts simply mirror. That the poet returns to his own verb, “write,” and aspires to write “lovelier poems” rather than humbler, more accurate ones, already marks his fall. With a Dantean sense of appropriate punishment, the “You” dooms the “poet of heaven” to a realm where any loveliness will have to come from his own efforts, one marked not only by the sexuality and violence absent from his native realm, but also by the variety and specificity he seems to crave. “[P]ulled from a womb / into a city,” the poet will have to discover, or invent, what the duty of an urban poet will be.
Set at the threshold of Shouting at No One, this prefatory poem informs the rest of the text in ways that have not, I think, been sufficiently recognized. When the second poem of Shouting at No One plunges us immediately into a painful earthly narrative — “Joseph Joseph breathed slower / as if that would stop / the pain splitting his heart,” it begins — we are meant to notice not only the contrast between the world this poem describes and the one we saw a few pages before, but also the bittersweet turn in the literary activity of the exiled “poet of heaven” (7). Once ordered to copy the breaths of angels, he now records the breaths of a man in pain, both through narrative and, again, through artful, mimetic rhythm. Once eager for “something else” to write about, his lines now spill over, sharply enjambed, from narrative into an angry, expansive catalogue:
He turned the ignition key
to start the motor and leave
Joseph’s Food Market to those
who wanted what was left.
Take the canned peaches,
take the greens, the turnips,
drink the damn whiskey
spilled on the floor,
he might have said. (7)
At which moment, if we are paying attention, we realize that this apparently obedient and mimetic poetry has shaded, quietly, into an act of imagination, a thought of what “he might have said.” The poem returns to simple narration, as though its speaker were trying to force himself simply to say what happened, but most of the events he now describes are mental, lit by glimpses of a world elsewhere:
Though fire was eating half
Detroit, Joseph could only think
of how his father,
with his bad legs, used to hunch
over the cutting board
alone in light particled
with sawdust behind
the meat counter, and he began
This lovely image — the grandfather backlit, almost haloed, like St. Joseph, as light catches sawdust “behind / the meat counter” — is particularly poignant if we come to it, as the “poet of heaven” would, with the static, idealized female saints of the previous poem in mind. It stands poised between two versions of poesis the exiled poet continues to negotiate, one mimetic, descriptive, obedient to its subject, the other more independent, idiosyncratic, restless in its search for new material.
The prefatory poem also gives us a second opposition: “heaven” versus the “city.” Given Joseph’s claim, in the Graeber interview, to be writing “in the tradition of post-Baudelairian ‘city’ poetry,” it is safe to say that this last is his version of the competing attractions of ideal beauty and urban abjection, salvation and the sordid, that characterize this tradition from Baudelaire to Eliot to Ginsberg. As Michael Hamburger explains in The Truth of Poetry, a study which Joseph cites a half dozen times in “Notions of Poetry and Narration,” this sort of “a polarity that corresponds to Baudelaire’s spleen and ideal’” rarely lets the poet take one side or the other. Rather, they function dialectically, so that even the poet who aspires to write one sort of verse — a “low mimetic” antipoetry or an “autotelic or hermetic art” of pure imagination — will find him- or herself driven to give voice to the other. Hamburger describes the former, low mimetic verse as “austerely dedicated to rendering ‘things as they are’ in the language of people as they speak,” but in an inventive twist on this familiar topos, Joseph begins Shouting at No One with a “poet of heaven” for whom “things as they are” would be idealized, celestial, and delicate, so that his original acts of imagination drive him initially down the ladder of mimesis. The next poem, “Then,” inverts this progress, as the exiled “poet of the city” tries, however briefly, to imagine an alternative to the low mimetic world that traps his father, his grandfather, and perhaps himself.
The final sentences of “Then” offer additional glimpses of heaven, or the ideal, reduced or recast as low mimetic detail. The “old Market’s wooden walls / turned to ash” (7) recall the earlier “trees where the angels sleep” (3), here cut down and burned; the “tenement named ‘Barbara’ in flames” (7) recalls another female saint, or ought to have done so. Like the spiritual “fancies that are curled / [a]round these images, and cling” in Eliot’s “Preludes,” echoes of heaven and sacred history inflect the poem’s arson-ruined streetscape.
Indeed, in light of the prefatory poem, we can see this doubleness throughout the volume. The urban details that establish, for Graeber, a “sense of place” also establish a profound sense of displacement, since every geographical specific (Van Dyke Avenue, the 7-Up Cadillac Bar, the Eldon Axle factory) recalls the lack of such spatial markers in the heaven where we began, just as every house of worship (Mount Zion Temple, St. Marion’s Cathedral, Our Lady of Redemption) reminds us of the speaker’s exile. This doubleness is perhaps most plangently deployed in “Do What You Can,” a poem that opens with one of those emblematic houses of worship (“the Church of I AM”) and ends with a striking deployment of legal discourse. “I wonder if they know,” Joseph writes in the closing lines,
that after the jury is instructed
on the Burden of Persuasion and the Burden of Truth,
that after the sentence of twenty to thirty years comes down,
when the accused begs, “Lord, I can’t do that kind of time,”
the judge, looking down, will smile and say,
“Then do what you can.” (58)
We do not need the prefatory poem to make these details resonant, but it makes their overtones inescapable. The poet knows these things because he, too, operates under twinborn burdens of rhetorical invention (Persuasion) and mimesis (Truth); he, too, has been sentenced, doomed to a life of (in Montale’s words) “total disharmony with the reality that surround[s]” him. The effect is not to tug our attention away from the purely human legal drama of the poem’s close, but rather to magnify and dignify it — and, in the process, to bring others into the ennobling penumbra of the poet’s otherwise private myth. Both the poet and those he observes live, here, under the same cool condemnation, with “Do What You Can,” a fallen city’s muted golden rule.
