Ground zero Baudelaire
'Into It' and the poetics of shock
The word “apocalypse” comes from the Greek word for “to uncover,” and one of the most apocalyptic passages in Lawrence Joseph’s Into It (2005) is the first section of “Why Not Say What Happens?” It reads as follows:
Of icons. Of divination. Of Gods. Repetitions
without end. I have it in my notes,
a translation from the Latin, a commentary
on the Book of Revelation — “the greater
the concentration of power on earth,
the more truth is stripped of its power,
the holiest innocent, in eternity,
is ‘as though slain …’”
It has nothing to do with the apocalyptic.
The seven-headed beast from the sea,
the two-horned beast from the earth, have always —
I know, I’ve studied it — been with us.
Me? I’m only an accessory to particular images.
Despite the poet’s assertion that “It has nothing to do with the apocalyptic,” something is definitely being uncovered here. If “it” refers, as I believe it does, not only the events of 9/11 (toward which the poem, and much of the rest of the book, inescapably gravitates), but to the catastrophic “concentration of power on earth” and the resultant stripping of the power of truth which constitutes recent history, then the utterly profane nature of the world itself becomes a revelation. Icons, divination, gods — the traditional religious concepts through which we figure earthly disaster — may repeat themselves without end, but the fact of the matter is that human corruption is, and always has been, the one subject truly under discussion. And the poet? “Careful!” (as he says of capital later in the poem): the poet claims to be “only an accessory to particular images,” the images which, presumably, are presented to us — imposed upon us — throughout these poems, in all their elliptical violence. Accessory? Was John of Patmos only an accessory when the angel called upon him to eat the little book? The poet, Joseph implies, is no prophet, nor does he have to be, since the beasts which symbolize evil in Revelation are all too human, and have always been with us. At best, the poet is a commentator, or a student of the commentaries. Be that as it may, like John, he still testifies.
Following Joseph’s lead in his essay “Theories of Poetry, Theories of Law,” critics of his work have given a great deal of consideration to his status as attorney and law professor, particularly in regard to his use of terms like “accessory.” John Lowney observes that
To be an “accessory before the fact” or “an accessory after the fact” in legal terms implies complicity but not presence in the commitment of an offense. For a poet to claim that he is an “accessory to particular images” suggests a somewhat different subject position, a position that is subordinate or supplementary to the images, a position that decenters the poet but does not remove his agency.
Agency is always a concern in discussing contemporary poetry, since so many poets seek to displace or undermine the agency that is traditionally associated with the voice of the lyric subject. Joseph’s position in regard to this matter is particularly nuanced. As he explains in an , “For me, a poem’s telling is in the voice or voices of compressed, condensed thought, feeling, observations, perceptions — compression that is achieved by employing various sorts of refracted language, including prosody — what Stein and Williams called ‘grammar.’” Joseph’s “refracted” or dissociative procedures, which he refines in Before Our Eyes (1993) and employs with such startling power in Into It, indeed decenter the poet, but I would argue that, through an ironic turn, they actually strengthen his agency. Behind the abrupt voices, the interrupted reportage, the ominous, fragmented recitations of public and private disasters, the poet forcefully makes his presence known. Again, from the interview with Bernstein: “The self who is speaking in the poem is a self who exists with an identity or identities — or, more accurately, as a self who is identified in certain ways. The self or selves who speak in the poem are constructed through various vocal languages that reflect thoughts, perceptions, feelings, often in terms of identity.” Outraged, indignant, but still given to bursts of compassion and startled love, the poet regards himself, as he declares at the end of “Woodward Avenue,” as “So many selves — / the one who detects the sound of a voice, / that voice — the voice that compounds / his voice — that self obedient to that fate, / increased, enlarged, transparent, changing” (Into It, 18).
