Two perspectives on Lawrence Joseph
“… give me the voice / To tell the shifting story”: With Ovid’s words as an epigraph, Lawrence Joseph begins Into It, his 2005 book of poems. Since the beginning of his work, the “story” of Detroit, “a city” in Joseph’s poems has undergone constant metamorphosis. Like other Detroit-born writers, Joseph gained an intense experience of radical change. Detroiters from every background learn early that radical change is a fact of life; that change is often punctuated by violence that can erupt at any time; that human life is precarious; and that any sense of social wellbeing is transitory, any hope of prolonged economic prosperity illusory.Detroit’s writers convey the sense of having witnessed changes of great significance: something in this city has gone fundamentally wrong, and they connect this, either literally or figuratively, to larger systemic issues in our nation and world. Those who write out of twentieth- and twenty-first-century Detroit feel that they have something to say to people anywhere else on the planet.
Detroit has produced an unusual number of chroniclers, writers, and historians compelled to record the changes that they have experienced, to document what has occurred in this most troubled of contemporary America’s largest cities. The most astute of these chroniclers confront the many superficial, wrongheaded ideas about the city perpetuated in the popular media, the suburbs, and much of “white” America, which portray Detroit’s decay as some civic aberration peculiar to the people who live there. Detroiters, according to this view, are low-class, blue collar, poor, ignorant, and violent; it is no wonder that the city is a terrible place. Detroit’s best creative writers and scholars pointedly critique the sensationalistic blaming-of-the-victim that passes for serious analysis. Historian Thomas J. Sugrue, for example, attacks the popular notion that the 1967 Detroit riot and those who participated in it are responsible for Detroit’s “urban crisis.” He and other new urban historians demonstrate that the sources of urban decline precede the violence of the sixties by at least two decades, and include the auto industry’s post–World War II decentralization and automation, persistent racial separation, public subsidies for suburban development, the fragmentation of the metropolitan region, the isolation of wealth in privatized communities, and declining revenues for city services — like mass transit — that sustain urban life.
Lawrence Joseph, too, has critiqued simplistic diagnoses of Detroit’s condition. In a 1990 essay in The Nation, Joseph interrogates Ze’ev Chafets’s notion that Detroit had “all the trappings of a third-world city.” To Joseph, Chafets uses codes of race and class to isolate this city from the rest of America and thus to exonerate American culture and capitalism from responsibility for what Chafets had labeled Detroit’s “tragedy.” Instead of being, as Chafets claims, America’s “first major third world city,” Joseph argues that “Detroit is the American city that most manifestly reflects the racial segregation that permeates American society.” Moreover, Joseph asserts, “Contrary to what too many of the media’s and Chafets’s images tell us,” Detroit’s patterns of “ill-distributed wealth, racial hatred, violence, drugs, poverty, unemployment and social disintegration” differ little, if at all, from those of other major American cities. Detroit’s distinctive history, however, does cause the city to represent “most intensely … the consequences of systemic citywide racial segregation.” Instead of popular media images perpetuated by Chafets and others, Joseph recommends “honest works about Detroit” — in literature, music, and history — works that offer “criticisms of its mediated imagery” and “probe beneath the surface mythologies into essential American realities.”
It is obvious from Joseph’s poetry and prose that one of his objectives has been to critique this imagery and probe these mythologies. Detroit — as setting, subject, and/or code — appears frequently in Joseph’s first three books of poetry, Shouting at No One (1983), Curriculum Vitae (1988), and Before Our Eyes (1993), and in several of his prose works, including the final chapter, “MacNight Was Murdered,” of Lawyerland, a book of creative nonfiction written as a novel. The city appears less as a direct subject in Into It, although Detroit is the setting and subject of one of the book’s most crucial poems, “Woodward Avenue.” Detroit, Joseph writes in his journal in 1975, “is the place that allows (or, more accurately, demands) that I consider myself in the context of my personal (and family) history and a larger (‘American,’ ‘industrial,’ ‘labor and capital’) history. The material for poetry ‘in this place’ is limitless and extraordinary.”
In Joseph’s work, Detroit resists categorical descriptions and definitions. It is a city of operating and abandoned factories, of churches, stores, schools and gymnasiums, public spaces, streets, restaurants. It is often a place of violence: small violent crimes as well as the historic, collective insurrection in the summer of 1967. Detroit is also the source of challenge and insight, the reason, Joseph’s speaker says in one of his earliest poems, for the birth in the poet of the “voice howling.” Detroit in Joseph’s work is also, for him, “essentially metaphorical — an emblem, or code for the first great modern industrial city, one of enormous historical and social importance, not only to America, but to the entire world.” Detroit’s metaphorical meanings do not hold still. Its “social meanings,” Joseph says in the Nation essay, “haven’t stopped metamorphosing” since the twentieth century’s second decade, when Detroit became the archetype of the modern industrial city. As setting, subject, and especially metaphorical “code,” Detroit’s “shifting story” not only places demands on the poet’s “voice,” but also requires a shifting sense of self — one who nonetheless must consistently confront the sources of Detroit’s ever-changing realities.
Laurence Goldstein, in 1986, viewed Joseph’s Shouting at No One as “perhaps the most depressed view of the city in its literature.” Joseph’s earliest poems — composed after the 1967 “insurrection” and after the 1970 shooting of the poet’s father, during a decade when Detroit’s economic decline became precipitously recognizable — provide ample evidence of this. In Shouting at No One, Detroit is “a city that moans in its dirt” (Codes, 59), a place where “smokestacks” heave “poison” into the air (45), where one is “given ears to hear ribs kicked in / … eyes to see eyes close / before a city that burns itself to death.” The “creation” that is Detroit reveals “a God who hates us so much” (50). The speaker of “Here” stands in Poletown, remembering when he explored the abandoned Packard automobile factory:
Now it is September
and I am there, between
the silhouette of broken fences
and weeds with yellow hair
seizing their own piece of buried sun.
Rain streams down my face,
a poplar breathes
over the only house I can see,
burned and gutted.
The only sign of human life
is the crashing sound
of a bottle thrown hard on cement,
east of this wasteland
where the towers smoke. (13)
Throughout Shouting at No One, the poet speaks in the voice of a witness of this “burned and gutted” place. In “There Is a God Who Hates Us So Much,” the poet describes a city “where there are hours of sun / above the horizon and dirt in the air / that makes me want to holler” (50). In “Not Yet,” the poet takes on the voice of an avenging angel (22), and in the book’s final poem he uses a double negative to suggest the futility of human action in a situation that leaves even God fearful:
It’s not me shouting at no one
in Cadillac Square: it’s God
roaring inside me, afraid
to be alone. (60)
That “no one” is found in Cadillac Square — the center of Detroit’s downtown — reveals the extent to which Detroiters of Joseph’s generation feel a sense of abandonment. Many of the voices in Shouting at No One address this “no one.” Oppressed people often resort to prayer to express their hopes, but prayer, the poet says, is just one more futile act: When Joseph’s father is seriously wounded in a holdup, the poet prays “for the strength / of a cedar tree / and for our world to change,” but he stops praying after he observes his father in tears (21). Elsewhere, the poet says, “I pray to know what to pray for” (50). “In the Tenth Year of War,” the voice of a worker addresses his “machine” after he “prayed for help / and no one came” (51).
Shouting at No One documents a violence that not only lies within the province of a single race or class; it is a violence that permeates everything and affects everyone. The speaker of “When You’ve Been Here Long Enough,” after remarking in the second person that “heaven answers your prayers with dust,” explains that “you feel the need to destroy, like everyone else” riding an early morning crosstown bus, when “the doors open and no one comes on” (54). There is “no one” — not even God — to whom one can appeal for relief or for solutions to the social disintegration.
Joseph also infuses his Lebanese American identity throughout Shouting at No One into the poems’ voices and witnesses. In “The Phoenix Has Come to a Mountain in Lebanon,” for example, Joseph creates the experience of a Lebanese immigrant who comes to the United States in the early twentieth century, seeking relief from the oppression of the Ottoman Empire, which melts “the iron points of our ploughs / into guns” and is responsible for the shrapnel that kills his cousin. “It is better here,” his brother writes from Detroit; “there is work, there is money / in these factories” (26). With the phoenix, the “burning cities” of Lebanon are left behind, in the hope that it indeed will be “better” in Detroit.
It never really is. A cluster of poems in Shouting at No One tells the stories of immigrants once they arrive in Detroit. Joseph rejects the nostalgic and sentimental view that Detroit’s relative economic vitality through most of the twentieth century’s first five decades spread to all who were drawn to the city. Many of the men who came to work in Detroit lacked family and friends and remained separated from the city’s popular culture. Jobs were unpredictable; the work was hard, monotonous, and purposeless. “No one” is present for these workers, either. One, for example, who works at Hudson Motorcar Company, “laughed before no one, / cried before fire floating / in iron molds.…” He cuts out hope and desire from his life. He wants nothing “from the metal rushing / into sand troughs” or from the grease he inhales. He spends his time waiting:
Now I wait for the hours left,
wait until I can’t
hear myself talking to myself
or hear my heart beat
for nothing and no one
and nowhere to go. (41)
An Armenian immigrant factory worker, Khatchig Gaboudabian, a so-called “displaced person,” sick, old, and dying, sits alone in his room complaining to whoever will listen or not listen “or to himself / if there is no one to complain to” (38). While raw materials “wait to be moved / through smokestacks / into air” amid the fog that hides “the barbed wire, rusting / scraps, stacks / and stacks of pallets,” the fog that asks, “Who will save / Detroit now?,” a woman, Youmna, rolls her eyes and declares, “This is a place!” (33). In his following two books, Curriculum Vitae and Before Our Eyes, Joseph continues to contextualize “Detroit,” shifting the story of the city’s various codes. In Curriculum Vitae’s title poem, the poet, having moved from Detroit to “the city of great fame,” New York City, still speaks for Detroit’s workers:
I remain many different people
whose families populate half Detroit;
I hate the racket of the machines,
the oven’s heat, curse
bossmen behind their backs. (Codes, 70)
Several poems in Shouting at No One use the poet’s family’s store as a central setting for the poet’s experience of the Detroit’s poverty and violence. His father’s bullet wounds and his uncle’s scars from a knife become motifs in the poet’s Detroit story. In “Not Yet,” the poet says that he “hated our grocery store / where the bullet / barely missed his [his father’s] heart” (21). In another poem, he draws attention to his father’s “nightmare: / he sweat before a man / who wanted to kill him” (49). The poet’s uncle, too, has nightmares:
your uncle tells how he wakens, sweating, shaking,
“don’t kill me,” as the knife cuts his throat again.
He shows you the scar; it’s healed.
“You learn how to forget,” he reminds you. (59)
In Curriculum Vitae and Before Our Eyes, the poet both shifts the story and continues to examine the codes of these events. The second stanza of “By the Way,” for example, depicts the poet’s father being shot, mentioning specific details like the date and time — “February second, 1970, / at eight minutes past four.” The poet shows how his father perceives his attacker’s desperation and willingness, if necessary, to kill. “The bullet missed / the spinal cord, miraculously,” the poet reports, before adding wryly: “The event went uncelebrated among hundreds / of felonies in that city that day” (81). The omission of the city’s name — after the specificity about date and time — suddenly shifts the emphasis. The description of the incident not only says something about Detroit, but also raises more general issues addressed elsewhere in the poem, at the center of which the poet places this pointed question:
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? (82)
Other stanzas in “By the Way” describe the wealthy and poor on New York streets; the goings-on in an exclusive downtown Manhattan club for bankers, businessmen, attorneys, and politicians; a public television interview with “Mr. Getty” about financial arrangements for his museum, including a reference to the lowest circle of Dante’s hell; and comments about poetry and poets, including a stanza explicitly describing “special clerk Constantine Kavafis” in the “Third Circle of Alexandria’s / Department of Irrigation Services.” The poet challenges his readers to connect these disparate parts. The father’s shooting is aesthetically presented in the context not only of a wounded city, but also of a larger, collectively flawed culture.
We also see throughout Joseph’s first three books of poems the poet’s shifting narrative of his coded Detroit in the recurrence in the poems of a central formative event: the insurrection that began in Detroit on Sunday, July 23, 1967. In “Then,” a poem that opens part 1 of Shouting at No One, the poet concentrates on the actions of his father, Joseph Joseph, as he leaves his store — its canned fruit, fresh vegetables, and liquor — “to those / who wanted what was left” (7). Although fire is consuming “half / of Detroit,” the poet, through his father, is absorbed in his narrative, inviting the reader to join in bewildered astonishment:
Had you been there
you would have been thinking
of the old Market’s wooden walls
turned to ash or how Joseph’s whole arm
had been shaking as he stooped
to pick up an onion,
and you would have been afraid.
You 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,
then closed your eyes
and murmured, This can’t be. (7–8)
In other poems in Shouting at No One, the fires of 1967 become a subtle reminder that the promise of America — specifically to those immigrants who left the “burning cities” of Lebanon — has not been fulfilled, that this new world is no more secure than the one that they left behind. In “There Is a God Who Hates Us So Much,” the speaker thinks of himself as “a boy / afraid of burning / in a city that was burning” (47). The burning city occupied by the children and grandchildren of immigrants who sought to escape violence testifies impeccably to God’s hatred:
There is a God who hates us so much:
we are given ears to hear ribs kicked in,
we are given eyes to see eyes close
before a city that burns itself to death. (50)
In the recurrent references to the rebellion as the event that sets “the voice howling” within, Joseph narrates not only the city’s story but the story of the self behind that voice. The Kerner Commission Report, with its famous conclusion that the United States was becoming “two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal,” confirmed that 1967 was not only about Detroit and Newark. In May 1964, in Ann Arbor (less than forty miles west of Detroit), President Johnson announced his plans to build “the Great Society.” In Curriculum Vitae’s ironically titled poem “The Great Society,” Joseph returns to the summer of 1967, remarking upon the difficulty of offering a clear explanation for “the 101st Airborne / at the State Fairgrounds, .50 caliber / machine guns mounted on tanks, bazookas” (Codes, 109). The poet recalls a child, a block away from the store, clutching a toy in the “eerie silence” of midnight in the violence-torn city. The poem ends with a recognition of empowerment born of this experience as the poet catalogues the forces — individual, societal, industrial, systemic — involved in, and responsible for, the violence:
The power of place, the power to demand
an answer from myself, the factories,
the girl whose breasts make me wild,
the communion of saints, streets.
Earth pouring clouds into gray heavens.
Much more violence than I know. (109–10)
Still registering astonishment at the sheer volume of violence, the poet now contextualizes the experience of place not only as oppressive and painful, but also as instilling “the power to demand / an answer” from the self’s environment, his senses of sexuality and love and religion, and from the city itself — a voice intense not only in its descriptions, but also in its active need for explanations.
Throughout Curriculum Vitae and Before Our Eyes, the poet increasingly sees the conditions in the cities with which he identifies — Detroit, New York, Beirut — in the context of global economic forces. In Curriculum Vitae’s concluding poem, “There I Am Again,” the poet recalls his father’s store at different points in the economic cycle. During “the second year of the fifth recession,” he remembers his father holding “pickled feets, stomachs, and hearts” as he, the son, lifts “crates of okra and cabbages, / lets down crates of buttermilk and beer,” weighs “live carp,” and gains “respect” for “the intelligence of roaches” who thrive in returnable bottles. Everything is for sale: “the blood on the wooden floor after the robbery, / salt pork and mustard greens and Silver Satin wine.” But the poet’s tone of voice has changed: he will, he directly tells his reader, sell all these things, “but only if you pay, down, on the counter / money you swear you’ll never hand over, only if, / for collateral, you don’t forget you too may have to kill” (120). In July 1967, “in the third year of unlimited prosperity,” when both Detroit’s and the nation’s economies were booming, the poet, on “the Sunday night the city burns,” hears “sirens” and glass breaking, recalls his father giving assurances, his cousin loading a gun, and his “uncle losing his mind.” The poet remains “alone behind the cash register, the grocer’s son / angry, ashamed, and proud as the poor with whom he deals” (120–21).
Through such identification with others — the others — on the margins, Joseph insistently enlarges the self that speaks in his poems without falling into the pitfalls sometimes associated with such identification. As at the end of “There I Am Again,” he accomplishes this by a simple comparative: “I am,” he says at the end of “Curriculum Vitae,” “as good as my heart. / I am as good as the unemployed / Who wait in long lines for money” (70). “You’re colored, like me,” says a coworker named Lopez in “Not Yet” (21). “You’re a factory rat like me,” asserts another factory worker in answer to his own question: “Why’s someone young as you work here?” (“Factory Rat,” Codes, 75). A more edgy identification occurs in “Sand Nigger,” a poem which, like “Factory Rat,” negotiates identity through common stereotypes about Arabs, Jews, African Americans, and Detroiters. Again, the term is used by someone else, and, as the speaker takes it in, he accepts it. Although he claims that he usually ignores “remarks / about my nose or the color of my skin,” he considers this seemingly derogatory name appropriate:
… the name fits: I am
the light-skinned nigger
with black eyes and the look
difficult to figure — a look
of indifference, a look to kill —
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. (Codes, 92)
The speaker accepts his own marginalization, identifying with others who are separated by labels from mainstream America. As Joseph has said, “‘Arab’ … has become a metaphor, a code, and my poems track that side of America as well. By doing so, I track other groups of Americans identified pejoratively by race, ethnicity, religion, or historical realities.” Although the poem’s speaker claims that the intensity in this poem is distinctively “Lebanese,” the outrage expressed in Shouting at No One and Curriculum Vitae is that of all those abandoned and then viciously marginalized by social, cultural, and economic forces.
In Joseph’s third book, Before Our Eyes, the poet continues to probe, interpret, enlarge, and recontextualize his various Detroit codes. Because Detroit is further in both time and space from the center of the poet’s life and, in part, because of the changing story of American history (for example, the 1991 Desert Storm attack on Iraq), the poems in Before Our Eyes reveal for the poet a changing emphasis. The passage of time also requires a different perspective: “The city rioting seems to have remained / more than a portion of the brain,” the poet says in “Just That,” before adding: “The place continues, a state of flux, / opera neither tragic nor comic” (Codes 169). This state of poetic flux is evident in “Sentimental Education,” a poem which, like “Curriculum Vitae,” encodes a résumé of the self behind the poem. As in almost every poem in Before Our Eyes, the poet emphasizes color and light. Nowhere in Shouting at No One would we read:
Back to, because you want to,
Grand Boulevard, excessive sky
hot and indigo, poured out
onto Hendrie. Inside the store,
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. (Codes, 147)
The store is not the locus of shooting, stabbing, or looting, but — to use the old gospel song title — precious memory. The grandfather — described elsewhere as leaving Lebanon to come to Detroit, enduring the isolation and marginalization of immigrant life, and eventually losing both legs to disease — is here simply remembered in the aura of his love for his grandchild. The poet compares this remembrance, in its depth, profundity, and clarity, to pure light. As does the Flaubert novel of the same title, “Sentimental Education” juxtaposes self and society. The poem’s opening seems a continuation of the poet’s longstanding internal dialogue about the city and his place in it, employing, as usual, the voice of “a character, in a setting, speaking.” The poet makes explicit the historical parallels that underlie the events and images of earlier poems:
So no self-centered anarchism
was of use, too manic the sense
of economy, employment and inflation
curved. Detroit’s achromatic
sky for a son of lower
middle class parents like me
glowed. My baptism by fire
in the ancient manner,
at my father’s side in a burning city,
nothing sacramental about it. (Codes, 146)
For this poet, Detroit’s “economy, employment, and inflation” are much “too manic” for a self-indulgent, “self-centered anarchism.” The systemic forces controlling the life of the city are already so ungoverned that countering them with anarchism serves only as a source of false self-justification. The glowing that alters the hueless, gray sky is what offers interpretive possibility to the poet for whom the city’s fires bring about an intellectual and poetic baptism, a story that the poet has been telling since his earliest poems.
The story in “Sentimental Education” then further shifts and changes. Detroit offers the poet not only a baptism into the city’s violence, but also a sacramental entry into a rich store of cultural and artistic responses to it. Joseph, who often refers in his poems to his artistic forebears, here begins to pay special attention to the influence of Detroit’s jazz and soul musicians: Yusef Lateef, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye. In a 2001 essay, “The Music Is,” Joseph quotes Roland Hanna on the “Detroit Style”: “a musician from Detroit makes an effort to arrive at his own story and tell it in his music.” Joseph sees integration, respect, influence, and artistic imitation in the narratives of Detroit’s musicians. In “The Music Is,” Joseph concentrates on examples of cross-racial and cross-cultural artistic influences: the way in which Richard Wright, for instance, was attracted to the writings of Gertrude Stein, Yusef Lateef found himself drawn to Middle Eastern and Indian music, and Johnny Ray learned from African-American vocalists while performing in Detroit’s jazz clubs, one of which, the Flame Show Bar, was located a few blocks south of Joseph’s Market. Joseph doubtless sees himself also in this tradition. The essay describes Berry Gordy’s insistence that his instrumentalists “get back in the funk — stay in that groove,” a concept that recurs in “Sentimental Education” in a description of a moment from 1960s Detroit, in which light and sound form “a concisely stylized groove / you could count on / around the door to the dance.” The distinctive light of this memory merges with the sound, the beat, the bass, heard as one approaches a 1960s Detroit dance. It is the era of Vietnam: “War days conscientiously objected to,” when the poet feels “the racial on me all the time,” developing an acute sense of the boundaries that will eventually allow him to understand his mother’s weeping for “what might have been.” The speaker remarks with a Detroiter’s irony: “I knew my place, you might say,” referring both to the limitations of racial identity and to his knowledge of the city. He then elaborates on what else he knows in exquisitely beautiful, hyperreal imagery:
I knew my place, you might say,
and white-hot ingots
in their molds, same time,
same place blue jays among the marigolds
held their own beside
the most terrible rage, tears wept
for no reason at all except
what might have been. … (Codes, 146)
By juxtaposing a foundry and a backyard, the poet with the “racial” on him “all the time” speaks of an awareness of how he was molded, branded, set in place like hot metal. But this poet also knows that in the midst of the intense outrage, an intense sense of beauty was also there, in the “same time, / same place.” Joseph not only makes observations about the complexity of 1960s Detroit; he also introduces questions about the relationship of art and nature, of violence and beauty, of a world of machines and a world of backyard birds and flowers in images juxtaposed as one might encounter them in life, not in a logical sequence, but as mystifying and provocative, and spoken as one might encounter them in a blues, jazz, or soul song.