“I distance myself to see myself”: Curriculum Vitae
Can we tease out a single, coherent myth of the poet from Shouting at No One? Joseph changes his story as the book goes on, so that the voice of poetry “howling within” him is ascribed first to himself (“Then,” 7), then to an angel (“Not Yet,” 21), and in the volume’s closing lines to God himself. Given time, one might sort these out into a single narrative, perhaps even the sort of novelistic “plot” that Galassi’s “Reading Montale” traces through that poet’s work. For the purposes of this essay, however, it suffices to say that the aspiration to myth announced in the prefatory poem lifts its subsequent texts out of the realm of personal lyric, locating them in an ambiguous generic realm somewhere between Montale’s symbolist modernism and the postconfessional lyric of the 1970s. Asking not “who am I,” but “what voice is it in me,” this volume uses the contraries implied by its prefatory poem to add complexity and power to the rest of the book. Backlit by the heavenly scene of the first poem, the urban memories of “Then” and the empathic, humbly observed “Do What You Can” read differently than they do when read on their own; in a longer essay, I would explore how the prefatory poem ballasts the self-celebratory claims of “There Is a God Who Hates Us So Much” (“I was pulled from the womb / into this city” , it begins) and how the portrait-poems that flesh out the collection, especially those about immigrants to Detroit, play out on a horizontal axis the same displacements we see in the poet-of-heaven’s vertical exile. For now, let me simply recall Hayden Carruth’s wise dictum that “[b]efore a person can create a poem, he or she must create a poet.” Shouting at No One is as much about that “primal creative act” as it is about Detroit or the poet’s life there per se.
Published five years later, Joseph’s second collection, Curriculum Vitae, sets aside both the vertical axis of Shouting at No One (heaven to the city) and the grand, even mythic approach to the poet’s voice that the first book employed. This is not to say that it abandons them entirely. Read the collections back to back, as they appear in Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos, and you see immediately how Joseph marks each turn in his work through repetition and variation. “It’s not me shouting at no one / in Cadillac Square: it’s God, / roaring inside me, afraid / to be alone,” the first book ends (60); “The disabled garment worker / who explains to his daughter / he’s God the Holy Spirit / and lonely and doesn’t care / if he lives or dies” (65), the next begins, collapsing myth into mental illness, prophetic roaring into explanation, sternness into — well, not sympathy, but something watchful, a little detached, but curious, willing to learn. The speaker, we might say, takes note of these characters, father and daughter, before turning (as the sentence spills forward) to other topics that catch his eye or demand his attention. Framing its introduction of the poet in the educational and professional terms suggested by its title, Curriculum Vitae stays — for the most part — resolutely secular; where religion appears, it is primarily as part of the speaker’s upbringing or an instance of culture. (I will discuss one crucial exception, “Let Us Pray,” later in this piece.)
If any collection invites us to read Joseph as a poet of ethnic, even racial heritage and social class, it is Curriculum Vitae. The title poem (69–70), early in the collection, touches on Arab American identity (“I might have been born in Beruit, / not Detroit, with my right name,” it begins), and in a half dozen lines it runs through this book’s secular versions of the poet’s recurrent motifs: urban violence (“fire in the streets”), the liberating power of the imagination (“My head set on fire in Cambridge, / England, in the Whim Café”), the impact of legal training on the poet’s mind (“After I applied Substance and Procedure / and Statements of Facts / my head was heavy, was earth”). The collection includes a set of poems about autoworker life and the shady wealth that surrounds it; here, too, we find “Sand Nigger” (90), a meditation on Lebanese-American identity that, writes Lisa Suhair Majaj, “Arab-Americans frequently invest with iconic status.” Certainly it remains one of Joseph’s best-known, most-anthologized pieces, and it earns that reputation not least in its bravura closing lines, where the speaker claims and inhabits the insulting name he has been called outside the shelter of home. “‘Sand nigger,’ I’m called, / and the name fits,” he says with a touch of swagger, embracing the clarity of identity that opposition provides. The poem’s final cadence nests a memorable series of oppositions: the poet may be “nice enough / to pass,” but he is also “Lebanese enough / to be against his brother, / with his brother against his cousin, / with cousin and brother / against the stranger” (90, 92).
As was the case with Shouting at No One, however, these poems of identity read differently when we set them in the context of the volume as a whole. Here, too, Joseph frames them, gives them additional complexity, through a series of self-introductory gestures, beginning with the poem’s epigraph. “Both in nature and in metaphor,” he quotes Wallace Stevens, “identity is the vanishing-point of resemblance” (63). To a poet, this adage suggests, identity will always be a troubling ideal. Resemblance proliferates, is itself creative, the spark of simile and metaphor. (“It is only au pays de la métaphore / Qu’on est poète,” Stevens reminds us elsewhere.) Identity, by contrast, marks the end to the perception of sameness in difference, difference in sameness, that is so crucial to poetic creation. When two things are identical, after all, they no longer resemble one another, they simply are one another, tout court. This is not to say, however, that identity has no use, no appeal. Identity, writes Stevens, is a “vanishing-point”: in visual terms, this would be the place where parallel lines converge. In representational art, this illusory point of convergence helps establish our sense of perspective. Although in real life it vanishes as we approach it, in art the vanishing point grants depth and heft to everything around it. By implication, then, identity is the place where otherwise parallel lines of life can finally meet: an ever-retreating, fictive construct, but one which brings both resemblances and differences into some harmonious array. Without such a vanishing point, the self might fracture along cubist, multiperspectival lines or dissolve into a swarm of resemblances; at identity’s purest extremes, however, as resemblance vanishes, identity too disappears, a victim of its own self-congruity.
