'Why not say what happens?'
Modernism, traumatic memory, and Lawrence Joseph's 'Into It'
In his 1993 poem “Some Sort of Chronicler I Am,” Lawrence Joseph describes the narration of his poetry as both a subjective “mixing” of “emotional perceptions and digressions” and a more objective “transparent eye, the need, sometimes, // to see everything simultaneously / — strange need to confront everyone // with equal respect.” This “mixed” mode of narration accentuates the visual as well as the moral clarity that Joseph’s poetry seeks. It also recognizes the inherently intersubjective — and intertextual — nature of poetic composition, the “metathetical imagination / we’re all part of, no matter how personal // we think we are.”
Like so much of Joseph’s poetry, “Some Sort of Chronicler I Am” is memorable because of its precise visual imagery and, more specifically, because of its unflinching attention to the more painful and disturbing details of everyday urban life.
What distinguishes this poem from much of his earlier poetry, however, and what interests me in this essay, is its direct acknowledgment of poets whose earlier engagement with pain and loss informs his vision: William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and Yvan Goll. “Some Sort of Chronicler I Am” recalls poetic responses to the 1921 and 1930s economic depressions and to World War II, to situate its own “emotional perceptions and digressions” within an implicit dialogue about modernism and trauma.
Joseph’s poetry has been praised, especially within the study of law and literature, for its honesty, compassion, and intellectual acuity in representing contemporary life. His poetry is also notable for the critical lens through which he views the contemporary world, a critical lens that is as directed toward his own subjective vision — and his professional vision as a lawyer — as it is toward the external world. As David Skeel has noted, Joseph’s poetry has played such a crucial role in the development of the law and literature movement precisely because it challenges the distinctions between objectivity and subjectivity that have been so important for legal theory. While Joseph himself has stressed the modernist literary antecedents for interrogating these distinctions, and while his approach to the law within his poetry has been compared to that of modernist lawyer-poets such as Stevens and Charles Reznikoff, his poetry’s complex engagement with modernist poetics has not been fully appreciated.
In this essay I will suggest how the modernist intertexts of Joseph’s most recent volume, Into It, from Williams and Stevens to Paul Celan and Bertolt Brecht, inform his distinctive approach to the traumatic site of lower Manhattan on and soon after September 11, 2001. In weaving international modernist responses to collective trauma into the thick fabric of socioeconomic, political, legal, and aesthetic discourses that comprise Into It, Joseph underscores not only the contemporary international dimensions of 9/11 but also instructive precedents for responding to mass violence.
Into It recalls sites of conflict that recur in his earlier books, including Detroit, Beirut, and Baghdad, but its insistent focus on lower Manhattan is both personal in its recollection of 9/11 and political in its critique of the militaristic US response that followed the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks. The site of the fallen World Trade Center towers is a site of personal memory for Joseph, who lives with his wife, Nancy Van Goethem, in nearby Battery Park City. It is also a contested site of collective memory, despite its popular designation as “Ground Zero,” a name that itself recalls previous sites of devastation, most notably the ruined cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after they were leveled by US atom bombs in World War II. Of the multitude of poetic responses to 9/11, Into It stands out not only because of the precision of its “emotional perceptions,” but also because of its “digressions” to previous as well as contemporaneous sites of collective trauma. The perspective of Joseph’s poetry, particularly of Into It, is often that of the witness bearing testimony to the destructive events that have shaped twentieth-century and twenty-first-century consciousness, not only in the US and Europe, but also in the Middle East. His poetry represents, as Shoshana Felman has written about Albert Camus’s writing, “a performative engagement between consciousness and history, a struggling act of readjustment between the integrative scope of words and unintegrated impact of events.”
In the following pages I will suggest how contemporary trauma theory can enhance our understanding of Joseph’s poetry. Following a brief discussion of the interdisciplinary field of trauma studies, I will consider how the digressive narrative structure of Into It represents an intensive engagement not only with recent history, but also with previous experiences of trauma. I will concentrate initially on the opening pages of Into It, which also exemplify the dramatic significance of intertextual allusions to modern poetry throughout the book. I will then examine more specifically how Into It accentuates the problem of witnessing, of bearing testimony, a problem that links trauma studies to law and literature.