Into It, Joseph’s fourth book, published four years after the suicide bombing on September 11, 2001, of the World Trade Center Towers — which stood a block away from where Joseph and his wife, the painter Nancy Van Goethem, lived, and remain living — contains a singular, extraordinary Detroit poem: “Woodward Avenue.” The poem’s subject and title are taken not only from Detroit’s main street, but also from a piece in Yusef Lateef’s 1969 album, Detroit: Latitude 42’ 30’ Longitude 83. Woodward is a contested space, dividing Detroit’s east and west sides as it stretches from the city’s downtown through areas of intense poverty, through its wealthiest suburb, to Pontiac. Joseph follows Woodward from Twelve Mile Road — four miles north of Detroit’s city limits, where the notorious Father Charles Coughlin built his famous Shrine of the Little Flower — down to the central city. Six miles down the street stands the famous Highland Park plant, now abandoned, where Henry Ford changed the course of industrial history. The poem mentions the Algiers Motel, where three African American men — Aubrey Pollard, Carl Cooper, and Fred Temple — were killed by Detroit police officers during the 1967 rebellion. Woodward is the avenue of labor protests during the Depression, white rioting that terrorized African Americans in the summer of 1943, antiwar protests and civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s; Woodward is where in 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. led 200,000 marchers before delivering the first version of his “I Have a Dream” speech in Cobo Hall. Woodward, which includes the world’s first mile of concrete highway, is metaphorically, one might say, the great American main street, both a barrier and a passage, an avenue of individual escape and collective return.
For the poet it is “the destination, the destiny, a street, / an avenue” (Into It, 15). As he stops along the way, he brings back motifs introduced and reintroduced in other poems. The differences, though, are telling. In Into It, the story has shifted again. The poems in Into It explore terror, human brutality, mass murder, and genocide; they expose the hypocrisy of war. The poet in Into It shifts his stories again to bear witness against those who bring violence upon other human beings, including leaders of the United States past and present. The “voice howling” in these poems is directed at “thugs, / … false-voiced God-talkers and power freaks / who think not at all about what they bring down” (6–7).
“Woodward Avenue” directly addresses the role of poetry in a time of manifest human evil. Central to the poems in Into It is how to continue to create amid true horror. In “Inclined to Speak,” Joseph recalls Bertolt Brecht’s and Paul Celan’s poetic discussion about whether writing “about trees” — that is, “to write about pleasure — / in times of killing like these is a crime” (12). This question is at the heart of the “story” of Joseph’s poems from the beginning. Wallace Stevens, whom Joseph acknowledges as a poetic mentor, takes up this question as well, and, in the final section of “Woodward Avenue,” after the poet has presented us with a violent, cruel “hell where a man was once cut / from ear to ear” (17), he connects Stevens’s answer with that of Marvin Gaye:
Can you get to it? 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. (18)
The piece is “Checking Out (Double Clutch),” a musical rendition of the method of double-clutching a stick shift adapted to dance and performed, as Gaye says, “with a bunch of cats from Detroit.” Although double-clutching — briefly releasing and then depressing the clutch while shifting gears — is widely practiced, Joseph connects it with Detroit and with Woodward Avenue, where generations Detroiters have utilized the technique. The poet uses the funky, improvisatory nature of the effects of Gaye’s “Checking Out (Double Clutch)” — “both rhythmic / and textual” — to reflect on poetic composition, the need to find a groove, to locate an answer, which, as Stevens says, “will suffice,” another way of shifting the story. The “double-clutch” provides a strategy for what art can be — a strategy, as Joseph writes in “The Music Is,” for “Rapping and mapping every generation’s survival. / Igniting a brighter and dedicated flame” (70). Or, as the poet says in “Woodward Avenue”: “It’s an illumination. / That which occurs in authentic light.” As the poem concludes, Joseph addresses once more the issue of voice, and for this he relies on Stevens, who, after the economic disintegration of the Great Depression and the entry of the United States into what would become a second World War, surveyed the evil of the world and then considered its relationship to beauty and pleasure, wondering at the capacity of the poet to make “out of what one sees and hears and out / Of what one feels … / So many selves, so many sensuous worlds.” Joseph enumerates these “selves”:
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 “many selves” of the poet, of poetry, speak in the voices of one’s culture, one’s city, one’s past.
Far from being ignorant victims expressing themselves only through violence while occupying America’s “first major third world city,” Detroiters, we learn from the many selves and voices of Joseph’s poems, have a resiliency that allows them to confront the “burned and gutted” place that they’ve inherited. On Woodward, the poet proclaims, one discovers those voices capable of telling our collective “shifting story,” of creating narrative amid the violence and the evil of our cities and of our world.
In the early quatrains of “Rubaiyat,” a poem in Lawrence Joseph’s fourth book, Into It, the poet adopts a curious perspective for an American poet of Arab ancestry who is intensely critical of American military aggression. Taking on the “eye” of the aggressor, he pulls up the “satellite image of a major / military target, a 3-D journey / into a landscape of hills and valleys.” He follows the lens as it zooms closer to the ground:
Zoom in close enough — the shadows
of statues, the swimming pools of palaces …
closer — a garden of palm trees,
oranges and lemons, chickens, sheep … (Into It, 41)
In drawing attention to a source — the satellite’s camera — for this “real world data,” the poet emphasizes that he is writing at a distance about war and violence. As the book’s title and epigraph from Henry James (by way of Wallace Stevens) suggest, Into It aims “to live in the world of creation — to get into it and stay in it — to frequent it and haunt it” (xii). How does a poet get “into it” when the imagery is received electronically and filtered by the politics of war? What does an Arab American poet have to contribute to the discussion of the politics arising from Middle Eastern conflict?
Throughout his career as a poet, Joseph has been developing strategies for addressing these issues, strategies that gain intensity precisely because they rely on a vantage point both Arab and American. He concludes “Then,” the opening poem of his first book, Shouting at No One, with the recognition that the “voice howling” within “was born” amid the violence of the 1967 insurrection in Detroit (Codes, 8), an event that he experienced through the lens provided by the distinctive economics of being Lebanese American. Later in Shouting at No One, the poet contextualizes this event — as he has in all of his subsequent work — by seeing it as a code for “burning cities” elsewhere, including those of Lebanon past and present. Joseph’s poetic impulse may be intensely individual, but, by establishing various codes and correspondences, his poetry is also expansive, emphasizing global issues by concentrating on specific people in specific localities.
Joseph has been developing these strategies from the beginning of his work. “Some Sort of Chronicler I Am” — from his third book, Before Our Eyes — describes the need for an inclusive poetic vision: “through a transparent eye, the need, sometimes / to see everything simultaneously” (Codes, 160). Consistent with this need, expressed in Emersonian language, Joseph’s poems in Into It rely on imagery provided by modern technology, such as the satellite photo of “Rubaiyat” (which has an antecedent in Robert Lowell’s use of the televised image of “the drained faces of Negro school-children” in “For the Union Dead”). Joseph’s descriptions of present-day war and warfare draw on media reports, the Internet, and imaginative visions created from imagery produced and disseminated by technology. These media, as much as the “real world data” they convey to us, become subjects of Joseph’s poems.
The poems in Joseph’s first three books frequently move from the individual to the inclusive as they describe distant experiences and events. This movement appears especially in his poems that expressly refer to Lebanon. For the images and events in them, the poet relies on family history and the testimony of relatives, sources less startling than the satellite camera of “Rubaiyat.” Section 2 of Joseph’s first book, Shouting at No One, is, for example, made up of eight poems that recount the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century immigration of Syrians and Lebanese, oppressed by Ottoman domination, to the United States. The speaker of “The Phoenix Has Come to a Mountain in Lebanon” is a terrified boy watching as “wolves came / from the north and ate our donkey” (Codes, 25). Later in life he frequently climbs the mountainside overlooking his village and considers his subjection to violence:
the tax collectors who melted
the iron points of our plows
into guns, the shrapnel
I saw in my cousin’s stomach
His brother has written from America of a “better” life: “there is work, there is money / in these factories” (26). In preparation for leaving Lebanon, he performs a ritual sacrifice of a lamb and drinks wine so that he is blinded to “the dream of my own land” (27). The poem ends not with a specific account of the young man’s journey, but with the image of the phoenix, near death, absorbed in Lebanon’s decay and waste, proceeding from the mountain “to the burning cities” and “the sea / where a long boat waits to sail / to another world” (29). Of course, in passing from the violence of the Middle East to the United States, and especially to Detroit, Lebanese émigrés and their descendants exchange one set of “burning cities” for another (both places, coincidentally, looking to the phoenix as an emblem of hope). Such correspondences are the raw material for the codes that dominate Joseph’s poems.
In Arab Detroit: From Margin to Mainstream, Nabeel Abraham and Andrew Shryock draw attention to the conflicting representations of Arab American Detroiters. Undeniably, Arabs are marginalized in America, and, especially since 9/11, often vilified. Yet, as the authors point out, like other ethnically or racially identified immigrants, many members of Detroit’s Arabic community have attained success in business and the professions. To other Detroiters, especially many African Americans who, as Thomas J. Sugrue asserts, “disproportionately” bear the impact of the inequality generated by American capitalism, these Arab Americans appear mainstream. In many of his poems set in Detroit, Joseph writes of urban violence as one caught between these two representations. This experience, he says in a 1975 journal, compels him to examine his own life in the context of larger historical, cultural, and economic forces. Joseph’s father’s inner-city grocery store serves as a focal point for this examination. In this store, the poet says, he had a “baptism by fire / in the ancient manner, / by my father’s side in a burning city” (Codes, 146). In drawing this explicit connection between Detroit and Lebanon, the poet emphasizes his baptism into awareness of generalized violence and power.
In “The Great Society,” Joseph posits that there is “much more violence” in this “great society” than he knows (Codes, 110), but that what he does know is sufficient. Recalling William Faulkner and Albert Camus, in the 1975 journal he writes, “To confront fear — to confront personal and collective fears — is integral to any aesthetic.” In Detroit there was plenty of fear to confront. Joseph’s Detroit poems reflect not only on the 1967 rebellion, but on his uncle’s knife wounds and his father’s near-fatal shooting, an event that “went uncelebrated among hundreds / of felonies in that city that day” (Codes, 81). Joseph recalls the “sirens” and “broken glass” on “the Sunday night the city burns,” July 23, 1967 (120).
The poems in these first three books frequently recall the “insurrection” that began in Detroit on that date. In “Then,” the speaker thinks of his father leaving the market to be looted. In tears, the father recalls his father in that store, hunched “over the cutting board / alone in light particled / with sawdust.” The poem’s speaker tells the reader, “Had you been there,” you would have anticipated “the old Market’s wooden walls / turned to ash” and would have reacted with fear as you watched the poet’s father’s arm “shaking as he stooped / to pick up an onion” (7). A later poem includes a memory of the “Monday morning of the insurrection” when a body was discovered amid “the ruins of Stanley’s / Patent Medicine Store on John R / a block away from Joseph’s Market” (“Under a Spell,” Codes, 135).
Many of the participants in Detroit’s 1967 insurrection no doubt saw Joseph’s Market and other Arab American businesses as representing the oppressive forces of mainstream America. Many of Detroit’s Lebanese Americans, however, felt marginalized by their own “foreignness,” their memories of oppression in Lebanon, and their subjection to larger social and economic forces in America. The Arab American speakers in Joseph’s Detroit poems repeatedly assert not their identification with mainstream American culture, but their similarity with others — African Americans, the poor, the working class — marginalized by that culture.
The marginalization is reflected too in one of Joseph’s most overtly “Lebanese” poems, also bearing the title “Rubaiyat,” which appears in his second book, Curriculum Vitae, published in 1988. Not only do its title and four-line stanzas reflect Joseph’s choice of a distinctively Middle Eastern poetic form, but also it is set in Lebanon; its characters and images are based on the poet’s 1971 visit to relatives in Chartoun, Beirut, and Aljaltoun. This poem introduces many of the same issues explored in the later “Rubaiyat.” No doubt Joseph’s repetition of the title and form indicates that we are meant to draw connections between the two. The earlier poem begins not with a satellite photograph but with media reports — “stories about killing, burned bones, the smoke / from burning bones” — and continues to detail the horrors occurring in and around Lebanon in the “fourteen years” between the early 1970s and the mid-1980s when the poem was composed. Joseph mentions lynching, dismemberment, “a report” of “forty-two / forced into the church and hacked to death with axes on the altar / … a five-year-old boy / discovered nailed to a doorway in the form of a cross.” He mentions also “Corporal McMahon,” who was killed in the attack on the US Marine barracks at Beirut International Airport on October 23, 1983.
All these events are based on stories and reports, but the speaker wants more: “And what do you think you’re doing,” he asks 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 …?” The poem’s tone and substance abruptly change in its central quatrains, which become personal as the speaker stops addressing himself in the second person to reflect on his own experience with his relatives in Lebanon, his Uncle Shikory, who “did some deals in the back” of a Beirut store, and especially Shikory’s daughter, Angele, ten years a widow, still wearing black:
I hear her
Weeping in the dark. Her eyes deep dark, sad and heavy.
She likes me — my moods. Once she touched my shoulders,
whispered, d’accord, d’accord. I’ve never forgotten that. (Codes, 93–94)
Years later, the speaker learns from the Lebanese consul that Chartoun has been “captured / for obvious strategic reasons. At least twelve massacred, / one hundred forty-seven houses and the church destroyed.” He responds indignantly to the political powers, represented by the consul, who perpetuate this violence, tracing the corruption in Lebanon’s government and powerful interests elsewhere (Syria, Israel) that provide the “obvious strategic reasons” for this destruction. The poem concludes with questions about the fate of those left behind in Chartoun: “Where is Angele? Gone with the others into the mountain? / Where is Angele? Here eyes were heavy. She wore black ten years” (94).
Joseph’s knowledge of the people and politics of Lebanon informs his own beliefs. “Who cares,” the speaker of “Rubaiyat” asks, “that your politics change, that you change, / that a sharp nausea plugs your chest, blood quickened / with the harmonies of numbers counted, realized, and forgotten?” (94). Knowing the victims of Lebanon as he knows the victims of Detroit intensifies his personal sense of marginalization.
American foreign policy and the events of the last two decades have elicited from Joseph still other poems clearly written from these margins. In “Lines Imagined Translated into a Foreign Language,” from Before Our Eyes, the bellicose enthusiasm of Americans over the buildup to and execution of the televised 1991 Desert Storm attack leaves the speaker crazed by the “logic of war”:
And I? Am I mad
or maddened imagining
those who can’t
imagine this return
into violence? No
tears, we hear,
no sense of terribleness
or sorrow, nothing
only immense excitement
when the attack
begins, blocks of light
arc of laser-guided
around the open night. (Codes, 164)
These televised images anticipate the satellite-generated photographs of the “Rubaiyat” in Into It. The portrait in “Lines Imagined …” of the media (“delirious / journalists on / the bridge of the Wisconsin” ), its recognition of “a corporate economy’s” subversion of language (166), and its quotations from newspaper accounts (166–68), are themes and strategies Joseph again employs when writing about the next war against Iraq.
September 11, 2001, the subsequent war on terror, and the American bombing and invasion of Iraq again heighten the tensions between margin and mainstream in Joseph’s life and work. The World Trade Center’s destruction traumatized the neighborhood’s residents, including Joseph and his wife, who spent a day separated, each not knowing if the other was alive, and then spent weeks unable to occupy their apartment.
In the poems in Into It, Joseph resists the temptation to refer directly to this experience, although, as Lisa M. Steinman suggests, the poems do show his “self-consciousness” about the “shifting” nature of Arab American narratives since 9/11. He translates any tension arising from his individual experience as an Arab American affected by 9/11 directly into poetry, with little explicit reference to his personal situation. Few of the many voices in these poems belong to identified persons. The interactions of a man and woman, for example, become a recurring motif, but the man and woman remain unnamed. Moreover, while the poems in Joseph’s first three books refer frequently to his family, his Arabic heritage, and his Catholic background, Into It makes few such references. For the most part, Joseph projects away from the individual and toward the representative and collective. This movement represents not a break with his prior books, but a different emphasis on elements that had always been present in his poetry: submersion of the individual into the collective, concentration on public discourses, and willingness to write straightforwardly about what is morally reprehensible. At the same time, Joseph carefully resists the sensationalism of regarding the present situation as unique. The poems take unequivocal positions against the actions of George W. Bush, but the poet sees these actions rooted in earlier US foreign policy as well as in the history of warfare. Like the poet’s earlier works, the poems in Into It employ voices of resistance to unjust, statist systems and the wars they generate.
Even poems that describe the events of 9/11 rely more on published accounts than on Joseph’s personal observations. For example, “Why Not Say What Happens?” incorporates the details from Sharon Lerner’s Village Voice article on post–9/11 trauma as described by psychologists. Joseph writes of a patient who “tripped over a severed foot while evacuating / the Stock Exchange” and of
several others [who] saw
the first plane pass right next to the almost
floor-length windows of their conference room.
“When I’m not working, the last thing I want to do
is talk about it,” said one policeman (Into It, 25–26)
He describes videotaped images of panic as people run from the hazardous “dark cloud / funneling slowly” after the collapse of one of the towers. This cloud contains, he says, not only “ash and soot / but metal, glass, concrete, and flesh” (28).
Great as the tragedies of 9/11 were, those arising in its aftermath have been more intense, lasting, and destructive. The poems of Into It respond to the post–9/11 world by probing the relations among wealth, power, and state-sponsored violence, among capitalism, imperialism, and warfare. Joseph has commented that some of his poems have a “moral slant,” which “takes the expression of a voice” that opposes violent power structures. The desire to become absorbed in the experience — to “move in it, into it, inside it, down in” (Into It, 5) — complements and intensifies the “need” expressed earlier “to see everything simultaneously.” The poems assert a need for knowledge, for depth and breadth, as the basis for their “moral slant.”
However, despite contemporary warfare’s unprecedented destructive capacity, Joseph questions apocalyptic views of the present whether in examining 9/11 or the war on terror. In his view, the “seven-headed beast from the sea, / the two-horned beast from the earth, have always / … been with us” (24). He finds historical precedent for resistance to injustice in the brothers Gracchus, who in the second century BC tried to stop a landgrab by Rome’s wealthy. The dangers of our time are heightened because of the availability of the “technology to abolish truth” (10) and the “concentration of power” (24) arising from capital’s capacity to absorb, assimilate, and organize. Capital makes, the poet says,
its own substance, revitalizing
its being, a vast metabolism absorbing even
the most ancient exchanges, running away …
performing, as it does, its own
and, let’s not forget, capital organizes, capital is
social forms. (30–31)
Joseph concentrates on both the people and the systems responsible for perpetrating injustice and war. He examines the economic and historical forces at work in this process. The phase of “competitive capital,” he says, referring to Bertolt Brecht, precedes the phase of imperialism (“History for Another Time,” Into It, 60). He describes the “whole system’s / nervous system” composed of “lies … conceits, / … crimes, … exploitation / of needs and desires” (30) in different arrangements at different time periods.
Joseph is blunt in describing those who manipulate capital, the “private interests” who appropriate public resources — the “common wealth” — and employ “the precious and the turgid language of pseudoerudition.” He calls them “thugs”: “thugs are what they are” (6–7). The “common wealth” includes language, which is now appropriated to distort the conditions of our existence. Technology makes it possible for these thugs to do new forms of violence to truth and language — to “history and grammar” — in the name of freedom. “The technology to abolish truth,” the poet warns, “is now available — / Not everyone can afford it, but it is available — / when the cost comes down, as it will,” he asks, “then what?” (10–11).
But the abolition of truth is not complete as long as it is recognized and named. In the final section of “News Back Even Further Than That,” one of Joseph’s most explicit critiques of the Iraq war, an unnamed woman rails against the war and the military planners who use the word wargame as a verb and create abstract nouns like Lebanonization:
“Wargame, they’re using wargame
as a verb, they didn’t wargame the chaos —
chaos! Do you think they care about
the chaos? The chaos just makes it easier for them
to get what they want. Wargame!
What they’ve wargamed is the oil,
Their possession of the oil, what they’ve wargamed
Is the killing, the destruction,
what they’ve wargamed is their greed …”
Had I noticed that Lebanon had become
an abstract noun, as in ‘the Lebanonization of’? (39)
The “they” in this poem, as David Wojahn observes, is the Bush administration, the CIA, and Halliburton, the forces that “destroy the language in order to justify the destruction of lives; they destroy the lives in order to satisfy their greed, and their greed is never satisfied.” The poem’s unidentified woman complains that they have poisoned the earth with their weaponry, with uranium in the groundwater, uranium throughout “the entire / ecology by now” that will poison future generations. This, she predicts, is “War, a war time, without limits. / Technocapital war, a part / of our bodies, of the body politic.” She quotes Ezra Pound, “There are no righteous wars,” and continues:
There is no righteous violence,
… it’s neurobiological
with people like this —
people who need to destroy and who need to kill
like this — and what we’re seeing now
is nothing compared
to what we’ll see in the future (40)
Wojahn says that this speaker becomes a prophetic voice: “She is not some tipsy woman at a party bitching about the Cheneys” but more like Clio or the sybil (31). This poem, like others in Into It and earlier volumes, has an Old Testament quality. At least one other commentator has discussed the “prophetic” quality of Joseph’s work. In 1996 Joseph published an essay titled “Jeremiah and Corinthians.”
Joseph holds individual human beings accountable for abolishing truth and making war, but, as codes, they are also playing out the roles assigned by larger systemic and historical forces. All presidents are the president, all wars the same war, all motives for wars of aggression connected. In “History for Another Time,” he refers to a story about the United States President who
When asked to explain a personal motive
He may have had for the war …
unzipped his fly, took out his quite sizable member,
and replied, “Motive? You want my personal motive?
My personal motive is right here.” (58–59)
The possessor of this presidential machismo is Lyndon Johnson, whose “motive” is at once intimately personal and historically general, reflecting both on the illogically aggressive motives behind the Vietnam tragedy and the impulses for all aggression, including the invasion of Iraq. By refusing to identify the president and the war, Joseph universalizes the “personal motive.” Of course, it applies to the White House’s big-talking previous occupant, who on the deck of the USS Lincoln prematurely gushed about his military conquest.
This kind of talk nowadays merely fronts for the free market’s sponsorship of war:
For a charge
of ten percent above the official rates,
weapons of every caliber can be supplied
from any country, be it North or South American,
Asian, or European. The whole world sells arms
through this consortium. Implements for killing
are among the most lucrative of commodities. (59)
In “News Back Even Further Than That,” a military commander surveys a palace, now used as a command post, and observes that it “would make a pretty nice casino” (38). Another poem treats the revival of a profitable war industry: “Mercenaries … / are thriving, only this time / they’re called ‘private military contractors’” recently employed in “Bosnia, Nigeria, Colombia, and, of course, most recently, Iraq” (25).
When Joseph again uses the title “Rubaiyat,” he is not only asserting, through its form, the poem’s Middle Eastern quality; the title is a code for the earlier poem of the same name. Like the earlier poem, it uses news reports and televised images to demonstrate the effects of all this warmaking on the land, its inhabitants, and others (e.g., American soldiers) victimized by it. It begins by peering into holes “you can look through and see / the stump of a leg, a bloody / bandage, flies on the gauze.” The second quatrain’s satellite image becomes one more hole, one more occasion for going “into it.” The scene shifts, and we zoom in to details: “a map being sketched on a scrap / of paper; [and] a fist coming down firmly / on the table” next to a “tray with a dish / of lamb, and a bowl of rice and pine nuts.” What is on the map? military plans? an empire? a village or farm? Whose fist comes down on the table? Does it belong to an American? an Arab? Does the fist interrupt the mapping? reinforce it? Joseph juxtaposes battlefield images, more holes: “The creation / of a deep-down pit, a slag heap / of broken masonry, of twisted metal,” American soldiers who star “in their own / war movies” in the “Military Diaries Project” sponsored by the Pentagon, a “child … put / in a wheelbarrow after stepping on a mine,” a translator who wears “a bulletproof / vest and a large pair of army goggles / for disguise”; a “sniper who slides / a condom over the muzzle of his gun / to keep the sand out” (41–43).