Joseph begins to explore the implications of his epigraph in the poem that opens Curriculum Vitae, “In the Age of Postcapitalism.” It begins with a paratactic array of characters and images, as though challenging the reader to spot the resemblances between them:
The disabled garment worker
who explains to his daughter
he’s God the Holy Spirit
and lonely and doesn’t care
if he lives or dies;
the secret sarcoma shaped like a flower
in the bowels of a pregnant woman;
ashes in the river, a floating chair,
long, white, shrieking cats;
the watch that tells Zurich,
Jerusalem, and Peking time;
and the commodities broker
nervously smiling, mouth slightly twitching
when he says to the police he’s forgotten
where he left his Mercedes:
everything attaches itself to me today. (65)
In the previous volume, each of these figures would have been plotted on the clear, definitive axes that ran vertically from heaven to the city, and horizontally, from Lebanon or Armenia to Detroit. Here pathos, disease, urban decay, cosmopolitan elegance, and a lying businessman simply heap up, defying our efforts to read them as instances of some common plight. To use the metaphor implied by the book’s epigraph, they are parallel lines in search of a vanishing point. As the sentence ends, they find one. “Everything,” we read after that colon, “attaches itself to me today.”
The first self we meet in Curriculum Vitae, then, is neither the wistful “poet of heaven” that started the previous volume, nor the empathetic observer of “Do What You Can” and the portrait poems, nor the fleshly, God-haunted, grimly exultant “poet of my city” we saw at its close. At the simplest grammatical level, he is a “me,” while the previous poet introduced himself as a subject (“I was appointed the poet of heaven”), often speaking a string of significant verbs: “I see,” “I answer,” “I press,” “I wonder” (“Do What You Can,” 57–58). It takes two more sentences for an “I” to enter the poem, and even then it is merely part of a quoted title, “What Has Become of / the Question of ‘I,’” one of several “topics for discussion / at the Institute for Political Economy.” Only after this title, as though in reaction to it, does the poet step forward as an “I” in his own right, learned in occult, Yeatsian lore, in the classical tumults of Eros and Eris (beloved of Sappho and H.D.), and in the mix of rhetorical craft and emotional self-knowledge that makes for literary art. Indeed, he is not just a poet — he is a poet with a beloved, a “her,” however incongruous his
longing may seem, given the times:
I know all about the transmigration of souls.
I know about love and about strife.
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. (65)
It’s as though the speaker heard his own tone soften and recoiled, taking refuge in irony, a knowing shrug, a crisp, theoretical phrase he might have heard at the Institute of Political Economy mentioned a few lines above.
After twenty years of reading this poem, I still often stumble at this turn. The poem so far could easily end here: after all, Joseph has reached the phrase that gives the poem its title, and even more than “everything attaches itself to me today,” this new line offers a briskly summative, clarifying, metatextual gesture. We can use it to name, even to diagnose the lack of “identity” we saw in the speaker during the first part of the poem, the gap between that meager self and the older set of values (religious, aesthetic, amatory) that the speaker goes on to invoke, and even the poem’s bracing turn to the discourse of critical theory, which snaps us out of our nostalgia for those values. All of these, we are invited to nod, characterize an “age of postcapitalism” and the poetry appropriate to it. In such poetry, words like “love,” “strife,” “delight,” and “waken” will mix promiscuously with the language of political economy; in it the longing for love will be at best a local nostalgic effect, a pleasure which the poet will not luxuriate in, but will instead unmask. The self this longing implies, with its old-fashioned inwardness, is a similar effect, likewise to be debunked. Abrupt and disruptive, the phrase “in the age of postcapitalism” draws our attention away from the referential side of the poem — the world it describes and the self who describes it — and sternly fixes our attention on the language of the poem itself.
Such disruptions were not hard to find in poetry of the late 1980s. Indeed, by 1988, when Curriculum Vitae was published, they were common enough in the work of Language writers to have drawn several years of mainstream critical attention. Joseph, however, refuses to end his poem here. If the line “in the age of postcapitalism” steps back from and names the situation in which the poet finds himself, the fact that the poem continues, shifting gears once more, suggests that Joseph also steps back from the theoretical discourse in which terms like “postcapitalism” allow intellectual mastery and oppositional authority. In a deliberately anticlimactic gesture, the poet sets that discourse, too, aside, and looks outward:
Yellow and gray dusk thickens around the Bridge.
Rain begins to slant between
the chimneys and the power plant.