So the poet’s fate is to be possessed of a voice that compounds his voice, enlarges him, changes him even as, to use the title of another poem in Into It, “The Game Changed.” “Give me the voice / To tell the shifting story,” runs the volume’s epigraph from The Metamorphoses. Through the changes in the “game” and in himself, Joseph seeks to fulfill his “intent to make a large, serious / portrait of my time” (64) — and this despite his frustrated observation in “Inclined to Speak” that “The immense enlargement / of our perspectives is confronted / by a reduction in our powers of action” (12). Yet this corrosive self-consciousness does not in any way detract from the book’s pervasive urgency. If anything, the self-consciousness of the compounded voice adds to the sense that we are reading a document that, despite and because of its uncanny artfulness, is propelling us into history. And by history, I do not mean the accounts or even analyses of given events as produced by normative historiography. Rather, I mean events pushed to the point of crisis interacting with the vagaries of human subjectivity. Or as Joseph puts it in “History for Another Time,” “Pressure is what / it’s about, and pressure’s incalculable — / which eludes the historian” (59). Thus it becomes the poet’s task (but then, it has always been the poet’s task) to acknowledge that pressure, to find the means by which it may play itself out in the poem, and to accommodate that pressure in himself as well as in those around him, as he tries in turn to give us a large, serious portrait of the time.
In an attempt to situate Joseph’s poetry in relation to the shifts in style and reader expectations in the past two to three decades, Lisa M. Steinman notes that Before Our Eyes “neither gives up on subjectivity (in the sense of representing interiority) nor abandons the suggestion that however difficult to represent or malleable they might be, there are both social and physical worlds with which subjects interact and by which they are formed even as they reform what is seen in language.” Steinman observes that the arc of Joseph’s career parallels the move from what Charles Altieri calls the “scenic style,” with its quasi-autobiographical, centered voice, often given to the task of witness, to the more disruptive, linguistically and epistemologically oriented poetry that has by now made its way into the mainstream — though even in the eighties, when Joseph’s first two books came out, these two modes were already in conflict. I agree that there is a shift in Joseph’s style between his first two books and his second two, and that in the latter, a greater linguistic self-consciousness and a more jagged, dissociative technique predominates.
But I would also note that, important as these changes may be, Joseph’s poetic goals have in some respects remained the same: he wants to tell the story of the “pressure” placed upon us by history, of how we have placed that pressure upon ourselves. “For me,” he observes in the interview with Bernstein, “an — if not the — formal issue in making a poem is how, compositionally, to express, to explain, both interiorized and exteriorized realities.” These are indeed matters of what Steinman calls the “social and physical worlds,” matters of linguistic representation, and of interiority — all of which, given modern and postmodern conditions, are under assault, all of which are registering shock. One could say that ever since he was “pulled from a womb / into a city,” Joseph has sought increasingly more effective ways of “mixing / emotional perceptions and digressions, // choler, melancholy, a sanguine view” (Codes, 160). And even as the need “to see everything simultaneously” has grown more urgent, the righteous anger of the prophet who takes umbrage at his calling (and what prophet does not?) remains the engine of the poem. The suffering of the immigrant Joseph family, the wreckage of Detroit, the criminality in the streets and skyscrapers of New York City, and finally, the destruction of the World Trade Center and its global aftermath — Joseph’s poetry is the existential seismograph of personal history and of history writ large. Or as he understates the matter in “When One Is Feeling One’s Way,” “Two things, the two things that are interesting / are history and grammar” (Into It, 6).
In his magisterial essay “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” Walter Benjamin argues that the menacing spectacle of the urban crowd, described by mid-nineteenth-century writers as diverse as Poe and Engels, “became decisive for Baudelaire. If he succumbed to the force by which he was drawn to them and, as a flaneur, was made one of them, he was nevertheless unable to rid himself of a sense of their essentially inhuman makeup. He becomes their accomplice even as he dissociates himself from them. He becomes deeply involved with them, only to relegate them to oblivion with a single glance of contempt.” Benjamin goes on to analyze the shock effect of the crowd for Baudelaire, and how, for the individual, “nervous impulses flow through him in rapid succession, like the energy from a battery. Baudelaire speaks of a man who plunges into a crowd as into a reservoir of electric energy. Circumscribing the experience of the shock, he calls this man “a kaleidoscope equipped with consciousness.”
Taken all together, I can think of no better description of Joseph’s stance in Into It. Attraction and repulsion, sympathy and contempt, identification and alienation — these are the antitheses which determine the key in which Joseph’s book is written. Joseph’s response to the crowd, which is to say the people of Manhattan, changes moment to moment, line by line. Like Baudelaire’s man registering the experience of urban shock, Joseph is a kaleidoscope equipped with consciousness, but a kaleidoscope equipped with language as well. This instrument is repeatedly brought to bear on individuals in the crowd; the poet attempts to keep his distance, struggles with his contempt, but, as Benjamin understands, inevitably becomes an accomplice. George Oppen, writing about New York City in Of Being Numerous, likewise faces these “ghosts that endanger // One’s soul” and pointedly declares that “one may honorably keep // His distance / If he can.” Living and writing through and after 9/11, Joseph’s work has a verbal speed and intensity that contrasts dramatically with the meditative deliberation of Oppen’s masterpiece. But both poets understand the problem of honorably keeping one’s distance, and their poetry records their struggles.
