Lawrence Joseph's poetry of urgency
What follows are two lawyer jokes widely distributed on the internet:
Your attorney and your mother-in-law are trapped in a burning building. You only have time to save one of them. Do you: (1) have lunch? or (2) go to a movie?
A man was sent to Hell for his sins. As he was being taken to his place of eternal torment, he passed a room where a lawyer was having an intimate encounter with a beautiful young woman. “What a ripoff,” the man muttered. “I have to roast for all eternity, and that lawyer gets to spend it with a beautiful woman.” Jabbing the man with his pitchfork, the escorting demon snarled, “Who are you to question that woman’s punishment?”
What’s important in any joke is not so much the punch line as the uprush of recognition that occurs after the punch line, as compressed subtextual connections come to us with the surprise of a vulgar epiphany, but an epiphany no less. When we talk about jokes we might say, “Did you get the joke?” — as if a joke were something that we could physically handle, pick up, and carry, or as if a joke must be something that we are responsible for retrieving. Given that many jokes are pressurized narratives, they have been routinely compared to poetry, which often depends on concision and a charged subtext.
Certainly there are few narratives more compressed than jokes, unless we’re talking about poems. As Robert Frost wrote in his notebook: “The Poem must have as good a point as a [sic] anecdote or a joke.” The structure of a joke depends on conceptual embedding, and more often than not, as in the lawyer jokes quoted above, a violation of a fleshly boundary is at least implied. Lawrence Joseph’s poems are hardly about joking matters, but they too are composed of condensed narratives that depend on heightened references to the vulnerabilities of the flesh and complex cues that defeat our initial expectations — and reveal what otherwise might be obscured. As Joseph insists, “that’s the law. To bring to light / most hidden depths.” Not only do Joseph’s poems depend on subtext, much as in the shell game of a joke, but they enact and reflect on the sensation of what he calls “pressure” — the invisible but felt experience of our contemporary situation. His poems are structured so that they arrive with something close to physical weight for some readers. What Joseph gives us could be called the enactment and articulation of pressure in embedded narratives. As he writes in “History for Another Time,” “Pressure is what / it’s about, and pressure’s incalculable — / which eludes the historian.” He figures contemporary reality: “A slow, shapeless wheel is what / it feels like, the pressure deep and silent.” In either overt or covert ways, Joseph focuses on “The arrangement of power, the immanence / of the pressure.” Violence appears in his poems through images of a broken arm, a slit throat, the abandonment of a child, or the results of “Technocapital war [as] a part / of our bodies, of the body politic.”
In The Mirror of Justice: Literary Reflections of Legal Crises, Theodore Ziolkowski traces what he calls “moments of crisis in the evolution of law when the entire system is being challenged.” In such “legal works,” he tells us, “it is not the facts that are in question but the values by which the facts are to be judged.” In Joseph’s poetry the point of crisis involves narration itself: how we tell what we know, what voices we trust, and what untrustworthy voices become part of the story. As he asks in “Woodward Avenue,” “So many voices, which of them to be taken / seriously?” In a period when our descriptive resources are stalled, and when explanatory structures are sliding away from comprehension or are so reductive as to have little bearing on our lived experience, Joseph writes poems that embed the accumulated trauma of generations and the condensed experience of contemporary reality as it is experienced on multiple levels. He constructs harrowing and loosely connected speculations in the midst of sensual images that perform in tension with his explicit lines of argument. There is a generally wide field of intelligence at work in many of his poems, with elastic results: abstract contemplation, reflections on physical violation, and a painterly resurfacing of the visual field. What makes these poems anything but straight chronicles has to do with Joseph’s assembling of moments of trauma that accumulate, repeat in different contexts, and prove dynamic.
A scene in Don DeLillo’s novel Falling Man contributes to our understanding of Joseph’s poetry. In DeLillo’s novel a man who escaped from inside one of the towers of the World Trade Center on September 11 arrives at an emergency room. A medical technician picks glass out of the character’s face and begins to talk about the aftereffects of suicide bombings:
In those places where it happens, the survivors, the people nearby who are injured, sometimes, months later, they develop bumps, for lack of a better term, and it turns out this is caused by small fragments, tiny fragments of the suicide bomber’s body. The bomber is blown to bits, literally bits and pieces, and fragments of flesh and bone come flying outward with such force and velocity that they get wedged, they get trapped in the body of anyone who’s in striking range. Do you believe it? A student is sitting in a café. She survives the attack. Then, months later, they find these little, like, pellets of flesh, human flesh that got driven into the skin. They call this organic shrapnel.
In the technician’s account, pieces of the body — now a corpse — of the murderer-suicide are lodged in the innocent bystander’s living body. As such, the witness is inhabited by death and, in a sense, cannot escape the suicide bombing even if she has escaped with her life; she is inhabited by the bomber’s flesh, and that dead flesh itself may work to the surface of her living skin.
How does this horrific anecdote from DeLillo illuminate Lawrence Joseph’s poetry? In much of Joseph’s poetry a narrative of violated flesh emerges. The psychic pressure of recalled and predicted violence in the United States and the Middle East occupies poems not only as explicit subject matter but as a constituent of formal organization in which fragments of embedded particulars — narrative accounts, bits of dialogue, references from numerous sources — are made dynamic, as in DeLillo’s account of the “pellets” of bombed flesh that bury themselves but eventually “develop,” revealing themselves in a living human body. The dead past enters the living and “works” its way into both the present and intimations of the future. The past, our reimagining of the past, and our speculations about the future, are not suspended but circulate. We might turn to one of Joseph’s lines for an example of how experience is rendered as both physically embedded and volatile: “I don’t know about you, but it all goes through my skin.” The perpetration of violence and the perpetrators themselves burrow into the poems’ structures and the speakers’ psyches. Poetry exists here as a collection of fragments recast in ultimately nightmarish terms, as violence to the flesh is internalized but not inactive.
Joseph reminds us, then, of the fact that we cannot escape one another. Bodies, however individual and apparently free, affect other bodies; contact turns into impact. In “Unyieldingly Present,” for instance, the scene of violence is refracted into sensations of pressure as violence is “encoded in the brain,” and yet our perception of violence is unstable in terms of how we might think it is structured: “Is it that reality, disjointed // cannot be discerned, or that consciousness, / disjointed, cannot discern it?” Our perceptual faculties may be inadequate to our reality. The syntax of language and the syntax of history are obsessively dwelled on as Joseph engages in “The act of forming / imagined language resisting humiliation.”
I’ve chosen the word embedded as only a partial, but I hope resonant, description of a dominant element in Joseph’s poems. The American Heritage Dictionary (2001) refers to primary definitions of embed as “To fix firmly in a surrounding mass”; “To enclose snugly or firmly”; “To cause to be an integral part of a surrounding whole”; “To assign (a journalist) to travel with a military unit during an armed conflict”; and, finally, from biology, “To enclose (a specimen) in a supporting material before sectioning for microscopic investigation.” Each definition takes on metaphorical life in Joseph’s poetry. Tellingly, his most recent collection is titled Into It — with its suggestion of entering an interior. “It” is a troublesome pronoun, ungendered, used ambiguously for singular or plural, for the living or nonliving. The preposition “into” designates an immersion — whether into Dante’s inferno or a traffic jam; into Henry James’s “the world of creation” (cited in Joseph’s epigraph to Into It); or into a pair of pants or a prison sentence — or, given this poet’s preoccupations, into an interior decimated by September 11.
During the early days of the Iraq war the term embedded took on renewed life with the advent of embedded correspondents, news reporters who traveled with military troops and were protected by troops. Whatever one thinks of the ethics or the outcome of the practice, the term in relation to news reporting has come to suggest a desire for authenticity even as it suggests a deeply ambiguous and suspect position — a witness to some immediate effects of combat and yet a witness whose objectivity may be sacrificed. The term embedded correspondent, however, assumes metaphorical complexity if we apply it to Joseph’s poetry — for he is a poet seeking lines of correspondence, certainly, while he assumes a position that differs markedly from that of the embedded news reporter, given that he so thoroughly complicates our notion of what it means to report or to witness an event.
Although Joseph’s poetry is incised with fragmentary materials that serve as evidence of our contemporary moment, this poet does not compose what reliably could be called a poetry of witness, the term that has been used in popular forums for more than two decades for much of politically charged poetry. The term poetry of witness may suggest an unimplicated and reasonably objective access, an ability to maintain control of the body while speaking of atrocity and injustice as an on-the-scene eyewitness who records but is neither victim nor perpetrator. Joseph is not a poet of witness in the conventional sense because he is implicated in the scenes that he enacts: suffering is embodied with a familial bearing; his speakers are not under protection. Nor does he write a poetry dominated by the eye, as suggested by the common term eyewitness. Despite the painterly disposition of much of his work, he focuses almost as fully on sounds as on sights, representing the peculiarities of speech and the dynamics of heightened listening. For Joseph it is not so much what the speaker sees as what he hears while he sees — and what he imagines. Seeing may even be the perceptual act performed in his poems to relieve the pressure of the heard; seeing may offer a reprieve from the noise of violence.
This is a poetry that deplores fanaticism and presents structures that allow us to come closer to enacting in language aspects of contemporary experience to which we have yet to find a way otherwise to respond. The factual in his poems — and even the act of thinking about what occurs — initially shines with the aura of the fantastical, but what seems nonreal soon takes on the imprint of the actual. In the midst of trauma, the mind balks; we have to be convinced that we are having the experience that outrages our sense of physical and mental integrity. The sensation of violation that he writes about is not static, but reemerges as he reminds us, through unremitting images and intimations of future loss, that the story of the body’s vulnerability is the story of history. The Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska’s poem “Torture” speaks of the human body in a way that may elucidate this direction in Lawrence Joseph’s work:
Nothing has changed.
Except for the courses of rivers
the contours of forests, seashores, deserts, and icebergs.
Among these landscapes the poor soul winds,
vanishes, returns, approaches, recedes.
A stranger to itself, evasive,
at one moment sure, the next unsure of its existence,
while the body is and is and is
and has no place to go.
In Joseph — whose poetry is ordered through complex imagistic and voice overlays rather than through a contemplative singular voice mulling human limitations, as in Szymborska — the perception of the body’s vulnerability is as acute as any in contemporary literature. As Szymborska insists, the body “is and is and is / and has no place to go.” Or, as Joseph informs us in “Rubaiyat”:
I want you to watch carefully
what I am saying now — are you
with me? An inch-long piece of steel,
part of the artillery shell’s
casing, sliced through the right eye
into his brain, severely damaging
the optic nerve of his left eye,
spraying bone splinters
into the brain, making him quick to lose
his temper, so acutely sensitive to pain
the skin on his face hurts
when wind blows against it
The predecessor who is most “unyieldingly present” for Joseph is Wallace Stevens. Indeed, seldom has one poet made a more transparent homage to another as fully as Joseph does in regard to his modernist predecessor and fellow lawyer, particularly in reference to “Of Modern Poetry,” in which Stevens famously argues that poetry
[…] has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
The women of the time. It has to think about war
And it has to find what will suffice.
“Of Modern Poetry” is echoed, challenged, and transformed in a new key by Joseph, who is intent on charting the urgency of the project that presses upon any serious poet: remaking our narrative and descriptive resources to take into account the particularities of our present situation and the legacies of history. In writing of poetry in previous centuries, Stevens tells us “the scene was set; it repeated what / Was in the script.” In a play on that line, Joseph tells us “reality changes the script” and, in another poem, “And so on, the script proceeded.” In “The Bronze-Green Gold Green Foreground” his revision of Stevens becomes: “The code changed again.” With his focus on “a morality of seeing, / laying it on,” Joseph enacts a sharpening of sensibility that opposes our muted understanding of violence. In a famous phrase, Wallace Stevens told us that he writes a poetry of places, not people, whereas in Joseph we are more likely to find that his places are intensely peopled. Yet Joseph refuses to shed the human need for beauty as it is experienced in places. His is not a misreading of his predecessor, in Harold Bloom’s sense, but a reformation: tradition rotated with a difference.
Elaine Scarry has written about a conception that Joseph puts into circulation next to violence: beauty. Scarry argues that beauty and justice are interrelated and that an awareness of beauty can spur an urge toward generative activity. As Scarry notes, “Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people.” But I would argue that, in Scarry’s own language, violence “brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people.” Along with embedded narratives of violence in many of Joseph’s poems appear moments of heightened attention to beauty, or what we might call a sudden movement toward an aesthetic that defies the seductions of violence. This movement happens so often in his poems that we may grow accustomed to looking for the swift glimpse of a fully realized moment: “The shock of beauty / is what turns the game around.” Moments of uplift are charged as refreshment, not as escape but as recognition of another lived reality that requires attention: “beauty, the answer, if you must know.” The particulars that animate this conception may recur as simple emblems: “The sun ablaze on the harbor” in “In It, Into It, Inside It, Down In,” or “whole lots of amplified light” in “When One is Feeling One’s Way.” Lilacs, bridges, poplars, the sea, roses, the moon, a garden, the harbor, a marriage — the reverberant images of lyric poetry — are called up. Beauty in these poems moves us out of devastation, even if we are soon again immersed in a contemporary reality that Wole Soyinka has described aptly: “Constantly immersed in the cumulative denigration of human sensibilities, only to have one’s most pessimistic predilections topped again and again by new acts — or revelations — of the limitless depth to which the human mind can sink in its negative designs.”
Which bring us to the question — suspended until now throughout this discussion — of genre, and of Joseph’s choice to remake narrative possibilities within poetry as his primary genre of choice. Some writers, perhaps most writers, simply have relatively little choice of genre. The fiction writer or poet may write the occasional essay but is likely to experience some sense of inhibition while writing outside his or her primary imaginative form. As A. Alvarez points out, “The art of poetry is altogether different from that of prose, just as writing fiction is different from writing nonfiction, and literary criticism is different from them all.” In Joseph we have a writer adept at multiple genres. He writes poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, as well as the most challenging legal rhetoric. Why a writer gifted with linguistic talents in multiple forms chooses poetry as his primary imaginative genre may get at the heart of the challenges that the genre and our contemporary situation pose: How can we live in the midst of a reality that outpaces our ability to comprehend it? How can the ancient springs of poetry — rhythmic language shaped to be remembered, language that often assumes nature as emblem — survive in a culture that disintegrates memory and nature, a culture in which there is too much to remember and a surplus of unnatural stimuli that clamors for our attention, but that may not be worth remembering? And why choose poetry which baffles certain narrative impulses and remains under-read and undervalued as a genre, if we judge value by attention given within a culture?