Trauma studies in the United States developed from the study of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after the Vietnam War. While psychiatric studies of PTSD initially concentrated on Vietnam War veterans’ experience of symptoms that have traditionally been characterized as shell shock or combat stress, the diagnosis of trauma has grown to include responses to such experience as incarceration (especially in concentration camps), terrorism, natural catastrophes, accidents, and sexual assault. Drawing from Freud’s writings about trauma after World War I, historians and scholars from the fields of history, literary studies, and cultural studies have, since the 1990s, expanded the study of trauma to emphasize its importance for understanding the interaction of trauma, psychoanalysis, and history in the twentieth century. As one of the most influential scholars of trauma studies, Cathy Caruth, has written: “If PTSD must be understood as a pathological symptom, then it is not so much a symptom of the unconscious, as it is a symptom of history.” The study of collective as well as individual trauma has had an important impact especially on Holocaust studies, but it has also had an impact on the study of more recent experiences of mass violence, including 9/11, as the 2003 collection of essays edited by Judith Greenberg, Trauma at Home: After 9/11, so powerfully exemplifies. The impact of trauma theory on legal studies has not yet been as significant as its impact on literary and cultural studies, even though the law has become increasingly important for addressing trauma in recent decades. And if the impact of trauma theory on the study of law and literature is also still emerging, trauma theory has certainly been important for addressing the problem of testimony in literature: the problem of negotiating the subjective and the objective bases of witnessing, which is, of course, enormously important to legal studies as well.
Poetry is an especially important medium for coming to terms with trauma, given its distinctive concern with memory. As Walter Kalaidjian writes in his compelling study of modern poetry and trauma, The Edge of Modernism: American Poetry and the Traumatic Past, the formal qualities of poetry furthermore “forge a salutary medium for staging traumatic histories in ways that resist the banal spectacle of the image world otherwise governing contemporary consumer society.” Trauma is generally understood psychologically as a belated response to shocking violence or violation, a response that manifests itself as “a dissociation of affect and representation,” as Dominick LaCapra has written in Writing History, Writing Trauma: “one disorientingly feels what one cannot represent.” Writing as a witness of the traumatic experience of 9/11 in lower Manhattan, Joseph enacts in his poetry what LaCapra has defined as “empathic unsettlement — as discursive symptom of, and perhaps necessary affective response to, the impact of trauma.” His poetry, that is, enacts the “unsettlement” of traumatic experience through its disruptive narration and other formal devices of defamiliarization. And it does so empathically in its insistence on listening to — as well as seeing — individual responses to traumatic experience, not only in New York, but in contemporary locations such as Lebabon and Iraq, and in previous locations such as the modernist poetic scenes of trauma that recur throughout the book. The digressive intertextual structure of Into It, which is immediately evident in its opening pages and in its longer sequential poems, ultimately accentuates not so much the isolation of the survivor as the potential for understanding the experience of trauma cross-culturally and historically.
As a resident of Battery Park City in lower Manhattan, Joseph not only witnessed the destructive impact of the 9/11 terrorist attacks firsthand; he also breathed the acrid air and walked the ashen streets afterwards. His individual experience on 9/11 was not unlike that of many other New Yorkers. After leaving for work that morning, he was unable to contact his wife and had no idea whether she was safe or even still alive. He then returned to a smoldering cityscape that was already in ruins. Given the intensity of this personal experience, his recollections of 9/11 are remarkably understated. In a 2005 interview with Charles Graeber, for example, he is asked, “How difficult is it to poeticize something that has become the greatest single topic of our young century?” Joseph’s response to this question suggests his reluctance to see 9/11 as a singular moment of history or of his own history as a poet: “‘9/11’ is a part of several of the poems in Into It — how could it not be, considering the kind of poems I have always written? The fact of the significance of the event only increased the challenge of bringing it into poetry as much as I could.” As significant as 9/11 is historically, and as significant as it has been to Joseph’s life, it cannot be perceived separately from the history that informs his previous books: “The poems in Into It continue on with the codes, precepts, biases, and taboos of the earlier books, deepening them as history forces us to.” The historical depth of Into It, which situates the violence and destruction of 9/11 within a comparative framework of traumatic experiences of mass violence, ensures that “9/11” is not perceived as a singular “event,” but as a plurality of experiences that has been perceived quite differently by its survivors and has since been transformed through its mass mediation. As such, the poems of Into It are informed by a moral — and political — vision that contests the retributive violence that became the official US response to 9/11: “The poems have a definite moral slant, or bias,” Joseph has said, “which, in some poems, takes the expression of a voice that speaks against power structures that are violent and create violence.”