“Poetry’s not what’s made impossible” because of this warfare, the poet says; “laughter is.” The poem of this war — and, he suggests, of all wars — is “a speech, of lament, a threnody. / A poem of thoughts, of consequences.” He sees “time … flowing, forward and back,” and the poem moves with it, asking of generalized war, “How many / corpses are counted and for what reasons?” He’s asking not only about war’s death toll, but about which corpses (military? civilian?) we count and whether they are counted as a measure of tragedy or victory. As if to underscore this point, he refers to the blinding of fifteen thousand captured Bulgarian soldiers by the Byzantine Emperor, Basil, in the year 1014. One out of every one hundred was “blinded in one eye only / … [to] lead the others” home. Basil could have killed them all, but he chose to let them live, and, by blinding them and sending them home, he emphasized to the Bulgarians his power over life and death, rendering an entire army powerless and burdening their homeland with the cost of their care. “Brains,” Joseph says, are “uprooted and warped” by the “schizophrenic” logic of war (43–44). War is “a living text,” and he catalogs its living genres:
Cyberwar and permanent
war, Third Wave War, neocortical war,
Sixth generation war, Fourth Epoch
War, pure war and war of computers
to process it, systems
to represent it, war of myth
and metaphor, of trope and assent,
war of hundreds of millions of televisions
assuring it, hundreds of billions
of dollars, a PK machine gun or two, a few
gunmen you can hire cheap, with their own
“Rubaiyat” concludes by concentrating on the story of a single war victim, his right eye sliced through by an “inch-long piece of steel, / part of the artillery shell’s / casing,” which then lodges in “his brain, severely damaging” his left eye’s optic nerve. The bone splinters spray into his brain, making him “quick to lose / his temper” and render him “so acutely sensitive to pain / [that] the skin on his face hurts / when wind blows against it” (44–45). Joseph leaves the victim unidentified, allowing us to consider this senseless tragedy as we ponder whether a child or an adult, civilian or soldier, Iraqi or American endures this suffering. The details indicate that Joseph is referring to Jeffrey Gettleman’s New York Times article about an American soldier injured in 2003 at the Haditha Dam on the Euphrates River. Jeremy Feldbusch, a twenty-four-year-old army ranger from Pennsylvania, finds his way home to endure a lifetime of pain, dependency, and dark solitude, like those fifteen thousand defeated Bulgarians and like countless others blinded throughout centuries of war.
In his 1996 essay “Jeremiah and the Corinthians,” Joseph writes that the prophet “speaks for those who have to live in, not make, history; his emotions are collective, sublimated, ironic — revealing those truths that struggle for expression in our hearts, sometimes in a code of which we take in only as much as we can.” The United States soldiers of the two “Rubaiyat” poems, his Lebanese relatives Angele and Shikory, the people of Iraq and Vietnam, the New Yorkers who lost lives and family on 9/11, and the residents of inner-city Detroit are not the inevitable byproducts of a blind and indifferent universe but victims of the purveyors of “Lebanonization” and “wargaming,” who, for power and profit, intensify existing conflicts and instigate new ones. Employing a transparent eye that expands poetic vision does not silence the voice howling in his poems. Joseph continues to write in voices outraged, intense, prophetic.
I thank Lawrence Joseph for his comments and suggestions.
Earlier versions of this essay appeared in University of Cincinnati Law Review 77, no. 3 (Spring 2009), and in PMLA 123, no. 5 (October 2008). Reprinted by permission of the Modern Language Association of America.
1. Lawrence Joseph, Into It (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2005). Joseph was born in Detroit in 1948. Except for two years when he lived in Europe as a graduate student at the University of Cambridge, he lived throughout high school in the nearby northern suburbs of Detroit, Pleasant Ridge, and Royal Oak, and then in Ann Arbor and, during the 1970s, in Detroit before moving to New York City in 1981.
2. These include poets Robert Hayden, Philip Levine, Dudley Randall (born in Washington, DC, but raised in Detroit), Marge Piercy, Lawrence Joseph, Toi Derricotte, Jim Daniels, and a host of others; novelists Elmore Leonard (born in New Orleans but raised in Detroit), Jeffrey Eugenides, and Brad Leithauser; and historians Thomas J. Sugrue, Leslie Woodcock Tentler, Kevin Boyle, Heather Thompson, and Suzanne Smith. In addition, a number of writers and historians who did not grow up in Detroit but spent significant time in and around the city have found it a compelling subject. These include novelists Harriette Arnow and Joyce Carol Oates, poet Naomi Long Madgett, historians B. J. Widick and Jo Ellen Vinyard, sociologist and jazz historian Lars Bjorn, and cultural critic Jerry Herron. For full listings of Detroit writers and scholars, bibliographies, and a Detroit literary map, visit Marygrove College’s Institute for Detroit Studies website.
3. See both Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996) and Sugrue and Kevin M. Kruse’s introduction to The New Suburban History, ed. Kruse and Sugrue (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 1–10.
4. Examples of such “honest works,” according to Joseph, are Diego Rivera’s famous murals representing Detroit industry in the Detroit Institute of Arts, historian B. J. Widick’s Detroit: City of Race and Class Violence, the two Detroit novels (them and Do with Me What You Will) of Joyce Carol Oates, and two albums by Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On and Trouble Man. See Joseph, “Can’t Forget the Motor City” (review of Devil’s Night and Other True Tales of Detroit by Ze’ev Chafets), The Nation 251, no. 21 (December 17, 1990): 774–77, and Chafets, “The Tragedy of Detroit,” New York Times Magazine, July 29, 1990.
5. In Shouting at No One, virtually every poem contains at least one reference to Detroit, and in many of the poems Detroit is setting and subject. In Joseph’s second book, Curriculum Vitae, Detroit appears in thirteen of the twenty-six poems. Five poems in Before Our Eyes refer to Detroit, and in Into It, the city appears in four poems. Joseph’s first three books were published in 2005 as a trilogy in the collection Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos: Poems, 1973–1993 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).
8. Charles Graeber, “Pulling the Words from the Ruins” (interview with Joseph), Downtown Express 18, no. 25 (November 4–10, 2005).
10. The repetition of “no one” in Joseph’s book perhaps reflects the sense of abandonment affecting Detroiters in the 1970s. From its height of nearly 1.85 million in 1950, Detroit’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, declined by more than 35 percent to 1.2 million in 1980. In 2006, the Census Bureau estimates, the city’s population stood at just over 871,000, an overall decline, since 1950, of 53 percent.
While the perpetrator raged
into spasms, the automatic shot off, the bullet
surfaced (after turning in the hospital bed my father
said, “There’s lead in my ass”). (Codes, 157)
13. Writers seeking ways to cross race and class boundaries occasionally diminish the effects of these boundaries on those whose opportunities are blocked by them. Assertions of equality and identity, however well-intentioned, often become self-serving ways for writers from privileged backgrounds to trivialize the impact of societal injustice.
15. In an interview, Joseph draws attention to the new emphasis on color in Before Our Eyes. This book, he says, “proceeds from the actual and metaphorical landscapes of the first two books. I add to its language an overt sensuality of color, which I set against often harsh social realities” (Graeber, “Pulling the Words from the Ruins”).
16. Joseph explicitly mentions the emphasis on color and light in several poems in Before Our Eyes, especially “Before Our Eyes” (Codes, 125–26), “A Flake of Light Moved” (127), and, especially, “Admissions against Interest” (131–34), “Time Will Tell If So” (141), and “Variations on Variations on a Theme” (154–56).
21. Later in the poem, the poet quotes Marvin Gaye’s recollection of a 1950s African American R&B group, the Turbans, whose lyrics, Gaye says, gave him an appreciation for language, a story Joseph juxtaposes with a German engineer’s praise for Henry Ford and the modern factory: “No symphony / compares to the music hammering / through the colossal workplace.” This, the poet comments, proves “that speech propels the purposes / by which it’s been shaped” (147).
22. In a class session at Marygrove College on October 21, 2005, Joseph played a recording of the Lateef piece as he discussed the poem; he also refers to Lateef’s Detroit album in his essay “The Music Is” (59). Like Lateef, Joseph selects specific sites and events from along Woodward. Lateef’s album cover copy, written by Saeeda Lateef, lists “Woodward Ave Big parades. The library, the museum, Wayne University, the Toddle House — BEST pecan waffles; cheap … Paradise Theatre … The Zephers, Moms Mabley, Patterson and Jackson, and Willie Lewis — ‘Somebody spit like a dime!’ The old Mirror Ballroom, echoes of the giants. World Stage … New Music Society. The State Fairgrounds — Detroit Symphony and guest artists …”
And what about your first brush
with fame? Serving Mass
for Father Coughlin in his Shrine
years after he’d been silenced by the Pope
— Coughlin! eloquently
ranting on the nature of money,
the mercy of Christ Militant,
the Christian Corporate State,
the Satan of the Jewish question
not in the central bank of Berlin;
no one cared what you thought about him,
no one cares now. (Codes 72–73)
27. Earlier in “Woodward Avenue,” the speaker remarks, “My grandfather’s voice doesn’t leave me” and then adds, “So many voices, which of them to be taken / seriously?” (16). In “The Game Changed,” Joseph mentions
This habit of wishing —
as if one’s mother and father lay in one’s heart,
and wished as they had always wished–that voice,
one of the great voices worth listening to. (65)
28. Many Lebanese Americans who left for the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries became merchants once they arrived. A good number — among them Joseph’s grandparents and mine — were drawn to Detroit, not necessarily to work in the factories (although some did so as a way of generating business capital), but to sell groceries to the auto workers and others drawn by the then-booming economy of Detroit. Many sons, like Joseph’s father and mine, inherited their fathers’ businesses, which suffered along with the rest of the city, as the auto industry decentralized and automated, a process described by Sugrue (The Origins of the Urban Crisis, 125–52). A good number of these inner-city businesses, including those owned by the Josephs and the Rashids, were still in operation in 1967, and were among those looted during the week of July 23.
29. In an interview, Joseph draws attention to the connection between the character of his speaker and the settings of the poems. He also distinguishes between his own voice and that of the first person in his poems: “The ‘I’ in the poems is Rimbaud’s modernist ‘The I is another’; he is, in each poem, a character, in a setting, speaking” (Graeber, “Pulling the Words from the Ruins”).
31. In many ways, the use of images seen on the television or computer screen apply some of the observations about the creative impulse made by nineteenth-century writers. The speaker’s desire for “a transparent eye” which allows him “see everything simultaneously” echoes, perhaps unintentionally, Emerson’s much-maligned “transparent eye-ball” through which he becomes “nothing” while seeing “all.” The camera, especially the satellite camera which now allows for this level of omniscience, might also be seen as a medium that has a technological negative capability.
32. Under the French Mandate, from the end of World War I until 1943, Lebanon was considered a part of greater Syria, and many Lebanese who immigrated to the United States during this period referred to themselves as Syrians.
33. Joseph is not heavy-handed about these parallels, but burning cities have become a motif in his work, and anyone familiar with both the Phoenician-Lebanese myth of the phoenix rising from its own ashes over the mountains and the City of Detroit’s motto (“We hope for better things. It will rise from the ashes.”) will appreciate the coincidence.
34. As Joseph explains in the interview with Graeber, words like Lebanon and Arab in his work become codes, a word he uses with metaphors and emblems to describe his method of establishing correspondences between people and places (“Pulling the Words from the Ruins”).
35. Nabeel Abraham and Andrew Shryock, “Introduction: On Margins and Mainstreams,” in Arab Detroit: From Margin to Mainstream, ed. Abraham and Shryock (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2000), 16.
37. Joseph, “‘Our Lives Are Here,’” 297. More recently, he wrote: “For me violence was unavoidable. I felt it. It was not all that I felt, and certainly not what I wished to feel, but there it was, in the foreground, manifestly part of things, something to be taken in, and understood — a matter of survival.” Joseph, “Jeremiah and Corinthians,” in Communion: Contemporary Writers Reveal the Bible in Their Lives, ed. David Rosenberg (New York: Anchor, 1996), 469–70.
39. See, for example, “Not Yet” (Codes, 21–22), “When You’ve Been Here Long Enough” (53–54), “Factory Rat” (75), “There I Am Again” (120–21), and, most famously, “Sand Nigger” (90–92). Joseph explains to Graeber that “‘Arab’ … has become a metaphor, a code, and my poems track that side of America as well. By doing so, I also track other groups of Americans identified pejoratively by race, ethnicity, religion, or historical realities” (“Pulling the Words from the Ruins”).
40. Joseph says that he spent three weeks in Lebanon in the summer of 1971 at the end of the Black September conflict, and that this visit is the source of imagery in two poems, the first “Rubaiyat” and “Stop Me If I’ve Told You,” from his second volume, Curriculum Vitae (email to the author, January 6, 2008).
41. Joseph writes: “Corporal McMahon in the bunker / ‘The Psycho Ward’ beside the airport below Souk-al-Garb / pokes at his C-rations, answers back home he liked to hunt geese” (Codes, 93). LCPL Timothy R. McMahon was among the 241 marines killed in this attack. See “Embassy News: U.S. Embassy Beirut Memorial,” Embassy of the United States: Beirut, Lebanon, US Department of State, January 11, 2008.
43. The exceptions are a passage about the poet’s father in “I Note in a Notebook” (10), brief references to his father and grandfather in “Woodward Avenue” (15–16), references to his grandmother and his father in sections 7 and 8 of “Why Not Say What Happens?” (29), and “In the Shape of Fate over My Father’s Birth” (55–56).
44. Sharon Lerner, “When Crazy Is Normal: Portrait of a Grieving City,” Village Voice, October 9, 2001.
47. Andrew Krivak likens Joseph to the prophets Amos and Jeremiah. His poetic language, Krivak says, is basically “committed to the prophetic, insisting on the importance of poetry to instigate action,” even though the poems convey Joseph’s “awareness” that the poem is “a medium in which action is tentative at best.” See Andrew Krivak, “The Language of Redemption: The Catholic Poets Adam Zagajewski, Marie Ponsot and Lawrence Joseph,” Commonweal, May 9, 2003, 16.
48. Jeffrey Gettleman, “A Soldier’s Return, to a Dark and Moody World,” New York Times, December 30, 2003, rpt. Common Dreams.org NewsCenter, May 16, 2007.
Modernism, traumatic memory, and Lawrence Joseph's 'Into It'
In his 1993 poem “Some Sort of Chronicler I Am,” Lawrence Joseph describes the narration of his poetry as both a subjective “mixing” of “emotional perceptions and digressions” and a more objective “transparent eye, the need, sometimes, // to see everything simultaneously / — strange need to confront everyone // with equal respect.” This “mixed” mode of narration accentuates the visual as well as the moral clarity that Joseph’s poetry seeks. It also recognizes the inherently intersubjective — and intertextual — nature of poetic composition, the “metathetical imagination / we’re all part of, no matter how personal // we think we are.”
Like so much of Joseph’s poetry, “Some Sort of Chronicler I Am” is memorable because of its precise visual imagery and, more specifically, because of its unflinching attention to the more painful and disturbing details of everyday urban life.
What distinguishes this poem from much of his earlier poetry, however, and what interests me in this essay, is its direct acknowledgment of poets whose earlier engagement with pain and loss informs his vision: William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and Yvan Goll. “Some Sort of Chronicler I Am” recalls poetic responses to the 1921 and 1930s economic depressions and to World War II, to situate its own “emotional perceptions and digressions” within an implicit dialogue about modernism and trauma.
Joseph’s poetry has been praised, especially within the study of law and literature, for its honesty, compassion, and intellectual acuity in representing contemporary life. His poetry is also notable for the critical lens through which he views the contemporary world, a critical lens that is as directed toward his own subjective vision — and his professional vision as a lawyer — as it is toward the external world. As David Skeel has noted, Joseph’s poetry has played such a crucial role in the development of the law and literature movement precisely because it challenges the distinctions between objectivity and subjectivity that have been so important for legal theory. While Joseph himself has stressed the modernist literary antecedents for interrogating these distinctions, and while his approach to the law within his poetry has been compared to that of modernist lawyer-poets such as Stevens and Charles Reznikoff, his poetry’s complex engagement with modernist poetics has not been fully appreciated.
In this essay I will suggest how the modernist intertexts of Joseph’s most recent volume, Into It, from Williams and Stevens to Paul Celan and Bertolt Brecht, inform his distinctive approach to the traumatic site of lower Manhattan on and soon after September 11, 2001. In weaving international modernist responses to collective trauma into the thick fabric of socioeconomic, political, legal, and aesthetic discourses that comprise Into It, Joseph underscores not only the contemporary international dimensions of 9/11 but also instructive precedents for responding to mass violence.
Into It recalls sites of conflict that recur in his earlier books, including Detroit, Beirut, and Baghdad, but its insistent focus on lower Manhattan is both personal in its recollection of 9/11 and political in its critique of the militaristic US response that followed the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks. The site of the fallen World Trade Center towers is a site of personal memory for Joseph, who lives with his wife, Nancy Van Goethem, in nearby Battery Park City. It is also a contested site of collective memory, despite its popular designation as “Ground Zero,” a name that itself recalls previous sites of devastation, most notably the ruined cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after they were leveled by US atom bombs in World War II. Of the multitude of poetic responses to 9/11, Into It stands out not only because of the precision of its “emotional perceptions,” but also because of its “digressions” to previous as well as contemporaneous sites of collective trauma. The perspective of Joseph’s poetry, particularly of Into It, is often that of the witness bearing testimony to the destructive events that have shaped twentieth-century and twenty-first-century consciousness, not only in the US and Europe, but also in the Middle East. His poetry represents, as Shoshana Felman has written about Albert Camus’s writing, “a performative engagement between consciousness and history, a struggling act of readjustment between the integrative scope of words and unintegrated impact of events.”
In the following pages I will suggest how contemporary trauma theory can enhance our understanding of Joseph’s poetry. Following a brief discussion of the interdisciplinary field of trauma studies, I will consider how the digressive narrative structure of Into It represents an intensive engagement not only with recent history, but also with previous experiences of trauma. I will concentrate initially on the opening pages of Into It, which also exemplify the dramatic significance of intertextual allusions to modern poetry throughout the book. I will then examine more specifically how Into It accentuates the problem of witnessing, of bearing testimony, a problem that links trauma studies to law and literature.
Trauma studies in the United States developed from the study of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after the Vietnam War. While psychiatric studies of PTSD initially concentrated on Vietnam War veterans’ experience of symptoms that have traditionally been characterized as shell shock or combat stress, the diagnosis of trauma has grown to include responses to such experience as incarceration (especially in concentration camps), terrorism, natural catastrophes, accidents, and sexual assault. Drawing from Freud’s writings about trauma after World War I, historians and scholars from the fields of history, literary studies, and cultural studies have, since the 1990s, expanded the study of trauma to emphasize its importance for understanding the interaction of trauma, psychoanalysis, and history in the twentieth century. As one of the most influential scholars of trauma studies, Cathy Caruth, has written: “If PTSD must be understood as a pathological symptom, then it is not so much a symptom of the unconscious, as it is a symptom of history.” The study of collective as well as individual trauma has had an important impact especially on Holocaust studies, but it has also had an impact on the study of more recent experiences of mass violence, including 9/11, as the 2003 collection of essays edited by Judith Greenberg, Trauma at Home: After 9/11, so powerfully exemplifies. The impact of trauma theory on legal studies has not yet been as significant as its impact on literary and cultural studies, even though the law has become increasingly important for addressing trauma in recent decades. And if the impact of trauma theory on the study of law and literature is also still emerging, trauma theory has certainly been important for addressing the problem of testimony in literature: the problem of negotiating the subjective and the objective bases of witnessing, which is, of course, enormously important to legal studies as well.
Poetry is an especially important medium for coming to terms with trauma, given its distinctive concern with memory. As Walter Kalaidjian writes in his compelling study of modern poetry and trauma, The Edge of Modernism: American Poetry and the Traumatic Past, the formal qualities of poetry furthermore “forge a salutary medium for staging traumatic histories in ways that resist the banal spectacle of the image world otherwise governing contemporary consumer society.” Trauma is generally understood psychologically as a belated response to shocking violence or violation, a response that manifests itself as “a dissociation of affect and representation,” as Dominick LaCapra has written in Writing History, Writing Trauma: “one disorientingly feels what one cannot represent.” Writing as a witness of the traumatic experience of 9/11 in lower Manhattan, Joseph enacts in his poetry what LaCapra has defined as “empathic unsettlement — as discursive symptom of, and perhaps necessary affective response to, the impact of trauma.” His poetry, that is, enacts the “unsettlement” of traumatic experience through its disruptive narration and other formal devices of defamiliarization. And it does so empathically in its insistence on listening to — as well as seeing — individual responses to traumatic experience, not only in New York, but in contemporary locations such as Lebabon and Iraq, and in previous locations such as the modernist poetic scenes of trauma that recur throughout the book. The digressive intertextual structure of Into It, which is immediately evident in its opening pages and in its longer sequential poems, ultimately accentuates not so much the isolation of the survivor as the potential for understanding the experience of trauma cross-culturally and historically.
As a resident of Battery Park City in lower Manhattan, Joseph not only witnessed the destructive impact of the 9/11 terrorist attacks firsthand; he also breathed the acrid air and walked the ashen streets afterwards. His individual experience on 9/11 was not unlike that of many other New Yorkers. After leaving for work that morning, he was unable to contact his wife and had no idea whether she was safe or even still alive. He then returned to a smoldering cityscape that was already in ruins. Given the intensity of this personal experience, his recollections of 9/11 are remarkably understated. In a 2005 interview with Charles Graeber, for example, he is asked, “How difficult is it to poeticize something that has become the greatest single topic of our young century?” Joseph’s response to this question suggests his reluctance to see 9/11 as a singular moment of history or of his own history as a poet: “‘9/11’ is a part of several of the poems in Into It — how could it not be, considering the kind of poems I have always written? The fact of the significance of the event only increased the challenge of bringing it into poetry as much as I could.” As significant as 9/11 is historically, and as significant as it has been to Joseph’s life, it cannot be perceived separately from the history that informs his previous books: “The poems in Into It continue on with the codes, precepts, biases, and taboos of the earlier books, deepening them as history forces us to.” The historical depth of Into It, which situates the violence and destruction of 9/11 within a comparative framework of traumatic experiences of mass violence, ensures that “9/11” is not perceived as a singular “event,” but as a plurality of experiences that has been perceived quite differently by its survivors and has since been transformed through its mass mediation. As such, the poems of Into It are informed by a moral — and political — vision that contests the retributive violence that became the official US response to 9/11: “The poems have a definite moral slant, or bias,” Joseph has said, “which, in some poems, takes the expression of a voice that speaks against power structures that are violent and create violence.”