I don’t feel like changing
or waiting anymore either,
and I don’t believe we’re dreaming
this October sixth, in New York City,
during the nineteen eighties. (66)
In Shouting at No One, rain like this would have signaled a gust of redemption, or at least a reminder of its enduring possibility. (“I’ve always waited: / for warm rain to wash the sky,” Joseph writes in this vein in the earlier poem, “Nothing and No One and Nowhere to Go,” 41.) Here, though, it has no such effect; in fact, the poet specifically rejects that hope of change. Neither as scattered as the earlier “me” nor as confident as the subsequent “I,” the speaker rallies himself as best he can in a collective pronoun, but he does so quietly, even sadly, as though both he and the rest of that “we” were simply the victims of time and place without any power to resist, define, or affect them. Even the term “postcapitalism” loses its critical force by the end of the poem, becoming simply part of the linguistic fabric of New York City in the 1980s. In effect, the poem historicizes the term, but the move is less scholarly than simply middle-aged, as though its speaker had already seen too many such phrases go in and out of intellectual fashion.
The first self that we meet in Curriculum Vitae, then, is constituted by the parallel lines of information that “attach” themselves to it, by parallel lines of discourse — poetic and political — and finally by the time and place in which this self-by-accrual occurs. It’s a self that is by turns interested, overwhelmed, assertive, nostalgic, ironic, and melancholy, but one without a single, clearcut identity that would bring these materials into balance and focus. In his sonnet “Meru” Yeats speaks of the way thought goes on “ravening, raging, and uprooting” until one comes to “the desolation of reality.” In a quieter way, this speaker has arrived at a comparable desolation, as though he were simply too knowing for his own good, his intelligence and his sense of identity somehow at odds. To buttress that sense of identity, the poet of this volume needs either to find a self that will withstand the ravening appetite of thought or to construct one, consciously, as the sort of vanishing point in which these parallel lines can meet. And, indeed, the rest of Curriculum Vitae pursues this twofold project of self-discovery and (or through) self-invention, with the book more or less alternating between poems that look into the past for the roots of the present self and poems that step back to challenge, complicate, and even “uproot,” as Yeats says, what was planted a page before. Or, if you prefer, about half pursue the disjunctive, cubist poetics of “In the Age of Postcapitalism,” while the other half step back from that period style to challenge and complicate it. In these, the impulse to see the world in this depthless way rises from the depths of the poet’s identity:
“This is a smart one,” Mama says.
My eyes are as black as hers.
“Too smart, I’m afraid — he’ll
keep unhappy because of it,”
Mama said. I heard her.
That’s what Mama said.
On the feast of my patron saint
that’s what my mama said. (67–68)
Thus the end of the volume’s second poem, “My Eyes Are as Black as Hers,” a poem which had been, until these lines, entirely in the third person. Being “too smart” is not just the cross this “I” has to bear, this grammatical turn suggests. Rather, it is the core fact that makes him an “I” in the first place, one that will keep him, for the rest of his life, from comfortably, unquestioningly inhabiting any single identity. (The authoritative trimeter of the final stanza, less flexible than the looser quatrains before it, reinforces our sense that this is a clinching, definitive moment.)
Of the twenty-six poems in Curriculum Vitae, a dozen, by my count, look back to the disjunctive lead of “In the Age of Postcapitalism.” In these, the reader is often given what we might call “parallel lines” of material, arrays of fact, memory, and observation that seem, at first, “impossible together” (“By the Way,” 81); often the self that speaks them is distanced into the second or third person, haunted by his own self-consciousness. “Myself — an abstraction” he’ll call himself in such self-critical moods, or dismiss himself as an aesthete past his time: “‘Live and die before a mirror,’ / Baudelaire says, sipping espresso / at the corner of Hudson and Barrow” (“I Pay the Price,” 105, 107). But this unrelenting intelligence has an ethical side that cannot be dismissed. Turn the page on “Sand Nigger” and you’ll find “Rubiyat,” a poem whose fourteen jagged quatrains of “how the brain talks, evil in its wakefulness” pepper the reader with clipped, disconcerting sentences. The identity-through-opposition offered by the first sounds good on paper, the gesture suggests, but in historical practice, it is a bewildering nightmare, “too crazy and it’s too much and not unreal” (93). “[W]hat do you think you’re doing,” the speaker of this poem demands of himself, “when you want the names / and the years of the history, who begot whom and who made / which flesh which words that hate for which particular reasons / that compel the pride of the horrors of the oppressed?” Yet ask he must, want he must: the intellect, too, has an appetite, which battens equally on beauty and on atrocity. In the remarkable poem “An Awful Lot Was Happening,” which speaks of war, religion, urban strife, and romantic love during the Vietnam War, Joseph gives us that appetite voice — in fact, in a rare move for the volume, he grounds it in a confident, crisply defined identity. The final three stanzas are worth quoting at length, to see what this self looks like:
When I answered I intended to maintain freedom my brother was riled.
What, or who, collides in you beside whose body I sleep?
No work at Tool & Die, Motors, Transmission, or Tractor
while the price of American crude rises another dollar.
There really wasn’t enough work anywhere. And there was war
God the spirit of holy tongues couldn’t release me from,
or from my dumbness. Pressured — delirious —
from too much inductive thinking, I waited for
the image in whose presence the heart opens and opens
and lived to sleep well; of necessity assessed earth’s profit
in green and red May twilight. —You came toward me
in your black skirt, white blouse rolled at the sleeves.
Anticipation of your eyes, your loose hair!
My elementary needs — to cohere, to control.
An awful lot was happening and I wanted more. (103–04)
As a poem of education — sensual and otherwise — this piece can contain both disjunctive turns and memory-based lyrical passages in a poised, harmonious balance. Few poems in the book present the poet’s “I” as at once this confident and this expansive; as much as “Sand Nigger,” it is a touchstone in the collection.