The “moral slant” of Into It is not immediately apparent. Its opening pages seem far removed from the politically charged scenes that the book subsequently takes up. The epigraphs and initial poem of the book demonstrate, however, the subtlety of Joseph’s indirect and intertextual approach to 9/11. Into It begins with two epigraphs. The first, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, follows the book’s dedication (“To You, My Muse”): “… give me the voice / To tell the shifting story.” This anticipation of the book’s “shifting” narration is followed by a more enigmatic prose epigraph from Wallace Stevens, who quotes a sentence from Henry James:
Moreover, in the world of actuality … one is always living a little out of it. There is a precious sentence in Henry James, for example, for whom everyday life was not much more than the business of living, but, all the same, he separated himself from it. The sentence is … “To live in the world of creation — to get into it and stay in it — to frequent it and haunt it — to think intensely and fruitfully — to woo combinations and inspirations into being by a depth and continuity of attention and meditation — this is the only thing.” (1)
This quotation seems like an unlikely point of departure for a collection of poems that is as preoccupied with deadly violence as Into It is. It is difficult to imagine two American writers whose reputations are more identified with aestheticism — and with detachment if not withdrawal from the most violent social tensions of their times — than Stevens and James. Such characterizations of Stevens, or of James, are, of course, not entirely accurate, and Joseph’s epigraph is hardly ironic in quoting Stevens, as the language of this epigraph recurs quite insistently in the opening poem of the book, “In It, Into It, Inside It, Down In.” The language of Stevens’s commentary on James itself reveals a self-consciousness about Stevens’s identification with James: Stevens describes the sentence he quotes as “precious” and implicitly distances himself from James’s everyday life by characterizing it as “not much more than the business of living.” In quoting Stevens quoting James, Joseph is likewise endorsing neither James’s “business of living” nor Stevens’s business as a surety-claims lawyer and, eventually, as vice-president with the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. Like Stevens, he is extracting a compelling statement that takes on new significance in the time and place of Into It. Yet, there is also more to this statement than the fortuitous discovery of an aesthetic credo that can be transported to — and tested in — the ominous terrain of “Ground Zero.” It is not insignificant that this epigraph is from a letter Stevens wrote toward the conclusion of World War II, in the midst of intensive US firebombings of Japanese cities and only weeks before the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This June 1945 letter was written as advice to a younger writer who would become a trusted literary friend and frequent correspondent: the Cuban writer José Rodriguez Feo, who had cofounded the important literary and arts journal Orígenes in 1944 and was a translator of Stevens’s poetry. Stevens’s quotation of James in the letter is, significantly, preceded by a statement that refutes the aestheticism so frequently attributed to his own poetry: “Reality is the great fond, and it is because it is that the purely literary amounts to so little.” And for the writer who had recently published Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction, “the reality” that Stevens acknowledged was a world in which the exercise of American power, whether in Cuba or Japan, was becoming increasingly suspect.
Stevens is an important figure throughout Into It as a philosophical poet whose inquiry into questions of subjectivity and objectivity informs Joseph’s poetic practice, but also as a poet who defined the social value of poetry in times of social crisis. Stevens defended the aesthetic autonomy of poetry throughout his life, but when he was challenged by leftist critics in the 1930s, he articulated a position that refused the opposition of the aesthetic to the political. He wrote in “The Irrational Element in Poetry” (1936), for example, that the Depression had increased the “pressure of the contemporaneous” experienced by modern poets since World War I:
We are preoccupied with events, even when we do not observe them closely. We have a sense of upheaval. We feel threatened. We look from an uncertain present future toward a more uncertain future. One feels the desire to collect oneself against all this in poetry as well as in politics. If politics is nearer to each of us because of the pressure of the contemporaneous, poetry, in its way, is no less so and for the same reason.
According to Stevens, poetry enacts a “resistance” that is not an “escape” from the “contemporaneous”; it is instead a means for comprehending its irrationality: “In poetry … the subject is not the contemporaneous, because that is only the nominal subject, but the poetry of the contemporaneous. Resistance to the pressure of ominous and destructive circumstances consists of its conversion, so far as possible, into a different, an explicable, an amenable circumstance.” While Joseph is more directly engaged with the “pressure of the contemporaneous” in his poetry, the subject of his poetry is also “the poetry of the contemporaneous.” He likewise enacts “conversions” of “ominous and destructive circumstances” into more “explicable” if not “amenable” frameworks for understanding the “contemporaneous.” And he does so partly through intertextual allusions to poetry, like Stevens’s, likewise engaged with the most extreme forms of “pressure.”
The opening poem of Into It, “In It, Into It, Inside It, Down In,” exemplifies how literary allusion functions in Joseph’s poetry as a mode of inquiry that looks to previous poetry for possible answers to recurring questions and recurring circumstances. It is also a mode of inquiry that considers previous historical experiences of collective trauma to illuminate contemporary experience, to counteract the more isolating effect of ahistorical perceptions of trauma. The allusions to modern poetry in Into It do not, however, exclude the critical dimension of intertextuality, whether explicit or implicit, as “In It, Into It, Inside It, Down In” exemplifies. The allusion to the Stevens epigraph — and the James quote — in the opening poem’s title, for example, suggests a dissonance as well as a correspondence between Stevens’s language and its reverberation on the site of “Ground Zero.” The poem begins with a series of questions, questions that are addressed to the title and the epigraph as well as to the narrative journey that begins so tentatively: “How far to go? — I have to, I know, / I promised. But how? How, and when? // And where?” (3). These are basic preliminary questions for any narrative, but the fact that they are asked suggests the difficulty, if not the dread, of getting “into” the scene of such recent pain and loss. Such indirection, or such metafictional reflection on narration, is characteristic of Stevens’s poetry, especially his later philosophical poetry, but the directness of Joseph’s questions is starker than what one might expect from a Stevens poem, and oriented more specifically to the journey that follows. “It” is initially unspecified, in the title and in the narrative itself (“So it happened”), which intensifies the tension about what “happened” and why it appears to be unspeakable. If “it” echoes the epigraph and refers reflexively to the poem’s own narrative process, “it” also anticipates the remembered site of traumatic violence, which compels such indirection, if not repression of its most damaging impact.