The “moral slant” of Into It is not immediately apparent. Its opening pages seem far removed from the politically charged scenes that the book subsequently takes up. The epigraphs and initial poem of the book demonstrate, however, the subtlety of Joseph’s indirect and intertextual approach to 9/11. Into It begins with two epigraphs. The first, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, follows the book’s dedication (“To You, My Muse”): “… give me the voice / To tell the shifting story.” This anticipation of the book’s “shifting” narration is followed by a more enigmatic prose epigraph from Wallace Stevens, who quotes a sentence from Henry James:
Moreover, in the world of actuality … one is always living a little out of it. There is a precious sentence in Henry James, for example, for whom everyday life was not much more than the business of living, but, all the same, he separated himself from it. The sentence is … “To live in the world of creation — to get into it and stay in it — to frequent it and haunt it — to think intensely and fruitfully — to woo combinations and inspirations into being by a depth and continuity of attention and meditation — this is the only thing.” (1)
This quotation seems like an unlikely point of departure for a collection of poems that is as preoccupied with deadly violence as Into It is. It is difficult to imagine two American writers whose reputations are more identified with aestheticism — and with detachment if not withdrawal from the most violent social tensions of their times — than Stevens and James. Such characterizations of Stevens, or of James, are, of course, not entirely accurate, and Joseph’s epigraph is hardly ironic in quoting Stevens, as the language of this epigraph recurs quite insistently in the opening poem of the book, “In It, Into It, Inside It, Down In.” The language of Stevens’s commentary on James itself reveals a self-consciousness about Stevens’s identification with James: Stevens describes the sentence he quotes as “precious” and implicitly distances himself from James’s everyday life by characterizing it as “not much more than the business of living.” In quoting Stevens quoting James, Joseph is likewise endorsing neither James’s “business of living” nor Stevens’s business as a surety-claims lawyer and, eventually, as vice-president with the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. Like Stevens, he is extracting a compelling statement that takes on new significance in the time and place of Into It. Yet, there is also more to this statement than the fortuitous discovery of an aesthetic credo that can be transported to — and tested in — the ominous terrain of “Ground Zero.” It is not insignificant that this epigraph is from a letter Stevens wrote toward the conclusion of World War II, in the midst of intensive US firebombings of Japanese cities and only weeks before the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This June 1945 letter was written as advice to a younger writer who would become a trusted literary friend and frequent correspondent: the Cuban writer José Rodriguez Feo, who had cofounded the important literary and arts journal Orígenes in 1944 and was a translator of Stevens’s poetry. Stevens’s quotation of James in the letter is, significantly, preceded by a statement that refutes the aestheticism so frequently attributed to his own poetry: “Reality is the great fond, and it is because it is that the purely literary amounts to so little.” And for the writer who had recently published Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction, “the reality” that Stevens acknowledged was a world in which the exercise of American power, whether in Cuba or Japan, was becoming increasingly suspect.
Stevens is an important figure throughout Into It as a philosophical poet whose inquiry into questions of subjectivity and objectivity informs Joseph’s poetic practice, but also as a poet who defined the social value of poetry in times of social crisis. Stevens defended the aesthetic autonomy of poetry throughout his life, but when he was challenged by leftist critics in the 1930s, he articulated a position that refused the opposition of the aesthetic to the political. He wrote in “The Irrational Element in Poetry” (1936), for example, that the Depression had increased the “pressure of the contemporaneous” experienced by modern poets since World War I:
We are preoccupied with events, even when we do not observe them closely. We have a sense of upheaval. We feel threatened. We look from an uncertain present future toward a more uncertain future. One feels the desire to collect oneself against all this in poetry as well as in politics. If politics is nearer to each of us because of the pressure of the contemporaneous, poetry, in its way, is no less so and for the same reason.
According to Stevens, poetry enacts a “resistance” that is not an “escape” from the “contemporaneous”; it is instead a means for comprehending its irrationality: “In poetry … the subject is not the contemporaneous, because that is only the nominal subject, but the poetry of the contemporaneous. Resistance to the pressure of ominous and destructive circumstances consists of its conversion, so far as possible, into a different, an explicable, an amenable circumstance.” While Joseph is more directly engaged with the “pressure of the contemporaneous” in his poetry, the subject of his poetry is also “the poetry of the contemporaneous.” He likewise enacts “conversions” of “ominous and destructive circumstances” into more “explicable” if not “amenable” frameworks for understanding the “contemporaneous.” And he does so partly through intertextual allusions to poetry, like Stevens’s, likewise engaged with the most extreme forms of “pressure.”
The opening poem of Into It, “In It, Into It, Inside It, Down In,” exemplifies how literary allusion functions in Joseph’s poetry as a mode of inquiry that looks to previous poetry for possible answers to recurring questions and recurring circumstances. It is also a mode of inquiry that considers previous historical experiences of collective trauma to illuminate contemporary experience, to counteract the more isolating effect of ahistorical perceptions of trauma. The allusions to modern poetry in Into It do not, however, exclude the critical dimension of intertextuality, whether explicit or implicit, as “In It, Into It, Inside It, Down In” exemplifies. The allusion to the Stevens epigraph — and the James quote — in the opening poem’s title, for example, suggests a dissonance as well as a correspondence between Stevens’s language and its reverberation on the site of “Ground Zero.” The poem begins with a series of questions, questions that are addressed to the title and the epigraph as well as to the narrative journey that begins so tentatively: “How far to go? — I have to, I know, / I promised. But how? How, and when? // And where?” (3). These are basic preliminary questions for any narrative, but the fact that they are asked suggests the difficulty, if not the dread, of getting “into” the scene of such recent pain and loss. Such indirection, or such metafictional reflection on narration, is characteristic of Stevens’s poetry, especially his later philosophical poetry, but the directness of Joseph’s questions is starker than what one might expect from a Stevens poem, and oriented more specifically to the journey that follows. “It” is initially unspecified, in the title and in the narrative itself (“So it happened”), which intensifies the tension about what “happened” and why it appears to be unspeakable. If “it” echoes the epigraph and refers reflexively to the poem’s own narrative process, “it” also anticipates the remembered site of traumatic violence, which compels such indirection, if not repression of its most damaging impact.
“In It, Into It, Inside It, Down In” is more self-consciously — and reflexively — digressive in its narration than a poem such as “Some Sort of Chronicler I Am.” And its allusions to modern poetry are also more challenging, because they are often less explicit and more disjunctive than the commentary on Williams, Stevens, and Goll in “Some Sort of Chronicler I Am.” For example, the allusions to Williams’s In the American Grain and Voyage to Pagany appear to be diversions, as much a part of the poem’s digressive enactment of uncertainty, of questioning where to begin and how to proceed, indeed of questioning the very ground beneath the poet’s (and the poem’s) feet, as they are meaningful grounds for answering these questions. An allusion to Williams (“A wild rose / and grapes on vines along the road …”) follows the statement “It was she who opened the conversation,” interrupting her urgent question of why “in this time of so many claims to morality, / the weight of violence // is unparalleled in the history / of the species” (3–4). The lush descriptive language of Williams’s tropical landscape seems far removed from this narrative moment, and the juxtaposition of this language with the woman’s query produces a jarring contrast between aesthetic and moral and political discourses. The quotation that follows the woman’s question likewise diverts the public “weight” of her appeal to a more private domain:
… What needs to be said —
why not say it? “Who dares to learn
what concerns him intimately,”
is how he says it in his book. (4)
While the return to “it” reminds us of the poem’s initial accentuation of its deictic uncertainty, the quote suggests another frame of reference, an “intimately” subjective frame that coincides with the public scene of “Liberty / and Church streets” (3). The disjunctive juxtaposition of Williams’s language with the woman’s question, however, suggests a more profound sense of separation from this scene than a meaningful sense of connection.
What is the significance of these Williams allusions, then, for a poem that is so focused on the public manifestations of 9/11 in lower Manhattan? Do they function, as the James quotation seems to function in Stevens’s letter, as evidence of language that can provide — when extracted from its original source — unexpected insight for new situations? Or is the disjunctively interruptive dramatic role of these allusions more important, especially given the male-female dynamic of this “conversation”? One answer is that the poem is enacting the cubist practice of Williams’s collage poems, especially those sequences that intersperse “poetic” and “critical” discourses, such as Spring and All and The Descent of Winter. Williams is an important predecessor for Joseph, as he is for so many poets, not only for his experimental approach to syntax and lineation, but also because of the risks he took in incorporating discourses that were generally considered nonpoetic into his poetry. Williams also posited an ambitious historical dimension to his experimentation with poetic form, as a statement from The Descent of Winter that Joseph appropriates as his purpose in “The Game Changed” indicates: “The intent is to make a large, serious / portrait of my time” (64).
A more specific — and more complicated — answer can be found in Williams’s diagnosis of the pathology of American history, which he attributes to the Puritan impact on national consciousness in his 1925 book In the American Grain: the split between Old World consciousness and New World geography, between language and material reality, between mind and body, between male and female. “We have no conception of what is meant by moral,” Williams writes, “since we recognize no ground our own — and that this rudeness rests all upon the unstudied character of our beginnings; and that if we will not pay heed to our own affairs, we are nothing but an unconscious porkyard and oilhole for those, more able, who will fasten themselves upon us.” Writing in the aftermath of World War I, in response to the socially conservative, xenophobic US nationalism of the early 1920s, Williams could very well be addressing the “immorality” of translating “Ground Zero” into a premise for the US military invasion of Iraq.
In moving from “the spaces left behind, crossing / over to a different place” (4), Joseph’s “In It, Into It, Inside It, Down In” arrives at a tentative reconciliation of its broken elements. The “spaces left behind” suggest the gaps in the poem’s narrative development, the gaps in understanding that exist between juxtaposed fragments. These spaces also suggest what’s missing from the post-9/11 cityscape, including the lives that are missing. These spaces cannot be “left behind,” cannot be forgotten, even after “crossing / over” to the “different place” where the “Attorney General, a beeper in one hand, / a crucifix in the other,” holds forth. Immediately following this moment, however, the image of “a child, / lost, crying” prompts a shift in the narrative voice to the first-person plural:
On the esplanade, Battery Park, a newspaper,
old, caught in a gust, a child,
lost, crying — the pain was ours, I know it now;
beauty, the answer, if you must know —
the sun ablaze on the harbor. (4)
This evocative scene is only obliquely related to the public spectacle of the Attorney General and the “well-dressed crowd” that precedes it. It is uncertain whether these lines represent a present observation or a remembered moment, although the “newspaper, old” signifies a heightened awareness of temporality. It is also uncertain exactly what triggers this recognition of shared pain: these lines suggest at once a representative figure of loss and a more private grief shared by the two “characters” in the poem. This scene also suggests the unexpected — and belated — manifestation of trauma within the dramatic structure of the poem as well as within the temporality that the poem narrates. In representing this experience as shared rather than solitary, and in identifying the trigger of this experience as the universally recognizable figure of the lost child, the poem furthermore suggests the potential for understanding what is shared in otherwise disparate experiences of trauma. The “it” that the speaker now knows is not indeterminate or unspeakable, nor does “it” signify a singular event: it instead accentuates the unsettling impact of trauma, which resists definitive answers as it suggests multiple interpretive possibilities for its readers to empathically consider. The fact that the speaker also responds (belatedly) to the questions asked earlier in the poem — questions that he had interrupted — at this very moment also underscores the ethical dimension of trauma, the importance of dialogue, of listening as well as speaking.
With its narrative “mixing” of “emotional perceptions and digressions,” Joseph’s “In It, Into It, Inside It, Down In” introduces the dialogic narrative structure of Into It, which manifests itself within the interplay of voices within individual poems as well as within the volume as a whole. While the first poem of the book introduces a complex interaction of voices and discourses, subtly but insistently educating its readers to consider the significance of its narrative “spaces” as well as the more recognizable “places,” the longer poems of the book, and the book as a whole, present a more challenging mix of discourses. Coinciding with these shifting discourses is frequent and often (instructively) disorienting movement among multiple geographical and historical sites. While the book’s primary site is Manhattan, and specifically lower Manhattan, its international scope reminds us how presumptive and destructive it is to consider New York or the United States the center of the world. For example, the second poem of the book, “When One Is Feeling One’s Way,” moves rapidly from the vernacular voice that introduces “a monk, say, of Hue,” protesting “the killing of innocents”; to a more didactic consideration of “history and grammar,” which quotes Williams again (this time on economics); to ancient Rome (“the time of the Gracchi”) to declaim “the arrogation by private interests / of the common wealth”; to a meditation on aesthetics and ethics, on vision and composition, on the banks of the Hudson River (6). This poem, like the longer poems of Into It, exemplifies how legal discourses, as well as economic and political discourses, are integrated into the book’s narrative structure.
While the poems of Into It represent a range of forms and modes, one unifying dimension of the book is its preoccupation with witnessing, with bearing testimony. While the poems frequently interrogate their own grounds for witnessing, Into It insists on the necessity of bearing testimony, especially in times of social crisis. Coming to grips with the most brutal manifestations of genocide, Joseph explicitly defends the poet’s role as witness in “Inclined to Speak”:
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)
In affirming the position of Celan, Joseph not only defines his own commitment to articulating “What is seen, heard, and imagined / at the same time — that truth” (12); he also suggests an affinity between his own poetry and Celan’s, which, with its fractured syntax and linguistic opacity, bears witness to the traumatic experience of the Holocaust. As Joseph writes in the poem prior to “Inclined to Speak,” “I Note in a Notebook,” the “truth” that poetry can express is that much more important for a world in which “the technology to abolish truth is now available” (10). And the form for conveying that “truth” is more likely to be the paratactic form of the “notebook,” or the “intricate, / yet rational mosaic” that Pasolini had imagined, “worth, at least, / a second, or even a third, reading” (11). These forms, and the sequential forms of longer poems such as “Why Not Say What Happens?” or “News Back Even Further Than That,” challenge readers to come to terms with the fragmentary illogic of their worlds, to construct meaningful connections between apparently incongruent realms of experience and sensibility. They do so as much through “alienation effects” comparable to those of Brecht’s epic theater as through the linguistic density of lyric poetry like Celan’s. The fact that Joseph’s poems also attain a complex musicality, comparable to the poetry of Stevens or Eliot, does not diminish the instructive power of their dissonance.
Joseph aspires to nothing less than the artistic expression of contemporariness that Gertrude Stein describes in her 1926 essay “Composition as Explanation,” which he cites toward the end of Into It (62). “Composition as Explanation” is as much a reflection on the impact of war on modernist aesthetics, and of modernist aesthetics on war, as it is an “explanation” of Stein’s own processes of composition. As Stein begins her essay, “There is singularly nothing that makes a difference a difference in beginning and in the middle and in ending except that each generation has something different at which they are looking.” Or, in the language of Into It, “Characters talking / to one another” (3) … “a woman and a man / by themselves, each alone in the other” (10) … “a woman, a man, / love’s characters … once again, repeat the vow” (67). The “difference” that Stein posits, however, makes all of the difference, as the artist’s composition of what he or she sees is often unrecognizable to eyes trained to see — or read — in an earlier time. “No one is ahead of his time,” she writes, “it is only that the particular variety of creating his time is the one that his contemporaries who also are creating their own time refuse to accept.” Stein’s conception of modernist — or avant-garde — “composition and time-sense” surely applies to Joseph’s poetry, as he suggests in “In a Mood”:
In the spaciousness of syntax and text,
history’s, or a history’s, spaces composed,
the feeling, the meaning, aspired to,
the poem of an era. (33)
Like “Composition as Explanation,” Into It registers the belated impact of war on everyday consciousness, even as Joseph “seems to be writing ahead of actual events,” as David Kirby has written. What is postmodernist about Joseph’s poetry, however, is not so much the events that he witnesses but how he appeals to modernist modes of composition to perceive these events. Joseph appeals to such modern poets as Stevens, Williams, Stein, and Celan neither to authorize his own ambitious project nor to differentiate his generational consciousness from theirs. His allusions to these poets are not pretentious or contentious, deferential or anxious; he appeals to their example instead as contemporaries, as writers whose vision anticipates the twenty-first-century present even as they remind of us of how such shocking events as the World Trade Center terrorist attacks reiterate prior historical moments of atrocious violence.
The contemporariness of Joseph’s poetry, then, lies in what he sees, or refuses to not see, and how the composition of what he sees challenges familiar modes of perception. This compositional challenge is often one of juxtaposition of unlike modes or discourses, as we can see in the juxtaposition of a poem like “In a Mood” with the poem that immediately follows, “Unyieldingly Present.” The introspective, interrogative mode of “In a Mood,” which concludes with the urban pastoral scene of “Lilac-shaded shades of dark green / around the Bridge — that too, that evening. // A woman and a man beside the river,” is abruptly interrupted by “a sky on fire … the sky is on fire!” (33–34). This conclusion to “In a Mood” reflexively recounts the memory of violence — “A line consisting of a burning sky” (34) — as it manifests the traumatic impact of this violence, the seemingly delirious exclamation of the “sky on fire.” This brilliant segue to the more graphic images of death and destruction in “Unyieldingly Present” insists that we consider the ongoing reception of mass violence, the lasting psychological as well as political manifestations of trauma. It challenges us, that is, to come to terms with not only “what,” but also with “then again what, unfolded” (34). The impact of traumatic violence also manifests itself linguistically. The “pressure of the contemporaneous” is intensely evident in the battery of sentence fragments that makes up “Unyieldingly Present.” The observations, reflections, and questions are juxtaposed paratactically, in lines that seem erratic with their unpredictable enjambment. The mode of each sentence or sentence fragment moves abruptly from description to directive, from theological to scientific speculation, from contemplation to direct emotional expression, from “Sequences / of images, of emotions, dissolved / in a mass encoded in the brain” (35) to “Is it that reality, disjointed / cannot be discerned, or that consciousness, / disjointed, cannot discern it?” to “What am I supposed to feel?” (36). These “vicious circles / of accumulated causation” create a dizzying effect of headlong movement, an unsettling effect of perceptions that resist narration, especially narration in the past tense, and that resist closure, in their “unyieldingly fixed, unyielding present” persistence.
The question of how to see, how to feel, in a world of mass mediated images — the question particularly of how to resist the numbing effect of repeated exposure to violent imagery — recurs throughout Into It. Joseph is as self-conscious as he is insistent about actively engaging his readers in perceiving violence and empathizing with those who are suffering from its effects. This is most evident in images that demand our attention, such as the excruciating image that concludes “Rubaiyat.” As the culmination of this antiwar diatribe, and the answer to the poet’s concern that he has “become / too clear-sighted — the mechanics of power / are too transparent,” this concluding image pierces the very organ through which we see:
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 … (44–45)
In addressing the reader directly, Joseph challenges us not to look away, challenges our ability to empathize with such unbearable pain, and challenges us to become “acutely sensitive” to the concept of sensitivity, when “sensitive” describes such extreme vulnerability.
Whether addressing the experience of violence in his current New York home, in his childhood home in Detroit, in his ancestral home of Lebanon, or in Iraq and other sites of US military aggression, Joseph is deeply aware of — even “acutely sensitive” to — the problem of his own position as a witness. This awareness is most evident in poetry that is engaged with the legal profession or legal discourse more generally. The penultimate poem of Into It, “The Game Changed,” exhibits this awareness most directly. This poem, cited frequently in reviews of Into It to substantiate Joseph’s literary reputation as lawyer-poet, begins with a scornful portrayal of an avaricious “lawyer — / although the type’s not exclusive to lawyers,” as “A lot of different minds touch, and have touched, / the blood money” that Into It so relentlessly decries. Yet, seemingly in response to his own literary reputation as well as to the popular reputation of the legal profession, Joseph adds: “I believe I told you I’m a lawyer,” although this has had “little or no effect on a certain respect / I have for occurrences that suggest laws / of necessity” (63). This distinction between the profession of law and the “occurrences that suggest laws of necessity” indicts a legal system that disregards such occurrences as it defends the poet’s testimony. That is, it asserts a critical position within the profession of law while distinguishing legal justice from what Felman has characterized as “literary justice”: the “dimension of concrete embodiment and a language of infinitude that, in contrast to the language of the law, encapsulates not closure but precisely what in a given legal case refuses to be closed and cannot be closed. It is to this refusal of the trauma to be closed that literature does justice.” Joseph’s “The Game Changed” does justice to the multiple sites of trauma embodied by Into It: “Vietnam, Lebanon, and Iraq” (63) as well as New York. And it does so in a voice that is both distinctively subjective in its introspection and representative in its testimony, the antithesis of the billboard message “The World Really Does Revolve Around You” (64), the voice “of wishing — / as if one’s mother and father lay in one’s heart, / and wished as they had always wished — that voice, one of the great voices worth listening to” (65). This subjunctive appeal to memory as a sustaining mode of imagination, a counterbalance to the more traumatic scenes of memory that recur throughout Into It, is as hopeful as it is nostalgic.
The most insistent questions of Into It concern not only what can and cannot be said, but also who can speak for the “aggrieved.” These questions are political, they are legal, and they are literary, as “August Abstract” implies in asking, “The truth? The truth / that came to grieve, was aggrieved, for whom?” (22). The question of “the truth” is a problem of perspective — “a place (whose place? …)” — but it is also a more general problem of power, a problem of ideology, a problem of who represents “the truth.” It is clear throughout Into It, and throughout Joseph’s poetry generally, that Joseph represents the “aggrieved,” those who are damaged by the manipulation of the “truth,” on behalf of a truth that the “aggrieved” might not even recognize. Yet the “literary justice” that Into It enacts is as cognizant of the limits of its testimony as it is aware of its distinctive capabilities. Perhaps the most compelling example of the problem of traumatic testimony occurs in the longest poem of Into It, “Why Not Say What Happens?” The title of this poem itself suggests a doubleness, depending on which word(s) one stresses when reading it. It suggests, that is, the necessity to testify and the difficulty in doing so.
“Why Not Say What Happens?” occurs almost midway in the book, and it is, remarkably, the first poem that narrates “what happened” on 9/11 in lower Manhattan. In withholding this graphic evidence from previous references to 9/11 in the book, Joseph admits that the limitations of testimony are inherent in language: “The limits of my language / are the limits of my world, said Wittgenstein” (25). But he also underscores — empathetically — the unspeakable impact of traumatic experience: “‘When I’m not working, the last thing I want to do / is talk about it,’ said one policeman” (26). The indirect approach to “Ground Zero” in Into It suggests as well, however, that too much has been said about 9/11, that it had become a national “event” that discredited if not silenced dissenting perceptions or explanations of its significance, including such testimony about the military-industrial complex that precedes Joseph’s composite narration of “what happened” on 9/11. And “what happens” in Joseph’s poem is as much a multimedia event, “Everything / immense and out of context” (26), as it is remembered firsthand.