I have discussed Curriculum Vitae so far in the terms suggested by its epigraph — resemblance, identity, and the complex figure of the “vanishing-point.” The reference to “political economy” in this book’s opening poem suggests another, equally powerful lens through which to view the collection. Joseph wrote these poems at a time when many voices debated the relationships between postmodern poetry and contemporary economics. Frederick Jameson’s germinal essay “Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” for example, came out in the New Left Review in 1984, and was contested and echoed by poets and critics, especially those interested in Language writing, well past the end of the decade. As we have already seen, Joseph keeps his distance from the term “postcapitalism,” but simply by using it in the opening poem, he primes us to notice how often the poems that follow speak not just of money, but of a self that sees itself in economic terms. The young man who stuffs a ten-dollar bill in his pocket, earned through work as a caddy, contrasts his well-earned payment with the “wonder” of money made by “‘Dice’ Delaney,” the golfer who hires him, through bets. “I knew where it came from. / I knew this much was mine,” he says (“This Much Was Mine,” 79–80). Older, a poet, he sometimes seems to doubt the value of his imaginative work. “I frequent the Café Dante, earn / my memories, repay my moods,” he insists, a bit defensively, near the close of the title poem, adding, “I am as good as the unemployed / who wait in long lines for money” (“Curriculum Vitae,” 69, 70). In his own “lines,” filled with memories and moods, the poet seems to covet the same moral stature.
The final poem in Curriculum Vitae, “There I Am Again,” reminds us why Joseph finds capitalism and identity so deeply intertwined. Where the volume began “in New York City, / during the nineteen-eighties” (“In the Age of Postcapitalism,” 66), it ends by taking the poet back to the family market that we saw destroyed near the start of Shouting at No One. This time, however, the core of the memory is not the store’s destruction, nor the work of the poet’s father and grandfather, but the poet’s youth working behind the counter. “[T]here I am again: always, everywhere,” Joseph writes in the book’s final lines, “apron on, alone behind the cash register, the grocer’s son / angry, ashamed, and proud as the poor with whom he deals” (121). As we have seen, this is not the only self that the speaker contains; the “smart one” recognized by his mother is an even older, equally enduring identity, and one that Joseph has deployed to take a second, critical look at his own gift for identity poetics. At the end of the collection, Joseph reverses this gesture. The “grocer’s son” self tethers and grounds the skittery, unrelenting movement of his intellect, on fine display in the penultimate poem, “On Nature” (118). And because it embraces the risk and shame of an old-fashioned, pre-postcapitalist economic position, “alone behind the cash register,” forced to “deal” directly with others, this self also sponsors the poet’s sense of values, of human worth.
“Vision sustains”: Before Our Eyes
The title of Joseph’s first book, Shouting at No One, hinted at mysteries. A participial phrase, it signaled that the book would explore an activity (poesis, or some variant of it), and that this activity would be done at no one by someone yet to be named (the poet of heaven, or a voice within, or God, depending on the poem). Curriculum Vitae presented us with a crisp, professional term: an abstract, impersonal noun-phrase, “the course of a life,” which the book by turns fleshed out and reflected upon, its poems as often meditations on identity poetics as instances of them. As a title, Before Our Eyes speaks in the first person plural, a new grammatical choice that suggests Joseph has moved beyond the inquiries into self that shaped the first two books. “Myself, / self-made, separated from myself, // who cares?” he shrugs in “Material Facts,” as though refusing to return to those earlier self-creative efforts (128). The plural possessive also tells us that the self we are about to encounter speaks on our behalf, or at least has settled more comfortably into his own multiplicity. Several pieces in the collection, notably “Generation” (138) and “Under a Spell” (135), even suggest that the other self within that “us” is the Muse, the “you — with whom I can’t pretend” who “see[s] everything go through me” (136).
The title phrase also suggests that this will be a book of imagistic or panoramic vision. The poet, one assumes, will describe what lies “before our eyes” in a spatial sense of the phrase, as in the opening lines of the title poem, which Joseph places, for the first time, first in the collection:
The sky almost transparent, saturated
manganese blue. Windy and cold.
A yellow line beside a black line,
the chimney on the roof a yellow line
behind the mountain ash on Horatio.
A circular cut of pink flesh hanging
in the shop. Fish, flattened, copper,
heads chopped off. (“Before Our Eyes,” 125)
Startling in their painterly palate, these descriptions strip the depth and pathos from material that, in an earlier book, would have been redolent with meaning. The shop, the flesh, the fish: we saw each in the final poem of Curriculum Vitae, but their roles as setting for a “grocer’s son” self, proud and ashamed, have been set aside in favor of an exact, purely visual delectation. Is this, at that, the same shop? “Horatio” is an avenue in Detroit — but also a street in Manhattan. The poem’s refusal to specify signals its freedom, at least for now, from the metaphorical geographies that shape the first two books.