Joseph’s poetry spans a literary period, still ongoing, when some of the more vital poetics appear suspicious of narrative, define themselves against simple cause and effect as mechanisms for understanding, and dedicate themselves to an ongoing project to deflect unitary consciousness. But what Joseph’s poetic narratives accomplish with their focus on accruals of sensory perspectives is a realization and dramatization of what it means both to live in a particular time and place and to find one’s consciousness stretched by a developed awareness that the self isn’t splintered so much as multiplied over time and space. In its urban milieu, Joseph’s poetry gives us a lyric voice pulled by the gravity of living simultaneously and fervently on several spatial and temporal planes: “Then what, and then again what, unfolded.” He suggests that what is real is not only an actual event but our imagining of it, “feeling one’s way” as time works in two directions: “Time flows, is flowing, forward and back.”
Poetry as Joseph’s genre makes palpable the psychic pressure of heightened contemporary experience and presents in an imagistically associative manner the impression of living at a rate and a speed that other genres may not supply. Poetry demands we put sustained pressure on our imaginative and linguistic resources, that we call up mental images of a sometimes incredible density, that we actively attend to both the shapes of mayhem and the shapes of controlled order as they are enacted in language. In poetry more than in any other verbal genre, readers bring an expectation that not only do all elements matter down to the comma and the white space at the end of a line and between stanzas, but that each of those elements, no matter how widely spaced, tugs at other elements and conditions the whole. The poem is an echo chamber where we listen to the reverberations that otherwise dissolve into the white noise of anxiety. For all the innovations that we speak of in poems, the genre remains the one where space and time are most acutely accented, and where expectations of concentrated attention are most sought. Through a narration of layered time, Joseph’s poems mimic both the quick-order changes that bedevil us in our present landscape, and the way certain facts cannot be transformed. He holds the potential to address what Soyinka calls “the shrinking ethical space that is still left for humanity.” His poetry is squarely within his historical period, but it interrupts any temptation to allow complexities of history simply to wash over us. Instead, he draws us into a deeper awareness of our need to be peculiarly active participants as we read, burrowing into language, coming closer to inhabiting words as sources of meaning that open up memory and imagination in ways that are culturally conditioned and yet hold the possibility of being intensely individual.
Joseph manages, then, to pull off two feats at once: to register the speed, variety, and multilayered aspects of lived experience, and to contain those densities within a medium that is unrepentant about the linguistic demands it places upon anyone who wants to contend with it. At points, the experience of reading his poetry is like climbing down stairs to open a door, whereupon we climb down further and find another door, and then another. As the title of his most recent collection suggests, we are entering into it, summoning reserves of ingenuity to question how we use language and what the stories we make are ultimately for.
In turn, Joseph uses his primary genre to expose and roughen the grain of one of the key assumptions often attached to poetry: that poetry tends toward an endless play of transformations through the vehicle of metaphor. As Joseph insists, our own physical vulnerability tells us that we continually face limitations upon our willingness to change or be changed. In his epigraph from The Metamorphoses Joseph invokes Ovid’s summons: “give me the voice / To tell the shifting story.” Nevertheless, Joseph’s poems express an uneasiness about transformative shifts, an uneasiness that is palpable even in his references to money, that ever-vexing vehicle of transformation. He refers to “law which ‘distributes / money to compensate flesh.’” In “I Pay the Price” he writes, “I live in words and off my flesh / in order to pay the price.” Famously, Wallace Stevens said, “Money is a kind of poetry.” But what happens in Joseph’s poetry is a realization that some things cannot be changed into other things, that some events resist all our attempts at metamorphosis: wounding and death create undeniable, unalterable facts that are not subject to transformation. Often in these poems his speakers make uneasy accommodations with the urge toward transformation because transformation remains so unfailingly suspect: “What isn’t separated, what isn’t / scribbled, what will not be metamorphosed, // reduced, occurring, it will be said, / unyieldingly fixed, unyieldingly present.”
Of course we can argue that poetry is simply not the most efficient way to tell a story, if we think of a story as a sequence of events in which the beginning, middle, and end can be easily navigated. In Joseph’s poetry each story or sliver of story is lodged among multiple stories and multiple interpretations and remains suspended, as stories refract upon stories: “Simultaneity requires the use of a topological / logic. Time compressed — interactively escalated / to maximum speed.” These poems are not fragments shored against our ruins, but fragments whirling in ruins, and yet seemingly indestructible in terms of the way the mind is imprinted with the felt pressure of psychic trauma. The rich interior world of associative correspondences is violated by an external world; the poem becomes an active assemblage in which we can trace the effects of that violation. Giorgio Agamben in The End of the Poem argues that poetry “tenaciously lingers and sustains itself in the tension and difference between sound and sense.” We can reverse that supposition and argue that poetry inserts itself in the realm between silence and non-sense. Joseph’s poems are tense with the possibility that an affront to sense and meaning, in the form of ultimately senseless violence, may intrude at any moment. Emily Dickinson’s ability to “dwell in Possibility” takes on a new cast; Joseph suggests we are dwelling in possibilities of endless violence.
In “Working Rules for Lawyerland” Joseph begins his list with Rilke, who writes: “Don’t be confused by surfaces; in the depths everything becomes law.” He follows quickly with Gertrude Stein in two rules, both of which concern narration, writing of Stein’s Wars I Have Seen: “Stories within stories within stories within […]. A means by which to broaden and deepen (and concentrate) time and space (including the temporal and spatial dimensions of language).” Surely the aesthetic strategy he locates in Stein seems to be his project in both his poetry and in his genre-defying book Lawyerland, and even in his notations pairing Rilke and Stein, which suggest the breadth of his own interests and the compression of his influences. Rilke’s attachment to spiritual depths and intimations of unseen presences is cross-referenced with the hardy flat surfaces and linguistic experimentation of Stein. In the same piece, Joseph cites Frederic Jameson’s argument about the role of doctors as literary characters in modernism, asking that the reader substitute the word lawyers when Jameson cites doctors as professionals who have the ability and the responsibility “to penetrate […] sealed and disparate social spaces, to visit the rich as well as the unemployed, to listen to the voices of workers as well as those of bureaucrats and politicians.” This focus on both entering into and “mapping” social space — of both propulsion through boundaries and of creating blueprints of boundaries — reflects Joseph’s extraordinary ambition to be immersed within a situation and to be able, at the same time, to find patterns, to discern the contours within repetitions, and to present the poem as the appropriate focusing agent for that attempt.
An account of a science experiment may prove at least suggestive in this context. In an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, David P. Barash refers to studies in which a rat in an electrified cage is shocked repeatedly. Eventually, the rat succumbs passively to its miserable situation. As Barash tells us, “When autopsied, the animal will be found to have oversized adrenal glands and, frequently, stomach ulcers, both indicating serious stress.” What is surprising about the experiment, as Barash describes it, is what happens if the rat has access to a stick. If the rat gnaws on a stick, an autopsy of the rat will show a smaller number of ulcers and less enlarged adrenal glands than those in the autopsy of the rat denied the stick. In the final stage of this gruesome experiment, two rats share the electrified cage. When shocked, they do not grow apathetic but fight each other. Barash tells us, “at autopsy, their adrenal glands are normal, and, moreover, even though they have experienced numerous shocks, they have no ulcers.” His conclusion? “When animals respond to stress and pain by redirecting their aggression outside themselves, whether biting a stick or, better yet, another individual, it appears that they are protecting themselves from stress.”
As Barash argues, “When an individual suffers pain, he most often responds by passing it on to someone else. When possible, that ‘someone else’ is the perpetrator, the original source of the pain. But if this cannot be achieved, then others are liable to be victimized, regardless of innocence.” That is, we pass pain on to others for reasons that are at least partly biological. If the experiment can be applied to humans, this suggests that our biology may urge us to take our problems out on others — that such an urge runs rampant unless it is channeled, and that to punish wrongdoing is a biological need, difficult to control. We tend to overcompensate. We may be prone to “redirect[ing] aggression,” finding scapegoats and assigning guilt even to the innocent. In what appears to be a related insight, Theodore Ziolkowski points out that the biblical injunction “an eye for an eye” was originally meant to curb excessive violence by insisting that only equivalent violence be enacted; break my arm and I break your arm, but I don’t wipe out your entire family.
It seems to me that Joseph’s poems are, in some ways, about refusing to engage in a circuit of redirected aggression. His poems implicitly ask us to resist passing on violence by learning to use our narratives in a more multidimensional way than the narratives that rise before us in unbroken media succession. If telling stories is one of our ways “to chew on a stick,” the more stressful our reality, the more we may need stories that allow us to increase our awareness of whatever electrified cage we happen to be in.
I began this discussion with references to jokes, and I noted how Lawrence Joseph’s poetry shares, like much good poetry, something of a good joke’s extreme concision, charged subtext, and physical impact. But in effect, Joseph’s poetry ultimately creates the inverse of the joke. Since Freud we have tended to think of the function of the joke as a release of psychic pressure. That’s what laughter is for: physical release of an event that occurs in the mind. But the pressure in Joseph’s poems, even when violence is paired with painterly aesthetic illumination, is not released or dispersed but contained in circulation, awaiting response and recognition. Under some circumstances, “Poetry’s not what’s made impossible / […] — laughter is,” Joseph tells us. The contemporary pressures, the conflicting perspectives that he negotiates, are addressed in “transcriptions of the inexpressible.” Poetry aspires toward the inexpressible and yet intimates our yearning to render in language the experience of our lives in more capacious form. We don’t need anyone to do our worrying for us, but we do need new imaginings that are deeper than anxiety. It is in those new imaginings that Lawrence Joseph’s poetry attains its greatest urgency.
2. “Lawyer Jokes: Punishment,” Jokes at VariousStuff.Net. As the tenor of these jokes suggests, lawyer jokes harbor signs of our culture’s conflicted responses to lawyers: a mixture of attraction and aversion, admiration and envy.
Narrative and lyric in the poetry of Lawrence Joseph
Here is one version of Lawrence Joseph, an excerpt from the profile that appears on the St. John’s University School of Law website:
Joseph was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1948. His grandparents were Lebanese and Syrian Catholics, among the first Arab emigrants to Detroit. He was educated at the University of Michigan, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa with High Honors in English Language and Literature in 1970, and received first prize in the major Hopwood Award for Poetry; Cambridge University, where he received both Bachelor and Master of Arts degrees with First Honors in English Language and Literature, in 1972 and 1976 respectively; and the University of Michigan Law School, where he received a JD in 1975. He then served as law clerk to Justice G. Mennen Williams of the Michigan Supreme Court. From 1978 to 1981, he was a member of the School of Law faculty at the University of Detroit. In 1981, he moved to New York City, where he was associated with the firm of Shearman & Sterling. At Shearman & Sterling, his practice included securities, bankruptcy, anti-trust, mergers and acquisitions, products liability, and real estate litigation. Joseph has published and has lectured extensively in areas of labor, employment, tort and compensation law, jurisprudence, law and literature, and legal theory. He has served as Consultant on Tort and Compensation Law for the Michigan State Senate’s Commission on Courts, and as Consultant for the Governor of Michigan’s Commission on Workers’ Compensation, Occupational Disease and Employment, and has received a grant from the Employment Standards Division of the United States Department of Labor to write on workers’ compensation.
And here is another biographical description of Lawrence Joseph, from the Academy of American Poets website:
Joseph was born in 1948 in Detroit, Michigan, and received his BA and JD from the University of Michigan. He also earned a BA and MA in English from Cambridge University. He is the author of the books of poems Into It (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos: Poems 1973–1993 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), Before Our Eyes (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993), Curriculum Vitae (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988), and Shouting at No One (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1983), which received the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize. He is also the author of Lawyerland (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997), a book of prose. Among his awards are a Guggenheim Fellowship and two National Endowment for the Arts poetry fellowships.
It’s not that we have portraits of two different men born in the same midwestern city in the same year. And admittedly I have taken excerpts from the two biographical sketches, although I have not misrepresented the relative longwindedness of the law school biographical sketch (four long paragraphs compared with the Academy of American Poets’ one brief paragraph). Yet although the first description does go on to mention the poetry books and prizes, while the second ends noting that Joseph teaches law, there are salient differences. Most obviously, St. John’s University is interested in letting its audience know which areas of law Joseph covers and touting his expertise and experience as a lawyer, while the Academy of American Poets is sending its readers to the literary Joseph, with less vested interest in promoting him as one of the Academy’s selling points. To use the vocabulary of literary critics, the story is the same (that is, the person, settings, and happenings) but the plots — the order in which the story is told or narrated, the representations of the story or, more simply, the narratives as well as the narrative discourse or the story-as-told — differ.
The literary vocabulary above is not uncontested, I would add, and almost all critics admit that to propose stories just exist in some way “out there” while stories-as-told are each constructed differently raises ontological, even metaphysical, problems. Even given the obviously different rhetorical ends for which the biographical notes with which I began were crafted, that is, leaving aside the question of audience, to assume the biographies tell the same story differently still raises the question of whether the “real” Lawrence Joseph is a transplanted midwestern American of Lebanese-Syrian descent who has done well both in his career (focused on labor, employment, tort and compensation law, jurisprudence, and legal theory) and in his literary avocation. Or is he a poet who — like most poets — has a day job? Or is there some other way of talking about the self that would, on one hand, allow for the fluidity of our and others’ construction of our selves without, on the other hand, denying that the stories, the facts, the dots we connect in order to construct narratives, do exist, often stubbornly and despite us as (to quote Wallace Stevens) “the gray particular[s] of [our] life”? While literary critics usually find most interesting what we come to know by looking at narrative discourses (what the speaker foregrounds or elides, the tacit implications of tropes or diction) rather than the ontological status of the stories behind narrated variants, the issues raised by narrative discourse are nonetheless ontological as well as epistemological; the very word “narrative” comes from the Latin gnārus (“knowing,” “expert,” “skillful”) and narrō (“relate,” “tell”) from the Sanskrit root gnâ (“know”), as Hayden White points out. In short, narratives always, if sometimes unwittingly, call into question both what we know and how we know it.
I dwell on the kinds of questions raised by the very mention of the word “narrative” in literary critical circles because ontological and epistemological questions inform Joseph’s poetry from the start, even as the poems become increasingly self-conscious about the ways in which the self exists precisely in narrative discourse (what Joseph later calls “the increasingly complicated ‘poetic space’ between ‘subject’ and ‘object’”) or the ways the self negotiates the stories of which it is part. Which pressures (personal, professional, poetic, and historical) form Joseph’s story, inform his questions, and shape the language in which he explores questions are what interest me here. Or, more precisely, the complexity of “the pressure of reality” (another Stevensian phrase) is what interests me, and — as I hope to indicate — what seems to be part of what interests Joseph in his poems, as well.