“Why Not Say What Happens?” includes a statement of the poet’s position that is informed by legal theory and practice as well as modernist poetics: “Me? I’m only an accessory to particular images” (24). This statement, which precedes the documentary evidence of “what happens” in the poem, supports as it qualifies the distinction that Joseph made between law and literature over a decade ago, that legal texts “result from, and in, socially institutionalized power” and have material consequences, whereas literary texts do not. To be an “accessory before the fact” or “an accessory after the fact” in legal terms implies complicity but not presence in the commitment of an offense. For a poet to claim that he is an “accessory to particular images” suggests a somewhat different subject position, a position that is subordinate or supplementary to the images, a position that decenters the poet but does not remove his agency. When the images are themselves evidence of criminality, however, how different is the poet’s testimony from the lawyer’s, especially if this criminality has such widespread implications as Joseph demonstrates? Or, when the repetition of such images risks the same numbing effect that Into It defies, how can the poet’s testimony do justice to the “aggrieved”? The questions that Joseph raises throughout Into It have compelled poets who have witnessed mass violence and other forms of atrocity throughout the twentieth century. The fact that he incorporates the uncertainty of their positions, that he acknowledges their questions as well as their testimony, within the “emotional perceptions and digressions” of his own witnessing, speaks to the intellectual complexity and emotional honesty of Into It. That he does so on behalf of those whose “economies” and “lives,” like those of his parents, “won’t be found / in any book” (29), testifies as well to the profound commitment to social justice that his poetry enacts.
4. For additional essays that relate Joseph’s poetry to modernist poetry by lawyers, see Skeel, “Practicing Poetry, Teaching Law,” Michigan Law Review 92, no. 6, (May 1994): 1754–75, and Michael Stanford, “The Cyclopean Eye, the Courtly Game, Admissions Against Interest: Five Modern American Lawyer Poets,” Legal Studies Forum 9 (2006): 30. The most thorough consideration of Joseph’s renewal of left modernist political poetry is David Wojahn, “Maggie’s Farm No More: The Fate of Political Poetry,” Writer’s Chronicle 21 (May/Summer 2007).
5. For accounts of how interpretations of 9/11 recall previous sites of trauma, see Susannah Radstone, “The War of the Fathers: Trauma, Fantasy, and September 11,” and Richard Stamelman, “September 11: Between Memory and History,” in Judith Greenberg, ed., Trauma at Home: After 9/11 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003), 117; 12.
8. For an important inquiry into the significance of trauma theory for legal studies, see Shoshana Felman, The Juridical Unconscious: Trials and Traumas in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002).
12. Michael Rothberg lucidly explains the importance of trauma theory for understanding the intercultural work of post-9/11 poetry by the Palestinian-American poet Suheir Hammad, specifically in her poem “first writing since.” See Rothberg, “‘There Is No Poetry in This’: Writing, Trauma, and Home,” in Trauma at Home, ed. Greenberg, 147.
13. Charles Graeber, “Pulling the Words from the Ruins” (interview with Joseph), Downtown Express 18, no. 25 (November 4–10, 2005).
20. Joseph discusses the extraordinary importance of Stevens’s “poetry of the contemporaneous” for contemporary American poetry, specifically for poets as different as John Ashbery and Adrienne Rich, in “The Real Thing,” The Nation 254, no. 15 (April 20, 1992): 531–33, reviewing John Ashbery, Flow Chart (Knopf, 1991) and Adrienne Rich, An Atlas of the Difficult World (Norton, 1991).
21. Sensing a correspondence in these passages to Williams’s writing, I asked Joseph if they alluded to any of Williams’s texts. He answered that they did indirectly, more as thematic allusions than as direct quotations.
Wallace Stevens, in his 1951 introduction to The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination, writes: “One function of the poet at any time is to discover by his own thought and feeling what seems to him to be the poetry at that time.”
Gertrude Stein: “You know how much I have always meditated about narration, how to tell what one has to tell. …”
Robert Lowell on Elizabeth Bishop’s North and South: “One is reminded of Kafka and certain abstract paintings. …” A Bishop poem “will usually start as a description or descriptive narrative, then either the poet or one of her characters or objects reflects. The tone of these reflections is pathetic, witty, fantastic, or shrewd. Frequently, it is all these things at once. Its purpose is to heighten and dramatize the description and, at the same time, to unify and universalize it … in her marvelous command of shifting speech tones …”
Elizabeth Bishop: “Every good writer takes into account the social problems of his times … and in one way or another, all good poetry reflects those problems. …”
Poetry, Elizabeth Bishop writes in a letter to May Swenson, is “a way of thinking with one’s feelings.”
Don DeLillo: “For me, writing is a concentrated form of thinking.”
Wallace Stevens notes in his Commonplace Book, Sur Plusieurs Beaux Sujects, “Poetry is, of all others, the most daring form of research.”
Eugenio Montale: “Always, at all times, poets have spoken to poets, entering into a real or imaginary correspondence with them.”
Robert Lowell on William Carlos Williams: “I have emphasized Williams’s simplicity and nakedness and have no doubt been misleading. His idiom comes from many sources, from speech and reading, both of various kinds; the blend, which is his own invention, is generous and even exotic. Few poets can come near to his wide clarity and dashing rightness with words, his dignity and almost Alexandrian modulations of voice. His short lines often speed up and simplify hugely drawn out and ornate sentence structures. I once typed out his direct but densely observed poem, ‘The Semblables,’ in a single prose paragraph. Not a word or its placing had been changed, but the poem has changed into a piece of smothering, magnificent rhetoric, much more like Faulkner than the original Williams.”
Octavio Paz, in “Luis Cernuda: The Edifying Word”: “The language of our time … is the language spoken in the great city, and all modern poetry, from Baudelaire on, has made that language the point of departure for a new lyricism.”
Fredric Jameson, in his book Brecht and Method: “Brecht is modern first and foremost by way of his discontinuities and his deeper fragmentation. …” One who reads Brecht proceeds “into a certain unity, but only after having passed through it.” The “entire Brechtian corpus” can be seen “as an immense unity-in-dispersal, across a host of generic discourses and speech practices. …”
Jameson: What gives Brecht’s language its “uniquely Brechtian flavour” is “some uniquely Brechtian mode of thinking. …”
T. S. Eliot, in his 1921 essay “The Metaphysical Poets”: “Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.”
William Carlos Williams, in his “Author’s Introduction” to his 1944 book of poems The Wedge: “The poet isn’t a fixed phenomenon, no more is his work. That might be a note on current affairs, a diagnosis, a plan for procedure, a retrospect — all in its own peculiarly enduring form. There need be nothing limited or frustrated about that. It may be a throw-off from the most violent and successful action or run parallel to it, a saga. It may be the picking out of an essential detail for memory, something to be set aside for further study, a sort of shorthand of emotional significances for later reference.”
Poetry, Eugenio Montale says, “tends toward prose and at the same time refutes it.”
George Seferis’s “tone of voice (I am going to speak of him as if he existed only in poetry)” — Peter Levi writes — “is at once riveting to the attention. There is something very serious and very complicated about it. It obeys the important rule that poetry now has to be at least as serious, and speak of realities as least as complicated, as prose is capable of doing. Every poet must find his way of expressing, in the forms of poetry available to him, in his language as it then is, whatever he can of life: his way of animating, or rather being animated by, all the possibilities he can of his native language.”
T. S. Eliot, in his 1942 essay “The Music of Poetry”: “It may appear strange, that when I profess to be talking about the ‘music’ of poetry, I put such emphasis upon conversation. … So, while poetry attempts to convey something beyond what can be conveyed in prose rhythms, it remains, all the same, one person talking to another. …”
Eliot: “The immediacy of poetry to conversation is not a matter on which we can lay down exact laws.”
William Carlos Williams, in A Novelette: “Conversation as design … actual to the extent that it would be pure design. … Purely what? Conversation of which there is none in novels and the news.”
Delmore Schwartz, in his review of Wallace Stevens’s The Man with the Blue Guitar in the Partisan Review in 1938: “From beginning to end … these poems are absorbed in ‘responses’ to various facts. They are absorbed to such an extent that the facts can scarcely get into the poems at all. We may compare Stevens to William Carlos Williams, whom he admires and who may be said to represent the other extreme, a poet whose whole effort is to get facts into his poem with the greatest exactitude and to keep everything else out.”
Marianne Moore, in “Things Others Never Notice,” her 1934 review of William Carlos Williams’s Collected Poems 1921–1931: The “main force” of Wiliams’s poems is “thought from thought,” a result of “the pressure configured … illustrating that combination of energy and composure which is the expertness of the artist … the dashing shrewdness of the pattern as he develops it. …” Williams’s poems contain an “uncompromising conscientiousness … dissatisfied expanding energy, the emotion, the ergo of the medieval dialectician, the ‘therefore’ which is the distinguishing mark of the artist.”
Marianne Moore, in “Conjuries that Endure,” her 1937 review of Wallace Stevens’s Owl’s Clover and Ideas of Order: Stevens’s “repercussive harmonics, set off by the small compass of the poem … suggest a linguist creating several languages within a single language.”
Marianne Moore: Wallace Stevens’s poetry is “a voracity of contemplation.”
Eugenio Montale’s poetry, Michael Hamburger writes, “almost always has a physical quality that engages and concerts all the senses.” For Montale, “the needs of each poem … determined its degree of explicitness.”
Wallace Stevens, in “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words”: “The subject matter of poetry is not that ‘collection of solid, static objects extended in space’ but the life that is lived in the scene that it composes; and so reality is not that external scene but the life that is lived in it.”
Gertrude Stein: “At present another composition is commencing, each generation has its composition, people do not change from one generation to another generation but the composition that surrounds them changes.”
Wallace Stevens: “Still, without regard to any other consideration, if it meant to me what it meant to me, it might very well mean the same thing to anybody else. That a man’s work should remain indefinite is often intentional.”
Louis Zukofsky, in A Test of Poetry: “Poetry convinces not by argument but by the form it creates to carry its content. … Condensation is more than half of composition. The rest is proper breathing space, ease, grace.”
Zukofsky: “Elegance and … versification meant for declamation are not enough to compel permanent interest, as poetry. As poetry, only objectified emotion endures.”
Thomas Merton, in his 1966 essay “Louis Zukofsky — The Paradise Ear”: Zukofsky plays “with the language he loves, which is the language he uses in talking to people. … His music is not different from talk. … ‘Talk,’ he says, ‘is a form of love / Let us talk.”
Allen Ginsberg, in “Meditation and Poetics”: “Flaubert was the prose initiator of that narrowing down of perception and the concretization of it. … There’s a very interesting formulation of that attitude of mind in writing poetry by the late Charles Olson, in his essay ‘Projective Verse.” According to Olson, this is “the problem which any poet who departs from closed form is especially confronted by. And it evolves a whole series of new recognitions. From the moment he ventures into FIELD COMPOSITION” (which, Ginsberg adds parenthetically, “means the field of the mind”), “he can go by no track other than the one that the poem under hand declares for itself. Thus he has to behave, and be, instant by instant, aware of some several forces that are just now beginning to be examined. … The principle, the law which presides conspicuously over such composition and when obeyed is the reason why a projected poem can come into being. It is this: FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT.”
Ginsberg: “One perception leads to another. … So we have, as a ground of purification, letting go — the confidence to let your mind loose and observe your own perceptions.”
Louis-Ferdinand Céline, in response to the question “What do you wish to show?”: “Emotion. Savy, the biologist, said something very apt: In the beginning was emotion, not in the beginning was the Word. When you tickle an amoeba, it retracts, it has emotion; it doesn’t speak but it has emotion. … But to us and us alone the Word has been given. The result is the politician, the writer, the prophet.”
Céline: “if you take a stick and if you want it to appear to be straight in water, you bend it first, since refraction means that if I put my walking-stick in the water, it looks as if it is broken. You have to break it before putting it into the water. This is a real piece of work. It is the work of a stylist.”
Don DeLillo: “But before everything, there’s language. Before history and politics, there’s language. And it’s language, the sheer pleasure of making it and bending it and seeing it form on the page and hearing it whistle in my head — this is the thing that makes my work go.”
DeLillo: “I don’t think of language in a theoretical way. I approach it at street level. That is, I listen carefully to the way people speak. And I find that the closer a writer comes to portraying actual speech, the more stylized it seems on the page, so that the reader may well conclude that this is a formal experiment in dialogue instead of a simple transcription, which it actually is.”
Gottfried Benn, in “Double Life: Future and Present”: “It is amazing … there is nothing more revealing than the word. It has always fascinated me to see experts in their fields, even profound philosophers, suddenly faced with the free word — the word that yields no tirades, no systems, no facts of external, historically buttressed observation, and no commentaries; that produces one thing only: form. How they operate there! Utterly at a loss. … Addendum: there really are now only two verbal transcendencies, the theorems of mathematics and the word as art.”
Abram Tertz’s prologue to A Voice from the Chorus: “a book which goes backwards and forwards, advances and retreats, sometimes moves close to the reader and at other times runs away from him and flows like a river through new countries, so that as we sail along, the head starts to whirl from the sheer abundance of impressions, even though everything passes slowly enough before our eyes, allowing us to view it at leisure and then watch it till it drops out of sight; a book which has a number of themes but only one trunk, and grows like a tree, embracing space with the totality of its leaves and air, and — in the manner of the lungs which have the shape of an inverted tree — breathes by expanding almost infinitely, only to contract again down to a small point; a book whose meaning is as inscrutable as the soul in its innermost kernel.”
Terry Eagleton, in an interview “Action in the Present,” in Polygraph: Versions of the Present: Modernism/Postmodernism: “There is a sense … that style in writing resists commodification, in a world where it is part of the effect of the commodity to desensualize. … I think we have to find a way to resist that form of commodification in the letter of the text, as Keats found a way of resisting commodification by sensuousness, by a kind of … overlaying of the language. …”
Terry Eagleton: “Another strain of Modernism turns back to subjectivity itself. … The self may be fitful and fragmentary, but there is something we can rely on in the immediacy of its sensations. And though the essence of selfhood is now elusive, there are crtain rare moments in which it can be fleetingly recpatured.”
Phillippe Sollers, in his novel Watteau in Venice, quoting Hénri Mattisee: “I give a fragment, and I lead the spectator in through the rhythm, I tempt him to pursue the movement of the fraction he sees, so as to give him the sense of whole. The point … lies in giving, through a very limited surface, the idea of immensity.”
Roland Barthes, in “Event, Poem, Novel,” written in 1965 as a commentary to Phillippe Sollers’s Event: “It is in fact possible to read Event like a very beautiful poem, the indistinct celebration of language and of the woman beloved, the path of one toward the other, like Dante’s Vita Nova in another era: Event may be the infinite metaphor of ‘I love you,’ which is the single transformation found in all poetry.”
Christa Wolf, in her 1976 conversation with Hans Kaufmann, “Subjective Authenticity”: “To my mind, it is much more useful to look at writing, not as an end product, but as a process which continuously runs alongside life, helping to shape and interpret it: writing can be seen as a way of being more intensely involved in the world, as the concentration and focusing of thought, word and deed. … This mode of writing is not ‘subjectivist,” Wolf continues, “but ‘interventionist.’ It does require subjectivity, and a subject who is prepared to undergo unrelenting exposure … to the material at hand, to accept the burden of the tensions that inexorably arise, and to be curious about the changes that both the material and the author undergo. The new reality you see is different from the one you saw before. Suddenly, everything is interconnected and fluid. Things formerly taken as ‘given’ start to dissolve, revealing the reified social relations they contain and no longer that hierarchically arranged social cosmos in which the human particle travels along the paths pre-ordained by sociology or ideology, or deviates from them. It becomes more and more difficult to say ‘I,’ and yet at the same time often imperative to do so.”
In the The Truth of Poetry’s “Masks” chapter, Michael Hamburger writes that William Butler Yeats’s poetry “demands to be read with the kind of adjustments that we make for dramatic poetry; and the first person in a lyrical poem should never be identified, in any case, with the poet’s empirical self. Whether primarily confessional or primarily dramatic, the first person in lyrical poetry serves to convey a gesture, not to document identity or establish biographical facts. … Yeats’s multiple selves … convey a great many different gestures, of a great many different orders.”
In Eugenio Montale’s poetry, Hamburger writes in The Truth of Poetry’s “A Period Loose at All Ends” chapter, “private and public experience are interwoven into the texture of his poems, exactly as they are interwoven in the texture of a human life … his poetic ‘I’ … functions … as a medium rather than as a subject (in either sense of the word). Montale, therefore, belongs to his poems, and his poems belong to any reader prepared to entrust himself to their exploratory courses.”
A poet’s poems, Wallace Stevens notes in his Commonplace Book, are “speeches from the drama of the time in which he is living.”
Adrienne Rich’s epigraph for Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth: Poems 2004–2006: “Poetry is not self-expression, the I is a dramatic I. — Michael S. Harper, quoting Sterling A. Brown.”
Don DeLillo, in a 1977 interview “The American Strangeness,” with Gerald Howard: “The last half-century has been an enormously complex period — a strange spin-out experience, filled with danger and change. The novel is a very open form. It will accommodate large themes and whole landscapes of experience. The novel is here, the novel exists to give us a form that is fully equal to the sweeping realities of a given period. The novel expands, contracts, becomes essaylike, floats in pure consciousness — it gives the writer what he needs to produce a book that duplicates, a book that models the rich, dense, and complex weave of actual experience. The novel goads the writer into surpassing himself.”
Wallace Stevens, in his 1955 speech “On Receiving the National Book Award for Poetry”: The poet “exercises a power over life, by expressing life, just as the novelist does; and I am by no means sure that the poet does not exercise this power at more levels than the novelist, with more colors, with as much perception and certainly with more music, not merely verbal music, but the rhythms and tones of human feeling.” The significance of poetry, Stevens adds, “is second to none. We can never have great poetry unless we believe that poetry serves great ends. We must recognize this from the beginning so that it will affect everything that we do. Our belief in the greatness of poetry is a vital part of its greatness, an implicit part of the belief of others in its greatness.”
In his “Translator’s Preface” to Eugenio Montale’s book of poems The Occasions, Willliam Arrowsmith writes that Montale attempted “to enclose the refractory contraries — public and private, external and internal, historical and individual, transcendental and immanent — within the confines of the poem. The result was a poetry of a density and complexity … that knowingly sought to make itself a concentrate of experience at the very instant when experience becomes most difficult and most intimidates expression.”
Montale: “For contemporary man everything is internal and everything is external. … We live with an altered sense of time and space.”
Montale, Arrowsmith says, writes poetry “that can keep pace with, even contain, life itself.” His images are “constantly in the process of mutation. … An image of a metaphysical sort, for instance, is set out; this is immediately transformed into visual terms, which then become chromatic, only to be transformed again into another associated, but larger, cluster; image after image, each modulating into the other so as to give a quite Ovidian sense of a world in endless process of metamorphosis.”
T. S. Eliot, in his 1953 essay “The Three Voices of Poetry”: “The first voice is the voice of the poet talking to himself — or to nobody. The second is the voice of the poet addressing an audience, whether large or small. The third is the voice of the poet when he attempts to create a dramatic character speaking in verse; when he is saying, not what he would say in his own person, but only what he can say within the limits of one imaginary character addressing another imaginary character. … I think that in every poem, from the private meditation to the epic or the drama, there is more than one voice to be heard.”
Allen Ginsberg, in “Some Metamorphoses of Personal Prosody”: “In this mode perfection is basic,’ W. C. Williams reproved me correctly; simultaneously he responded with enthusiasm to short fragments of personal notation drawn from diaries & rearranged in lines emphasizing crude breath-stop syncopations. Later practice in this mode … trained my sensibility to the eccentric modulations of long-line composition displayed by Smart, Blake, Whitman, Jeffers, Rimbaud, Artaud & other precursors.”
Allen Ginsberg: Bob Dylan’s principle of composition is “primarily spontaneous & improvised … connected with a voice improvising, with hesitancies aloud, a living musician’s ear … natural song for physical voice.”
Dylan, in an interview with Robert Hilburn, “Dylan Now,” in the Los Angeles Times Magazine, February 9, 1992: “There wasn’t anybody doing my thing. … It was just mine and no one else was going to cover that territory.”
Dylan, in a 1985 interview, “Don’t Ask Me Nothin’ About Nothin’ I Might Just Tell You the Truth,” with Scott Cohen in Spin: “Sometimes the ‘you’ in my songs is me talking to me. Other times I can be talking to somebody else. If I’m talking to me in a song, I’m not going to drop everything and say, all right, now I’m talking to you. It’s up to you to figure out who’s who. A lot of time it’s ‘you’ talking to ‘you.’ The ‘I’ … also changes. It could be I, or … it could be another person who’s saying ‘I.”
In his book To Be Loved, Berry Gordy Jr. writes: “The ‘feel’ was usually the first thing I’d go for. After locking in the drumbeat, I’d hum a line for each musician to start. Once we got going, we’d usually ad lib all over the place until we got the groove I wanted. Many of these guys came from a jazz background. I understood their instincts to turn things around to their liking, but I also knew what I wanted to hear. … So when they went too far, I’d stop them and stress, ‘We gotta get back to the funk — stay in that groove.” He would, Gordy said, make it “as plain as possible: I would extend my arms a certain distance apart, saying, ‘I want to stay between here and there. Do whatever you want but stay in this range — in the pocket.”
Wallace Stevens in his Commonplace Book, quoting “The Composer and ‘Civilization’: Notes on the Later Work of Gabriel Fauré,” by W. H. Mellers, in the March 1938 issue of Scrutiny: “This scalic freedom of line and mastery of ellipses is the secret of all his harmonic complexity, the unique aristocratic tang … his writing is ‘technically’ strict, and his harmonic dialect rooted in the practice of his forbears, yet, by means of these elliptical transitions and flexible basses, he can produce chordal sequences which are absolutely original and inimitable, though containing no chord which is extraordinary in itself … Bach himself, sometimes but not often — in the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue for instance — achieved, by means of his exploitation of chromaticism, a comparable quince-like subtlety. You can sense it. …”
In Language in Modern Literature: Innovation and Experiment, Jocob Korg writes: “Lévi-Strauss has shown that the sort of thinking that creates myths” induces “a state of mind capable of assimilating any and all ideas into an imaginative unity.” Myths “are intensively organized, as are great modern literary works, according to unacknowledged principles, but there is room within them for the principle of construction Lévi-Strauss calls bricolage, the improvisational activity that allows a limited play of chance.” The bricoleur “must modify his intentions to make do with whatever is available. Hence, he carries on a sort of dialogue with his resources … endowing the objects he chooses from his collection with a specific function,” transforming “the random into the determinate.” By giving “randomly-chosen materials specific places in the systems of relationships seen in his vision, the poet, like the dreamer, transforms choice into necessity.”
Allen Ginsberg, in “Mind Writing Slogans”: “Ordinary mind includes eternal perceptions. … Notice what you notice. … Catch yourself thinking. … How do we talk to ourselves at night in the dark? … Intense fragments of spoken idiom, best … Subject is known by what she sees.”