But Joseph does not limit himself to what is “before our eyes” in this simple, visual sense. “The point is to bring / depths to the surface,” the poem continues, “to elevate / sensuous experience into speech / and the social contract.” The first of these admonitions goes down easily. Depths to the surface, experience into speech: these are unsurprising descriptions of poesis, although “elevate” is a verb we will return to. By adding “and the social contract,” however, Joseph reminds us that speech is not a neutral, private act. Because it implies an interlocutor, and because we must learn language from others, speech implies some kind of social order; it implicates us in one another in ways that poets both depend on and put to new use. A few lines later, Joseph puts these implications of poesis into practice. “By written I mean made,” he explains, “by made I mean felt; / concealed things, sweet sleep of colors.” The poem — a made thing, etymologically speaking — is “felt” by its author, bringing sensuous experience into language, but felt also by its reader, so that things once “concealed” can now be noticed or imagined, like a “sweet sleep of colors.” Such synesthesia and personification are not part of my perception of the world, or at least they were not before I read Joseph’s poem; now they are, which means that both my eye and my “I” have changed.
Language, we might therefore say, exists at once before our eyes and before our I’s, in both the spatial and the temporal senses of the phrase. This spatial / temporal doubleness is, for me, the “refractory contrary” at the heart of Before Our Eyes — far more important a pair, in fact, than the tensions between “beauty and terror, lyric language and historical fact, aesthetics and politics” that Roger Gilbert has argued shape the volume. In Gilbert’s reading, the title poem “traces the fluctuations of a mind in love with sensual beauty but oppressed by its knowledge of history,” and this “conflict of sensibility and conscience” leaves the poet trapped in the uneasy role of a “guilty hedonist.” This reading, however, reduces beauty to the merely visual, so that the tension in the poem lies between the “ephemeral impressions of colored light” and “social chaos” that both appear, spatially speaking, before the poet’s eyes. For Joseph, however — a Catholic poet, steeped in Montale, Stevens, and Dante before them — earthly light and beauty have always at least potentially signaled something far greater, a spiritual radiance, a supernatural order in which beauty and morality, light and law and love, are not so easily distinguished. In this tradition, what comes “before our eyes” in the spatial sense is sometimes dramatically different from, even an affront to, what comes “before our eyes” in the temporal sense, although the two sometimes are interfused, when seen not just by sight, but through prophetic and / or sacramental vision.
That Joseph might need to be read as a religious poet should not come as a surprise. The self in each of his books has been characterized in part — in no small part — by his relationship to the divine. In Shouting at No One the bond was close, but antagonistic. “Who makes me eat my words and makes my eyes pain: / I measure you according to your creation,” he cursed at the end of “There Is a God Who Hates Us So Much” (50). In Curriculum Vitae, the remarkable “Let Us Pray” offers a moment of direct address and connection. First the poet confesses (“I confess / too much”), then he begs to be “cleansed” like a prophet, his mouth made fit to praise (“Let me pray”). As the poem moves into the first person plural, the divine and human intersect: both “cry,” both have flesh and spirit — “Let us pray,” he now writes. In fact, by the end of the poem, it is God, not the poet, who needs consolation. “Let your cry come to me,” the poem ends, “I will not forsake you, / I, Lawrence Joseph, loved so much / by your pain and your beauty” (108).
In Before Our Eyes, Joseph finds a way to imbricate heavenly pathos and beauty with a deeply imperfect world of creation. “[R]efracted into depths // all beauty isn’t underlined,” he warns; sometimes it lies buried under “indignant and ironic // events blocked on top of one another,” so that it takes both grace and skill to spot it (“Now Evening Comes Fast from the Sea,” 175). But “[o]ut of deeper strata // illuminations” manage to rise, and they do so precisely as “confirmations of another order” (“Admissions Against Interest,” 132, 134). We find them in the sunlight that a child “catches / […] in a pocket mirror” and “refracts […] into a senator’s eyes” (“Generation,” 138–39); in the “darkening gold” underlying the disorderly social world (“Over Darkening Gold,” 137); in the “pure unattainable light” that family love recalls in “Sentimental Education” (146). Here and there illuminations erupt almost miraculously, as in “those fingers, / those beams of light / in the middle of the air” where — as the gospel song reminds us, Ezekiel saw the Wheel (“Time Will Tell If So,” 141), a figure that appears in its own right, “[o]ut of the [b]lue,” in the visionary poem of that name (“Out of the Blue,” 149). But their most vivid, unmistakable instantiation comes in a quotidian moment of grace captured in “Whose Performance Am I Watching?” as the poet catches a sacramental glimpse of a man and a woman:
“Just look!” and I did, and there, on the street, Hudson Street,
a rose-colored woman about to kiss a rose-colored man,
both of them older, under a linden tree, behind them
the elevated absence you’ve learned to let be. I’ve never
forgotten the expression on their faces, the only
human beings I’ve ever seen without that rapacious look
everyone else is possessed by. Brightness streaming in every
direction. Judgment, desire, sentence structure taking place.
Not in Siena, but right here. (144)
By linking the visual trope of “brightness” so memorably here with love and judgment, desire and language, Joseph invites us to read those qualities back into other mentions of light elsewhere in the collection, as well as later in this particular poem. (They are, I take it, all attributes of the “opulence” that sunlight “insinuate[es]” as this piece comes to a close .) Even the cover art of Before Our Eyes in its original publication underscored this connection. It presents an array of the famous bodiless angels painted on the ceiling of the church of Debre Berhan in Gondar, Ethiopia: a church whose name means, in Amharic, “Mountain of Divine [or Heavenly] Light.”
