Lawrence Joseph's credo

So Where Are We?

So Where Are We?

Lawrence Joseph

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux 2017, 80 pages, $23.00 ISBN 978-0374266677

In his last book of poems, Into It (2005), Lawrence Joseph describes his work as “A poetry of autonomies, / bound by a transcendent necessity,” which paradoxically produces “A continuity in which everything is transition.”[1] In his new collection, So Where Are We?, Joseph remains faithful to these notions, pushing them to a further extreme. The code-switching that marks the poems’ discursive “autonomies,” which one would expect to be more disorienting in their state of continuous “transition,” actually binds the work, resulting in a style that is more unified, fully achieved, and even monumental in its scope. The “transcendent necessity” becomes all the more urgent: the poet holds nothing back, and yet in doing so, the language becomes even more sculptural, more poised, and more ruthlessly efficient in its presentation and analysis of historical catastrophe. Joseph, deep reader of Zukofsky, understands the older poet’s idea that “Each writer writes / one long work whose beat he cannot / entirely be aware of.”[2]“How long will it be, / the one long poem?” Joseph now asks. And what should we readers now expect of this “expansion of tendentious language, / an ancient clarity overlaid”[3]? In So Where Are We?, the expansions and continuities in Joseph’s work become increasingly clear, as he struggles heroically with

[…] Too much consciousness
of too much at once, a tangle of tenses

and parallel thoughts, a series of feelings
overlapping a sudden sensation

felt and known, those chains of small facts
repeated endlessly, in the depths

of silent time. So where are we?
My ear turns, like an animal’s. I listen. (7)

In these lines from the title poem of the collection, the poet’s instinctive sensitivity to “those chains of small facts,” his ability to parse the “tangle of tenses” and to sort those “parallel thoughts,” are increasingly challenged by historical exigencies that push language to the breaking point. As he tells us in “Of What We Know Now” (the titles of many of these poems are like phrases from the news or from bureaucratic or legal documents), we face 

the violence along social fracture lines, anarcho-capital
circulating at infinite speed, returning to itself even
before taking leave of itself, on its own plan of intelligence,
warping, dissolving nature — the poem in its voracities
of contemplation — the poem’s judgment proven, exact —
thought to thought, configurations, in fifty years these words
will be written fifty years ago, that is, now. (49)

In order to deal with such phenomena, the poem responds with “voracities / of contemplation,” an oxymoron indicating how the poet’s thought and language can cope with, can respond to, unprecedented levels of organized global violence. “Here in a State of Tectonic Tension,” a poem that honors and mourns Detroit — the city where Joseph was born and raised, and where he lived until his early thirties, when he moved to New York City — forces us to confront “Narco-capital techno-compressed, / gone viral, spread into a state of tectonic tension and freaky / abstractions — it’ll scare the fuck out of you, is what it’ll do” (18). Indeed it will, though the very twists and turns of the language, the discursive metamorphoses of the poem that are precisely commensurate with the metamorphoses of these dangerously “freaky / abstractions,” actually provide us with the understanding of, if not the control over, these prevailing global forces. For Joseph, we are ensconced in the world of 

Technocapital, permanently, digitally,

semioticized, virtually unlimited
in freedom and power, taking

billions of bodies on the planet
with it (3)

If technocapital is “semioticized,” presenting itself as a constant play of empty signs, behind which ruthless political and economic power endlessly accumulates, then the poem, risking reification, must become “semioticized” as well. This is one of the great gambles — and uncanny pleasures — of Joseph’s current work. Many contemporary poets employ a lexicon of this sort, and follow somewhat similar signifying procedures, but few do so with the probing self-awareness, to say nothing of the formal skill, of Lawrence Joseph. The most powerful poems in this collection move at a relentless pace, especially when they recount the abstract powers of digitized technocapital, only to abruptly shift and describe the terrifying results of the worldwide struggles that the expansion of such powers entails. “Behind / the global imperia is the interrogation cell,” declares Joseph in “Syria” — “It’s not / a good story.” And so we are told that

