Shifting stories, codes of violence
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.