Surely shifts in legal theory inform Joseph’s developing poetics. However, despite the fact that this essay originally appeared in a law review, I am not here concerned with comparing literary and legal theories of narrative, even if it is worth noting that Joseph himself offered just such a comparison in his 1993 essay “Theories of Poetry, Theories of Law.” Still, what I want to discuss here is how the ways in which people were able to talk about “what is” shifted over the course of Joseph’s literary career to date. In particular, it is significant that Joseph’s first two books — Shouting at No One (1983) and Curriculum Vitae (1988) — appeared in the 1980s, when in the world of American poetry at least three theories about poetry’s task and about poetic language competed for poets’ attention. In other words, not only would Joseph’s professional c.v. have been different in 1983 and 1988 — the poems that appear in his first volume were written while Joseph was in law school and first entering the legal profession, while the poems in his second volume were largely written after he moved to New York City, first as a practicing lawyer and then as a teacher of law — but expectations about how poetry should sound and what it might hope to accomplish were at the time in flux and in contention. This would have been especially obvious to someone whose poetry was first published, as Joseph’s was, by the University of Pittsburgh Press, known in the 1980s for its championing of lyric poetry and especially of so-called poetries of witness, or testimonial poetry, which is to say poetry grounded in or representing the gritty experience of the less privileged, responding to calls heard more broadly in the academy as well as in poetry circles for previously underrepresented voices to be published, anthologized, and taught. Certainly to write the kind of poems Joseph wrote in the 1980s was to take a certain position on how poetic language should work as well as on what it should talk about.
Some background, then, on the literary battles of the late 1970s and the 1980s is useful here, before looking more closely at the work in Shouting at No One and Curriculum Vitae. There was in the period what many (some with praise and some with dismay) called a “mainstream” lyric style, sometimes called the style of the “scenic” lyric, meaning descriptive poems that become occasions for crafting intense, emotionally charged scenes or that aim at the effect of intensity. Richard Wilbur’s “Poetry and Happiness,” for example, remarks on poetry’s origin in the need for “deliberate human meaning,” and sees in poetry “a longing to possess the whole world, and … to feel it,” “to produce models of inclusive reaction,” and, at the same time, to offer a “discovery and projection of the self,” linking all of these impulses centrally to description and further linking descriptive power to a quest for “conversancy or congruence between self and world.” Wilbur goes on to address that which he thinks poetry arises from and nourishes in its readers, namely “a vital sense of community” and a “model of felt experience.” Between the mid-sixties and the mid-to-late eighties, Wilbur’s poetics (like the style of many of his poems, also closely allied with the scenic lyric) would hardly have surprised readers attuned to expressive theories of poetry in confessional verse, American versions of surrealism, or so-called deep image poetry, represented variously, along with Wilbur’s ideas about poetry, in Donald Hall’s anthology of essays on poetics, entitled Claims for Poetry, by writers such as Sandra Gilbert, Richard Hugo, W. S. Merwin, and Charles Simic.
On the other hand, Ron Silliman’s seminal piece “The New Sentence” — despite that fact that a shortened version of the 1979 essay is included in Hall’s collection and despite Silliman’s genealogical claims, looking back to the writings of William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein among others — sounded new in the late 1970s and early 1980s. At first blush, “The New Sentence” seems simply to dismiss Wilbur’s poetics, questioning the idea of selves, of reference, and of ordinary procedures for constructing human meaning, arguing for the “limiting of syllogistic movement [and for writing that] keeps the reader’s attention at or very close to the level of language, that is, most often at the sentence level or below”; Silliman thus promotes the ways in which what is now called Language poetry resists — even as it calls attention to — more typical or less self-conscious forms of reading that involve “linguistic integration.” Yet Silliman also insists on the ways the poetry he admires can “suggest the internal [i.e., syntactical] presence of once exteriorized poetic forms” and “incorporate [while defamiliarizing; Silliman might add rematerializing by recontextualizing] “ordinary sentences of the material world.” There are also implicit truth claims made about Language poetry’s representational power, however stylistically unconventional; of Stein’s “Custard,” for example, Silliman writes: “The portrait of custard is marvelously accurate.” This is in part a joke, since custard is a perfect emblem of instability, despite Silliman’s skepticism about language as stable or referential. It is also in part an act of defamiliarization, since the literary style of Stein’s portraits is not what we think of as representational. Yet the claim to “accuracy” remains. Finally, too, Silliman’s essay focuses on “the collective work and interinfluence” of his poetic community’s endeavor, which, he implies, thus connects writers with one another, while the community’s “new sentences” are meant to refashion readers’ awareness not so much of the languages of the everyday world but of how reading normally moves from language (or away from language) to integrative meaning.
The above précis flatten Wilbur’s and Silliman’s poetics in some ways while, I hope, still making clear that Wilbur and Silliman have quite different responses to “integration” or “congruence” or “feeling” in or as the goal of poetry. Most distinctively, perhaps, in opposition to Wilbur’s emphasis on feeling (or “felt experience”), Silliman replaces the rhetoric of feeling or emotion with that of “ambiguity and polysemy,” features of language, or of the interaction of language and reader, not of individual subjective states. At the same time, both Wilbur and Silliman focus on the tendency to move toward integration or meaning, especially while reading or writing poetry, even if the former wants to celebrate and the latter to resist this tendency. Further, although Wilbur proposes a range of projects for poetry (from praise of the outside world to self-discovery) and Silliman focuses how language is processed by readers, a more overtly interactive image of the relationship between worlds and selves, both see the border between worlds and selves as poetry’s territory (even if speaking of “world” and “self” introduces a vocabulary Silliman’s early writings eschew). Indeed, Silliman’s “world” — that with which poetry connects a reader — is first linguistic, not that toward which language might be understood to gesture. Nor is Silliman’s “self” Wilbur’s, but closer to what Jed Rasula — also associated with Language poetry — describes when he writes that “subjectivity is simply the most acutely engineered of … our technologies.” Still, even Rasula’s use of the personal pronoun (“our”) and his assumptions about the political work done by Language poetry, as that which unmasks the internalized operations of late capitalism, make claims about how agency and truth-telling are central to poetry, claims — unlike the poetic style promoted by Silliman and Rasula — with which Wilbur would not wholly disagree.
There were other positions about what good poetry should do and sound like staked out in the eighties, schools that saw themselves opposed to both Language poetry and to at least some scenic lyric. For my purposes here, the most interesting was the short-lived (or at least short-lived theorization of the) school of so-called New Narrative poetry, related to New Formalist poetry, and featured in Mark Jarman and Robert McDowell’s journal The Reaper (published from 1981 to 1989), which resisted what was seen as the “navel-gazing” of free verse scenic lyrics and promoted images used in service of what Jarman at the time thought of as more accessible or populist poetry, poetry that could memorably tell stories (by which Jarman and his coeditors meant that poems could and should capture their readers’ attention by paying more attention to characters and story than to narration). The exchanges between proponents of these different schools tended to be acrimonious. Still, looking at the ways in which Jarman, Wilbur, and Silliman or Rasula locate poetic power actually underlines how their claims are not only that poetry concerns “what is” (aiming at some form of “accuracy” or truth telling) but also that “what is” finally involves the meeting of what might be called an agent with a world (social, linguistic, or material), a meeting arrived at — or described — in terms of feeling or seeing, even if seeing, in Silliman’s case, is most often related to seeing through the usual ways in which we represent inner and outer worlds.
So what has the above to do with the poetry of Lawrence Joseph? I began with two portraits of Joseph in order to talk about literary definitions of story and narrative, as well as to discuss how these definitions raise ontological and epistemological questions. I then turned to a different genre, poetry rather than biographical sketches. I noted, first, that rhetorical style in poetry comes with its own entailments insofar as poets and poetry readers explicitly attribute different kinds of significance to different poetic styles. While I also argued that there was some perhaps surprising agreement among poets about the ends of poetry, it is also almost certainly true that most of those on whose essays I have drawn would not accept my sense that they agree with one another. And they certainly did not in the 1980s agree on how poetry should work or sound, even if they all assume that poetry is a site for negotiating between individual selves (however the self is defined) and some outside world (however that world is defined). In short, I proposed that there seems to have been agreement about what poetry is for, namely to negotiate — or model the negotiation — between individual subjects and the world in a way that centrally involves feeling or insight. At the same time, textual practices distinguish different types of poetry, and — although these different practices may move different communities of readers in similar ways — the style of poems matters. Finally, I offered the above short digression on American poetry in the 1980s in order to show that the way in which style matters is culturally defined, shifting over time as well as over cultures. So, to read Shouting at No One and Curriculum Vitae as they were first read requires knowing that both volumes would have been seen by their first readers as forms of scenic lyric and as involved with the identity politics of the period, and that Joseph would have known this.
I will concentrate here on the first volume, not because Joseph’s first two books are indistinguishable but because it is the book that first set readers’ expectations about the kind of poetry he wrote and because both of the first two books were written and circulated in roughly the same literary world. The poems in Shouting at No One most obviously root themselves in Detroit, with references to factory work, to class and racial divides, and to the Detroit riots. We are invited to read the poems as at least quasi-autobiographical, despite the fact that the first person is not always used. Still, the very first poem of the volume, “Then,” tells the story of Joseph Joseph fleeing Joseph’s Food Market while “fire was eating half / Detroit” (7). The story told (or as told) is not simply that of Joseph Joseph, however, nor of his father, who is also described. It is more broadly a poem about the breakdown of civic order in Detroit. “Had you been there,” the poem says, “[y]ou would simply have shaken your head / at the tenement named ‘Barbara’ in flames / or the Guardsman with an M-16 / looking in the window of Dave’s Playboy Barbershop” (7). Including sites from “Dave’s” to “Van Dyke Avenue” or “UAW Local 89” (in “Driving Again,” 9) to “the 7-Up Cadillac Bar” (“I Had No More To Say,” 11), the poems consistently mention the particulars of working-class or lower-middle-class life in a working- or lower-middle-class city. On first reading, then, the details establish the poems’ ability to bear witness to the broken lives and the broken city, as well as proposing a connection between lives and places.
How to bear witness is a question that is not explicitly raised, but it is a question that the poems might lead us to ask, especially in light of the above-mentioned arguments in national literary circles about poetic style and about what might count as “accuracy” when it comes to language or to representing worlds and people. For example, the narrator tacitly provides us with one of his purposes in “It Will Rain All Day,” which asks:
do I want, driving through streets
past bars where fifty-year-old
truck drivers sip whiskey
and don’t feel like talking,
past houses where chimney smoke
reveals fires and rooms I will
never know? (17)
The narrator in the passage above explicitly says there is some knowledge about others — other lives or ways of living — he does not have. At the same time, he knowingly states the age of the truck drivers in their cups, and he knows how they feel (they “don’t feel like talking”). While the latter gesture both shows the narrator’s empathy and draws us in precisely by not claiming to know everything, one can still say that the truckers essentially serve as telling details just as the various named Detroit bars, factories, and streets do. There is a larger cast of characters in Shouting at No One: not just truckers or Joseph Joseph or immigrant memories of Lebanon (see “The Phoenix Has Come to a Mountain in Lebanon,” 25–29) — details that we are again invited to associate with Joseph’s personal history — but others like “Thigpen” (15), “Lopez” (21), “Louie, Son of Hanna Francis” (31), “Youmna” (33), and “Khatchig Gaboudabian” (36) are named. Again, this is a form of testimony, yet at the same time we, like the narrator in “It Will Rain All Day,” encounter the marginalized people of Detroit as part of the urban environment’s resistance to meaning, part of what we “will / never know.” Indeed, “It Will Rain All Day” ends:
I want to look
into the black eyes of the lone woman
waiting for a bus and say
something. I want my memory
to hold this air, so I can make
the hills with white hair
and the clouds breaking into blackness
my own, carry them with me
like the letters and icons
immigrants take in suitcases
to strange countries. (18)
The narrator here gives voice to one of the book’s desires (and that it is described as a desire suggests it is unfulfilled), namely the desire to look others in the eye, to be able to speak to as well as about others (“to say / something” instead of, as the title poem has it, “shouting at no one” ) and to lodge what is witnessed in the speaker’s and the reader’s memories. That is, in effect, the speaker’s feelings not only testify to his response to urban blight, but also are offered to the reader, feelings that range from rage (the first poem ends with a “voice howling” ; see also “Not Yet” ) to despair — a fog erasing the details witnessed “says, / Who will save / Detroit now?” (33), as if bearing witness could be a form of salvation — to hatred and fear. In “There Is a God Who Hates Us So Much,” the narrator says: “I was a system of laws / I hated, a boy / afraid of burning / in a city that was burning” (47), presumably drawing on Joseph’s own Catholic upbringing but also referring to the various codes — religious, civic, and legal (if not yet explicitly stylistic or linguistic) — that seem to do no good.
The book’s poems, however, do tacitly propose to do some good precisely by bearing witness to both the speaker’s inner “burning” and to Detroit’s other burnt-out citizens, and in calling attention to what has set these fires burning. The poetics, further, are closely tied to the way visual images and local details are used, familiar from the work of other poets like the early poems of Galway Kinnell (for example in The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World) or of James Wright, as well as of Philip Levine, another poet whose work is commonly identified with Detroit. As an example, let me take one of Levine’s best known poems, “You Can Have It,” which chronicles the speaker’s brother, age twenty in 1948, home after a late shift at an ice plant with “hands / yellowed and cracked” and “crusted with dirt / and sweat” (64). Following his references to Detroit as a (Ford) company town, and to idiomatic speech (the title draws on the brother’s verdict on his life), toward the end of Levine’s poem he offers images that — like the images of hills and clouds and the simile comparing a sense of having a place to other more physical signs of personal contact like icons or letters at the end of Joseph’s “It Will Rain All Day” — give us a moment of urban pastoral:
The city slept. The snow turned to ice.
The ice to standing pools or rivers
racing in the gutters. Then bright grass rose
between the thousands of cracked squares,
and that grass died. (65)
With a nod to Whitman’s leaves of grass (as well as to Wordsworth’s London seen from Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802), Levine’s transparent speaker most obviously stands in for a larger sociopolitical class. Still, Levine’s snow and ice, his stagnant pools, gutters, cracked pavement, and dead grass, are offered as images of themselves, as metonymic. If the “gutter” and the “cracks” tempt us to more metaphorical articulations — these are the lives of people who have fallen through the cracks or into the gutter — the sheer amount of detail allows readers only a momentary glimpse of a symbolic register. To draw for a moment on psycholinguistics, at the stanza break we perform a “breadth-first search” (gathering the ways in which ice and sun, a sleeping city, a river, and “bright grass” might invoke Wordsworth’s London all “bright and glittering,” its “river glid[ing],” and its “very houses seem[ing] asleep” or Williams’s frozen dirt and grass in poems like the 1930 “The Flower” or, again, Whitman’s leaves of grass) before the syntax pushes us on to a “depth-first search” that “gambles … about the alternative most likely to be true.” Poems like Levine’s (perhaps all poems) depend on the fact that some of the alternatives ruled out will nonetheless resonate in a reader’s consciousness. But finally Levine’s gutters and cracks are from Detroit, not from Williams or Whitman or Wordsworth, although the way in which such details are used is drawn from earlier poets, especially when the idiomatic American expression — the working-class voice and gesture — of the title are taken into consideration. That is, Levine’s language is identifiably poetic language in large part because it sounds (and works) like the language in other poems (in Levine’s case, especially Williams’s language), including the ways in which it both flirts with and resists certain modes of symbolic identification. Many of the details in Joseph’s early poems, like “the barbed wire, rusting / scraps, stacks / and stacks of pallets” (from “Fog,” 33), work similarly.