Into It, then, may be understood as the intricate verbalization of a kaleidoscopic vision of historical catastrophe, even as the poet constantly questions his role. A poem such as “What Do You Mean, What?” (a quintessential New York expression, which reminds me of the title of Hugh Seidman’s “People Live, They Have Lives”) caroms from one instance to the next of what Joseph calls “this individual and collectivized looting / of the most astonishing complexity, / each point of an imagined circuit / attached to each of the others” (Into It, 20). Movement along this “imagined circuit” follows immediately thereafter:
In the King James Hotel in a bath towel,
solicitous with the interviewer
who crosses her long, tanned legs, smiling at him
when he says you need a billion
just to get into the game; on my way downtown
(no, he answers, he doesn’t own his own taxi),
his name is Thomas Saint Thomas, a green card
is what he owns, a working man from Haiti —
he’ll play for me (I, perhaps, have not yet heard)
a tape cassette of a speech
concerning the imminent coming of Jesus Christ
Word Incarnate, Second Person of the Triune God,
who’ll whip the moneylenders out of the temple. (20)
Note how the narration in this stanza (Joseph is fascinated with the possibilities of narration in lyric poetry) literally turns on the semicolon and resultant caesura in the fifth line. It both divides and links the two vignettes (in the hotel and in the taxi) and the four figures (the man in the towel, the interviewer, the cabbie and “I”). The news of Christ’s imminent return as announced on the cassette sends us back to the billionaire giving the interview, who undoubtedly deserves whipping. The poet, the first-person speaker in the taxi, is situated simultaneously inside and outside of the action. Benjamin’s term is “accomplice”; Joseph’s term, as we noted earlier, is “accessory.” In the “shifting story” that is the poem, the poet insists on his distance from the corruption he perceives around him, but his sympathy draws him continually into the crowd and the physical spaces — particularly those of lower Manhattan — that they occupy. There is something honorable about Thomas Saint Thomas, this “working man from Haiti,” whether we can accept his religious fervor or not. There is something unbearably poignant about the poet’s observation of a “lavender (green for youth, blue for love) sky — / a shadow, distinct, beautiful pink detail, / of all places on the pier with wooden benches / near Canal Street” (20–21). And there is something terribly scary and sad about the poor soul with whom we are presented as the poem ends:
The rain was like ice. The umbrella placed
over the phone booth. “I’m all right.”
“What do you mean, what?” “Why don’t you leave it
at that?” “Are you sure?” “Don’t think that way.”
“Yes, forever.” And so on, the script proceeded. (21)
In “Notions of Poetry and Narration,” Joseph quotes William Carlos Williams from A Novelette: “Conversation as design … actual to the extent that it would be pure design.… Purely what? Conversation of which there is none in novels and the news.” The scraps of the phone conversation that make up the last stanza of the poem are indeed a design, presented briefly and imagistically, unlike such presentation in a novel or the news. The vignette is more, perhaps, like a very brief scene in a movie, and as Benjamin demonstrates, film is the preeminent modern art because it embodies the experience of shock: “The spectator’s process of association in view of these images is indeed interrupted by their constant, sudden change. This constitutes the shock effect of the film, which like all shocks, should be cushioned by heightened presence of mind.” There is, then, something shocking about the way Joseph suddenly thrusts this man in the midst of an obviously stressful conversation into our field of perception. Nor does he offer any sense of closure or resolution. “And so on, the script proceeded” — because the catastrophe is continuous. Once again, Benjamin: “The concept of progress must be grounded in the idea of catastrophe. That things are ‘status quo’ is the catastrophe.”
Joseph’s poetry is suffused with this awareness, resulting in a deep historical pessimism, and an equally deep sense of poetic responsibility. Although there can be no doubt that (as we have observed apropos of Joseph’s title), “The Game Changed” after 9/11, in another respect, 9/11 was only a continuation, or an intensification, of “the game.” The poetic result, paradoxically, is “A continuity in which everything is transition” (Into It, 65).