“In It, Into It, Inside It, Down In” is more self-consciously — and reflexively — digressive in its narration than a poem such as “Some Sort of Chronicler I Am.” And its allusions to modern poetry are also more challenging, because they are often less explicit and more disjunctive than the commentary on Williams, Stevens, and Goll in “Some Sort of Chronicler I Am.” For example, the allusions to Williams’s In the American Grain and Voyage to Pagany appear to be diversions, as much a part of the poem’s digressive enactment of uncertainty, of questioning where to begin and how to proceed, indeed of questioning the very ground beneath the poet’s (and the poem’s) feet, as they are meaningful grounds for answering these questions. An allusion to Williams (“A wild rose / and grapes on vines along the road …”) follows the statement “It was she who opened the conversation,” interrupting her urgent question of why “in this time of so many claims to morality, / the weight of violence // is unparalleled in the history / of the species” (3–4). The lush descriptive language of Williams’s tropical landscape seems far removed from this narrative moment, and the juxtaposition of this language with the woman’s query produces a jarring contrast between aesthetic and moral and political discourses. The quotation that follows the woman’s question likewise diverts the public “weight” of her appeal to a more private domain:
… What needs to be said —
why not say it? “Who dares to learn
what concerns him intimately,”
is how he says it in his book. (4)
While the return to “it” reminds us of the poem’s initial accentuation of its deictic uncertainty, the quote suggests another frame of reference, an “intimately” subjective frame that coincides with the public scene of “Liberty / and Church streets” (3). The disjunctive juxtaposition of Williams’s language with the woman’s question, however, suggests a more profound sense of separation from this scene than a meaningful sense of connection.
What is the significance of these Williams allusions, then, for a poem that is so focused on the public manifestations of 9/11 in lower Manhattan? Do they function, as the James quotation seems to function in Stevens’s letter, as evidence of language that can provide — when extracted from its original source — unexpected insight for new situations? Or is the disjunctively interruptive dramatic role of these allusions more important, especially given the male-female dynamic of this “conversation”? One answer is that the poem is enacting the cubist practice of Williams’s collage poems, especially those sequences that intersperse “poetic” and “critical” discourses, such as Spring and All and The Descent of Winter. Williams is an important predecessor for Joseph, as he is for so many poets, not only for his experimental approach to syntax and lineation, but also because of the risks he took in incorporating discourses that were generally considered nonpoetic into his poetry. Williams also posited an ambitious historical dimension to his experimentation with poetic form, as a statement from The Descent of Winter that Joseph appropriates as his purpose in “The Game Changed” indicates: “The intent is to make a large, serious / portrait of my time” (64).
A more specific — and more complicated — answer can be found in Williams’s diagnosis of the pathology of American history, which he attributes to the Puritan impact on national consciousness in his 1925 book In the American Grain: the split between Old World consciousness and New World geography, between language and material reality, between mind and body, between male and female. “We have no conception of what is meant by moral,” Williams writes, “since we recognize no ground our own — and that this rudeness rests all upon the unstudied character of our beginnings; and that if we will not pay heed to our own affairs, we are nothing but an unconscious porkyard and oilhole for those, more able, who will fasten themselves upon us.” Writing in the aftermath of World War I, in response to the socially conservative, xenophobic US nationalism of the early 1920s, Williams could very well be addressing the “immorality” of translating “Ground Zero” into a premise for the US military invasion of Iraq.