More importantly, what is at stake in the style of such lyrics is the tacit claim that the poem can make its audience feel how the aesthetic and the social complement (or perhaps voice) one another. To quote Robert Kaufman, left critiques of less accessible poetry tend to rest on “an essentially Enlightenment and progressive notion that useful presentations of social, political, historical, and cultural reality should be offered in as clear and communicable a manner as possible — so that the greatest possible number of people can share in such knowledge (and so that they can, should they so decide, attempt to use that knowledge to change the world).” In part, the poems in Shouting at No One fulfill such calls for clear, accessible presentations with the further hope that readers share the feeling of the speaker, that they, like the speaker, feel angry about how the city offers its citizens no redemption outside of places like the “Resurrection Lounge” (“Do What You Can,” 57), with the corollary that they feel themselves able to act on their felt knowledge. There is, however, also another way of reading the poems, as attempts to restore passions deflected or repressed. On this reading, we, as readers, eavesdrop on a more intimate conversation, although presumably with similar results for us, namely that through an act of compassion we feel with the dramatized speaker for the disenfranchised, including at times the speaker himself, made human and humanly engaging in the poems. Like the style and the poetics, the ideological underpinnings, or hopes, of these poems are that the aesthetic and the process of writing can open a new subject position for both writer and reader. Such hopes about what poems can do are perhaps most succinctly stated in a passage from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” where William Carlos Williams insists: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”
When Curriculum Vitae appeared in 1988, it seemed to operate similarly, although, as the first poem of the volume makes explicit, the primary setting changed to “New York City, / during the nineteen eighties” (66). Cambridge, London, and (again) Detroit also appear in some of the poems. The sense of personal, scenic lyric still remains, however. The title poem opens, “I might have born in Beirut, / not Detroit” (69) and continues on to say “I remain many different people / whose families populate half Detroit” (70); “In This Time” returns not only to Detroit but to Catholic school Latin lessons (84) while issues of race, class, and personal identity circulate even more explicitly through lyrics like “Sand Nigger” (90–92). “Let Us Pray” begins, starkly, “My name is Lawrence Joseph” (108). At the same time, the world of Curriculum Vitae is larger than that of Shouting at No One, not simply because of the multiple settings but because there are more references both to what might be called the national news — interest rates, war, television broadcasts, bits of overheard speech — and to what might be called an interior life, that is, among other things, to books and authors, such as Céline (97), Simone Weil (100), Saint Augustine (102), and Baudelaire (107). Whereas the focus and language of Shouting at No One appear bound to the poet’s Detroit, Curriculum Vitae, at least tacitly, seems both to align itself with issues we would now say are issues of identity politics in the style of the scenic lyric and, at the same time, to question that alignment. Or at least this is the effect when we return to the quotation from Wallace Stevens that prefaces the volume: “Both in nature and in metaphor identity is the vanishing-point of resemblance.” Stevens did not quite mean by “identity” what we might mean by talking about personal or ethnic identity. His is a more metaphysical claim, among other things about the differences between things and things as seen, like the difference between story and narrative, which Stevens saw as opening a gap that sparked the imagination and so poetry. Joseph’s knowing adaptation of Stevens’s aphorism is itself an example of Stevens’s point, which is to say it opens a gap between what Stevens presumably meant and the connotations brought to mind by the use of the word “identity” in the US in 1988, when the book appeared. The poems, the style of the poems in the late eighties, and the very title of the volume first focus us on the problem of defining a social or personal self, but they also show us a world where one’s past and one’s social identities (as Lebanese-American, as lawyer, as formerly lower-middle-class) do not seem easily summed up; the book thus questions the way biographical sketches or curriculum vitae seem to freeze and so misrepresent selves that are not captured by bare or static lists of facts. These poems do still present themselves as a form of bearing witness, but with an increasing emphasis on the ways world and narrator are in flux in themselves as well as in relationship to one another. In other words, the pressures of reality and the language of individuals pressing back are not represented as unchanging.
In the nineties, moreover, things again changed in the world of poetry as in the actual world. Ideas about the fluidity of the self and styles seen to acknowledge that fluidity were suddenly everywhere. In 1998 and 1999, Stephen Burt was asked to introduce recent American poets to British readers and challenged “to invent a school”; half tongue-in-cheek, he introduced the term “Elliptical poets” to characterize younger American poets. On Burt’s account, Elliptical poets are those centrally concerned with questions of epistemology and language, who avoid straightforward narratives or confessional lyrics, and yet who use Language writing of the sort Silliman champions, or at least “a ‘Stein tradition’ of dissolve and fracture,” as a resource, rather than to bolster or embody a theoretical position. When Burt’s essay “The Elliptical Poets” first appeared, it circulated widely not so much because it announced a new school (despite the question under the title of the article on the journal’s cover, “new school or new spin?”) but because it seemed to affirm what most readers of journals featuring American poetry in the nineties already heard: a shift in younger poets’ practices, which no longer were informed by (even if many were aware of) the more theoretically driven battles over poetry in the eighties between New Narrative, New Formalist, Language, and so-called mainstream poets. If, then, Joseph’s third book, Before Our Eyes — published early in the decade — sounds a bit different, one might speculate that he was not only developing his thinking about the questions of self and identity first framed in his earlier volumes but also well aware of the new options abroad for what poetry raising such questions might sound like.
An interest in language per se and an awareness of debates about the significance of poetic style clearly surfaces in Before Our Eyes. The first poem, also the title poem, is in conversation with then-current theories about poetry. Before Our Eyes opens with a striking visual description of sky and weather and the look of a landscape, including the “pink flesh” of fish in a fish shop, but then turns explicitly to talk about both social and poetic linguistic codes:
The point is to bring
depths to the surface, to elevate
sensuous experience into speech
and the social contract. …
By written I mean made, by made I mean felt;
So you will be, perhaps appropriately,
dismissed for it, a morality of seeing[.] (125)
In this passage, what is “before our eyes” as readers is speech, which we are told is itself sensuous: felt and constructed. As “Admissions Against Interest” puts it, the narrator of these poems is “late at [his] singing, / too much to the point, but now [he’s] seeing / words are talk and words themselves / forms of feeling” (134). That is, the words of the poems no longer simply focus us on description or use telling details as they were used in the first two volumes. We have, at least as often, details about the act of telling. On the one hand, this is no surprise. Before Our Eyes appeared in the nineties; it was not a University of Pittsburgh publication but from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in New York; and it addressed readers whose ears were by then attuned to what Burt later called poems centrally concerned with questions of epistemology and theories of language. On the other hand, the book neither gives up on subjectivity (in the sense of representing interiority) nor abandons the suggestion that however difficult to represent or malleable they might be, there are both social and physical worlds with which subjects interact and by which they are formed even as they reform what is seen in language. As Joseph puts it in “In a Fit of My Own Vividness”: “It’s hard to throw off what you’re subject to” (157), presumably including both the sense that there is a world that impinges on you and the sense that you are a subject. Importantly, this is not the left-leaning Enlightenment view, with its prescribed style seen by Kaufman to inform scenic lyrics. As Joseph writes in “Movement in the Distance Is Larger Up Close”: “Enlightenment? I’ve got mine, you’ve got yours” (173). But it is not quite Language poetry, either. It is “too much to the point.” Nor is it Burt’s Elliptical poetry (which Craig Arnold cuttingly characterizes as “Language-Lite”) insofar as it is committed to representation and to skepticism — and to thinking about both commitments. The poems say that “[t]hat language doesn’t work / anymore, its century is over,” that “[o]nly money / and credit move around, part of the future,” and that if money is what counts, poetry may not: “never expect to make hard cash from a poem” (“Just That,” 169). Yet the poems nonetheless press back against such skepticism with their insistence on “the morality of seeing” and their refusal to deny that there are moments when self, world, and language seem (even for skeptics) to converge.
It is not skepticism alone but a “violence without” — Stevens’s phrase — against which the poems found in Joseph’s fourth book of poetry, Into It, most clearly “press back.” At the same time, pressing back against the world’s political and socioeconomic violence after 9/11 increases the worry heard in Before Our Eyes that conditions do not seem auspicious for poetry:
I am constantly aware of,
in making the poem, Brecht’s point, to write about trees —
implicitly, too, to write about pleasure —
in times of killing like these is a crime;
and Paul Celan’s response, that for Brecht a leaf
is a leaf without a tree, that what kinds of times
are these when a conversation — Celan believed a poem
is a conversation — what kinds of times are these
when a poem is a crime because it includes
what must be made explicit.
What is seen, heard, and imagined
at the same time — that truth. (“Inclined to Speak,” 12)
Joseph’s syntax in this passage presents the poem itself as a conversation, or as conversational, not as descriptive per se, although there is also a distant echo of Pound’s definition of the image (“that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time”). More explicitly, pleasure (tacitly, beauty as well) is offered as what the times may need and even, insofar as what is “seen, heard, and imagined” is what is truly known, as a form of truth. Yet the violence of the times does not disappear from view or from consideration in these poems, by any means. In the title poem that opens the volume, “In It, Into It, Inside It, Down In,” a woman’s voice, in Williamsesque plain speech, asks why “the weight of violence / is unparalleled in the history / of the species” (4), even as the next poem, “When One Is Feeling One’s Way,” counters: “So what else is new? … Nothing but the same resistance / since the time of the Gracchi” (6).
Indeed, the epigraph to Into It comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses: “give me the voice / To tell the shifting story.” Joseph thus focuses on what could already be heard in Before Our Eyes, namely a metadiscourse on image and narrative in poetry, even as the poems themselves do sing, do remain lyrical. More precisely, although Into It still uses and is still concerned with image (“clear, painted language”) and with those “places where the narratives began … there, / too, in the rain” (“The Bronze-Green Gold-Green Foreground,” 9), the poems are as focused on voice — offering a kind of rigorous meditation on history and the self’s ability to thrive — as on image or on story or storytelling.
At the same time, throughout the book, there remains a self-consciousness about how, more specifically and more contemporaneously, the stories-as-told of Americans with Arab backgrounds (like Joseph) shifted and are still shifting after 9/11. As “The Pattern-Parallel Map or Graph” — a poem that opens with images of detritus on Canal Street, but also includes Apuleius’s story of Eros and Psyche and cites Stevens’s commonplace book on necessity or fate — puts it, the poems attempt:
a linear polyphony forming harmonies in strange
developments. All kinds of different stuff, mixed
and fused, is where it’s at, chunks of vibrato …
Simultaneity requires the use of a topological
The “stuff” in question is not simply the aftermath of the World Trade Center’s collapse or the “strange / harmonies” of New York after 9/11, Apuleius, and Stevens. It is also the stuff of language, of the languages with which we position ourselves in the world. Throughout the volume, the voice of Into It tries on a series of personal, public, and literary languages, from the caustically dismissed “turgid language / of pseudoerudition (thugs, / … false-voiced God-talkers and power freaks / who think not at all about what they bring down)” (“When One Is Feeling One’s Way,” 6–7) to the descriptive language that paints urban beauty closely observed in a Precisionist manner — “half dark blue moon, half copper, / black stripes across it, above a round / neon clock next to the red and white / billboard in the shape of a toothpaste box” (“August Abstract,” 22) to the plain diction and largely end-stopped lines of Wordsworthian, Levine-like memory or testimony, reminiscent of Joseph’s earlier poetry:
My father? — my father was a worker. I can still hear him
getting up in the morning to go to work.
Sadness, too, has to be learned,
and it took my father time to learn it[.] (“Why Not Say What Happens?,” 29)
As Joseph writes in “Woodward Avenue”:
Like the man said. So many selves —
the one who detects the sound of a voice,
that voice — the voice that compounds
his voice — that self obedient to that fate,
increased, enlarged, transparent, changing. (18)
The self and its languages may be constantly changing in a changing and fractured world, the fractures by 2005 a matter not just of ontological or epistemological doubt but of historical fact. Finally, it is unclear whether the angle of vision in such a world determines truth or whether “[t]ruth determine[s] alchemies of light” (22). That is, as the question is posed in “Unyieldingly Present,” which speaks of those who fell from the twin towers: “Is it that reality, disjointed, / cannot be discerned, or that consciousness, / disjointed, cannot discern it?” (36). Joseph’s project is thus not just to write a poetry of “light and sorrow and dream … / [and] discourse” (50), all in flux — although it is that. What Joseph seems also to want to see “into” are the workings of the public and historical realm, even if (in an echo of Baudelaire’s or Eliot’s “unreal city”) he writes that it is “unreal, the extent to which / all political discourse is the same. Legal relations / arising out of economic relations — Engels, isn’t it?” (60). Engels appears not to explain but to show the poet trying on languages that might seem more real, more explanatory, only to conclude that “the era of after, or postmodernism — has proven / more difficult to configure” (“History For Another Time,” 60). The attempt to forge a poetry that can simultaneously think about and resist that unreality is most clearly framed in the poem that returns us to the epigraph from Ovid, “Metamorphoses (After Ovid)”:
Sometimes I feel a little dizzy, even
structurally unstable. The world once more
the means by which the meek are to be
brought to their knees, Not the poet
shifting simplicities, shifting the props. (52)
And yet, Joseph adds, “I compose as I feel” (52). In other words, these poems record the work of connecting the self to the world (both moving targets) feelingly. For Joseph in this book, as opposed to the testimonials of his earlier books, the “code changed” (9) and (in the penultimate poem) “The Game Changed.” The stakes seem to have been raised by such changes:
The intent is to make a large, serious
portrait of my time. The sun on the market
near Bowling Green, something red, something
purple, bunches of roses and lilacs. A local
issue for those of us in the neighborhood.
Not to know what it is you’re breathing
in a week when Black Hawk helicopters resume
patrolling the harbor.
Neither impenetrable opacity
nor absolute transparency. I know what I’m after.
A continuity in which everything is transition.
To repeat it because it’s worth repeating. Immanence —
an immanence and a happiness. (64–65)
The pun in “I know what I’m after” is telling; that is, Joseph writes after modernism, after 9/11, but also knows what he wants, which might be characterized as the contemporary equivalent of what Stevens’s “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” calls for in modern poetry: “It Must Be Abstract,” “It Must Change,” “It Must Give Pleasure.” The immanence to which Into It keeps alluding seems to be the merging of the eye and ear and feeling mind with the realities, the stories, that have escaped public and political discourse. One suspects this quest for a poetic world and language sufficient to resist or press back against the pressures of the times informs the persistent use of the deictic in these poems, as in the final poem, “Once Again,” which points us to “the sky / a current carrying us along, / heavy with that green and that black” (66, emphasis added).