[…] Neither the Red Crescent
nor journalists are permitted entry; the women tell
how men and boys are separated, taken in buses
and never seen again, tanks in the streets
with machine guns with no shells in the barrels
because the army fears that those who will use them
might defect. (14)

This horrific moment in the present resonates powerfully with catastrophic events in the past. Joseph’s early life and work, it should be recalled, were shaped by the immigrant experiences of his Syrian and Lebanese grandparents, who settled in Detroit, and of his parents, born in Detroit, who experienced, as did Joseph himself, the upheavals of that city, including the 1967 riots. Furthermore, he has lived in lower Manhattan now for many years, and Into It, as well as a number of poems in this new book, obsessively return to the events of 9/11, when he was at work at St. John’s University School of Law in Queens, while his wife, the painter Nancy Van Goethem, was in their apartment just blocks from the World Trade Center. “So Where Are We?” opens with the following lines: 

So where were we? The fiery
avalanche headed right at us — falling,

flailing bodies in midair —
the neighborhood under thick gray powder —

on every screen. I don’t know
where you are, I don’t know what

I’m going to do, I heard a man say;
the man who had spoken was myself. (6) 

In the aftermath of the attack, the couple was eventually reunited, and lives to this day in the same apartment. Yet the threat of lasting trauma pervades nearly every line that Joseph writes, whether drawn from his personal experience or extensive research into history, politics, and economics. But amidst these seemingly endless horrors, which extend from Detroit and lower Manhattan to locations, as Joseph puts it, “On the Peripheries of the Imperium,” what does not occur in these poems is the helpless congealing of chronology into the perpetual present, what Walter Benjamin describes in his Theses on the Philosophy of History as the homogeneous, empty time of capitalist domination and ideological blindness.

Why is this the case? “On Utopia Parkway” provides some clues. Like many of the poems, this one moves kaleidoscopically from one scene, one thought, to the next, its free verse couplets and sinewy enjambments controlling its abrupt shifts in affect and imagery, all related to Utopia Parkway, the thoroughfare in Queens where St. John’s is located. “[I]n what places, violations // of which forms of which eternal laws? / Is it error, the idea that no place, too, is a place?” asks the poet (23). “Utopia,” of course, comes from the Greek for “no place”; it is our word for the perfect society that can only be imagined, usually with a high degree of irony. Joseph is not really a utopian thinker (usually he is quite the contrary), but the invocation of utopia here, even as he plays on the location of his workplace, a law school, is especially powerful. As a lawyer and a professor of law, he is also acutely sensitive to violations of laws, whether eternal or not. As in so much of his work, Joseph vacillates here between the transitory events of history and what amounts to a religious vision of timeless cosmic order. Thus, the poem ends 

On the corner of Utopia Parkway and Union Turnpike,
in red-blue twilight abstracted into an energy

blowing it apart, in spaces of language transformed
and coded, to be decoded and recoded in the future. (23)

The corner of Utopia Parkway and Union Turnpike is a real location (this reviewer grew up not far from there), but it is also an imagined space which twilight abstracts into energy, transforms, and codes into language — the poem — “to be decoded and recoded in the future.” The poem holds out a promise to futurity, maintaining a faith in its communicative power as a well as a faith in a readership to yet come. This future readership, willing to decode and recode the text, to interpret it and reconsider its meaning, underwrites Joseph’s role as a chronicler, a role upon which he has insisted for the entirety of his career.[4] “The Recording Angel // completes the exactest chronicle,” declares Joseph in “A Fable,” the opening poem in So Where Are We? In the traditions of all three Abrahamic faiths, the recording angel writes down the thoughts, prayers, and deeds of every individual, as testimony to their ultimate fate. That angel is Joseph’s divine role model, calling him continually to his appointed task. 