In the “sacramental” vision of the Catholic poet, Paul Mariani has written, “Evidence of God’s immanent presence ought to be capable of breaking in on us each day, the way air and light and sound do, if we only know what to look and listen for.” Clearly Joseph offers such evidence elsewhere in Before Our Eyes, but does he introduce this motif — does he suggest we “look and listen” — in the collection’s opening poem? The answer comes, for me, in the suite of ars poetica statements that ends “Before Our Eyes,” launching us into the poems that follow. “[P]oetry / I know something about,” this passage begins, and he goes on to define the art in five distinct, complementary ways:
The act of forming
imagined language resisting humiliation.
Fading browns and reds, a maroon glow,
sadness and brightness, glorified.
Voices over charred embankments, smell
of fire and fat. The pure metamorphic
rush through the senses, just as you said
it would be. The soft subtle twilight
only the bearer feels, broken into angles,
best kept to oneself. (125–26)
The first of these definitions signals the poet’s social imagination. Poetry is not just (as Stevens said) the “act of finding / what will suffice,” but an “act of forming” in the name of resistance, of justice. The second definition, by contrast, starts with aesthetic perceptions, but does not end with them. Poetry, it declares, consists of emotion and color “glorified,” a word that Joseph uses in its full theological sense, as one speaks of the “glorified” body of the risen Christ. The third definition, in which poetry is a matter of “voices,” joins the social and the aesthetic. Those voices might be crying out in pain, victims of conflict, but they remain ambiguous, rising “over” the destruction, just as that “smell / of fire and fat” might be either human fat or a touch of savory beauty. (Joseph has given us a scene like this once before: “I fire my rifle into the sun, / shout God’s name, / return to ruins to roast a lamb,” he wrote in poem 3 of “The Phoenix Has Come to a Mountain in Lebanon,” in Shouting at No One, 27). Poetry is “the pure metamorphic / rush through the senses,” Joseph now says, ascribing that definition — in which, one notes, the senses give us access to something beyond them — to an unnamed “you,” a gesture which makes poetry a social bond, a promise that has been kept, no matter who this “you” might be. Picking up on the mysterious identity of that “you,” Joseph ends the passage on a hermetic note. Poetry is “[t]he soft, subtle twilight / only the bearer feels, broken into angles, / best kept to oneself,” he writes (126). Yet rather than shut us out, this withdrawal into privacy draws us closer, tempting those with ears to hear to listen for hints in the words that close the poem: “For the time being, / let’s just stick to what’s before our eyes.”
The “what” that this implies, as the lines above it have shown, is already quite various, and not at all limited to Gilbert’s pair of “ephemeral impressions of colored light” and “social chaos.” The act of “sticking to it,” likewise, may sound reductive at first, but has already turned out to be redolent with aesthetic attention, social solidarity, and hints of the sacred. Joseph reinforces each of these multiplicities by following “Before Our Eyes” with a short, hermetic lyric, “A Flake of Light Moved,” whose four stanzas touch on, respectively, color, love, mystery, and revelation. The nature of that revelation, “[a] flake of light” that interrupts the “[d]iagonal shadows” and “deeper blackness” of the sunset scene, remains hidden from us, but its effect on those who see it is quite clear. “Everyone / watched,” Joseph writes, “as if hypnotized, and more, / much more, than that” (127). David Yezzi’s review of Before Our Eyes balks at this poem. “Given the salt in the rest of the volume, it’s hard to swallow such uncut sugar,” he quips. But throughout the volume Joseph uses such instances of grace to buttress and nourish a self that can then open itself to, bear and transfigure, the salt that Joseph more than delivers, and that Yezzi prefers. In “Brooding,” a lovely erotic memory leads into thoughts of theology, then light, and only then into the social realm, by which the speaker reports himself “unfazed”:
[…] one rose
in the crystal vase
in the room where
she stood before me,
legs slightly apart,
golden dusk all over us
when she insisted
not to go on talking
as if I was dreaming,
arguing the Summa
that God is the love
she was brought up on,
she and I. Always
this point of departure
particulars of light
Not at all fazed
that man on Grand Street
is yelling “Eloi,
eloi, lama sabachthani,”
I’ve heard the words
before. Blocks away
pension funds. (150)
A similar trajectory shapes the three-part poem “Movement in the Distance Is Larger Up Close.” Here Joseph starts with “[a] certain splendor” suffusing everyone at the “Café Fledermaus” — a scene that is ripe tart critique, even for parody (173). But after a long, wide stanza of the speaker’s “rampage within [him]self” against the times, it is the power of “boundless happiness and joy” that brings him back, with real care, to the mixed urban world around him (174). “The leaves in the park deep, irascible mauve. / The crippled unemployed drawing chalk figures / on the Avenue,” he notes, refusing to rank the two. (Even the unemployed are engaged in poesis, mustering art as resistance, after all.) The public space that includes them both is, the poem concludes, “Where we ought to be.”
Now that Joseph’s first three books are bound in a single volume, one can easily flip back and forth between the self we meet at the start of his career — the “poet of heaven,” before and after his exile — and the one who leaves the stage in Before Our Eyes. Joseph links the two in resonant ways, not least by revisiting, in this third collection, the founding myth of the first. The revision comes at the end of “Generation,” when, after a two-page column of verse, a single quatrain breaks off and looks back at the historical sweep and dizzying “flux” of the poem as a whole. “So that’s when we got the idea in our heads / to be born,” this quatrain remarks, “not to let the sights / slip away, choosing in a badly measured time / human form over nonbeing” (140). Instead of the individual “I” of the early prefatory poem, a plural voice speaks; instead of birth as punishment, we find a choice to be born, as though incarnation were the only way for “nonbeing” to see, to remember, to embrace the “sights” that would otherwise be lost in the chaos of “a badly measured time.”