The fundamental instability of history, of the flow of events and their violent impediments, matched by the perceived instability of the poetic speaker positioned both inside and outside of that flow, produces a unique tone in Into It. It is a tone that conveys — again, paradoxically — a sense of both inevitability and contingency, or what Joseph identifies near the end of “Metamorphoses (After Ovid)” as “A poetry of autonomies, / bound by a transcendent necessity” (52). Writing such a poetry presents tremendous epistemological and formal challenges. Dissociation, condensation, heteroglossia, rapid shifts across diverse discursive registers: these modernist and postmodernist procedures are a given, but in Into It, they are subordinated to something more, something toward which the poet can only gesture. “Metamorphoses” concludes with these lines:
of anamnesis, what is in us is remembered,
that which we are destined, in thoughts and in images,
to give expression to. Concentration
aural and visual. A table covered with pages of notes
I compose as I feel. Through my beginning
through to my end, my moira, my allotted part.
When this time comes to an end, what I don’t write
will not exist. I did my work, lived
as if the day, my own day, had come. I was, I am,
who I will be. I will not be eternally condemned. (52)
Here, the poet insists on his integrity, guaranteed, as it were, by that “transcendent necessity,” which is in turn related to the Platonic anamnesis, the remembering of something otherwise lost, and its expression aurally and visually “in thoughts and in images.” The poet in his time, of his time, rightly insists that “When this time comes to an end, what I don’t write / will not exist.” In the face of an endless forgetting — a forgetting, I would venture to say, exacerbated by the contemporary media, through which all is recorded, archived and lost — he willingly accepts the role of recorder as his “moira,” his fate. The sense of historical, perhaps even divine judgment grows palpable, in the face of which the poet declares, “I did my work.”
The concept of judgment, of course, leads us back to Joseph’s complex self-awareness as a lawyer-poet, his sense of himself as an instrument and a critic of the law, which also returns us to his status as both insider and outsider. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the opening lines of “The Game Changed”:
The phantasmic imperium is set in a chronic
state of hypnotic fixity. I have absolutely
no idea what the fuck you’re talking about
was his reply, and he wasn’t laughing,
either, one of the most repellent human beings
I’ve ever known, his presence a gross and slippery
lie, a piece of chemically pure evil. A lawyer —
although the type’s not exclusive to lawyers.
A lot of different minds touch, and have touched,
the blood money in the dummy account
in an offshore bank, washed clean, free to be
transferred into a hedge fund or a foreign
brokerage account, at least half a trillion
ending up in the United States, with more to come.
I believe I told you I’m a lawyer. Which has had
little or no effect on a certain respect
I have for occurrences that suggest laws
of necessity. I too am thinking of it
as a journey — the journey with conversations
otherwise known as the Divina Commedia
is how Osip Mandelstam characterized Dante’s poem. (63)
This passage merits an essay unto itself, and here I can only point to a few of its most important features. Again we see Joseph’s reliance on Williams’ “conversation as design.” If we assume that on a literal level, the conversation in question is about the “blood money,” then we are dealing almost immediately with a breakdown in communication, a failure of conversation which ironically becomes the design. The poet, the first-person speaker, offers an abstract critique of the situation and its causes: “The phantasmic imperium is set in a chronic / state of hypnotic fixity,” to which his interlocutor responds with “I have absolutely / no idea what the fuck you’re talking about.” This response makes perfect sense: although both are lawyers, the two individuals are speaking different languages — representing very different worldviews which include two different ways of understanding the law. For the man whom the poet calls “a piece of chemically pure evil,” being a lawyer is a matter of power and expediency, and the law is to be manipulated to further for one’s self-interest. For the poet, being a lawyer grants him highly refined insights into such manipulations. But he also acknowledges something higher: the “laws / of necessity” (that is, the “transcendent necessity” we observed previously), about which poets have traditionally had the deepest understanding.
This accounts in part for the poet’s role not merely of lawyer but of judge, and he judges the other lawyer to be “one of the most repellent human beings / I’ve ever known.” Indeed, the design of conversation is a design of judgment, a necessary judgment. Hence the invocation of the Commedia, and Mandelstam’s observation that the poem is a “journey with conversations.” The description applies to Joseph’s writing as well, both in his poetry and, of course, in his prose work Lawyerland. Dante the Pilgrim is on a journey which consists largely of conversations in hell, purgatory and heaven. But in the Inferno particularly (and Joseph, for the most part, remains a poet of our secular Inferno), Dante is also a judge, and he (or Virgil) both articulate and sometimes question the laws of necessity that have led to the vision of divine judgment that lies before him. Joseph too is a severe poet of judgment, and if Into It is not quite our Inferno, as it is not quite our Fleurs du Mal, Joseph may rightfully claim to be part of that classical lineage.