Although Joseph does not mention Adorno’s skepticism about whether after Auschwitz — now, we might add, after 9/11 or postmodernism — lyric poetry can be written, he tacitly suggests a response to that skepticism, tracing how in the world of violence and (to use his post-Yeatsian term) disjointedness, poetry must be written to salvage an economy of feeling and reflection, one that can be set against larger intractable, inhuman, forces. In “Theories of Poetry, Theories of Law,” Joseph wrote that the “modernist self is partly constituted by language. Subjectivity does not exist on the surface of mirror-like language, but in the recesses of meaning expressed by new forms.” In light of his renewal of received styles in Into It, one might say that Joseph’s work is “after modernism,” which is not the same as being postmodern; the act of constructing the self (not the self or world narratively constructed or deconstructed and not self or world lyrically staged) is what the poems feature. As he puts it in the previously quoted passage from “The Game Changed”: “The intent is to make a large, serious / portrait of my time. The sun on the market”; this is a new, more self-conscious version of Adorno’s claim, from which I take the title of this essay, that lyric poems are “philosophical sundial[s] telling the time of history,” precisely by letting us read the shifting shadows cast by the pressures of reality. In Joseph’s poem, we read the act of reading, as well.
4. Indeed, the “what” and the “how” — “how to tell what one has to tell” — forms Gertrude Stein’s definition of “narration,” quoted by Lawrence Joseph as the second of his “Working Rules for Lawyerland” in the Columbia Law Review, vol. 101 (November 2, 2001): 1793.
7. The description of the circumstances under which the poems in Joseph’s first two volumes were written is taken from David A. Skeel Jr., “Practicing Poetry, Teaching Law,” Michigan Law Review 29, no. 6 (May 1994): 1755–56.
9. Richard Wilbur, “Poetry and Happiness,” in Claims For Poetry, ed. Donald Hall (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1982), 470–71, 476, 480. Although Wilbur’s essay was written in 1966, it nicely encapsulates assumptions informing what was celebrated or deplored as “mainstream poetry” through at least the 1980s.
12. Ibid., 394, 396. Those associated with this school would include Clark Coolidge, Bob Perelman, Barrett Watten, and Charles Bernstein, who coedited L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (published from 1978 to 1981 and collected by 1984 in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, in which a longer version of Silliman’s essay “The New Sentence” appeared).
13. Silliman, “The New Sentence,” 391. Stein’s portrait of custard — from Tender Buttons and quoted by Silliman on page 390 of “The New Sentence” — reads in its entirety as follows: “Custard is this. It has aches, aches when. Not to be. Not to be narrowly. This makes a whole little hill. It is better than a little thing that has mellow real mellow. It is better than lakes whole lakes, it is better than seeding.”
17. See D. G. Myers, The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880 (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1996), 163. See also Vernon Shetley’s trenchant analysis of the most audible debates of the eighties in After the Death of Poetry: Poet and Audience in Contemporary America (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), especially 19–20, 26–29, and the concluding chapters.
18. Shouting at No One appeared in 1983 from the University of Pittsburgh Press; it is reprinted in Lawrence Joseph, Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos: Poems 1973–1993 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005). Although, as I have noted, publication in the eighties by the University of Pittsburgh Press would have called forth different expectations from readers than would publication by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2005, citations are from the latter, more readily available volume.
19. “You Can Have It” was first published in Antaeus 30, no. 3 (1978): 113–14, and collected in the 1979 7 Years from Somewhere (New York: Atheneum), 64–65, from which I quote here. It also appears in the fourth edition of The Norton Anthology of Poetry, ed. Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter, and Jon Stallworthy (New York: Norton, 1996), 1650–51.
21. See Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language (New York: Harper Perennial, 1995). Pinker’s work was first brought to my attention by Ellen Bryant Voight, The Flexible Lyric (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1999), 123, from which I quote. William Wordsworth’s lines come from “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802”; William Carlos Williams’s “The Flower” appears in The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, vol. 1, ed. A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan (New York: New Directions, 1986), 322–25. The reference is to lines 11–22 of “The Flower.”
22. Robert Kaufman, “Sociopolitical (i.e. Romantic) Difficulty in Modern Poetry and Aesthetics,” Romanticism and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics (June 2003), Romantic Praxis Series, ed. Orrin Wang, para. 6.
26. I am not, I would add, suggesting that Joseph was specifically influenced by particular writers in the nineties. Rather, I’m suggesting that he knew his readers could hear what Burt calls a style of Steinian (for Joseph this would also be Stevensian) “dissolve and fracture” without immediately hearing the kinds of theoretical assumptions, including challenges to the very idea of subjectivity or feeling, with which such a style had earlier been associated. At the same time, it seems clear that the changes I find in the style of the poems in Before Our Eyes owe something to Joseph’s reading of John Ashbery’s poetry. He describes reading Ashbery’s poems in a 1992 review as follows: reading Ashbery is “like listening to an intriguing conversation, or returning to a piece of music whose powers you’re convinced of, to listen to parts of it, or the whole in relation to the parts — like focusing, for example, on the interstices between abstraction and figuration in a Modernist painting.” See Joseph, “The Real Thing,” The Nation 254, no. 15 (April 20, 1992): 531.
29. Lawrence Joseph, Into It (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005). All quotations are from this edition. The discussion of Into It that follows draws on Lisa M. Steinman, “So What Is Poetry Good For?,” Michigan Quarterly Review 45, no. 3 (Summer 2006): 544–59.
31. Baudelaire’s 1857 “Les Sept Vieillards” appears in “Tableaux parisiens,” part of Les Fleurs du Mal, and is cited in Eliot’s footnotes for The Waste Land (line 60). Eliot’s poem is widely reprinted, for instance in The Norton Anthology, where the passage in question appears on 1238.
34. I take my title from Theodor W. Adorno’s “On Lyric Poetry and Society,” reprinted in Adorno, Notes to Literature, vol. 1, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 46, where Adorno’s reading of two poems in order to illustrate his sense of how lyric poetry works is prefaced by his warning that “we are concerned not with the poet as a private person, not with his psychology or his so-called social perspective, but with the poem as a philosophical sundial telling the time of history.”
The books and selves of Lawrence Joseph
Critics often introduce Lawrence Joseph through his biography. David Kirby’s 2005 review of Codes and Into It for the New York Times, for example, musters geography, ethnicity, religion, and the law to make the poet seem at once exotic and familiar. First we meet Joseph the lawyer-poet: a hybrid guaranteed, even now, to catch the reader’s eye. (Twenty years ago David Lehman introduced Joseph to Newsweek readers in just the same way: “Do poetry and the law make strange bedfellows? Lawrence Joseph thinks not.”) Next, in a flashback paragraph, we learn that the poet “was born in Detroit in 1948, the grandchild of Lebanese and Syrian Catholics” and that his poems “speak of his family’s often trying experiences: the slights […] and the violence, especially the 1967 riot that left sections of downtown gutted and the wounding of his father, a grocer, in a 1970 holdup attempt.” After this appeal to pathos Kirby sketches Joseph’s literary career in chatty, even chummy language. “Not surprisingly, Joseph’s earlier writings include a lot of who-am-I poems,” the critic begins; over time, those evolve into the world-weary observations of an urbane attorney. “[A]s Joseph the lawyer makes his way up the ladder,” we learn, “Joseph the poet begins to use phrases like ‘financial markets’ and ‘decreased foreign investment’” and “the voice in the poems expresses malaise: ‘I make favors, complain, wear / a white shirt and blue suit. I’m tired.’”
But to introduce Joseph as “[t]he Catholic, Lebanese son of a Depression-era auto worker in Detroit,” as Michael True calls him in Commonweal, or as a grandson of immigrants who “himself worked in the auto plants,” as David Wojahn ups the ante in Writer’s Chronicle, is not simply to wrap him in the familiar contexts of ethnic identity and working-class authenticity. Nor, pace Kirby, need it merely inscribe him in a twice-told tale of social mobility and its discontents. This sort of introduction can also place him in a literary context. “It is not surprising, given his background, that his early work is considerably influenced by Philip Levine” Wojahn thus tells his readers; “[l]ike Philip Levine, that other Detroit poet,” writes Paul Mariani in America, Joseph begins by invoking urban particulars: “the 7-Up Cadillac Bar, Our Lady of Redemption Melchite Catholic Church, Seminole and Charlevoix and Mack Avenues,” and so on. As Joseph leaves behind this “skillfully rendered but familiar sort of personal lyric” for a more jagged, elusive, collagist poetics marked by “jump-cuts” and a “lashing together of lyric reflection with snippets of testimony,” he does so as part of a broader, decade-defining turn in American verse. “The sensibility at work in Joseph’s poems,” Roger Gilbert explains in his review of Before Our Eyes, “is that of a troubled aesthete, a connoisseur of light and color who keeps reminding himself that people are dying in the streets. The note has become a familiar one in recent poetry.” On this account, Joseph evolves from a patently autobiographical ethnic and regional poet such as Levine into a poet of “textured information” more readily comparable to Robert Hass, Jorie Graham, and Ann Lauterbach — all poets who write in the “disjunctive, contrapuntal, nervously skittering” poetry that Gilbert identifies as the “period style” of the 1980s.
This contextual narrative places Joseph both in time and in space. It makes the transition in his work correspond, more or less, to his relocation from Detroit to New York City; it lets him stand as a chronicler not only of the social reality that has surrounded him, but also of the changes in literary fashion. Nowhere in this story, however, do we hear about the ways that Joseph’s early work already stands back from the 1970s “personal lyric,” whether by embedding poems from this mode into mythic, high-modernist contexts, or (a volume later) questioning both the personal lyric as genre and the vision of selfhood it depends upon. Neither do we learn from it how his more recent books return to and revitalize that early religious, even visionary mode, bringing glimpses of unexpected depth beneath (or above, or within) the jostling surfaces common in poetry of “textured information.” The reductive smoothness of this contextual introduction, that is to say, needs to be ruffled by a counternarrative, one that accounts for the complexities within each volume, and also for the dramas of departure and return that constitute Joseph’s “breaking of style” from poem to poem, book to book, and literary self to literary self.
Tracing this counternarrative, we discover a poet who is a far less autobiographical, far more consciously fictive character than critics have described. Perhaps we should have expected this. “The ‘I’ in the poems,” Joseph has insisted, “is Rimbaud’s modernist ‘The I is another.’” But this spare, allusive proviso does not prepare us for the artful distance the poet maintains from the selves that he variously mythologizes and debunks, brings into focus and plucks from our grasp, in each new collection. The unit of composition for Joseph proves to be as much the book as it is the standalone lyric. Each collection revolves around a different central concern; or, rather, given the dialectical nature of Joseph’s imagination, each mulls over or works through its own distinctive set of “refractory contraries,” generally signaled by the opening gestures of each volume. To appreciate the poems in any given book, you need to read them in light of their titles, epigraphs, or opening poems, with those contraries at stake. To give each successive volume its due, you need to see how it introduces the poet freshly to his readers, not least by repeating and varying each introduction that has come before. In this essay, I will trace these selves and self-introductions in Joseph’s first three books, which function as a sort of triptych. The self we see at the close of Before Our Eyes is, to my mind, essentially the same as the one we encounter a dozen years later in Into It, however violently the world surrounding that self has changed.
“I was appointed the poet of heaven”: Shouting at No One
Clues to this contrapuntal story can be found in the few poetics statements and interviews that Joseph has used to contextualize his work. Compared to his contemporaries — Heather McHugh, for example, or Barrett Watten, both born, like Joseph, in 1948 — he has offered few such documents; given this scarcity, the consistency of the few we have takes on particular significance. In them, Joseph has doggedly insisted that his work be read in the contexts of international modernism, not just recent American literature. When interviewer Charles Graeber remarks that Joseph’s early poetry “reminds me topically of Philip Levine’s Detroit poems,” for example, the poet patiently counters that those pieces lie, instead, “in the tradition of post-Baudelairian ‘city’ poetry,” so that “ Detroit’ is, in the book, essentially metaphorical — an emblem, or code.” “I consider myself in the tradition of American poets who have written not only out of the American tradition, but out of traditions other than our own,” Joseph told the Poetry Society of America in 1998. When Contemporary Authors invited him to describe his poetry to the students who consult this reference resource, Joseph explained that he dreams of “embodying a cosmopolitanism.” The gathering of apothegms, observations, and epigrams he calls “Notions of Poetry and Narration” features more than a dozen European and Levantine authors, from Apollinaire, Brecht, Cavafy, and Dante to Ferdinand Pessoa and Christa Wolf. One figure in particular, the Italian modernist Eugenio Montale, gets quoted or cited fourteen times, making him a presence second only to Wallace Stevens in this crucial collagetext. (There is no sign at all of Philip Levine, Robert Hass, Jorie Graham, or Ann Lauterbach.)
Among the Montalean sources Joseph quotes is the germinal essay “Reading Montale” by the poet, translator, and editor Jonathan Galassi. The essay proves a useful guide to the untitled, italicized poem that opens Joseph’s first book, Shouting at No One: a poem, that is, whose typography and prefatory setting echo the famous untitled, italicized poem at the start of the Italian poet’s first collection, Ossi di seppia (Cuttlefish Bones). According to Galassi, this Montale poem, commonly known as “At the Threshold,” introduces us to the enduring narrator of the author’s major poetry, “melancholy, solitary,” an “old young man” whose relationships with history and other characters, both human and semidivine, the rest of the work will trace. It places this man in a resonant, shifting landscape, a coastal orchard, which will serve as the point of comparison for the poems’ later settings. (They grow more urban, or return to rural life; they invoke the sea or rivers or gardens, or again leave these behind.) Finally, the prefatory poem introduces us to the speaker’s core anxiety — a radical solitude that leaves him “extraneous to life,” buffeted by the indifference of history — and also to his characteristic turn to “a saving other,” a you whom he can address, and who can in turn “recognize him and thus rescue him from the prison of himself.”
Does any of this material — either Montale’s method or his underlying narrative — inform Shouting at No One? Here, too, a prefatory poem introduces us to the poet’s unnamed “I,” not in the paradisal “enclosed garden” of the Italian poem, but in heaven itself. “I was appointed the poet of heaven,” the text begins; “It was my duty to describe / Theresa’s small roses / as they bent in the wind” (3). The duty of beauty, we might call this, an aesthetic version of the submission to Spirit taught by Saint Therese, the Carmelite “little flower of Jesus.” Appropriately, Joseph’s verse aspires here to a mimetic free verse prosody, shifting in the second three-line stanza from a casually iambic tetrameter (“it was / my du / ty to / describe”) to a pivoting trochee that snaps the first image into focus (“There / sa’s small / roses”), only to resolve in a graceful, windbent pair of anapests (“as they bent / in the wind”). “A technique sheared of traditional poetic values,” Richard Tillinghast fretted in his otherwise positive review of Shouting at No One, but these lines suggest that those traditional values are quite consciously on display as the volume begins.