This mission — and that seems the word, in every sense — requires the self to be attentive, even vulnerable, to the disorder of history, precisely in order to counter disorder by spotting and presenting, again and again, glimpses of some redemptive alternative to it. In the final stanza of the book’s last poem, “Occident-Orient Express,” Joseph speaks as and offers an image of this closing vision of himself:
Against my heart I listen to you
all the time, all the time.
Against my brain, more visible than dream,
the present’s elongations spread
blue behind the fragrant curves
pure abstractions blast through
a fragile mind in a flapping coat
descending the Memorial’s steps
toward incalculable rays of sun
set perpendicular into the earth. (177)
As we might expect by now, this poet is a self-divided figure. “Against my heart” and “against my brain” are phrases that imply both intimacy and resistance (as in, “against my better judgment”); in each case, however, the self is now in a constant relationship (“all the time, all the time”) a “you” that seems simultaneously the world around him, a God or muse within him, and a beloved who embodies a little of all of these. (The combination is familiar in Montale, and goes back to Dante.) This self attends both to “the present” and to “pure abstractions,” and in both cases it does so with sensuous delight, ascribing color and fragrance and shape to both. A “fragile mind in a flapping coat,” this closing figure — of the poet? Of another? — does not need to claim grandeur or strength for itself. Rather, it lets that very fragility hold it open, vulnerable not just to the wounds of social history, but also to beauty and radiance, to what Wallace Stevens called “[a] light, a power, the miraculous influence.”
As Before Our Eyes ends, this final self “descends” towards the earth, but the “rays of sun” that it moves towards also raise its sights up a “perpendicular” axis. A dozen years later, in 2005’s Into It, Joseph’s most recent book, that same self will grapple with the violence and aftermath of 9/11. It is the work of another essay to trace the results. For now, suffice it to say that the light that sets “perpendicular into the earth” at the end of Before Our Eyes points the poet’s path as the next book begins, with its opening poem leading him at once towards the pit of Ground Zero and into the world of poesis, “in it, into it, inside it, down in.” The range of poetics and resources that he brings with him on that descent is unique, I believe, in American poetry: mythic-modernist, identity-poetic, and social/sacramental, each building on and looking back to the others. And as the end of “Woodward Avenue” shows, his latest work recalls and deploys them all, moving from an echo of Motown, the poet’s hometown music, into the mix of critical self-consciousness and sacred vision that Joseph, as no other American poet, seems able to supply:
A dance that you get to,
“The Double-Clutch.” Listen. Sure is funky.
Everyone clapping their hands, popping
their fingers, everyone hip, has walks.
Effects are supplied, both rhythmic
and textual. Another take? Same key?
Sometimes you’ve just got to improvise a bit
before you’re in a groove. Listen.
That’s right. It’s an illumination.
That which occurs in authentic light.
Like the man said. So many selves —
the one who detects the sound of a voice,
that voice — the voice that compounds
his voice — that self obedient to that fate,
increased, enlarged, transparent, changing. (18)
1. David Kirby, “Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos: Poems 1973-1993 and Into It: The Double” (review of Codes and Into It, by Lawrence Joseph), New York Times, September 25, 2005.
3. Michael True, “The Limits of Language,” Commonweal, September 22, 2006, 31. In point of fact, True’s description is biographically inaccurate; neither Joseph’s grandfather nor his father ever worked in an auto plant, and none of his poems says they did.
12. In Charles Graeber, “Pulling the Words from the Ruins” (interview with Joseph), Downtown Express 18, no. 25 (November 4–10, 2005).
13. I take the phrase “refractory contraries” from William Arrowsmith in his translator’s preface to The Occasions xiii, by Eugenio Montale (1957; repr., New York: W. W. Norton, 1987). As Arrowsmith explains, Montale endeavored “to enclose the refractory contraries — public and private, external and internal, historical and individual, transcendental and immanent — within the confines of the poem”; the passage is quoted by Joseph in “Notions of Poetry and Narration.” Often Joseph will make a Montalean attempt at enclosing contraries in a single text. When he does not, this is often because the contraries in question are dispersed across the book as a whole.
14. Joseph, “What’s American About American Poetry?,” Poetry Society of America.
17. Reprinted in Joseph, Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos: Poems, 1973–1993 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), 3. Unless otherwise noted, citations to Joseph’s poetry are taken from this collection.
20. Graeber, “Pulling the Words from the Ruins.”
25. Graeber, “Pulling the Words from the Ruins.”
28. Lisa Suhair Majaj, “Arab Americans and the Meanings of Race,” in Postcolonial Theory and the United States: Race, Ethnicity, and Literature, ed. Amritjit Singh and Peter Schmidt (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2000), 320, 330.
29. Wallace Stevens, “Gaiety in poetry is a precious characteristic …,” in Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose, ed. Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson (New York: Library of America, 1997), 920.
35. In “The Language of Redemption: The Catholic Poets Adam Zagajewski, Marie Ponsot, and Lawrence Joseph” (Commonweal, May 12, 2003, 12), Andrew Krivak briefly discusses Before Our Eyes as marked by a “prophetic” voice. The ideas he cites from Paul Mariani about “sacramental language,” which he does not apply to Joseph’s work, have also been useful to me here.