My use of the term “classical lineage” is quite deliberate, and it is in the light of Joseph’s classicism that I will conclude. In his very brief (forthcoming) essay “A Note on ‘That’s All’” (“That’s All” is a poem which originally appeared in Curriculum Vitae), Joseph discusses his desire “to achieve a sense of control, balance and lucidity, a classical claritas,” as he juxtaposes New York City, Detroit, and the Shouf mountains of Lebanon from which his grandfathers originally emigrated. The “I” of the poem is intended to be a figure “who both reacted to and was a part of these worlds.” The poem, written in loose ten-syllable couplets designed to achieve the control and balance Joseph seeks, leads the poet to conclude that “Its formal lineage is classical.” It is a brave claim, but I would argue that it applies not only to “That’s All” but to much of Joseph’s poetry, including the poems of Into It. Nor is it only a matter of form, as this term is usually understood.
In “What Is a Classic?,” T. S. Eliot associates the classic with the notion of “maturity,” and argues that a “classic can only occur when a civilization is mature; when a language and literature are mature; and it must be the work of a mature mind. It is the importance of that civilization and of that language, as well as the comprehensiveness of the mind of the individual poet, which gives the universality.” As for “maturity of mind,” Eliot observes that “this needs history, and the consciousness of history. Consciousness of history cannot be fully awake, except where there is other history than the history of the poet’s own people: we need this in order to see our own place in history” (122). American civilization, American literature, and the American language may all be reaching a point of maturity — and there is no doubt that the events of 9/11 and their aftermath have made Americans more conscious of their history, and of the history of other nations. Before 9/11, Joseph was already refining a style that comprehended some of the most balanced, intelligent, and effective qualities of American and of international modernism. But 9/11 gave Joseph a subject that could match that style and brought it to a level of maturity and verbal intensity that to my mind constitutes the classic. That he had firsthand experience of the events — he lived, and still lives, in a thirty-third floor apartment on South End Avenue, a block from Ground Zero; his wife, the artist Nancy Van Goethem, was at home at the time of the attack — imbues the work with an unmatched testimonial authority.
“Once Again,” the last, magnificently Stevensian poem in Into It, unfolds its couplets in lower Manhattan, on the “The esplanade. High summer” (66), just a few blocks from Ground Zero. It reflects upon “Fate’s precisive wheel revolving,” generating, through the “dream technique” of the poem, the myth of “new types of half-monsters,” balanced against “a woman, a man, / love’s characters, the myth // their own” (67). Monsters and lovers: what Joseph names “the primary soul-substance” of the human story is revised continuously by history, which for all its reworkings, manages to remind us, through the voice of the poet, that in another respect nothing has changed at all. Previously, I referred to Joseph as a kaleidoscope imbued with consciousness: kaleidoscope, from kalon and eidos, beautiful shape, turning and turning, changing and never changing, in Fate’s revolving wheel.
Eliot, whose classical touchstones include Virgil, Dante, and Baudelaire, notes that Baudelaire was “a classicist, born out of his due time. In […] his sensibility, he is near to Dante.” Whether Joseph is also “a classicist, born out of his due time” is an open question — what does that mean, after all, for any artist who successfully tells the fate of his time? Be that as it may, it does seem to me that however acutely Joseph registers the violent shocks to America in this first decade of the century, his poetry has also maintained its equilibrium brilliantly, achieving a classic balance. And in this respect, on “Fate’s precisive wheel revolving,” he helps us regain our balance too.
1. Joseph, Into It (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2005), 24. Hereafter cited in text.
2. Joseph, Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos: Poems, 1973–1993 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), 3.
3. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1969), 172.
5. George Oppen, New Collected Poems, ed. Michael Davidson (New York: New Directions, 2002), 170–71.
7. Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 473.
8. T. S. Eliot, Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975), 116.
9. Quoted in Ronald Schuchard, Eliot’s Dark Angel: Intersections of Art and Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 141.
An introduction to Lawrence Joseph
Edited by Eric Selinger