In moving from “the spaces left behind, crossing / over to a different place” (4), Joseph’s “In It, Into It, Inside It, Down In” arrives at a tentative reconciliation of its broken elements. The “spaces left behind” suggest the gaps in the poem’s narrative development, the gaps in understanding that exist between juxtaposed fragments. These spaces also suggest what’s missing from the post-9/11 cityscape, including the lives that are missing. These spaces cannot be “left behind,” cannot be forgotten, even after “crossing / over” to the “different place” where the “Attorney General, a beeper in one hand, / a crucifix in the other,” holds forth. Immediately following this moment, however, the image of “a child, / lost, crying” prompts a shift in the narrative voice to the first-person plural:
On the esplanade, Battery Park, a newspaper,
old, caught in a gust, a child,
lost, crying — the pain was ours, I know it now;
beauty, the answer, if you must know —
the sun ablaze on the harbor. (4)
This evocative scene is only obliquely related to the public spectacle of the Attorney General and the “well-dressed crowd” that precedes it. It is uncertain whether these lines represent a present observation or a remembered moment, although the “newspaper, old” signifies a heightened awareness of temporality. It is also uncertain exactly what triggers this recognition of shared pain: these lines suggest at once a representative figure of loss and a more private grief shared by the two “characters” in the poem. This scene also suggests the unexpected — and belated — manifestation of trauma within the dramatic structure of the poem as well as within the temporality that the poem narrates. In representing this experience as shared rather than solitary, and in identifying the trigger of this experience as the universally recognizable figure of the lost child, the poem furthermore suggests the potential for understanding what is shared in otherwise disparate experiences of trauma. The “it” that the speaker now knows is not indeterminate or unspeakable, nor does “it” signify a singular event: it instead accentuates the unsettling impact of trauma, which resists definitive answers as it suggests multiple interpretive possibilities for its readers to empathically consider. The fact that the speaker also responds (belatedly) to the questions asked earlier in the poem — questions that he had interrupted — at this very moment also underscores the ethical dimension of trauma, the importance of dialogue, of listening as well as speaking.
With its narrative “mixing” of “emotional perceptions and digressions,” Joseph’s “In It, Into It, Inside It, Down In” introduces the dialogic narrative structure of Into It, which manifests itself within the interplay of voices within individual poems as well as within the volume as a whole. While the first poem of the book introduces a complex interaction of voices and discourses, subtly but insistently educating its readers to consider the significance of its narrative “spaces” as well as the more recognizable “places,” the longer poems of the book, and the book as a whole, present a more challenging mix of discourses. Coinciding with these shifting discourses is frequent and often (instructively) disorienting movement among multiple geographical and historical sites. While the book’s primary site is Manhattan, and specifically lower Manhattan, its international scope reminds us how presumptive and destructive it is to consider New York or the United States the center of the world. For example, the second poem of the book, “When One Is Feeling One’s Way,” moves rapidly from the vernacular voice that introduces “a monk, say, of Hue,” protesting “the killing of innocents”; to a more didactic consideration of “history and grammar,” which quotes Williams again (this time on economics); to ancient Rome (“the time of the Gracchi”) to declaim “the arrogation by private interests / of the common wealth”; to a meditation on aesthetics and ethics, on vision and composition, on the banks of the Hudson River (6). This poem, like the longer poems of Into It, exemplifies how legal discourses, as well as economic and political discourses, are integrated into the book’s narrative structure.
While the poems of Into It represent a range of forms and modes, one unifying dimension of the book is its preoccupation with witnessing, with bearing testimony. While the poems frequently interrogate their own grounds for witnessing, Into It insists on the necessity of bearing testimony, especially in times of social crisis. Coming to grips with the most brutal manifestations of genocide, Joseph explicitly defends the poet’s role as witness in “Inclined to Speak”:
And, yes, it brings to mind I am constantly aware of,
in making the poem, Brecht’s point, to write about trees —
implicitly, too, to write about pleasure —
in times of killing like these is a crime;
and Paul Celan’s response, that for Brecht a leaf
is a leaf without a tree, that what kinds of times
are these when a conversation — Celan believed a poem
is a conversation — what kinds of times are these
when a poem is a crime because it includes
what must be made explicit. (12)
In affirming the position of Celan, Joseph not only defines his own commitment to articulating “What is seen, heard, and imagined / at the same time — that truth” (12); he also suggests an affinity between his own poetry and Celan’s, which, with its fractured syntax and linguistic opacity, bears witness to the traumatic experience of the Holocaust. As Joseph writes in the poem prior to “Inclined to Speak,” “I Note in a Notebook,” the “truth” that poetry can express is that much more important for a world in which “the technology to abolish truth is now available” (10). And the form for conveying that “truth” is more likely to be the paratactic form of the “notebook,” or the “intricate, / yet rational mosaic” that Pasolini had imagined, “worth, at least, / a second, or even a third, reading” (11). These forms, and the sequential forms of longer poems such as “Why Not Say What Happens?” or “News Back Even Further Than That,” challenge readers to come to terms with the fragmentary illogic of their worlds, to construct meaningful connections between apparently incongruent realms of experience and sensibility. They do so as much through “alienation effects” comparable to those of Brecht’s epic theater as through the linguistic density of lyric poetry like Celan’s. The fact that Joseph’s poems also attain a complex musicality, comparable to the poetry of Stevens or Eliot, does not diminish the instructive power of their dissonance.