Eugenio Montale, in “Let’s Talk About Hermeticism,” speaks of “the nature of poetic-painterly-musical production … the tendency, among all the infinite variations … toward the object, toward art invested, incarnated in the means of expression, toward emotion which has become thing. Understand here,” Montale says, “that by thing we don’t mean the external metaphor, the description, but simply the resistance of the word within its syntactical nexus, the objective, finished … sense of form sui generis, to be judged case by case.”
Wallace Stevens, in “The Irrational Element in Poetry”: “A poet writes poetry because he is a poet; and he is not a poet because he is a poet but because of his personal sensibility. What gives a man his personal sensibility I don’t know and it does not matter because no one knows.”
Paz: “A poet is one who … writes because he cannot help it — and knows it. He is an accomplice of his fate — and its judge.”
Don DeLillo: “Essentially, I write what I’m driven to write.”
Wallace Stevens: “After all, the fury of poetry at any given time depends on a madman or two and, at the moment, all the madmen are politicians.”
Stevens, writing in 1942: “We are confronting … a set of events, not only beyond our power to tranquilize them in the mind, beyond our power to reduce them and metamorphose them, but events that stir the emotions to violence, that engage us in what is direct and immediate and real, and events that involve the concepts and sanctions that are the order of our lives and may involve our very lives; and these events are occurring persistently with increasing omen, in what may be called our presence.”
Stevens, writing in 1942: “This much ought to be said to make it a little clearer that in speaking of the pressure of reality, I am thinking of life in a state of violence, not physically violent, as yet, for us in America, but physically violent for millions of our friends and for still more millions of our enemies and spiritually violent, it may be said, for everyone alive. A possible poet must be a poet capable of resisting or evading the pressure of the reality of this last degree, with the knowledge that the degree of today may become a deadlier degree tomorrow.”
William Carlos Williams, in The Embodiment of Knowledge: “But poetry continues. Since it happens always justly, never lying, never in front of life but around it when it occurs, unlike anything else in existence: proven, just exact.”
Flannery O’Connor: In “good fiction and drama you need to go through the concrete situation to some experience of mystery.”
Flannery O’Connor: “I do what I have to with what I can. You are always bounded by what you can make live.”
T. S. Eliot, in his 1930 “Preface” to his translation of St. John Perse’s Anabase: Any “obscurity of the poem, on first readings, is due to the suppression of ‘links in the chain,’ of explanatory and connecting matter, and not to incoherence, or to the love of cryptogram. The justification of such abbreviation of method is that the sequence of images coincides and concentrates into one intense impression. … The reader has to allow the images to fall into his memory successively without questioning the reasonableness of each at the moment; so that, at the end, a total effect is produced. Such selection of a sequence of images and ideas has nothing chaotic about it. There is a logic of the imagination as well as a logic of concepts. People who do not appreciate poetry always find it difficult to distinguish between order and chaos in the arrangement of images; and even those who are capable of appreciating poetry cannot depend upon first impressions. I was not convinced of Mr. Perse’s imaginative order until I had read the poem five or six times. And if, as I suggest, such an arrangement of imagery reqires just as much ‘fundamental brainwork’ as the arrangement of an argument, it is to be expected that a reader of a poem should take at least as much trouble as a barrister reading an important decision on a complicated case.”
Ezra Pound, in ABC of Reading: “Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.’ … I begin with poetry because it is the most concentrated form of verbal expression.”
Ezra Pound: The “three chief means” to “charge language with meaning to the utmost possible degree” are “throwing the object (fixed or moving) on to the visual imagination … inducing emotional correlations by the sound and rhythm of the speech” and “inducing both of the effects by stimulating the associations (intellectual or emotional) that have remained in the receiver’s consciousness in relation to the actual words or word groups employed.”
Pound: “Rhythm is a form cut into TIME, as a design is determined SPACE. … In making a line of verse (and thence building the lines into passages) you have certain primal elements: That is to say, you have the various ‘articulate sounds’ of the language, of its alphabet, that is, and the various groups of letters in syllables. These syllables have differing weights and durations … A. original weights and durations … B. weights and durations that seem naturally imposed on them by the other syllable groups around them. Those are the medium wherewith the poet cuts his design in TIME.”
Pound: “The answer is:
LISTEN to the sound that it makes.”
T. S. Eliot, in “The Music of Poetry”: “I have never been able to retain the names of feet and metres, or to pay the proper respect to the accepted rules of scansion … I wanted to know why one line was good and another bad; and this, scansion could not tell me.”
Louis Zukofsky: “The principle of varying the stress of a regular meter and counting the same number of syllables to the line … transferred from ‘traditional’ to cadenced verse … in Spring and All: not that [Williams] made each line of a stanza or printed division carry absolutely the same number of syllables — … but there seems to have been a decided awareness of the printed, as well as the quantitative, looseness of vers libre. Obviously, what counts is quantity; print only emphasizes — yet, printing correctly, a poet … shows his salutary gift of quantity …”
Allen Ginsberg, in “Mind Writing Slogans”: “‘Spots of Time’ — William Wordsworth … ‘Sight is where the eye hits.’ — Louis Zukofsky … ‘Presentation, not reference.’ — Ezra Pound … ‘An attempt to approximate classical qualitative meters … ’ — Ezra Pound … ‘Only Emotion Objectified endures.’ — Louis Zukofsky.”
Wallace Stevens, in his Commonplace Book, quoting Andre Rousseaux: “La nostalgie de l’eternel est au fond de toutes les ouevres des philosophes, des romanciers et des poetes.” (The nostalgia for the eternal[,] is the basis of all the works of philosophers, novelists, and poets.)
Jonathan Galassi, in his essay “Reading Montale”: “If Montale’s poetry can be construed as a novel, and there are many indications that he himself regarded it in these terms.”
Jonathan Galassi: “As Gianfranco Contini has observed, Montale’s work is written at the point of ‘veritable cultural saturation’; it is so heavily layered with allusion and quotation, particularly self-quotation, that at times it seems to approximate the echo chamber of Walter Benjamin’s ideal work, the collage of borrowings.”
Galassi: “Likewise with Montale’s images, which he once said exist within the poems like knots in wood, integral to their meaning, or, rather, constitutive of it. It is remarkable how consistent his figurative vocabulary is, how the same images occur in poem after poem, accruing significance and value through use and across time.”
Eugenio Montale, in “Intentions (Imaginary Interview)”: “It doesn’t depend on me: an artist is a driven man, he doesn’t have freedom of choice. In this field, more than others, there’s an effective determinism.”
Montale: “Since from birth I have felt a total disharmony with the reality that surrounded me, the material of my inspiration could only be that disharmony. … I believe it’s a question of an inadaptibility, a psychological and moral maladjustment which is part and parcel of every basically introspective personality, i.e., of every poetic personality.”
Wallace Stevens, in his Commonplace Book: “The aim, in fact, of an artist should be, not to create as beautifully as possible, but to tell as much of the truth as is compatible with creating beautifully. … It needs more imagination to see and interpret the world as it is.”
Stevens in his Commonplace Book, quoting from an essay by Graham Bell in the June 12, 1937 issue of The New Statesman and Nation: “In a Cézanne there can be no question of juggling with the elements of design, no possibility of glossing over difficulties, no equivocation. With Cézanne integrity was the thing, and integrity never allowed him to become fixed at any one point in his development, but sent him onward toward new discoveries of technique, new realisations of the motive.” Stevens then writes: “I note the above both for itself and because it adds to subject and manner the thing that is incessantly overlooked: the artist, the presence of the determining personality. Without that reality no amount of other things matters much.”
Stevens, in his Commonplace Book: “Pasternak declared that the artist must expect no other aid than from his own imagination, that art should represent the furthest reach and not the mean of an epoch, and that the natural growth and strength of art can relate it to its period. … the first essential condition for the creation of works of art is that the artist must be allowed freely to follow his own imagination — whether it may lead him into the front-line or, more often, into isolation. Art is individual and the artist, therefore, is an individualist and no demands can be made on him from the outside.”
Martin Amis, in “Saul Bellow in Chicago”: “Bellow … believes that the time has come for serious … writers to be serious, without losing lyricism. … Why not address ‘the mysterious circumstance of being’, and say what it’s like to be alive at this time, on this planet?”
Don DeLillo: “I think my work has always been informed by mystery; the final answer, if there is one at all, is outside the book. My books are openended. I would say that mystery … is something that weaves in and out of my work. I can’t tell you where it came from or what it leads to. Possibly it is the natural product of a Catholic upbringing.”
Don DeLillo: “I think there is a sense of last things in my work that probably comes from a Catholic childhood. For a Catholic, nothing is too important to discuss or think about, because he’s raised with the idea that he will die any minute now and that if he doesn’t live his life in a certain way this death is simply an introduction to an eternity of pain. This removes a hesitation that a writer might otherwise feel when he’s approaching important subjects, eternal subjects. I think for a Catholic these things are part of ordinary life.”
DeLillo, in response to a question by Adam Begley about the application of “poetic beauty” to “scenes of dereliction” in his novel Great Jones Street: “I think that is how urban people react to the deteriorating situation around them — I think we need to invent beauty, search out some restoring force. A writer may describe the ugliness and pain in graphic terms but he can also try to find a dignity and significance in ruined parts of the city, and the people he sees there.”
DeLillo: “The writer has lost a great deal of his influence, and he is situated now, if anywhere, on the margins of the culture. But isn’t this where he belongs? How could it be any other way? And in my personal view this is a perfect place to observe what’s happening at the dead center of things. I particularly have always had a kind of endgame sensibility when it comes to writing serious fiction. Before I ever published a novel, this is how I felt about it — that I was writing for a small audience that could disappear at any minute, and not only was this not a problem, it was kind of a solution. It justified what I wrote and it narrowed expectations in a healthy way. I am not particularly distressed by the state of fiction or the role of the writer. The more marginal, perhaps ultimately the more trenchant and observant and finally necessary he’ll become.”
Terry Eagleton on the poetry of Bertolt Brecht: “The problem of word and thing is particularly pressing for a political poet. For political poetry must seek to represent a forceful truth in language at the same time as it must prise language free from the ideologies in which it is imprisoned, suggest its multiple possibilities and so reinstate an essentially ironic relation between writing and reality.”
Eagleton on Brecht: “The point … was to float language free of the object so that it became, not its mirror, but its critique. Language was not ‘reflection’ or ‘symbolic embodiment’ but historical intervention, shattering established representations in the name of alternative ways of constructing the world. The paradigm of such reconstructions for Brecht was, of course, socialism; but there is a sense in which it was also writing. For any piece of writing constructs reality in partial, questionable, exclusive ways. … The most revolutionary gesture for Brecht was … for a poem to demonstrate its own bias, backtrack skeptically on its own assumptions, interrogate its own perceptions in the very act of communicating them. … The political force of Brecht’s poetry … is not in the first place a question of ‘passionate commitment,’ moral indignation or satiric denunciation, though few modern poets have equalled him in these capacities. It is a matter of dramatising, in the very forms of fiction, that the social reality under which we live is merely one possibility — a particular ‘fictional’ construction which may be transformed. This is indeed a question of form rather than (in the first place) of content, and it is for this reason that formalism must be opposed: it trivialises an issue of supreme importance.”
Octavio Paz, in “William Carlos Williams: The Saxifrage Flower”: “Williams from the outset sought a poetic Americanism. In effect, as he explains in the beautiful essays of In the American Grain (1925), America is not a given reality but something we all make together with our hands, our eyes, our brains, and our lips. The American reality is material, mental, visual, and above all, verbal: whether he speaks Spanish, English, Portuguese, or French, American man speaks a language different from the European original. More than just a reality we discover or make, America is a reality we speak.”
Octavio Paz: “The greatness of a poet is not measured by the extent but by the intensity and perfection of his works.”
Paz: “The poem is a verbal object, and though it is made of signs (words), its ultimate reality unfolds beyond those signs: it is the presentation of a form. …”
Paz, in “Luis Buñuel: Three Perspectives”: “Los Olvidados showed the way not to overcome superrealism — can anything be overcome in art and literature? — but to unravel it; I mean that Buñuel had found an exit from the superrealist aesthetic by inserting, in the traditional form of the narrative, the irrational images which spring up out of the dark side of man. (In those years I set myself a similar task in the more restricted domain of lyric poetry.)”
Edmund White, in his “Introduction” to Jean Genet’s Prisoner of Love: “Like the Céline of Castle to Castle or Rigadoon, Genet backs into his subjects, starts talking around something long before he identifies it. Like Céline, Genet appears to be casual and conversational, but through recurrence he heightens each subject until it turns mythical.”
Edmund White on Genet: “Genet always constructed his fiction like cinematic montage, alternating one story with one or two others. In Prisoner of Love the intercutting becomes rapid, constant, vertiginous — a formal device for showing the correspondence between elements where no connection had been previously suspected. In two pages Genet can make unexpected links between Mozart’s scatology, a desire for a house, the prudish way the early Church Fathers referred to the Virgin’s breast, the invisible cell that glided about around Saint Elizabeth, Queen of Hungary, the words of a Sufi poet, and so on. In Genet’s novels the poet’s urge to uncover correspondences is encoded in brilliant metaphors. In Prisoner of Love metaphors have been replaced by a different method — radical juxtaposition without copula, that is, the tight sequencing of different subjects without transition. This method emphasizes the sovereignty of the observer — makes him into a god.”
Thomas Merton, in his 1967 essay “Day of a Stranger,” writes: “There is a mental ecology, too, in living balance of spirits in this corner of the woods. There is room here for many … songs. … Vallejo for instance. Or Rilke, or Rene Char, Montale, Zukofsky, Ungaretti, Edwin Muir, Quasimodo or some Greeks. Or the dry, disconcerting voice of Nicanor Parra … Here is the reassuring companionship of many silent Tzu’s and Fu’s; King Tzu, Lao Tzu, Meng Tzu, Tu Fu. And Nui Neng. And Chao-Chu. And the drawings of Sengai. And a big graceful scroll from Suzuki. Here also is a Syrian hermit called Philoxenus. And an Algerian cenobite called Camus. Here is heard the clanging prose of Tertullian, with the dry catarrh of Sartre. Here the voluble dissonances of Auden, with the golden sounds of John of Salisbury. Here is the deep vegetation of that more ancient forest in which the angry … Isaias and Jeremias … sing. Here … are … voices from Angela of Foligno to Flannery O’Connor, Theresa of Avila, Juliana of Norwich. … It is good to choose the voices that will be heard in these woods, but they also choose themselves, and send themselves to be present in this silence. In any case there is no lack of voices.”
Thomas Metron: Rafael Alberti’s “angelic poems … are prophetic ‘burdens’ like the burdens of Isaiah and the laments of Ezekiel over Babylon and Tyre, and as such they can be attended to with a certain pity and fear appropriate to the awareness of tragedy and accursedness — an awareness to which our own poets have seldom been attuned though a few of our prose writers — Faulkner above all — certainly have.”
Adrienne Rich, in Poetry & Commitment: An Essay: “There is no universal Poetry anyway, only poetries and poetics, and the streaming, intertwining histories to which they belong. There is room, indeed necessity, for both Neruda and César Vallejo, for Pier Paolo Pasolini and Alfonsina Storni, for Audre Lorde and Aimé Césaire, for both Ezra Pound and Nelly Sachs. Poetries are no more pure and simple than human histories are pure and simple.”
Adrienne Rich: “If to ‘aestheticize’ is to glide across brutality and cruelty, treat them merely as dramatic occasions for the artist rather than structures of power to be revealed and dismantled — much hangs on the words ‘merely’ and ‘rather than.’ Opportunism isn’t the same as committed attention. But we can also define the ‘aesthetic’ not as a privileged and sequestered rendering of human suffering, but as news of an awareness, a resistance, that totalizing systems want to quell, art reaching into us for what’s still passionate, still unintimidated, still unquenched.”
Osip Mandelstam, in “Conversation About Dante”: “It is absolutely false to perceive Dante’s poem as some extended single-line narrative or even as having but a single voice. … There is not just one form in Dante, but a multitude of forms. … A scientific description of Dante’s Commedia, taken as a flow, as a current, would inevitably assume the look of a treatise on metamorphoses, and would aspire to penetrate the multitudinous states of poetic matter. …”
Osip Mandelstam: “Love of the city, passion for the city, hatred for the city — these serve as the materials of the Inferno.”
Mandelstam: Dante’s city “is scattered everywhere — he is surrounded by it.”
Mandelstam: The “journey with conversations,’ otherwise known as the Divina Commedia.”
Frank O’Hara, in “[Statement for The New American Poetry]”: “It may be that poetry makes life’s nebulous events tangible to me and restores their detail; or conversely, that poetry brings forth the intangible quality of incidents which are all too concrete and circumstantial. Or each on specific occasions, or both all the time.”
Frank O’Hara, in “About Zhivago and His Poems”: For Pasternak, “the artist is the last repository of individual conscience, and in his terms conscience is individual perception of life. This is not at all a counterrevolutionary attitude based on an intellectual-aristocratic system. It has not to do with a predilection for ‘culture.’ The lesson comes from life. … And if love lives at all in the cheap tempestuousness of our time, I think it can only be in the unrelenting honesty with which we face animate nature and inanimate things and the cruelty of our kind, and perceive and articulate and … choose love above all else.”
John Ashbery, in “A Conversation with Kenneth Koch”: “When statements occur in poetry they are merely a part of the combined refractions of everything else.”
John Ashbery on John Wheelright: “Still, almost any random page from Wheelright makes one want to persevere. A suggestion of the difficulties and delights ahead can be found in the remarkable ars poetica (of a sort) called ‘Verse + Radio = Poetry,’ published by Rosenfeld and S. Foster Damon in Southern Review (Spring 1972): ‘The music of poetry is more than sound — its music consists in the presentation of ideas as themes repeated, contradicted, and developed like musical ideas. … Ideological music is closely related to disassociation of associated ideas and the association of the disassociated. This philosophical process must constantly go on, in answer to constantly changing society, for ages and generations and for individuals from childhood to old age and from mood to mood.’”
Gertrude Stein, in Picasso: “People really do not change from one generation to another, as far back as we know history people are about the same as they were, they have had the same needs, the same desires, the same virtues and the same qualities, the same defects, indeed nothing changes from one generation to another except the things seen and the things seen make that generation, that is to say nothing changes in people from one generation to another except the way of seeing and being seen, the streets change, the way of being driven in the streets change, the buildings change, the comforts in the houses change, but the people from one generation to another do not change. The creator in the arts is like all the rest of the people living, he is sensitive to the changes in the way of living and his art is inevitably influenced by the way each generation is living, the way each generation is being educated and the way they move about, all this creates the composition of that generation.”
Gertrude Stein: “A creator is not in advance of his generation but he is the first of his contemporaries to be conscious of what is happening to his generation.”
Jean-François Lyotard, in the The Confession of Augustine: “A second person indeed hangs over, surveys the Confessions, magnetizes them, filters through them. A you, nameless patronym of the catholic. … You is the addressee of the avowal that I write.”
George Seferis, in “Cavafy and Eliot — A Comparison”: “Cavafy’s world exists in the … borderlands of those places, individuals and epochs which he so painstakingly identifies. It is an area marked by blending, amalgamation, transition, alteration, exceptions. …”
In the final chapter, “Defying Conclusions: Opening Up Modernism,” in his book Modernism in Poetry: Motivations, Structures and Limits, Rainer Emig writes: “In order to fulfill itself, modernist poetry must keep a precarious balance. It must pursue modernity’s tendency … of transforming reality into an aesthetic construct. Yet it must not give in to a complete aestheticisation of reality, to the idea of its own omnipotence in the allure of its simulated reality. … Self-reflection is the key term in modernist poetry’s delicate balancing act. It must of necessity constitute itself and even strive to achieve an impossible unity. This is, as Adorno reminds us, the inheritance of myth as an attempt to master the chaos of nature.”
In Line Break: Poetry as Social Practice, in his final chapter, “Line Break,” James Scully writes: “I cannot rehearse the historical conditioning of free verse, nor concoct a taxonomy of line breaks. Suffice it to say that those line breaks may be expressive. May reflect, refract or shift the angle and distance between the work and the reader. Or telescope meaning. Or render ideologically difficult meaning … through the medium of an accessible or unresisted meaning. Line breaks define energy … redistribute rhythm, shift the weight of a word, reset our relationship to it. They do this and more. But what’s more significant is that the line break is the most volatile, productive punctuation in free verse. It is punctuation that has not been regulated or domesticated. It has not been theorized.”
Hart Crane’s poetry, Michael Hamburger writes in The Truth of Poetry’s “A Period Loose at All Ends” chapter, is “so subtly allusive that one is scarcely aware of the transitions.”
“Apollinaire was indeed presenting not only his own complex person,” Hamburger writes in The Truth of Poetry’s “Internationalism and War” chapter, “but a great deal of the modern world at a turning-point which he understood as well as any poet writing at the time, with a prescience especially remarkable. …”
Fernando Pessoa, quoted by Michael Hamburger in The Truth of Poetry’s “Multiple Personalities” chapter: “The first stage of lyrical poetry is that in which the poet concentrates on his feelings and expresses them. If, however, he is a creature with mutable and multiple feelings, he will express a number of personalities, as it were, held together only by temperament and style. One further step, and we are confronted with a poet who is a creature with multiple and fictitious feelings, more imaginative than emotional, experiencing every state of mind more intellectually than emotionally. This poet will express himself in a variety of persons no longer unified by temperament and style, but by style alone; for temperament has been replaced by imagination, and emotion by intellect. One farther step on the way to depersonalization or, better, imagination, and we are confronted with a poet who becomes so much at home in each of his different states of mind that he gives up his personality completely, to the point where, by experiencing each state mind analytically, he makes it yield to the expression of a different personality; in that way even style becomes manifold. One last step, and we find the poet who is several different poets at once, a dramatic poet who writes his lyrical poems. Each group of imperceptibly related states of mind thus becomes a personality with a style of its own and feelings that may differ from the poet’s own typical emotional experiences, or may even be diametrically opposed to them. And in this way lyrical poetry draws close to dramatic poetry without assuming dramatic form.”
7. Stevens, Sur Plusieurs Beaux Sujects: Wallace Stevens’s Commonplace Book: A Facsimile and Transcription, ed. Milton J. Bates (1989), 89, quoting Betty Miller, Francis Ponge and the Creative Method (Horizon, September 1947), 216.
15. Interview by Maria Corti with Eugenio Montale (March 1971), quoted in Jonathan Galassi, introduction to Otherwise: Last and First Poems of Eugenio Montale (1981), trans. Jonathan Galassi (Random House 1984), ix, x.
20. Delmore Schwartz, “Stevens’s ‘special kind of museum’” (1938, reviewing Wallace Stevens, The Man with the Blue Guitar ), in Wallace Stevens: The Critical Heritage, ed. Charles Doyle (1985), 181, 185.
21. Marianne Moore, “Things Others Never Notice” (1934, reviewing William Carlos Williams: Collected Poems 1921–1931 ), in The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore, ed. Patricia C. Willis (Penguin Books 1987), 325, 325–27.