Having given us a whisper of paradise — and, in the process, of the limited, purely mimetic function of the poet to be found there — the poem takes its first turn. “I tired of this,” Joseph’s narrator shrugs, “and asked you to let me / write about something else.” The verb “write about” is only slightly more active than “describe,” but the torque of the enjambment before it, the liveliest so far, draws our attention to the change. So does the response that Joseph’s speaker receives to his request. Peremptory, Joseph’s first “You” calls the poet of heaven back to his original duty:
You ordered, “Sit
in the trees where the angels sleep
and copy their breaths
So I did,
and soon I had a public following:
Saint Agnes with red cheeks,
Saint Dorothy with a moon between her fingers
and the Hosts of Heaven.
Either God or a muse — and the difference means little, at this point — the “you” of the poem orders the poet to “sit […] and copy,” again with his attention focused on something spiritual, at least in the etymological sense. (If “wind” bent Theresa’s roses, now the poet must copy “breaths.”) Although the poet says that he complied, the lines that follow suggest otherwise. His lines grow expansive: first a proud pentameter boast (“and soon / I had / a pub / lic fol / lowing”) that lets human literary tradition, and not angelic breath, determine his cadence, and then, as the saints arrive, a pair of descriptions that refuse to echo traditional iconography. Saint Agnes is blushing, and missing her lamb; Saint Dorothy has traded her flowers and basket for a “moon” that resembles, by proximity to “host,” a communion wafer.
Inventive, disobedient, and idiosyncratic, the “poet of heaven” has built an audience for himself. The dimeter line that ends this stanza — “and the Hosts of Heaven” — lingers in self-satisfaction, echoing and answering the first markedly alliterative line, “[i]t was my duty to describe.” Provoked, the “you” abruptly intervenes:
You said, “You’ve failed me.”
I told you, “I’ll write lovelier poems,”
but you answered,
“You’ve already had your chance:
you will be pulled from a womb
into a city.”
To the “You,” loveliness inheres in the subjects of the poems, which their texts simply mirror. That the poet returns to his own verb, “write,” and aspires to write “lovelier poems” rather than humbler, more accurate ones, already marks his fall. With a Dantean sense of appropriate punishment, the “You” dooms the “poet of heaven” to a realm where any loveliness will have to come from his own efforts, one marked not only by the sexuality and violence absent from his native realm, but also by the variety and specificity he seems to crave. “[P]ulled from a womb / into a city,” the poet will have to discover, or invent, what the duty of an urban poet will be.
Set at the threshold of Shouting at No One, this prefatory poem informs the rest of the text in ways that have not, I think, been sufficiently recognized. When the second poem of Shouting at No One plunges us immediately into a painful earthly narrative — “Joseph Joseph breathed slower / as if that would stop / the pain splitting his heart,” it begins — we are meant to notice not only the contrast between the world this poem describes and the one we saw a few pages before, but also the bittersweet turn in the literary activity of the exiled “poet of heaven” (7). Once ordered to copy the breaths of angels, he now records the breaths of a man in pain, both through narrative and, again, through artful, mimetic rhythm. Once eager for “something else” to write about, his lines now spill over, sharply enjambed, from narrative into an angry, expansive catalogue:
He turned the ignition key
to start the motor and leave
Joseph’s Food Market to those
who wanted what was left.
Take the canned peaches,
take the greens, the turnips,
drink the damn whiskey
spilled on the floor,
he might have said. (7)
At which moment, if we are paying attention, we realize that this apparently obedient and mimetic poetry has shaded, quietly, into an act of imagination, a thought of what “he might have said.” The poem returns to simple narration, as though its speaker were trying to force himself simply to say what happened, but most of the events he now describes are mental, lit by glimpses of a world elsewhere:
Though fire was eating half
Detroit, Joseph could only think
of how his father,
with his bad legs, used to hunch
over the cutting board
alone in light particled
with sawdust behind
the meat counter, and he began
This lovely image — the grandfather backlit, almost haloed, like St. Joseph, as light catches sawdust “behind / the meat counter” — is particularly poignant if we come to it, as the “poet of heaven” would, with the static, idealized female saints of the previous poem in mind. It stands poised between two versions of poesis the exiled poet continues to negotiate, one mimetic, descriptive, obedient to its subject, the other more independent, idiosyncratic, restless in its search for new material.
The prefatory poem also gives us a second opposition: “heaven” versus the “city.” Given Joseph’s claim, in the Graeber interview, to be writing “in the tradition of post-Baudelairian ‘city’ poetry,” it is safe to say that this last is his version of the competing attractions of ideal beauty and urban abjection, salvation and the sordid, that characterize this tradition from Baudelaire to Eliot to Ginsberg. As Michael Hamburger explains in The Truth of Poetry, a study which Joseph cites a half dozen times in “Notions of Poetry and Narration,” this sort of “a polarity that corresponds to Baudelaire’s spleen and ideal’” rarely lets the poet take one side or the other. Rather, they function dialectically, so that even the poet who aspires to write one sort of verse — a “low mimetic” antipoetry or an “autotelic or hermetic art” of pure imagination — will find him- or herself driven to give voice to the other. Hamburger describes the former, low mimetic verse as “austerely dedicated to rendering ‘things as they are’ in the language of people as they speak,” but in an inventive twist on this familiar topos, Joseph begins Shouting at No One with a “poet of heaven” for whom “things as they are” would be idealized, celestial, and delicate, so that his original acts of imagination drive him initially down the ladder of mimesis. The next poem, “Then,” inverts this progress, as the exiled “poet of the city” tries, however briefly, to imagine an alternative to the low mimetic world that traps his father, his grandfather, and perhaps himself.
The final sentences of “Then” offer additional glimpses of heaven, or the ideal, reduced or recast as low mimetic detail. The “old Market’s wooden walls / turned to ash” (7) recall the earlier “trees where the angels sleep” (3), here cut down and burned; the “tenement named ‘Barbara’ in flames” (7) recalls another female saint, or ought to have done so. Like the spiritual “fancies that are curled / [a]round these images, and cling” in Eliot’s “Preludes,” echoes of heaven and sacred history inflect the poem’s arson-ruined streetscape.
Indeed, in light of the prefatory poem, we can see this doubleness throughout the volume. The urban details that establish, for Graeber, a “sense of place” also establish a profound sense of displacement, since every geographical specific (Van Dyke Avenue, the 7-Up Cadillac Bar, the Eldon Axle factory) recalls the lack of such spatial markers in the heaven where we began, just as every house of worship (Mount Zion Temple, St. Marion’s Cathedral, Our Lady of Redemption) reminds us of the speaker’s exile. This doubleness is perhaps most plangently deployed in “Do What You Can,” a poem that opens with one of those emblematic houses of worship (“the Church of I AM”) and ends with a striking deployment of legal discourse. “I wonder if they know,” Joseph writes in the closing lines,
that after the jury is instructed
on the Burden of Persuasion and the Burden of Truth,
that after the sentence of twenty to thirty years comes down,
when the accused begs, “Lord, I can’t do that kind of time,”
the judge, looking down, will smile and say,
“Then do what you can.” (58)
We do not need the prefatory poem to make these details resonant, but it makes their overtones inescapable. The poet knows these things because he, too, operates under twinborn burdens of rhetorical invention (Persuasion) and mimesis (Truth); he, too, has been sentenced, doomed to a life of (in Montale’s words) “total disharmony with the reality that surround[s]” him. The effect is not to tug our attention away from the purely human legal drama of the poem’s close, but rather to magnify and dignify it — and, in the process, to bring others into the ennobling penumbra of the poet’s otherwise private myth. Both the poet and those he observes live, here, under the same cool condemnation, with “Do What You Can,” a fallen city’s muted golden rule.
“I distance myself to see myself”: Curriculum Vitae
Can we tease out a single, coherent myth of the poet from Shouting at No One? Joseph changes his story as the book goes on, so that the voice of poetry “howling within” him is ascribed first to himself (“Then,” 7), then to an angel (“Not Yet,” 21), and in the volume’s closing lines to God himself. Given time, one might sort these out into a single narrative, perhaps even the sort of novelistic “plot” that Galassi’s “Reading Montale” traces through that poet’s work. For the purposes of this essay, however, it suffices to say that the aspiration to myth announced in the prefatory poem lifts its subsequent texts out of the realm of personal lyric, locating them in an ambiguous generic realm somewhere between Montale’s symbolist modernism and the postconfessional lyric of the 1970s. Asking not “who am I,” but “what voice is it in me,” this volume uses the contraries implied by its prefatory poem to add complexity and power to the rest of the book. Backlit by the heavenly scene of the first poem, the urban memories of “Then” and the empathic, humbly observed “Do What You Can” read differently than they do when read on their own; in a longer essay, I would explore how the prefatory poem ballasts the self-celebratory claims of “There Is a God Who Hates Us So Much” (“I was pulled from the womb / into this city” , it begins) and how the portrait-poems that flesh out the collection, especially those about immigrants to Detroit, play out on a horizontal axis the same displacements we see in the poet-of-heaven’s vertical exile. For now, let me simply recall Hayden Carruth’s wise dictum that “[b]efore a person can create a poem, he or she must create a poet.” Shouting at No One is as much about that “primal creative act” as it is about Detroit or the poet’s life there per se.
Published five years later, Joseph’s second collection, Curriculum Vitae, sets aside both the vertical axis of Shouting at No One (heaven to the city) and the grand, even mythic approach to the poet’s voice that the first book employed. This is not to say that it abandons them entirely. Read the collections back to back, as they appear in Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos, and you see immediately how Joseph marks each turn in his work through repetition and variation. “It’s not me shouting at no one / in Cadillac Square: it’s God, / roaring inside me, afraid / to be alone,” the first book ends (60); “The disabled garment worker / who explains to his daughter / he’s God the Holy Spirit / and lonely and doesn’t care / if he lives or dies” (65), the next begins, collapsing myth into mental illness, prophetic roaring into explanation, sternness into — well, not sympathy, but something watchful, a little detached, but curious, willing to learn. The speaker, we might say, takes note of these characters, father and daughter, before turning (as the sentence spills forward) to other topics that catch his eye or demand his attention. Framing its introduction of the poet in the educational and professional terms suggested by its title, Curriculum Vitae stays — for the most part — resolutely secular; where religion appears, it is primarily as part of the speaker’s upbringing or an instance of culture. (I will discuss one crucial exception, “Let Us Pray,” later in this piece.)
If any collection invites us to read Joseph as a poet of ethnic, even racial heritage and social class, it is Curriculum Vitae. The title poem (69–70), early in the collection, touches on Arab American identity (“I might have been born in Beruit, / not Detroit, with my right name,” it begins), and in a half dozen lines it runs through this book’s secular versions of the poet’s recurrent motifs: urban violence (“fire in the streets”), the liberating power of the imagination (“My head set on fire in Cambridge, / England, in the Whim Café”), the impact of legal training on the poet’s mind (“After I applied Substance and Procedure / and Statements of Facts / my head was heavy, was earth”). The collection includes a set of poems about autoworker life and the shady wealth that surrounds it; here, too, we find “Sand Nigger” (90), a meditation on Lebanese-American identity that, writes Lisa Suhair Majaj, “Arab-Americans frequently invest with iconic status.” Certainly it remains one of Joseph’s best-known, most-anthologized pieces, and it earns that reputation not least in its bravura closing lines, where the speaker claims and inhabits the insulting name he has been called outside the shelter of home. “‘Sand nigger,’ I’m called, / and the name fits,” he says with a touch of swagger, embracing the clarity of identity that opposition provides. The poem’s final cadence nests a memorable series of oppositions: the poet may be “nice enough / to pass,” but he is also “Lebanese enough / to be against his brother, / with his brother against his cousin, / with cousin and brother / against the stranger” (90, 92).
As was the case with Shouting at No One, however, these poems of identity read differently when we set them in the context of the volume as a whole. Here, too, Joseph frames them, gives them additional complexity, through a series of self-introductory gestures, beginning with the poem’s epigraph. “Both in nature and in metaphor,” he quotes Wallace Stevens, “identity is the vanishing-point of resemblance” (63). To a poet, this adage suggests, identity will always be a troubling ideal. Resemblance proliferates, is itself creative, the spark of simile and metaphor. (“It is only au pays de la métaphore / Qu’on est poète,” Stevens reminds us elsewhere.) Identity, by contrast, marks the end to the perception of sameness in difference, difference in sameness, that is so crucial to poetic creation. When two things are identical, after all, they no longer resemble one another, they simply are one another, tout court. This is not to say, however, that identity has no use, no appeal. Identity, writes Stevens, is a “vanishing-point”: in visual terms, this would be the place where parallel lines converge. In representational art, this illusory point of convergence helps establish our sense of perspective. Although in real life it vanishes as we approach it, in art the vanishing point grants depth and heft to everything around it. By implication, then, identity is the place where otherwise parallel lines of life can finally meet: an ever-retreating, fictive construct, but one which brings both resemblances and differences into some harmonious array. Without such a vanishing point, the self might fracture along cubist, multiperspectival lines or dissolve into a swarm of resemblances; at identity’s purest extremes, however, as resemblance vanishes, identity too disappears, a victim of its own self-congruity.
Joseph begins to explore the implications of his epigraph in the poem that opens Curriculum Vitae, “In the Age of Postcapitalism.” It begins with a paratactic array of characters and images, as though challenging the reader to spot the resemblances between them:
The disabled garment worker
who explains to his daughter
he’s God the Holy Spirit
and lonely and doesn’t care
if he lives or dies;
the secret sarcoma shaped like a flower
in the bowels of a pregnant woman;
ashes in the river, a floating chair,
long, white, shrieking cats;
the watch that tells Zurich,
Jerusalem, and Peking time;
and the commodities broker
nervously smiling, mouth slightly twitching
when he says to the police he’s forgotten
where he left his Mercedes:
everything attaches itself to me today. (65)
In the previous volume, each of these figures would have been plotted on the clear, definitive axes that ran vertically from heaven to the city, and horizontally, from Lebanon or Armenia to Detroit. Here pathos, disease, urban decay, cosmopolitan elegance, and a lying businessman simply heap up, defying our efforts to read them as instances of some common plight. To use the metaphor implied by the book’s epigraph, they are parallel lines in search of a vanishing point. As the sentence ends, they find one. “Everything,” we read after that colon, “attaches itself to me today.”