Joseph aspires to nothing less than the artistic expression of contemporariness that Gertrude Stein describes in her 1926 essay “Composition as Explanation,” which he cites toward the end of Into It (62). “Composition as Explanation” is as much a reflection on the impact of war on modernist aesthetics, and of modernist aesthetics on war, as it is an “explanation” of Stein’s own processes of composition. As Stein begins her essay, “There is singularly nothing that makes a difference a difference in beginning and in the middle and in ending except that each generation has something different at which they are looking.” Or, in the language of Into It, “Characters talking / to one another” (3) … “a woman and a man / by themselves, each alone in the other” (10) … “a woman, a man, / love’s characters … once again, repeat the vow” (67). The “difference” that Stein posits, however, makes all of the difference, as the artist’s composition of what he or she sees is often unrecognizable to eyes trained to see — or read — in an earlier time. “No one is ahead of his time,” she writes, “it is only that the particular variety of creating his time is the one that his contemporaries who also are creating their own time refuse to accept.” Stein’s conception of modernist — or avant-garde — “composition and time-sense” surely applies to Joseph’s poetry, as he suggests in “In a Mood”:
In the spaciousness of syntax and text,
history’s, or a history’s, spaces composed,
the feeling, the meaning, aspired to,
the poem of an era. (33)
Like “Composition as Explanation,” Into It registers the belated impact of war on everyday consciousness, even as Joseph “seems to be writing ahead of actual events,” as David Kirby has written. What is postmodernist about Joseph’s poetry, however, is not so much the events that he witnesses but how he appeals to modernist modes of composition to perceive these events. Joseph appeals to such modern poets as Stevens, Williams, Stein, and Celan neither to authorize his own ambitious project nor to differentiate his generational consciousness from theirs. His allusions to these poets are not pretentious or contentious, deferential or anxious; he appeals to their example instead as contemporaries, as writers whose vision anticipates the twenty-first-century present even as they remind of us of how such shocking events as the World Trade Center terrorist attacks reiterate prior historical moments of atrocious violence.
The contemporariness of Joseph’s poetry, then, lies in what he sees, or refuses to not see, and how the composition of what he sees challenges familiar modes of perception. This compositional challenge is often one of juxtaposition of unlike modes or discourses, as we can see in the juxtaposition of a poem like “In a Mood” with the poem that immediately follows, “Unyieldingly Present.” The introspective, interrogative mode of “In a Mood,” which concludes with the urban pastoral scene of “Lilac-shaded shades of dark green / around the Bridge — that too, that evening. // A woman and a man beside the river,” is abruptly interrupted by “a sky on fire … the sky is on fire!” (33–34). This conclusion to “In a Mood” reflexively recounts the memory of violence — “A line consisting of a burning sky” (34) — as it manifests the traumatic impact of this violence, the seemingly delirious exclamation of the “sky on fire.” This brilliant segue to the more graphic images of death and destruction in “Unyieldingly Present” insists that we consider the ongoing reception of mass violence, the lasting psychological as well as political manifestations of trauma. It challenges us, that is, to come to terms with not only “what,” but also with “then again what, unfolded” (34). The impact of traumatic violence also manifests itself linguistically. The “pressure of the contemporaneous” is intensely evident in the battery of sentence fragments that makes up “Unyieldingly Present.” The observations, reflections, and questions are juxtaposed paratactically, in lines that seem erratic with their unpredictable enjambment. The mode of each sentence or sentence fragment moves abruptly from description to directive, from theological to scientific speculation, from contemplation to direct emotional expression, from “Sequences / of images, of emotions, dissolved / in a mass encoded in the brain” (35) to “Is it that reality, disjointed / cannot be discerned, or that consciousness, / disjointed, cannot discern it?” to “What am I supposed to feel?” (36). These “vicious circles / of accumulated causation” create a dizzying effect of headlong movement, an unsettling effect of perceptions that resist narration, especially narration in the past tense, and that resist closure, in their “unyieldingly fixed, unyielding present” persistence.
The question of how to see, how to feel, in a world of mass mediated images — the question particularly of how to resist the numbing effect of repeated exposure to violent imagery — recurs throughout Into It. Joseph is as self-conscious as he is insistent about actively engaging his readers in perceiving violence and empathizing with those who are suffering from its effects. This is most evident in images that demand our attention, such as the excruciating image that concludes “Rubaiyat.” As the culmination of this antiwar diatribe, and the answer to the poet’s concern that he has “become / too clear-sighted — the mechanics of power / are too transparent,” this concluding image pierces the very organ through which we see:
I want you to watch carefully
what I am saying now — are you
with me? An inch-long piece of steel,
part of the artillery shell’s
casing, sliced through the right eye
into his brain, severely damaging
the optic nerve of his left eye,
spraying bone splinters
into the brain, making him quick to lose
his temper, so acutely sensitive to pain
the skin on his face hurts
when wind blows against it … (44–45)
In addressing the reader directly, Joseph challenges us not to look away, challenges our ability to empathize with such unbearable pain, and challenges us to become “acutely sensitive” to the concept of sensitivity, when “sensitive” describes such extreme vulnerability.