43. Christa Wolf, “Subjective Authenticity: A Conversation with Hans Kaufmann,” in The Fourth Dimension: Interviews with Christa Wolf, trans. Hilary Pilkington (Verso 1988), 17, 21–22, emphasis added.
88. Stevens, Sur Plusieurs Beaux Sujects, 51, 53, quoting G. W. Stonier, “The Young Hopkins,” New Statesman & Nation (London), January 23, 1937, 124, 126 (reviewing The Note-Books and Papers of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. Humphrey House ).
'Into It' and the poetics of shock
The word “apocalypse” comes from the Greek word for “to uncover,” and one of the most apocalyptic passages in Lawrence Joseph’s Into It (2005) is the first section of “Why Not Say What Happens?” It reads as follows:
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.
Despite the poet’s assertion that “It has nothing to do with the apocalyptic,” something is definitely being uncovered here. If “it” refers, as I believe it does, not only the events of 9/11 (toward which the poem, and much of the rest of the book, inescapably gravitates), but to the catastrophic “concentration of power on earth” and the resultant stripping of the power of truth which constitutes recent history, then the utterly profane nature of the world itself becomes a revelation. Icons, divination, gods — the traditional religious concepts through which we figure earthly disaster — may repeat themselves without end, but the fact of the matter is that human corruption is, and always has been, the one subject truly under discussion. And the poet? “Careful!” (as he says of capital later in the poem): the poet claims to be “only an accessory to particular images,” the images which, presumably, are presented to us — imposed upon us — throughout these poems, in all their elliptical violence. Accessory? Was John of Patmos only an accessory when the angel called upon him to eat the little book? The poet, Joseph implies, is no prophet, nor does he have to be, since the beasts which symbolize evil in Revelation are all too human, and have always been with us. At best, the poet is a commentator, or a student of the commentaries. Be that as it may, like John, he still testifies.
Following Joseph’s lead in his essay “Theories of Poetry, Theories of Law,” critics of his work have given a great deal of consideration to his status as attorney and law professor, particularly in regard to his use of terms like “accessory.” John Lowney observes that
To be an “accessory before the fact” or “an accessory after the fact” in legal terms implies complicity but not presence in the commitment of an offense. For a poet to claim that he is an “accessory to particular images” suggests a somewhat different subject position, a position that is subordinate or supplementary to the images, a position that decenters the poet but does not remove his agency.
Agency is always a concern in discussing contemporary poetry, since so many poets seek to displace or undermine the agency that is traditionally associated with the voice of the lyric subject. Joseph’s position in regard to this matter is particularly nuanced. As he explains in an , “For me, a poem’s telling is in the voice or voices of compressed, condensed thought, feeling, observations, perceptions — compression that is achieved by employing various sorts of refracted language, including prosody — what Stein and Williams called ‘grammar.’” Joseph’s “refracted” or dissociative procedures, which he refines in Before Our Eyes (1993) and employs with such startling power in Into It, indeed decenter the poet, but I would argue that, through an ironic turn, they actually strengthen his agency. Behind the abrupt voices, the interrupted reportage, the ominous, fragmented recitations of public and private disasters, the poet forcefully makes his presence known. Again, from the interview with Bernstein: “The self who is speaking in the poem is a self who exists with an identity or identities — or, more accurately, as a self who is identified in certain ways. The self or selves who speak in the poem are constructed through various vocal languages that reflect thoughts, perceptions, feelings, often in terms of identity.” Outraged, indignant, but still given to bursts of compassion and startled love, the poet regards himself, as he declares at the end of “Woodward Avenue,” as “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” (Into It, 18).
So the poet’s fate is to be possessed of a voice that compounds his voice, enlarges him, changes him even as, to use the title of another poem in Into It, “The Game Changed.” “Give me the voice / To tell the shifting story,” runs the volume’s epigraph from The Metamorphoses. Through the changes in the “game” and in himself, Joseph seeks to fulfill his “intent to make a large, serious / portrait of my time” (64) — and this despite his frustrated observation in “Inclined to Speak” that “The immense enlargement / of our perspectives is confronted / by a reduction in our powers of action” (12). Yet this corrosive self-consciousness does not in any way detract from the book’s pervasive urgency. If anything, the self-consciousness of the compounded voice adds to the sense that we are reading a document that, despite and because of its uncanny artfulness, is propelling us into history. And by history, I do not mean the accounts or even analyses of given events as produced by normative historiography. Rather, I mean events pushed to the point of crisis interacting with the vagaries of human subjectivity. Or as Joseph puts it in “History for Another Time,” “Pressure is what / it’s about, and pressure’s incalculable — / which eludes the historian” (59). Thus it becomes the poet’s task (but then, it has always been the poet’s task) to acknowledge that pressure, to find the means by which it may play itself out in the poem, and to accommodate that pressure in himself as well as in those around him, as he tries in turn to give us a large, serious portrait of the time.
In an attempt to situate Joseph’s poetry in relation to the shifts in style and reader expectations in the past two to three decades, Lisa M. Steinman notes that Before Our Eyes “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.” Steinman observes that the arc of Joseph’s career parallels the move from what Charles Altieri calls the “scenic style,” with its quasi-autobiographical, centered voice, often given to the task of witness, to the more disruptive, linguistically and epistemologically oriented poetry that has by now made its way into the mainstream — though even in the eighties, when Joseph’s first two books came out, these two modes were already in conflict. I agree that there is a shift in Joseph’s style between his first two books and his second two, and that in the latter, a greater linguistic self-consciousness and a more jagged, dissociative technique predominates.
But I would also note that, important as these changes may be, Joseph’s poetic goals have in some respects remained the same: he wants to tell the story of the “pressure” placed upon us by history, of how we have placed that pressure upon ourselves. “For me,” he observes in the interview with Bernstein, “an — if not the — formal issue in making a poem is how, compositionally, to express, to explain, both interiorized and exteriorized realities.” These are indeed matters of what Steinman calls the “social and physical worlds,” matters of linguistic representation, and of interiority — all of which, given modern and postmodern conditions, are under assault, all of which are registering shock. One could say that ever since he was “pulled from a womb / into a city,” Joseph has sought increasingly more effective ways of “mixing / emotional perceptions and digressions, // choler, melancholy, a sanguine view” (Codes, 160). And even as the need “to see everything simultaneously” has grown more urgent, the righteous anger of the prophet who takes umbrage at his calling (and what prophet does not?) remains the engine of the poem. The suffering of the immigrant Joseph family, the wreckage of Detroit, the criminality in the streets and skyscrapers of New York City, and finally, the destruction of the World Trade Center and its global aftermath — Joseph’s poetry is the existential seismograph of personal history and of history writ large. Or as he understates the matter in “When One Is Feeling One’s Way,” “Two things, the two things that are interesting / are history and grammar” (Into It, 6).
In his magisterial essay “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” Walter Benjamin argues that the menacing spectacle of the urban crowd, described by mid-nineteenth-century writers as diverse as Poe and Engels, “became decisive for Baudelaire. If he succumbed to the force by which he was drawn to them and, as a flaneur, was made one of them, he was nevertheless unable to rid himself of a sense of their essentially inhuman makeup. He becomes their accomplice even as he dissociates himself from them. He becomes deeply involved with them, only to relegate them to oblivion with a single glance of contempt.” Benjamin goes on to analyze the shock effect of the crowd for Baudelaire, and how, for the individual, “nervous impulses flow through him in rapid succession, like the energy from a battery. Baudelaire speaks of a man who plunges into a crowd as into a reservoir of electric energy. Circumscribing the experience of the shock, he calls this man “a kaleidoscope equipped with consciousness.”
Taken all together, I can think of no better description of Joseph’s stance in Into It. Attraction and repulsion, sympathy and contempt, identification and alienation — these are the antitheses which determine the key in which Joseph’s book is written. Joseph’s response to the crowd, which is to say the people of Manhattan, changes moment to moment, line by line. Like Baudelaire’s man registering the experience of urban shock, Joseph is a kaleidoscope equipped with consciousness, but a kaleidoscope equipped with language as well. This instrument is repeatedly brought to bear on individuals in the crowd; the poet attempts to keep his distance, struggles with his contempt, but, as Benjamin understands, inevitably becomes an accomplice. George Oppen, writing about New York City in Of Being Numerous, likewise faces these “ghosts that endanger // One’s soul” and pointedly declares that “one may honorably keep // His distance / If he can.” Living and writing through and after 9/11, Joseph’s work has a verbal speed and intensity that contrasts dramatically with the meditative deliberation of Oppen’s masterpiece. But both poets understand the problem of honorably keeping one’s distance, and their poetry records their struggles.
Into It, then, may be understood as the intricate verbalization of a kaleidoscopic vision of historical catastrophe, even as the poet constantly questions his role. A poem such as “What Do You Mean, What?” (a quintessential New York expression, which reminds me of the title of Hugh Seidman’s “People Live, They Have Lives”) caroms from one instance to the next of what Joseph calls “this individual and collectivized looting / of the most astonishing complexity, / each point of an imagined circuit / attached to each of the others” (Into It, 20). Movement along this “imagined circuit” follows immediately thereafter:
In the King James Hotel in a bath towel,
solicitous with the interviewer
who crosses her long, tanned legs, smiling at him
when he says you need a billion
just to get into the game; on my way downtown
(no, he answers, he doesn’t own his own taxi),
his name is Thomas Saint Thomas, a green card
is what he owns, a working man from Haiti —
he’ll play for me (I, perhaps, have not yet heard)
a tape cassette of a speech
concerning the imminent coming of Jesus Christ
Word Incarnate, Second Person of the Triune God,
who’ll whip the moneylenders out of the temple. (20)
Note how the narration in this stanza (Joseph is fascinated with the possibilities of narration in lyric poetry) literally turns on the semicolon and resultant caesura in the fifth line. It both divides and links the two vignettes (in the hotel and in the taxi) and the four figures (the man in the towel, the interviewer, the cabbie and “I”). The news of Christ’s imminent return as announced on the cassette sends us back to the billionaire giving the interview, who undoubtedly deserves whipping. The poet, the first-person speaker in the taxi, is situated simultaneously inside and outside of the action. Benjamin’s term is “accomplice”; Joseph’s term, as we noted earlier, is “accessory.” In the “shifting story” that is the poem, the poet insists on his distance from the corruption he perceives around him, but his sympathy draws him continually into the crowd and the physical spaces — particularly those of lower Manhattan — that they occupy. There is something honorable about Thomas Saint Thomas, this “working man from Haiti,” whether we can accept his religious fervor or not. There is something unbearably poignant about the poet’s observation of a “lavender (green for youth, blue for love) sky — / a shadow, distinct, beautiful pink detail, / of all places on the pier with wooden benches / near Canal Street” (20–21). And there is something terribly scary and sad about the poor soul with whom we are presented as the poem ends:
The rain was like ice. The umbrella placed
over the phone booth. “I’m all right.”
“What do you mean, what?” “Why don’t you leave it
at that?” “Are you sure?” “Don’t think that way.”
“Yes, forever.” And so on, the script proceeded. (21)
In “Notions of Poetry and Narration,” Joseph quotes William Carlos Williams from A Novelette: “Conversation as design … actual to the extent that it would be pure design.… Purely what? Conversation of which there is none in novels and the news.” The scraps of the phone conversation that make up the last stanza of the poem are indeed a design, presented briefly and imagistically, unlike such presentation in a novel or the news. The vignette is more, perhaps, like a very brief scene in a movie, and as Benjamin demonstrates, film is the preeminent modern art because it embodies the experience of shock: “The spectator’s process of association in view of these images is indeed interrupted by their constant, sudden change. This constitutes the shock effect of the film, which like all shocks, should be cushioned by heightened presence of mind.” There is, then, something shocking about the way Joseph suddenly thrusts this man in the midst of an obviously stressful conversation into our field of perception. Nor does he offer any sense of closure or resolution. “And so on, the script proceeded” — because the catastrophe is continuous. Once again, Benjamin: “The concept of progress must be grounded in the idea of catastrophe. That things are ‘status quo’ is the catastrophe.”
Joseph’s poetry is suffused with this awareness, resulting in a deep historical pessimism, and an equally deep sense of poetic responsibility. Although there can be no doubt that (as we have observed apropos of Joseph’s title), “The Game Changed” after 9/11, in another respect, 9/11 was only a continuation, or an intensification, of “the game.” The poetic result, paradoxically, is “A continuity in which everything is transition” (Into It, 65).
The fundamental instability of history, of the flow of events and their violent impediments, matched by the perceived instability of the poetic speaker positioned both inside and outside of that flow, produces a unique tone in Into It. It is a tone that conveys — again, paradoxically — a sense of both inevitability and contingency, or what Joseph identifies near the end of “Metamorphoses (After Ovid)” as “A poetry of autonomies, / bound by a transcendent necessity” (52). Writing such a poetry presents tremendous epistemological and formal challenges. Dissociation, condensation, heteroglossia, rapid shifts across diverse discursive registers: these modernist and postmodernist procedures are a given, but in Into It, they are subordinated to something more, something toward which the poet can only gesture. “Metamorphoses” concludes with these lines:
of anamnesis, what is in us is remembered,
that which we are destined, in thoughts and in images,
to give expression to. Concentration
aural and visual. A table covered with pages of notes
I compose as I feel. Through my beginning
through to my end, my moira, my allotted part.
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)
Here, the poet insists on his integrity, guaranteed, as it were, by that “transcendent necessity,” which is in turn related to the Platonic anamnesis, the remembering of something otherwise lost, and its expression aurally and visually “in thoughts and in images.” The poet in his time, of his time, rightly insists that “When this time comes to an end, what I don’t write / will not exist.” In the face of an endless forgetting — a forgetting, I would venture to say, exacerbated by the contemporary media, through which all is recorded, archived and lost — he willingly accepts the role of recorder as his “moira,” his fate. The sense of historical, perhaps even divine judgment grows palpable, in the face of which the poet declares, “I did my work.”
The concept of judgment, of course, leads us back to Joseph’s complex self-awareness as a lawyer-poet, his sense of himself as an instrument and a critic of the law, which also returns us to his status as both insider and outsider. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the opening lines of “The Game Changed”:
The phantasmic imperium is set in a chronic
state of hypnotic fixity. I have absolutely
no idea what the fuck you’re talking about
was his reply, and he wasn’t laughing,
either, one of the most repellent human beings
I’ve ever known, his presence a gross and slippery
lie, a piece of chemically pure evil. A lawyer —
although the type’s not exclusive to lawyers.
A lot of different minds touch, and have touched,
the blood money in the dummy account
in an offshore bank, washed clean, free to be
transferred into a hedge fund or a foreign
brokerage account, at least half a trillion
ending up in the United States, with more to come.
I believe I told you I’m a lawyer. Which has had
little or no effect on a certain respect
I have for occurrences that suggest laws
of necessity. I too am thinking of it
as a journey — the journey with conversations
otherwise known as the Divina Commedia
is how Osip Mandelstam characterized Dante’s poem. (63)
This passage merits an essay unto itself, and here I can only point to a few of its most important features. Again we see Joseph’s reliance on Williams’ “conversation as design.” If we assume that on a literal level, the conversation in question is about the “blood money,” then we are dealing almost immediately with a breakdown in communication, a failure of conversation which ironically becomes the design. The poet, the first-person speaker, offers an abstract critique of the situation and its causes: “The phantasmic imperium is set in a chronic / state of hypnotic fixity,” to which his interlocutor responds with “I have absolutely / no idea what the fuck you’re talking about.” This response makes perfect sense: although both are lawyers, the two individuals are speaking different languages — representing very different worldviews which include two different ways of understanding the law. For the man whom the poet calls “a piece of chemically pure evil,” being a lawyer is a matter of power and expediency, and the law is to be manipulated to further for one’s self-interest. For the poet, being a lawyer grants him highly refined insights into such manipulations. But he also acknowledges something higher: the “laws / of necessity” (that is, the “transcendent necessity” we observed previously), about which poets have traditionally had the deepest understanding.
This accounts in part for the poet’s role not merely of lawyer but of judge, and he judges the other lawyer to be “one of the most repellent human beings / I’ve ever known.” Indeed, the design of conversation is a design of judgment, a necessary judgment. Hence the invocation of the Commedia, and Mandelstam’s observation that the poem is a “journey with conversations.” The description applies to Joseph’s writing as well, both in his poetry and, of course, in his prose work Lawyerland. Dante the Pilgrim is on a journey which consists largely of conversations in hell, purgatory and heaven. But in the Inferno particularly (and Joseph, for the most part, remains a poet of our secular Inferno), Dante is also a judge, and he (or Virgil) both articulate and sometimes question the laws of necessity that have led to the vision of divine judgment that lies before him. Joseph too is a severe poet of judgment, and if Into It is not quite our Inferno, as it is not quite our Fleurs du Mal, Joseph may rightfully claim to be part of that classical lineage.
My use of the term “classical lineage” is quite deliberate, and it is in the light of Joseph’s classicism that I will conclude. In his very brief (forthcoming) essay “A Note on ‘That’s All’” (“That’s All” is a poem which originally appeared in Curriculum Vitae), Joseph discusses his desire “to achieve a sense of control, balance and lucidity, a classical claritas,” as he juxtaposes New York City, Detroit, and the Shouf mountains of Lebanon from which his grandfathers originally emigrated. The “I” of the poem is intended to be a figure “who both reacted to and was a part of these worlds.” The poem, written in loose ten-syllable couplets designed to achieve the control and balance Joseph seeks, leads the poet to conclude that “Its formal lineage is classical.” It is a brave claim, but I would argue that it applies not only to “That’s All” but to much of Joseph’s poetry, including the poems of Into It. Nor is it only a matter of form, as this term is usually understood.
In “What Is a Classic?,” T. S. Eliot associates the classic with the notion of “maturity,” and argues that a “classic can only occur when a civilization is mature; when a language and literature are mature; and it must be the work of a mature mind. It is the importance of that civilization and of that language, as well as the comprehensiveness of the mind of the individual poet, which gives the universality.” As for “maturity of mind,” Eliot observes that “this needs history, and the consciousness of history. Consciousness of history cannot be fully awake, except where there is other history than the history of the poet’s own people: we need this in order to see our own place in history” (122). American civilization, American literature, and the American language may all be reaching a point of maturity — and there is no doubt that the events of 9/11 and their aftermath have made Americans more conscious of their history, and of the history of other nations. Before 9/11, Joseph was already refining a style that comprehended some of the most balanced, intelligent, and effective qualities of American and of international modernism. But 9/11 gave Joseph a subject that could match that style and brought it to a level of maturity and verbal intensity that to my mind constitutes the classic. That he had firsthand experience of the events — he lived, and still lives, in a thirty-third floor apartment on South End Avenue, a block from Ground Zero; his wife, the artist Nancy Van Goethem, was at home at the time of the attack — imbues the work with an unmatched testimonial authority.
“Once Again,” the last, magnificently Stevensian poem in Into It, unfolds its couplets in lower Manhattan, on the “The esplanade. High summer” (66), just a few blocks from Ground Zero. It reflects upon “Fate’s precisive wheel revolving,” generating, through the “dream technique” of the poem, the myth of “new types of half-monsters,” balanced against “a woman, a man, / love’s characters, the myth // their own” (67). Monsters and lovers: what Joseph names “the primary soul-substance” of the human story is revised continuously by history, which for all its reworkings, manages to remind us, through the voice of the poet, that in another respect nothing has changed at all. Previously, I referred to Joseph as a kaleidoscope imbued with consciousness: kaleidoscope, from kalon and eidos, beautiful shape, turning and turning, changing and never changing, in Fate’s revolving wheel.
Eliot, whose classical touchstones include Virgil, Dante, and Baudelaire, notes that Baudelaire was “a classicist, born out of his due time. In […] his sensibility, he is near to Dante.” Whether Joseph is also “a classicist, born out of his due time” is an open question — what does that mean, after all, for any artist who successfully tells the fate of his time? Be that as it may, it does seem to me that however acutely Joseph registers the violent shocks to America in this first decade of the century, his poetry has also maintained its equilibrium brilliantly, achieving a classic balance. And in this respect, on “Fate’s precisive wheel revolving,” he helps us regain our balance too.
Self and society in the poetry of Lawrence Joseph
For most of his career as a writer, Lawrence Joseph has stood outside the prevailing schools of poetry, but his uniqueness has been hard-won, and is the product of his evolution as a poet. Reading his four books of poems chronologically reveals not just the important continuities — his concern with identity, religion, language, and politics — but the important changes, all of which will come to define his exceptional place among his contemporaries. Hardly a static poet with a closed system of ideas and imagery, Joseph emerges over time as a poet with a clear sense of the world outside himself. In short, his poems begin with a hypersense of the self, expressed in numerous poems with the poet (the “I” of most of the early poems) at the center. But, as even a cursory reading of Joseph’s later books shows, the “I” has almost disappeared, replaced in effect by what Joseph calls in one poem (the title of which lends itself to the title of this Symposium): “the transparent eye.” That poem also provides a template of sorts for Joseph’s entire work, against which we can measure his shifts in voice and vision: “Some sort of chronicler I am, mixing / emotional perceptions and digressions, // choler, melancholy, a sanguine view. / Through a transparent eye, the need, sometimes, // to see everything simultaneously / — strange need to confront everyone // with equal respect.” The poet makes clear that his vision is democratic, looking up and down society with respect for all. And he wants to see it all at once: a synchronicity of experience that encompasses both the street and skyscraper. He will accomplish all this with many emotional responses and plenty of pertinent digressions, and we can expect little humor or exuberance, but lots of somber, sober thought. As he tells us in an earlier poem, “Not Yet,” in words reminiscent of Saul Bellow’s Augie March, himself another urban ethnic: “I want it all” (21).
The move in Joseph’s poetry from a highly subjective self to a greater objective eye in a way relies on the intensely personal early work. Joseph could not evolve into the sophisticated observer of the later work without this outburst of emotional expression in the early work. In Shouting at No One (1983), Joseph establishes the contours of his history, which will surface in later poems, but there only obliquely, and not always identifiable as personal history. Joseph discovers himself as a young ethnic Catholic in Detroit, only to push those facts into the background in his later work. The first book reads therefore very much as a first book. In poem after poem, Joseph appeals to the reader’s sense of authenticity — he wants us to know his story, and his family’s story, and the story of his city. The surest sign of this is his reliance on an abundance of local detail. Beaufail Street, Fort Street, Van Dyke Avenue, Mt. Elliott Street, Boston Boulevard, Vernor Highway, Dix Highway, Mack Avenue, Bellevue Street — the list of streets named in this volume goes on, all of them, one assumes, in Detroit, “a city that moans in its dirt” (“Even the Idiot Makes Deals,” 59). Joseph doesn’t limit himself to street signs, but includes local places of business, with their strange, colorful, and evocative names, like Resurrection Lounge, Eastern Market, Buck’s Eat Place, Eldon Axle — suggesting, in short order, the religious, ethnic, and class makeup of his Detroit. And let us not ignore the churches: Saint Anne’s, Saint Maron’s Cathedral, Our Lady of Redemption Melchite Catholic Church, Our Lady of Lourdes, and Saint John Nepomocene — one of which invokes the unusual Catholicism of Joseph’s ancestors, the Maronite Catholics of the Near East. So far, welcome to Joseph’s Detroit: the Motor City, the land of Dodge Truck and the Whole Truth Mission, of Henry Ford and Marvin Gaye, and perhaps most of all, Joseph’s Market.