The first self we meet in Curriculum Vitae, then, is neither the wistful “poet of heaven” that started the previous volume, nor the empathetic observer of “Do What You Can” and the portrait poems, nor the fleshly, God-haunted, grimly exultant “poet of my city” we saw at its close. At the simplest grammatical level, he is a “me,” while the previous poet introduced himself as a subject (“I was appointed the poet of heaven”), often speaking a string of significant verbs: “I see,” “I answer,” “I press,” “I wonder” (“Do What You Can,” 57–58). It takes two more sentences for an “I” to enter the poem, and even then it is merely part of a quoted title, “What Has Become of / the Question of ‘I,’” one of several “topics for discussion / at the Institute for Political Economy.” Only after this title, as though in reaction to it, does the poet step forward as an “I” in his own right, learned in occult, Yeatsian lore, in the classical tumults of Eros and Eris (beloved of Sappho and H.D.), and in the mix of rhetorical craft and emotional self-knowledge that makes for literary art. Indeed, he is not just a poet — he is a poet with a beloved, a “her,” however incongruous his
longing may seem, given the times:
I know all about the transmigration of souls.
I know about love and about strife.
To delight in a measured phrase,
to bank the rage in the gut,
to speak more softly,
to waken at three in the morning to think only of her
— in the age of postcapitalism. (65)
It’s as though the speaker heard his own tone soften and recoiled, taking refuge in irony, a knowing shrug, a crisp, theoretical phrase he might have heard at the Institute of Political Economy mentioned a few lines above.
After twenty years of reading this poem, I still often stumble at this turn. The poem so far could easily end here: after all, Joseph has reached the phrase that gives the poem its title, and even more than “everything attaches itself to me today,” this new line offers a briskly summative, clarifying, metatextual gesture. We can use it to name, even to diagnose the lack of “identity” we saw in the speaker during the first part of the poem, the gap between that meager self and the older set of values (religious, aesthetic, amatory) that the speaker goes on to invoke, and even the poem’s bracing turn to the discourse of critical theory, which snaps us out of our nostalgia for those values. All of these, we are invited to nod, characterize an “age of postcapitalism” and the poetry appropriate to it. In such poetry, words like “love,” “strife,” “delight,” and “waken” will mix promiscuously with the language of political economy; in it the longing for love will be at best a local nostalgic effect, a pleasure which the poet will not luxuriate in, but will instead unmask. The self this longing implies, with its old-fashioned inwardness, is a similar effect, likewise to be debunked. Abrupt and disruptive, the phrase “in the age of postcapitalism” draws our attention away from the referential side of the poem — the world it describes and the self who describes it — and sternly fixes our attention on the language of the poem itself.
Such disruptions were not hard to find in poetry of the late 1980s. Indeed, by 1988, when Curriculum Vitae was published, they were common enough in the work of Language writers to have drawn several years of mainstream critical attention. Joseph, however, refuses to end his poem here. If the line “in the age of postcapitalism” steps back from and names the situation in which the poet finds himself, the fact that the poem continues, shifting gears once more, suggests that Joseph also steps back from the theoretical discourse in which terms like “postcapitalism” allow intellectual mastery and oppositional authority. In a deliberately anticlimactic gesture, the poet sets that discourse, too, aside, and looks outward:
Yellow and gray dusk thickens around the Bridge.
Rain begins to slant between
the chimneys and the power plant.
I don’t feel like changing
or waiting anymore either,
and I don’t believe we’re dreaming
this October sixth, in New York City,
during the nineteen eighties. (66)
In Shouting at No One, rain like this would have signaled a gust of redemption, or at least a reminder of its enduring possibility. (“I’ve always waited: / for warm rain to wash the sky,” Joseph writes in this vein in the earlier poem, “Nothing and No One and Nowhere to Go,” 41.) Here, though, it has no such effect; in fact, the poet specifically rejects that hope of change. Neither as scattered as the earlier “me” nor as confident as the subsequent “I,” the speaker rallies himself as best he can in a collective pronoun, but he does so quietly, even sadly, as though both he and the rest of that “we” were simply the victims of time and place without any power to resist, define, or affect them. Even the term “postcapitalism” loses its critical force by the end of the poem, becoming simply part of the linguistic fabric of New York City in the 1980s. In effect, the poem historicizes the term, but the move is less scholarly than simply middle-aged, as though its speaker had already seen too many such phrases go in and out of intellectual fashion.
The first self that we meet in Curriculum Vitae, then, is constituted by the parallel lines of information that “attach” themselves to it, by parallel lines of discourse — poetic and political — and finally by the time and place in which this self-by-accrual occurs. It’s a self that is by turns interested, overwhelmed, assertive, nostalgic, ironic, and melancholy, but one without a single, clearcut identity that would bring these materials into balance and focus. In his sonnet “Meru” Yeats speaks of the way thought goes on “ravening, raging, and uprooting” until one comes to “the desolation of reality.” In a quieter way, this speaker has arrived at a comparable desolation, as though he were simply too knowing for his own good, his intelligence and his sense of identity somehow at odds. To buttress that sense of identity, the poet of this volume needs either to find a self that will withstand the ravening appetite of thought or to construct one, consciously, as the sort of vanishing point in which these parallel lines can meet. And, indeed, the rest of Curriculum Vitae pursues this twofold project of self-discovery and (or through) self-invention, with the book more or less alternating between poems that look into the past for the roots of the present self and poems that step back to challenge, complicate, and even “uproot,” as Yeats says, what was planted a page before. Or, if you prefer, about half pursue the disjunctive, cubist poetics of “In the Age of Postcapitalism,” while the other half step back from that period style to challenge and complicate it. In these, the impulse to see the world in this depthless way rises from the depths of the poet’s identity:
“This is a smart one,” Mama says.
My eyes are as black as hers.
“Too smart, I’m afraid — he’ll
keep unhappy because of it,”
Mama said. I heard her.
That’s what Mama said.
On the feast of my patron saint
that’s what my mama said. (67–68)
Thus the end of the volume’s second poem, “My Eyes Are as Black as Hers,” a poem which had been, until these lines, entirely in the third person. Being “too smart” is not just the cross this “I” has to bear, this grammatical turn suggests. Rather, it is the core fact that makes him an “I” in the first place, one that will keep him, for the rest of his life, from comfortably, unquestioningly inhabiting any single identity. (The authoritative trimeter of the final stanza, less flexible than the looser quatrains before it, reinforces our sense that this is a clinching, definitive moment.)
Of the twenty-six poems in Curriculum Vitae, a dozen, by my count, look back to the disjunctive lead of “In the Age of Postcapitalism.” In these, the reader is often given what we might call “parallel lines” of material, arrays of fact, memory, and observation that seem, at first, “impossible together” (“By the Way,” 81); often the self that speaks them is distanced into the second or third person, haunted by his own self-consciousness. “Myself — an abstraction” he’ll call himself in such self-critical moods, or dismiss himself as an aesthete past his time: “‘Live and die before a mirror,’ / Baudelaire says, sipping espresso / at the corner of Hudson and Barrow” (“I Pay the Price,” 105, 107). But this unrelenting intelligence has an ethical side that cannot be dismissed. Turn the page on “Sand Nigger” and you’ll find “Rubiyat,” a poem whose fourteen jagged quatrains of “how the brain talks, evil in its wakefulness” pepper the reader with clipped, disconcerting sentences. The identity-through-opposition offered by the first sounds good on paper, the gesture suggests, but in historical practice, it is a bewildering nightmare, “too crazy and it’s too much and not unreal” (93). “[W]hat do you think you’re doing,” the speaker of this poem demands of himself, “when you want the names / and the years of the history, who begot whom and who made / which flesh which words that hate for which particular reasons / that compel the pride of the horrors of the oppressed?” Yet ask he must, want he must: the intellect, too, has an appetite, which battens equally on beauty and on atrocity. In the remarkable poem “An Awful Lot Was Happening,” which speaks of war, religion, urban strife, and romantic love during the Vietnam War, Joseph gives us that appetite voice — in fact, in a rare move for the volume, he grounds it in a confident, crisply defined identity. The final three stanzas are worth quoting at length, to see what this self looks like:
When I answered I intended to maintain freedom my brother was riled.
What, or who, collides in you beside whose body I sleep?
No work at Tool & Die, Motors, Transmission, or Tractor
while the price of American crude rises another dollar.
There really wasn’t enough work anywhere. And there was war
God the spirit of holy tongues couldn’t release me from,
or from my dumbness. Pressured — delirious —
from too much inductive thinking, I waited for
the image in whose presence the heart opens and opens
and lived to sleep well; of necessity assessed earth’s profit
in green and red May twilight. —You came toward me
in your black skirt, white blouse rolled at the sleeves.
Anticipation of your eyes, your loose hair!
My elementary needs — to cohere, to control.
An awful lot was happening and I wanted more. (103–04)
As a poem of education — sensual and otherwise — this piece can contain both disjunctive turns and memory-based lyrical passages in a poised, harmonious balance. Few poems in the book present the poet’s “I” as at once this confident and this expansive; as much as “Sand Nigger,” it is a touchstone in the collection.
I have discussed Curriculum Vitae so far in the terms suggested by its epigraph — resemblance, identity, and the complex figure of the “vanishing-point.” The reference to “political economy” in this book’s opening poem suggests another, equally powerful lens through which to view the collection. Joseph wrote these poems at a time when many voices debated the relationships between postmodern poetry and contemporary economics. Frederick Jameson’s germinal essay “Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” for example, came out in the New Left Review in 1984, and was contested and echoed by poets and critics, especially those interested in Language writing, well past the end of the decade. As we have already seen, Joseph keeps his distance from the term “postcapitalism,” but simply by using it in the opening poem, he primes us to notice how often the poems that follow speak not just of money, but of a self that sees itself in economic terms. The young man who stuffs a ten-dollar bill in his pocket, earned through work as a caddy, contrasts his well-earned payment with the “wonder” of money made by “‘Dice’ Delaney,” the golfer who hires him, through bets. “I knew where it came from. / I knew this much was mine,” he says (“This Much Was Mine,” 79–80). Older, a poet, he sometimes seems to doubt the value of his imaginative work. “I frequent the Café Dante, earn / my memories, repay my moods,” he insists, a bit defensively, near the close of the title poem, adding, “I am as good as the unemployed / who wait in long lines for money” (“Curriculum Vitae,” 69, 70). In his own “lines,” filled with memories and moods, the poet seems to covet the same moral stature.
The final poem in Curriculum Vitae, “There I Am Again,” reminds us why Joseph finds capitalism and identity so deeply intertwined. Where the volume began “in New York City, / during the nineteen-eighties” (“In the Age of Postcapitalism,” 66), it ends by taking the poet back to the family market that we saw destroyed near the start of Shouting at No One. This time, however, the core of the memory is not the store’s destruction, nor the work of the poet’s father and grandfather, but the poet’s youth working behind the counter. “[T]here I am again: always, everywhere,” Joseph writes in the book’s final lines, “apron on, alone behind the cash register, the grocer’s son / angry, ashamed, and proud as the poor with whom he deals” (121). As we have seen, this is not the only self that the speaker contains; the “smart one” recognized by his mother is an even older, equally enduring identity, and one that Joseph has deployed to take a second, critical look at his own gift for identity poetics. At the end of the collection, Joseph reverses this gesture. The “grocer’s son” self tethers and grounds the skittery, unrelenting movement of his intellect, on fine display in the penultimate poem, “On Nature” (118). And because it embraces the risk and shame of an old-fashioned, pre-postcapitalist economic position, “alone behind the cash register,” forced to “deal” directly with others, this self also sponsors the poet’s sense of values, of human worth.
“Vision sustains”: Before Our Eyes
The title of Joseph’s first book, Shouting at No One, hinted at mysteries. A participial phrase, it signaled that the book would explore an activity (poesis, or some variant of it), and that this activity would be done at no one by someone yet to be named (the poet of heaven, or a voice within, or God, depending on the poem). Curriculum Vitae presented us with a crisp, professional term: an abstract, impersonal noun-phrase, “the course of a life,” which the book by turns fleshed out and reflected upon, its poems as often meditations on identity poetics as instances of them. As a title, Before Our Eyes speaks in the first person plural, a new grammatical choice that suggests Joseph has moved beyond the inquiries into self that shaped the first two books. “Myself, / self-made, separated from myself, // who cares?” he shrugs in “Material Facts,” as though refusing to return to those earlier self-creative efforts (128). The plural possessive also tells us that the self we are about to encounter speaks on our behalf, or at least has settled more comfortably into his own multiplicity. Several pieces in the collection, notably “Generation” (138) and “Under a Spell” (135), even suggest that the other self within that “us” is the Muse, the “you — with whom I can’t pretend” who “see[s] everything go through me” (136).
The title phrase also suggests that this will be a book of imagistic or panoramic vision. The poet, one assumes, will describe what lies “before our eyes” in a spatial sense of the phrase, as in the opening lines of the title poem, which Joseph places, for the first time, first in the collection:
The sky almost transparent, saturated
manganese blue. Windy and cold.
A yellow line beside a black line,
the chimney on the roof a yellow line
behind the mountain ash on Horatio.
A circular cut of pink flesh hanging
in the shop. Fish, flattened, copper,
heads chopped off. (“Before Our Eyes,” 125)
Startling in their painterly palate, these descriptions strip the depth and pathos from material that, in an earlier book, would have been redolent with meaning. The shop, the flesh, the fish: we saw each in the final poem of Curriculum Vitae, but their roles as setting for a “grocer’s son” self, proud and ashamed, have been set aside in favor of an exact, purely visual delectation. Is this, at that, the same shop? “Horatio” is an avenue in Detroit — but also a street in Manhattan. The poem’s refusal to specify signals its freedom, at least for now, from the metaphorical geographies that shape the first two books.
But Joseph does not limit himself to what is “before our eyes” in this simple, visual sense. “The point is to bring / depths to the surface,” the poem continues, “to elevate / sensuous experience into speech / and the social contract.” The first of these admonitions goes down easily. Depths to the surface, experience into speech: these are unsurprising descriptions of poesis, although “elevate” is a verb we will return to. By adding “and the social contract,” however, Joseph reminds us that speech is not a neutral, private act. Because it implies an interlocutor, and because we must learn language from others, speech implies some kind of social order; it implicates us in one another in ways that poets both depend on and put to new use. A few lines later, Joseph puts these implications of poesis into practice. “By written I mean made,” he explains, “by made I mean felt; / concealed things, sweet sleep of colors.” The poem — a made thing, etymologically speaking — is “felt” by its author, bringing sensuous experience into language, but felt also by its reader, so that things once “concealed” can now be noticed or imagined, like a “sweet sleep of colors.” Such synesthesia and personification are not part of my perception of the world, or at least they were not before I read Joseph’s poem; now they are, which means that both my eye and my “I” have changed.