Whether addressing the experience of violence in his current New York home, in his childhood home in Detroit, in his ancestral home of Lebanon, or in Iraq and other sites of US military aggression, Joseph is deeply aware of — even “acutely sensitive” to — the problem of his own position as a witness. This awareness is most evident in poetry that is engaged with the legal profession or legal discourse more generally. The penultimate poem of Into It, “The Game Changed,” exhibits this awareness most directly. This poem, cited frequently in reviews of Into It to substantiate Joseph’s literary reputation as lawyer-poet, begins with a scornful portrayal of an avaricious “lawyer — / although the type’s not exclusive to lawyers,” as “A lot of different minds touch, and have touched, / the blood money” that Into It so relentlessly decries. Yet, seemingly in response to his own literary reputation as well as to the popular reputation of the legal profession, Joseph adds: “I believe I told you I’m a lawyer,” although this has had “little or no effect on a certain respect / I have for occurrences that suggest laws / of necessity” (63). This distinction between the profession of law and the “occurrences that suggest laws of necessity” indicts a legal system that disregards such occurrences as it defends the poet’s testimony. That is, it asserts a critical position within the profession of law while distinguishing legal justice from what Felman has characterized as “literary justice”: the “dimension of concrete embodiment and a language of infinitude that, in contrast to the language of the law, encapsulates not closure but precisely what in a given legal case refuses to be closed and cannot be closed. It is to this refusal of the trauma to be closed that literature does justice.” Joseph’s “The Game Changed” does justice to the multiple sites of trauma embodied by Into It: “Vietnam, Lebanon, and Iraq” (63) as well as New York. And it does so in a voice that is both distinctively subjective in its introspection and representative in its testimony, the antithesis of the billboard message “The World Really Does Revolve Around You” (64), the voice “of wishing — / as if one’s mother and father lay in one’s heart, / and wished as they had always wished — that voice, one of the great voices worth listening to” (65). This subjunctive appeal to memory as a sustaining mode of imagination, a counterbalance to the more traumatic scenes of memory that recur throughout Into It, is as hopeful as it is nostalgic.
The most insistent questions of Into It concern not only what can and cannot be said, but also who can speak for the “aggrieved.” These questions are political, they are legal, and they are literary, as “August Abstract” implies in asking, “The truth? The truth / that came to grieve, was aggrieved, for whom?” (22). The question of “the truth” is a problem of perspective — “a place (whose place? …)” — but it is also a more general problem of power, a problem of ideology, a problem of who represents “the truth.” It is clear throughout Into It, and throughout Joseph’s poetry generally, that Joseph represents the “aggrieved,” those who are damaged by the manipulation of the “truth,” on behalf of a truth that the “aggrieved” might not even recognize. Yet the “literary justice” that Into It enacts is as cognizant of the limits of its testimony as it is aware of its distinctive capabilities. Perhaps the most compelling example of the problem of traumatic testimony occurs in the longest poem of Into It, “Why Not Say What Happens?” The title of this poem itself suggests a doubleness, depending on which word(s) one stresses when reading it. It suggests, that is, the necessity to testify and the difficulty in doing so.
“Why Not Say What Happens?” occurs almost midway in the book, and it is, remarkably, the first poem that narrates “what happened” on 9/11 in lower Manhattan. In withholding this graphic evidence from previous references to 9/11 in the book, Joseph admits that the limitations of testimony are inherent in language: “The limits of my language / are the limits of my world, said Wittgenstein” (25). But he also underscores — empathetically — the unspeakable impact of traumatic experience: “‘When I’m not working, the last thing I want to do / is talk about it,’ said one policeman” (26). The indirect approach to “Ground Zero” in Into It suggests as well, however, that too much has been said about 9/11, that it had become a national “event” that discredited if not silenced dissenting perceptions or explanations of its significance, including such testimony about the military-industrial complex that precedes Joseph’s composite narration of “what happened” on 9/11. And “what happens” in Joseph’s poem is as much a multimedia event, “Everything / immense and out of context” (26), as it is remembered firsthand.