At the center of Joseph’s early work is family myth — not, mind you, myth in the sense of not being true, but in the notion that these narrative details will provide a foundational story, aspects of which Joseph will refer to time and again. His family-owned store figures in many of the early poems, as does the primal scenes of his father’s shooting and the 1967 Detroit riots. The first poem of his first book, “Then,” set during the riots, not only narrates this key moment in Joseph’s past, but makes clear its significance: “it would take nine years / before you’d realize the voice howling in you / was born then” (8). The anger and despair which characterize so many of the early poems were also born at the moment, as was Joseph’s sense of himself as both avenging angel and “the poet of heaven” (3). The poem “Not Yet” further emphasizes this fundamental truth of Joseph’s early work. Contemplating his father breathing unevenly, the poet confronts his anger and vows to speak out: “I don’t want / the angel inside me, sword in hand, / to be silent” (21–22). This scene plays itself out again when his uncle, also working at Joseph’s Market, recalls his near-fatal stabbing during a robbery (59). The poet eventually reaches further back in family lore — to Lebanon, most of all, in the longer poem, “The Phoenix Has Come To A Mountain In Lebanon,” a poem in which the “I” does not speak for the poet. Instead, nameless peasants speak of the promise of America (“another world”) where money can be made in factories (29). It is a generalized account of the great Diaspora — the source of so many new Americans, including the poet’s grandparents and Khatchig Gaboudabian, the Turkish immigrant to Detroit whose story lends itself to one of Joseph’s longer poems not about himself or his family.
Though family history plays an important part in Joseph’s early poems, he also focuses on the emigrants’ place of arrival: Detroit, a city desperate for salvation: “Who will save / Detroit now?” the poem “Fog” asks (33). And it is clear that Joseph considers himself a poet of that city. Contemplating the murdered Thigpen in “I Think About Thigpen Again,” the poet recognizes a kindred spirit — a fledgling poet in Thigpen’s case, who writes about the ugly side of Detroit life. “He would,” we are told, “be the poet of this hell” (16). To be sure, plenty of other Detroiters exist in Joseph’s early poems, but they are mostly described in a line or two, and often come from the street life he sees all around him: junkies, drunks, gang members, a mad woman. And lest any readers doubt Joseph’s own credibility as a singer of his city, he mentions a number of his own and others’ work experiences in typical Detroit jobs — at Hudson Motorcar in “Nothing and No One and Nowhere To Go,” “over [a] machine” in “In The Tenth Year of War” (51), and at Dodge Truck in “I Had No More To Say,” where Joseph “swung differentials, / greased bearings, / lifted hubs to axle casings / in 110° heat” (11). Detroit determines most of the imagery throughout the poems as well — the yellow smoke, the pig iron, the press machines, the giant magnets looming over the cityscape.
The poem which best sums up the first book is “There Is a God Who Hates Us So Much.” All of Joseph’s early concerns come together in this five-part, intensely subjective work: the matter of Detroit, Joseph’s identity as a poet, his Catholicism, and his family’s history. In the first lines of the poem, we come to understand the full meaning of the announcement in the book’s prologue that the “you” who “will be pulled from a womb / into a city” (3) is the poet, and that the city is Detroit: “I was pulled from the womb / into this city” (46), Joseph proclaims, and further asserts later in the poem that he is in fact “the poet of my city” (48). This city of burning air, bloody and greasy hands, and scary streets is “the shadow / strapped” to his back; he is also “the poet of that shadow.” From his parents the poet has learned about silence, sadness, and violence. The final quatrains set the overwhelming question for the early work: how can God allow all this — the city in flames, a father shot? In words that echo that other poet of Detroit, Marvin Gaye, the city “makes [him] want to holler” (50). And why not? He has done his time on his knees, kissed statues, held holy candles and palm branches, received communion, and prayed to emulate the saints. Clearly, as he says twice, “There is a God who hates us so much.” In another sense, he also identifies, perhaps unintentionally, his limits so far as poet: amidst the sounds of his city, he “could not abstract” (47).
In other words, Joseph in his first book filters the world — a world mostly confined to family and Detroit — largely through himself; he does not “abstract,” or perceive things objectively because he feels everything so intensely and personally. He does not deny but is angry with God, as many of the later poems in the book suggest. The poet acknowledges his transgressions — sexual thoughts mainly, but lies also — and comes to a final realization in the poem that gives the volume its title: it is not just the speaker “shouting at no one,” but, more significantly, “it’s God / roaring inside me, afraid / to be alone” (60).
Joseph’s second volume, Curriculum Vitae (1988), collected in Codes, continues with many of the concerns in Shouting at No One, still relying on his personal story as an ethnic Catholic in Detroit who has seen his share of working-class life. But Joseph also advances his larger design, becoming in the poems more self-conscious about his own identity, and coming closer to that democratic ideal articulated in “Some Sort of Chronicler I Am” — a poet who surveys mankind from the factory floor to the boardroom.
So once again we find ourselves on the streets of Detroit — Dexter, Linwood, Brush, and the rest. And a new church is added to the list: the Shrine of the Little Flower. “There I Am Again” reminds us of the foundational story and its pull on the poet. No matter how hard he tries, he is still “in Joseph’s Market […] / […] always, everywhere, // […] the grocer’s son / angry, ashamed, and proud as the poor with whom he deals” (121). This poem concludes the volume, after Joseph has narrated more tales of his native city. “Factory Rat,” for one, speaks to his credibility as a worker, and other poems mention his brushes with famous Detroiters: “the largest independent” bookmaker in America (“This Much Was Mine,” 79) and the notorious Father Coughlin (“This Is How It Happens”). For the first, the poet caddies, for the other he serves as an altar boy.
At the same time, Joseph explores the deeper meanings of his ethnic heritage in poems such as “Rubaiyat,” “In the Beginning Was Lebanon” — the title here speaks for itself — and, most famously, in “Sand Nigger,” a brilliant collage of Eastern and urban images narrated by “a Levantine nigger / in the city on the strait” (92). Again, Joseph underlines the significance of Lebanon for his history; quite simply, “Lebanon is everywhere / in the house” (90). The immigrant family still figures in his work, though one could not characterize poems such as “My Eyes Are Black as Hers,” “Mama Remembers,” or “My Grandma Weighed Almost Nothing” — poems that face the very brutal realities of hard years with little money, miscarriages, a legless patriarch, and death by cancer — as nostalgic.
Joseph also moves beyond Detroit in Curriculum Vitae, in part to establish the authenticity of his experiences first, as a student overseas (“Stop Me If I’ve Told You” and “London”); then, as a law student (“An Awful Lot Was Happening”); and, finally, in a number of poems, as a lawyer in Manhattan. The poems set in New York best articulate Joseph’s desire and need to see society vertically. The demands of work “[i]n the offices of the great firm” (76–77) bring with them a crisis of sorts — not just the poet’s sense of not belonging, but also the constant contrast between the dizzying world of big money and the scuzzy reality of the street. In true Joseph fashion, we are very often in the street, and by name, whether Barrow or Hudson, Broad or Wall. A fancy meal in “I’ve Already Said More Than I Should” summons a memory of his grandmother walking with canes. After contemplating “the transfer of 2,675,000,000 dollars / by tender offer,” the poet thinks “about third cousins in the Shouf” (97). “I Pay the Price” suggests the moral economy at work for the young lawyer: He listens to “market analysts” as well as an incontinent madman lying on the sidewalk as he has to “distance” himself to see himself as someone “protecting interests” (106). From his apartment with a “good view” of the Brooklyn Bridge, he ponders a worker with a bandaged hand and thinks to himself: “I live in words and off my flesh / in order to pay the price” (105–106).
And what is the price? The poem “Any and All,” one of the strongest in the volume, best answers the question, moving up and down with rhythmic certainty while veering inward with a calm clarity. The drama also is vivid: the phone rings and the memory of a blind woman on the street vanishes as he is summoned to a partner’s office:
The lawyers from Mars and the bankers
from Switzerland have arrived to close the deal,
the money in their heads articulated
to the debt of the state of Bolivia. (113)
The language of law, the poem suggests — with its silly obsessions about the use of “any” or “all” — is in fact Martian talk to the rest of us. And the amounts of money at stake can be breathtaking, because, as he asserts a little later, Wall Street is the “emblematic reality of extreme / speculations and final effects” (113). The street-level scenes continue to draw his attention in the poem, but so do the anxieties of the workplace, where he cannot afford to laugh or identify with the blue bloods.
As much as Curriculum Vitae rehearses the matters of Lebanon and Detroit, as well as the poet’s ongoing sense of his Catholicism, it also represents the first serious engagement with a more aestheticized sense of the self. The epigraph from Wallace Stevens speaks to this concern, suggesting the notion that “in nature and in metaphor identity is the vanishing-point of resemblance” (63). And what does it mean in the first poem of the book, “In the Age of Postcapitalism,” that “the question ‘What Has Become of / the Question of “I”’” is discussed “at the Institute for Political Economy” (65)? Though Joseph asks that we abstract the “I” of the poems, it doesn’t seem to happen, for example, in the title poem, a succinct outline of the contours of his life: Beirut ancestors, Detroit birth, Catholic childhood, burgeoning sexuality, study abroad, the law. And the poet punctuates this litany with the language of authenticity: he “walked;” he “talked;” he “witnessed.” He wants us to believe he remains “many different people” but, for all intents and purposes, he’s still the Lawrence Joseph of “Let Us Pray,” not “Myself / an abstraction” of “Stop Me If I’ve Told You” (86, 87).
The concern with a subjective self in Curriculum Vitae comes to the fore in Joseph’s next volume, Before Our Eyes (1993, reprinted in Codes), a pivotal work that moves away from obsessive personal history into poems of greater length, longer lines, and more abstract thinking. The title poem (which is also the first poem) of Before Our Eyes functions as a kind of ars poetica:
[…] The point is to bring
depths to the surface, to elevate
sensuous experience into speech
and the social contract. (125)
The poet declares his work will be “a morality of seeing,” for which he might be dismissed. But the aim is true: to transform what he sees and feels into language, and, then, provide the greater contexts within the world outside himself, “the social contract.” He runs through some images familiar from his own history, wondering “don’t street smarts / matter?” (126). But ends with more aesthetic concerns: “The pure metaphoric / rush through with senses” probably “best kept to oneself.” For the length of this book, Joseph suggests “let’s just keep to what’s before our eyes.” The payoff is substantial in Before Our Eyes because Joseph makes his strongest statement of his artistic credo, and it is connected to his quest for an authentic self. Rather, he observes the world with a subdued spirit and, as noted above, with a “transparent eye.”
The most Detroit-centric poem in this volume is called, interestingly enough, “Sentimental Education,” as if the poet were dismissing such a memory-laden narrative. Interesting also is that the poet is not all that much present in the poem, returning to Detroit “because you want to” (147). Moreover, the education of the title refers to what the city can teach — about Henry Ford and Marvin Gaye, but not as personal icons, as in early poems, but as parts of history. The poet refers to his “baptism by fire” in Detroit, but there is also a pervasive sense of farewell to all that (146). And in many ways, the rest of the book confirms it: the matter at hand is now Manhattan, and the poems authenticate the fact with the Joseph touch: he walks, among others, Horatio Street, Cornelia Street, Water Street, Grove Street, St. Luke’s Place and so on. “Material Facts,” as its title suggests, is all about observing the facts of the city and hearing its voices, with one telling interruption: “Myself, / self-made, separated from myself, / who cares?” (128). The poet displays here and in the following poem in the volume a sense of exhaustion with his previous self. In “Admissions Against Interest,” he asserts:
Mind you, though, my primary rule:
never use the word “I” unless you have to,
but sell it cheaply to survive. (131)
The poem also reminds us that “[a] lot of substance / chooses you” and that the poet would be lost with out his “Double” (132) Less concerned with his quest for an authentic self, he notices again that “the times demanded figuring out” and that “now I’m seeing / words are talk and words themselves // forms of feeling” (133–34). Other poems in Before Our Eyes demonstrate very objective, “I”-less content, still others record voices overheard. To take just one example, “Time Will Tell If So” opens with another summary statement characteristic of this later work:
A time of comedy sprung
to the eye, a sensational
time of substance and of form,
and the same old lowlife. (141)
Here the street-level scene is abstracted, and the poet indulges an outburst of humor. One notices that “Time Will Tell If So” appears after “About This,” which asks, “Where’s my sense of humor?” Certainly not in “About This,” with its chilling vision of war:
[…] This is wartime
bound to be, the social and money value
of human beings in this Republic clear
as can be in air gone pink and translucent
with high-flying clouds and white heat. (143)
War and rumors of war surface throughout the volume, as do the poet’s insights into the economic forces that shape our world, all part of the “social contract” and the “material facts” that now occupy the poet’s imagination. His self, or “I,” is diminished and abstracted — something he had a hard time achieving in the previous volumes. Joseph confronts new challenges as a poet. His “I” becomes an “eye,” surveying the world transparently, and democratically, while also coping with the limits of language, and the possibilities of silence he so willfully ignores in the early poems.
From the vantage of New York City, Joseph moves beyond cities to the subject of America itself, the course of empire, the power of money, “Atomic Age America,” the “phantasmagorical United States” (from “Generation,” a poem after Akhmatova). “Variations on Variations on a Theme” alerts us to Joseph’s new terrain — he is in “Walt Whitman’s country” (155). Although Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams purportedly account for many of Joseph’s ideas on language, he is more genuinely an heir of Whitman, whose democratic ideal in poetry he fundamentally shares. Whitman, after all, eulogizes presidents and battle wounded; he sings the country complete, high and low, with imagery taken from the streets he walked and the people with whom he talked. In this poem, Joseph at his Whitmanian best, begins at the top — a banker murmurs “the socialization of money has become / an abstract force” (154). Meanwhile, a street-dweller insists to anyone who will listen, that she has an advanced degree. A priest shares his thoughts about the survival of the species; a juror screams that a defendant is the devil; the poet overhears “a voice / on the Avenue sensuous enough to touch” (155). All of this while a war has begun, and a horrible image almost earns a smile:
— the eyewitness account the vanquished
appeared as if from a mirage of hot
oily smoke in search of someone
to surrender to — (156)
The poem ends with the arresting idea that “transparency can be painted,” an interesting comment on the emerging “transparent eye.”
Which of course brings us to the poem of the occasion: “Some Sort of Chronicler I Am,” another Whitmanian exercise of the “transparent eye,” here focused on an AIDS victim ranting on the subway, a subject the poet expects we would rather he change. And so he does, drifting into light images of children playing in Battery Park, followed by observations about Williams and Stevens, and how they evolved notions of language during economic depressions. Williams, the physician, feeling the pain of his patients, decides counterintuitively to compress the speech he hears around him. Stevens, for his part, the lawyer dealing in “high-risk losses,” “suspend[s] his grief” and transposes it all into “thoughts, figures, colors” (162). Both poets further the aesthetic agenda set by Joseph in the opening lines quoted at the outset. The poet learns from them, in effect, how to abstract, what he managed to artfully postpone in the early work. The third exemplary poet in this poem, Yvan Goll, provides Joseph’s immediate subject — what Goll calls “Lackawanna Manahatta,” “half made of telephones, half made of tears.” And it is in this city “of pregnant nights” that the poet overhears the man in the bespoke suit pronounce to his much younger date: “from now on it’s every man for himself” (162–63). Everywhere in these splendid poems, greed and chaos threaten the Republic, and the poet retreats not into himself, but into language and images of hard-earned pleasure and happiness, and a hope for truth and transcendence:
[…] Of course I remember
that day — boundless happiness and joy.
The leaves in the park deep, irascible mauve.
The crippled unemployed drawing chalk figures
on the Avenue. Precisely. Where we ought to be. (173–74)
The last poem in the volume, “Occident-Orient Express,” with its worldwide vision, reminds one of those globe-touring poems of Frederick Seidel, a poet about whom Joseph has written admiringly. Moscow, Bonn, Jerusalem, Lebanon, and Las Vegas are just some of the places in Joseph’s ken, but Tokyo stands out as the place where “Madame Lenine’s / grandniece eats air-blown tuna / pungent as caviar” (176). This provokes the poet to ask: “What do I mean?” And the answer is simple: “Language means.” And of course it is all about the “eye” — or, in the words of a taxi driver, “It’s in the eyes, / you have to break the other’s eyes.” In this brave, crazy new world of Joseph’s third volume, “pure abstractions blast through / a fragile mind” (177). The poet is poised for the next movement: the leap “into it.”
In Joseph’s most recent book of poems, the title proclaims the poet’s intent: he wants to immerse himself in the world; he wants to get Into It (the title of his 2005 collection). And he does so with a vengeance. This is a volume of staggering expansiveness. Despite the odd encrypted allusion to his past, or even an occasional “I,” this volume strips down its language and grammar, and expunges all gestures to personal authenticity. The poet here reaches full authority, a walker in the city who can also explain our apocalyptic anxieties in a most distinctly American voice. The voices come from everywhere: the street, the war room, the TV set, poets, and professors. Moreover, though still struggling with language and silence, the poet now knows what he really wants. In poem after poem, he seeks nothing less than truth and beauty, grounded in a profound moral sensibility.
An epigraph from Ovid suggests two important aspects of Into It: Joseph yearns for a voice — a voice, one imagines, different from the self-referential one of earlier work. Also, he needs “to tell the shifting story”: these are poems about transformations and they are a shift from his previous work. The opening poem asks new questions: “[h]ow far to go?”; “And where?” (3). The answer begins passively: “a story took place” with “[c]haracters talking.” He quotes a woman, who is confused by competing “claims to morality” in a time of unparalleled violence (4). But the “I” — who could be anyone, really — now knows “the answer:” “beauty,” as seen, for example, in “the sun ablaze on the harbor.” Joseph, now a more philosophical and abstract poet, sees “[a]t center a moral issue” in “When One Is Feeling One’s Way.” Although he mentions Hillside Avenue, there is no sense of where that is or if it matters where it is. What matters are “two things:” “history and grammar,” “the chemistries of words” that allow for such phrases as “The fault lines / of risk concealed in a monetary landscape” (6). At this point Joseph gets into it in the historical, indeed classical, sense. “[S]ince the time of the Gracchi,” there has been the “same resistance,” resistance against “the arrogation by private interests / of the common wealth, / against the precious and the turgid language / of pseudoerudition.” Another poem suggests the role of language as we delve further “into it,” that some things “can only be said in that language, / opaque, though clear, painted language” (9). But it is also important to remember, with Wittgenstein, that “[t]he limits of my language / are the limits of my world,” as Joseph quotes him in “Why Not Say What Happens?” Even what happened in lower Manhattan on September 11, captured so eloquently in the poem “Unyieldingly Present” — a sequence of images — is “[a]n issue of language now, / isn’t it?” (36).
The cacophony of voices and the most “expert” of lies force an important change in the poet. Once the avenging angel of his Detroit, the poet becomes the recording angel of an era. He notes early on his “transcriptions of the inexpressible” during a time when “[t]he technology to abolish truth” is readily available (10). “Inclined to Speak,” a poem that worries about the role of poetry, looks towards Bertolt Brecht and Paul Celan, and knows that one thing “must be made explicit:” the truth (12). As if answering his earlier inability to abstract, Joseph titles one poem “August Abstract,” and it is, indeed, an abstract poem, despite its location on Twenty-Seventh Street, “not too far from Eleventh Avenue” (22). The poem asks, “the truth? The truth // that came to grieve, was aggrieved, for whom? / Truth determined alchemies of light.” Who are the enemies of truth? Obviously the dictators and warlords of history, and it is only that kind of “concentration of power on earth” that can strip truth “of its power” (24, 25).
The voices heard throughout the book are many. In “News Back Even Further Than That,” we hear from an air war commander, a president, a prophet, a woman made angry by war, and Ezra Pound — a typical Joseph mix. And that transparent eye begins to zoom in too close to the horrific reality:
[…] I’ve become
too clear-sighted — the mechanics of power
are too transparent. (41)
In his loose translation of Ovid, Joseph smartly makes the classical contemporary and vice versa. What is the difference between ancient and modern warlords after all? Both understand that “[p]ower knows of no argument other than power” (51). The poet responds: “Ugliness, when truly touched, the shock of beauty / is what turns the game around.” Therein lies the poet’s wisdom — a wisdom shared with no less than John Keats in the famous closing lines of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819): “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ — that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” In any case, the poet speaking at the end of the poem could be any poet, from Ovid to Keats to Celan to Joseph, any poet in other words who feels, as Joseph writes in Into It, “bound by transcendent necessity” (52).
In an earlier poem in Into It, Joseph hears an obscure Sam Cooke tune on the jukebox, and the lyrics are a perfect echo of the Whitmanian voice of Joseph’s poetry: “even my voice belongs to you, / I use my voice to sing, to sing, to sing to you” (31). The final long poem of the book (“The Game Changed”) completes the circle. The poet is in Manhattan, attuned again to an interesting mix of voices: a lawyer, Osip Mandelstam, the Maronite Patriarch, a professor of international relations, a cab driver, a member of the Commission on Missing Persons, and a proverbial beggar. The lawyer, by the way, fully embodies Joseph’s sense of “chemically pure evil;” his very “presence” is “a gross and slippery / lie” (63). He mocks the poet’s opening observation that “the phantasmic imperium is set in a chronic state / of hypnotic fixity.” But the lawyer’s scorn does not matter, for the poet’s “melancholy is ancient” (64). And his intent is clear: “to make a large, serious / portrait of my time.” The poet knows that “the game” has changed. “Neither impenetrable opacity / nor absolute transparency” will explain it all (65). His mind is on fire, “possessed by what is desired.” And what is that? “Immanence — / an immanence and a happiness.” Far from the hyper-reality of the early poems, Into It ends in an abstract dream and sings a final hymn to the silence (“Once Again”).
In his recent book on contemporary poetry, The Modern Element, Adam Kirsch distinguishes the best poets of our time as risk-takers who exhibit a particular kind of heroism; such a poet aspires to be “civilization’s pioneer, undergoing earlier and more intensely the spiritual experiences his contemporaries have not yet learned to articulate.” Furthermore, the poet achieves this with “daring honesty, subtle self-knowledge, an intimate […] concern with history, and a determination to make language serve as the most accurate possible instrument of communication.” Joseph evolves over the course of his four books into just such a poet. While the majority of contemporary poets, in Kirsch’s view, remain mired in their quest for authenticity, or retreat into impenetrable word play, Joseph manages to carve out a unique place for his work. Like Whitman and Seidel, he embraces the world around him in all its complexities and with a profound sense of history. He values the truth above all and no longer has to shout out his self-knowledge. His concern with language, his own and the voices he hears, are what make him, among other things, a truly American poet, and one whose work will surely last.