Language, we might therefore say, exists at once before our eyes and before our I’s, in both the spatial and the temporal senses of the phrase. This spatial / temporal doubleness is, for me, the “refractory contrary” at the heart of Before Our Eyes — far more important a pair, in fact, than the tensions between “beauty and terror, lyric language and historical fact, aesthetics and politics” that Roger Gilbert has argued shape the volume. In Gilbert’s reading, the title poem “traces the fluctuations of a mind in love with sensual beauty but oppressed by its knowledge of history,” and this “conflict of sensibility and conscience” leaves the poet trapped in the uneasy role of a “guilty hedonist.” This reading, however, reduces beauty to the merely visual, so that the tension in the poem lies between the “ephemeral impressions of colored light” and “social chaos” that both appear, spatially speaking, before the poet’s eyes. For Joseph, however — a Catholic poet, steeped in Montale, Stevens, and Dante before them — earthly light and beauty have always at least potentially signaled something far greater, a spiritual radiance, a supernatural order in which beauty and morality, light and law and love, are not so easily distinguished. In this tradition, what comes “before our eyes” in the spatial sense is sometimes dramatically different from, even an affront to, what comes “before our eyes” in the temporal sense, although the two sometimes are interfused, when seen not just by sight, but through prophetic and / or sacramental vision.
That Joseph might need to be read as a religious poet should not come as a surprise. The self in each of his books has been characterized in part — in no small part — by his relationship to the divine. In Shouting at No One the bond was close, but antagonistic. “Who makes me eat my words and makes my eyes pain: / I measure you according to your creation,” he cursed at the end of “There Is a God Who Hates Us So Much” (50). In Curriculum Vitae, the remarkable “Let Us Pray” offers a moment of direct address and connection. First the poet confesses (“I confess / too much”), then he begs to be “cleansed” like a prophet, his mouth made fit to praise (“Let me pray”). As the poem moves into the first person plural, the divine and human intersect: both “cry,” both have flesh and spirit — “Let us pray,” he now writes. In fact, by the end of the poem, it is God, not the poet, who needs consolation. “Let your cry come to me,” the poem ends, “I will not forsake you, / I, Lawrence Joseph, loved so much / by your pain and your beauty” (108).
In Before Our Eyes, Joseph finds a way to imbricate heavenly pathos and beauty with a deeply imperfect world of creation. “[R]efracted into depths // all beauty isn’t underlined,” he warns; sometimes it lies buried under “indignant and ironic // events blocked on top of one another,” so that it takes both grace and skill to spot it (“Now Evening Comes Fast from the Sea,” 175). But “[o]ut of deeper strata // illuminations” manage to rise, and they do so precisely as “confirmations of another order” (“Admissions Against Interest,” 132, 134). We find them in the sunlight that a child “catches / […] in a pocket mirror” and “refracts […] into a senator’s eyes” (“Generation,” 138–39); in the “darkening gold” underlying the disorderly social world (“Over Darkening Gold,” 137); in the “pure unattainable light” that family love recalls in “Sentimental Education” (146). Here and there illuminations erupt almost miraculously, as in “those fingers, / those beams of light / in the middle of the air” where — as the gospel song reminds us, Ezekiel saw the Wheel (“Time Will Tell If So,” 141), a figure that appears in its own right, “[o]ut of the [b]lue,” in the visionary poem of that name (“Out of the Blue,” 149). But their most vivid, unmistakable instantiation comes in a quotidian moment of grace captured in “Whose Performance Am I Watching?” as the poet catches a sacramental glimpse of a man and a woman:
“Just look!” and I did, and there, on the street, Hudson Street,
a rose-colored woman about to kiss a rose-colored man,
both of them older, under a linden tree, behind them
the elevated absence you’ve learned to let be. I’ve never
forgotten the expression on their faces, the only
human beings I’ve ever seen without that rapacious look
everyone else is possessed by. Brightness streaming in every
direction. Judgment, desire, sentence structure taking place.
Not in Siena, but right here. (144)
By linking the visual trope of “brightness” so memorably here with love and judgment, desire and language, Joseph invites us to read those qualities back into other mentions of light elsewhere in the collection, as well as later in this particular poem. (They are, I take it, all attributes of the “opulence” that sunlight “insinuate[es]” as this piece comes to a close .) Even the cover art of Before Our Eyes in its original publication underscored this connection. It presents an array of the famous bodiless angels painted on the ceiling of the church of Debre Berhan in Gondar, Ethiopia: a church whose name means, in Amharic, “Mountain of Divine [or Heavenly] Light.”
In the “sacramental” vision of the Catholic poet, Paul Mariani has written, “Evidence of God’s immanent presence ought to be capable of breaking in on us each day, the way air and light and sound do, if we only know what to look and listen for.” Clearly Joseph offers such evidence elsewhere in Before Our Eyes, but does he introduce this motif — does he suggest we “look and listen” — in the collection’s opening poem? The answer comes, for me, in the suite of ars poetica statements that ends “Before Our Eyes,” launching us into the poems that follow. “[P]oetry / I know something about,” this passage begins, and he goes on to define the art in five distinct, complementary ways:
The act of forming
imagined language resisting humiliation.
Fading browns and reds, a maroon glow,
sadness and brightness, glorified.
Voices over charred embankments, smell
of fire and fat. The pure metamorphic
rush through the senses, just as you said
it would be. The soft subtle twilight
only the bearer feels, broken into angles,
best kept to oneself. (125–26)
The first of these definitions signals the poet’s social imagination. Poetry is not just (as Stevens said) the “act of finding / what will suffice,” but an “act of forming” in the name of resistance, of justice. The second definition, by contrast, starts with aesthetic perceptions, but does not end with them. Poetry, it declares, consists of emotion and color “glorified,” a word that Joseph uses in its full theological sense, as one speaks of the “glorified” body of the risen Christ. The third definition, in which poetry is a matter of “voices,” joins the social and the aesthetic. Those voices might be crying out in pain, victims of conflict, but they remain ambiguous, rising “over” the destruction, just as that “smell / of fire and fat” might be either human fat or a touch of savory beauty. (Joseph has given us a scene like this once before: “I fire my rifle into the sun, / shout God’s name, / return to ruins to roast a lamb,” he wrote in poem 3 of “The Phoenix Has Come to a Mountain in Lebanon,” in Shouting at No One, 27). Poetry is “the pure metamorphic / rush through the senses,” Joseph now says, ascribing that definition — in which, one notes, the senses give us access to something beyond them — to an unnamed “you,” a gesture which makes poetry a social bond, a promise that has been kept, no matter who this “you” might be. Picking up on the mysterious identity of that “you,” Joseph ends the passage on a hermetic note. Poetry is “[t]he soft, subtle twilight / only the bearer feels, broken into angles, / best kept to oneself,” he writes (126). Yet rather than shut us out, this withdrawal into privacy draws us closer, tempting those with ears to hear to listen for hints in the words that close the poem: “For the time being, / let’s just stick to what’s before our eyes.”
The “what” that this implies, as the lines above it have shown, is already quite various, and not at all limited to Gilbert’s pair of “ephemeral impressions of colored light” and “social chaos.” The act of “sticking to it,” likewise, may sound reductive at first, but has already turned out to be redolent with aesthetic attention, social solidarity, and hints of the sacred. Joseph reinforces each of these multiplicities by following “Before Our Eyes” with a short, hermetic lyric, “A Flake of Light Moved,” whose four stanzas touch on, respectively, color, love, mystery, and revelation. The nature of that revelation, “[a] flake of light” that interrupts the “[d]iagonal shadows” and “deeper blackness” of the sunset scene, remains hidden from us, but its effect on those who see it is quite clear. “Everyone / watched,” Joseph writes, “as if hypnotized, and more, / much more, than that” (127). David Yezzi’s review of Before Our Eyes balks at this poem. “Given the salt in the rest of the volume, it’s hard to swallow such uncut sugar,” he quips. But throughout the volume Joseph uses such instances of grace to buttress and nourish a self that can then open itself to, bear and transfigure, the salt that Joseph more than delivers, and that Yezzi prefers. In “Brooding,” a lovely erotic memory leads into thoughts of theology, then light, and only then into the social realm, by which the speaker reports himself “unfazed”:
[…] one rose
in the crystal vase
in the room where
she stood before me,
legs slightly apart,
golden dusk all over us
when she insisted
not to go on talking
as if I was dreaming,
arguing the Summa
that God is the love
she was brought up on,
she and I. Always
this point of departure
particulars of light
Not at all fazed
that man on Grand Street
is yelling “Eloi,
eloi, lama sabachthani,”
I’ve heard the words
before. Blocks away
pension funds. (150)
A similar trajectory shapes the three-part poem “Movement in the Distance Is Larger Up Close.” Here Joseph starts with “[a] certain splendor” suffusing everyone at the “Café Fledermaus” — a scene that is ripe tart critique, even for parody (173). But after a long, wide stanza of the speaker’s “rampage within [him]self” against the times, it is the power of “boundless happiness and joy” that brings him back, with real care, to the mixed urban world around him (174). “The leaves in the park deep, irascible mauve. / The crippled unemployed drawing chalk figures / on the Avenue,” he notes, refusing to rank the two. (Even the unemployed are engaged in poesis, mustering art as resistance, after all.) The public space that includes them both is, the poem concludes, “Where we ought to be.”
Now that Joseph’s first three books are bound in a single volume, one can easily flip back and forth between the self we meet at the start of his career — the “poet of heaven,” before and after his exile — and the one who leaves the stage in Before Our Eyes. Joseph links the two in resonant ways, not least by revisiting, in this third collection, the founding myth of the first. The revision comes at the end of “Generation,” when, after a two-page column of verse, a single quatrain breaks off and looks back at the historical sweep and dizzying “flux” of the poem as a whole. “So that’s when we got the idea in our heads / to be born,” this quatrain remarks, “not to let the sights / slip away, choosing in a badly measured time / human form over nonbeing” (140). Instead of the individual “I” of the early prefatory poem, a plural voice speaks; instead of birth as punishment, we find a choice to be born, as though incarnation were the only way for “nonbeing” to see, to remember, to embrace the “sights” that would otherwise be lost in the chaos of “a badly measured time.”
This mission — and that seems the word, in every sense — requires the self to be attentive, even vulnerable, to the disorder of history, precisely in order to counter disorder by spotting and presenting, again and again, glimpses of some redemptive alternative to it. In the final stanza of the book’s last poem, “Occident-Orient Express,” Joseph speaks as and offers an image of this closing vision of himself:
Against my heart I listen to you
all the time, all the time.
Against my brain, more visible than dream,
the present’s elongations spread
blue behind the fragrant curves
pure abstractions blast through
a fragile mind in a flapping coat
descending the Memorial’s steps
toward incalculable rays of sun
set perpendicular into the earth. (177)
As we might expect by now, this poet is a self-divided figure. “Against my heart” and “against my brain” are phrases that imply both intimacy and resistance (as in, “against my better judgment”); in each case, however, the self is now in a constant relationship (“all the time, all the time”) a “you” that seems simultaneously the world around him, a God or muse within him, and a beloved who embodies a little of all of these. (The combination is familiar in Montale, and goes back to Dante.) This self attends both to “the present” and to “pure abstractions,” and in both cases it does so with sensuous delight, ascribing color and fragrance and shape to both. A “fragile mind in a flapping coat,” this closing figure — of the poet? Of another? — does not need to claim grandeur or strength for itself. Rather, it lets that very fragility hold it open, vulnerable not just to the wounds of social history, but also to beauty and radiance, to what Wallace Stevens called “[a] light, a power, the miraculous influence.”
As Before Our Eyes ends, this final self “descends” towards the earth, but the “rays of sun” that it moves towards also raise its sights up a “perpendicular” axis. A dozen years later, in 2005’s Into It, Joseph’s most recent book, that same self will grapple with the violence and aftermath of 9/11. It is the work of another essay to trace the results. For now, suffice it to say that the light that sets “perpendicular into the earth” at the end of Before Our Eyes points the poet’s path as the next book begins, with its opening poem leading him at once towards the pit of Ground Zero and into the world of poesis, “in it, into it, inside it, down in.” The range of poetics and resources that he brings with him on that descent is unique, I believe, in American poetry: mythic-modernist, identity-poetic, and social/sacramental, each building on and looking back to the others. And as the end of “Woodward Avenue” shows, his latest work recalls and deploys them all, moving from an echo of Motown, the poet’s hometown music, into the mix of critical self-consciousness and sacred vision that Joseph, as no other American poet, seems able to supply:
A dance that you get to,
“The Double-Clutch.” Listen. Sure is funky.
Everyone clapping their hands, popping
their fingers, everyone hip, has walks.
Effects are supplied, both rhythmic
and textual. Another take? Same key?
Sometimes you’ve just got to improvise a bit
before you’re in a groove. Listen.
That’s right. It’s an illumination.
That which occurs in authentic light.
Like the man said. So many selves —
the one who detects the sound of a voice,
that voice — the voice that compounds
his voice — that self obedient to that fate,
increased, enlarged, transparent, changing. (18)
1. David Kirby, “Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos: Poems 1973-1993 and Into It: The Double” (review of Codes and Into It, by Lawrence Joseph), New York Times, September 25, 2005.
3. Michael True, “The Limits of Language,” Commonweal, September 22, 2006, 31. In point of fact, True’s description is biographically inaccurate; neither Joseph’s grandfather nor his father ever worked in an auto plant, and none of his poems says they did.
12. In Charles Graeber, “Pulling the Words from the Ruins” (interview with Joseph), Downtown Express 18, no. 25 (November 4–10, 2005).
13. I take the phrase “refractory contraries” from William Arrowsmith in his translator’s preface to The Occasions xiii, by Eugenio Montale (1957; repr., New York: W. W. Norton, 1987). As Arrowsmith explains, Montale endeavored “to enclose the refractory contraries — public and private, external and internal, historical and individual, transcendental and immanent — within the confines of the poem”; the passage is quoted by Joseph in “Notions of Poetry and Narration.” Often Joseph will make a Montalean attempt at enclosing contraries in a single text. When he does not, this is often because the contraries in question are dispersed across the book as a whole.
14. Joseph, “What’s American About American Poetry?,” Poetry Society of America.
17. Reprinted in Joseph, Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos: Poems, 1973–1993 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), 3. Unless otherwise noted, citations to Joseph’s poetry are taken from this collection.
20. Graeber, “Pulling the Words from the Ruins.”
25. Graeber, “Pulling the Words from the Ruins.”
28. Lisa Suhair Majaj, “Arab Americans and the Meanings of Race,” in Postcolonial Theory and the United States: Race, Ethnicity, and Literature, ed. Amritjit Singh and Peter Schmidt (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2000), 320, 330.
29. Wallace Stevens, “Gaiety in poetry is a precious characteristic …,” in Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose, ed. Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson (New York: Library of America, 1997), 920.
35. In “The Language of Redemption: The Catholic Poets Adam Zagajewski, Marie Ponsot, and Lawrence Joseph” (Commonweal, May 12, 2003, 12), Andrew Krivak briefly discusses Before Our Eyes as marked by a “prophetic” voice. The ideas he cites from Paul Mariani about “sacramental language,” which he does not apply to Joseph’s work, have also been useful to me here.
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.