“Why Not Say What Happens?” includes a statement of the poet’s position that is informed by legal theory and practice as well as modernist poetics: “Me? I’m only an accessory to particular images” (24). This statement, which precedes the documentary evidence of “what happens” in the poem, supports as it qualifies the distinction that Joseph made between law and literature over a decade ago, that legal texts “result from, and in, socially institutionalized power” and have material consequences, whereas literary texts do not. To be an “accessory before the fact” or “an accessory after the fact” in legal terms implies complicity but not presence in the commitment of an offense. For a poet to claim that he is an “accessory to particular images” suggests a somewhat different subject position, a position that is subordinate or supplementary to the images, a position that decenters the poet but does not remove his agency. When the images are themselves evidence of criminality, however, how different is the poet’s testimony from the lawyer’s, especially if this criminality has such widespread implications as Joseph demonstrates? Or, when the repetition of such images risks the same numbing effect that Into It defies, how can the poet’s testimony do justice to the “aggrieved”? The questions that Joseph raises throughout Into It have compelled poets who have witnessed mass violence and other forms of atrocity throughout the twentieth century. The fact that he incorporates the uncertainty of their positions, that he acknowledges their questions as well as their testimony, within the “emotional perceptions and digressions” of his own witnessing, speaks to the intellectual complexity and emotional honesty of Into It. That he does so on behalf of those whose “economies” and “lives,” like those of his parents, “won’t be found / in any book” (29), testifies as well to the profound commitment to social justice that his poetry enacts.
1. Lawrence Joseph, Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos: Poems 1973–1993 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), 160.
3. David Skeel, “Point-Blank Verse,” Legal Affairs (September/October 2005).
4. For additional essays that relate Joseph’s poetry to modernist poetry by lawyers, see Skeel, “Practicing Poetry, Teaching Law,” Michigan Law Review 92, no. 6, (May 1994): 1754–75, and Michael Stanford, “The Cyclopean Eye, the Courtly Game, Admissions Against Interest: Five Modern American Lawyer Poets,” Legal Studies Forum 9 (2006): 30. The most thorough consideration of Joseph’s renewal of left modernist political poetry is David Wojahn, “Maggie’s Farm No More: The Fate of Political Poetry,” Writer’s Chronicle 21 (May/Summer 2007).
5. For accounts of how interpretations of 9/11 recall previous sites of trauma, see Susannah Radstone, “The War of the Fathers: Trauma, Fantasy, and September 11,” and Richard Stamelman, “September 11: Between Memory and History,” in Judith Greenberg, ed., Trauma at Home: After 9/11 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003), 117; 12.
6. Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History (New York: Routledge, 1992), 114.
7. Cathy Caruth, introduction to Trauma: Explorations in Memory, ed. Caruth (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 5.
8. For an important inquiry into the significance of trauma theory for legal studies, see Shoshana Felman, The Juridical Unconscious: Trials and Traumas in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002).
9. Walter Kalaidjian, The Edge of Modernism: American Poetry and the Traumatic Past (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 11.
10. Dominick LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 42.
12. Michael Rothberg lucidly explains the importance of trauma theory for understanding the intercultural work of post-9/11 poetry by the Palestinian-American poet Suheir Hammad, specifically in her poem “first writing since.” See Rothberg, “‘There Is No Poetry in This’: Writing, Trauma, and Home,” in Trauma at Home, ed. Greenberg, 147.
13. Charles Graeber, “Pulling the Words from the Ruins” (interview with Joseph), Downtown Express 18, no. 25 (November 4–10, 2005).
15. Joseph, Into It (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2005). Hereafter cited in text.
16. Wallace Stevens to José Rodriguez Feo, 20 June 1945, in Letters of Wallace Stevens, ed. Holly Stevens (New York: Knopf, 1966), 505.
17. Stevens to Feo, 6 April 1945, in Letters of Wallace Stevens, 494, and Stevens to James Guthrie, 25 June 1945, in Letters of Wallace Stevens, 506.
18. Stevens, “The Irrational Element in Poetry,” in Opus Posthumous: Poems, Plays, Prose, ed. Samuel French Morse (New York: Vintage, 1982), 216.
20. Joseph discusses the extraordinary importance of Stevens’s “poetry of the contemporaneous” for contemporary American poetry, specifically for poets as different as John Ashbery and Adrienne Rich, in “The Real Thing,” The Nation 254, no. 15 (April 20, 1992): 531–33, reviewing John Ashbery, Flow Chart (Knopf, 1991) and Adrienne Rich, An Atlas of the Difficult World (Norton, 1991).
21. Sensing a correspondence in these passages to Williams’s writing, I asked Joseph if they alluded to any of Williams’s texts. He answered that they did indirectly, more as thematic allusions than as direct quotations.
22. William Carlos Williams, In the American Grain (New York: New Directions, 1956), 109.
23. Gertrude Stein, “Composition as Explanation,” in Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein, ed. Carl Van Vechten (New York: Vintage, 1990), 513.
24. Stein, “Composition as Explanation,” 514.
25. David Kirby, “Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos: Poems 1973–1993 and Into It: The Double,” New York Times Book Review, September 25, 2005.
26. Felman, The Juridical Unconscious, 8.
27. Joseph, “Theories of Poetry, Theories of Law,” Vanderbilt Law Review 46 (1993): 1228.
An introduction to Lawrence Joseph
Edited by Eric Selinger