The recording angel is one of a number of religious references that appear in Joseph’s new book, for as in his earlier work, Joseph is never far from his Maronite Catholic roots. Thinking, as is so often the case, about the events following 9/11, Joseph observes that

Ten blocks away the Church of the Transfiguration,
in the back a Byzantine Madonna —

there is a God, a God who fits the drama
in a very particular sense (8)

What that “very particular sense” is, exactly, is never fully articulated in these poems. Perhaps it never can be: in Joseph’s work, we encounter the poet as historian, the poet as political analyst, the poet as legal scholar, but however much he seeks to rationalize the incessant flow of data that constitutes current events, he is still a keeper of the mysteries, insisting on the presence of the divine in human affairs: “Who knows what has happened, / what is happening, what will happen? God knows / God knows everything” (14). “I, too, see God adumbrations. I, too, write / a book on love” (12), he insists in “On Nature,” though how we may think of this book, with all its terrors, as a book on love remains to be seen. But to be sure, it may be read, as in the poem “In Parentheses,” as 

A theological-political fragment,
a mythographical, scriptural, text,
and sorrow, to understand the meaning
of sorrow, Saint Sorrow;
the addressee of my avowal,
Saint Sorrow’s stern vigil necessary to keep. (38) 

Here, Joseph alludes to Walter Benjamin’s “Theologico-Political Fragment,” a text in which Benjamin, like Joseph, seeks to comprehend “a mystical conception of history” (38), which involves the relationship between “the order of the profane” and the order of the Messianic, a relationship that can only be represented figuratively. Benjamin uses the image of two arrows:

If one arrow points to the goal toward which the profane dynamic acts, and another marks the direction of Messianic intensity, then certainly the quest of free humanity for happiness runs counter to the Messianic direction; but just as a force can, through acting, increase another that is acting in the opposite direction, so the order of the profane assists, through being profane, the coming of the Messianic Kingdom. The profane, therefore, although not itself a category of this Kingdom, is a decisive character of its quietest approach.[v]

This passage strikes me as an important key to much of what is going on in Joseph’s poetry, especially in the poems of Into It and So Where Are We? Although it is hard to reconcile the horrors that Joseph chronicles with “the quest of free humanity for happiness,” they are still part of “the profane dynamic,” the dialectical chronicle of human happiness and sorrow that current political circumstances have pushed to an extreme. Meanwhile, the poet, like Benjamin’s figure of the revolutionary historian in his Theses, seeks for traces of Messianic time. One site for the possible appearance of such traces is in human creativity itself, in literature and the arts, as in Joseph Cornell’s weird and mournful assemblage Medici Slot Machine, which in “On Utopia Parkway” the poet calls “the expression / of an ascent from the temporal to the spiritual” (22). That ascent, however hopeless it may appear, is a powerful motivating force in Joseph’s work, which in itself, perhaps, may be part of the profane counterforce that brings on the Messianic Kingdom in its “quietest approach.” 

But whether or not that Kingdom may make its approach, Joseph’s poetry is still suffused with a this-worldly sense of abiding affection and beauty that remains an inspiration, however momentary it might be. Thus, the poet is true to his claim that “I, too, write / a book on love.” We see this love expressed in his passionate affair with New York: 

But is there a more beautiful city — parts
of it, anyway? Another path to the harbor,

the border between sea and land
fluctuating a line, a curve, Peck Slip

to Water Street to Front Street
to Pine, to Coenties Slip to Pearl

to Stone Street to Exchange Place,
the light in majestic degrees. (4)

Place names produce a sort of magic spell in Joseph’s poems, which is to say that they create a sense of romance, but also function pragmatically, grounding the poet and securing the self in a space that is physical but psychic as well. “Water Street” opens with Joseph observing 

Nothing between us and Brooklyn Bridge
seen from our windows — on the other side of Pearl,

Dover is Frankfort, along the Bridge toward
City Hall — Governors, Staten, Liberty islands,

the harbor, violet and gray, a passing barge
piled with sand, ebony, the East River, the Heights

gold, rain pouring down, massed angles washed
by spacious light, air cleared, an amber luster (32) 

The place names release a gracious lyricism, “afterimages, in aftertime, remembered // time, in love’s optic, love’s characters” (32). And in “Here in a State of Tectonic Tension,” the lost world of battered Detroit is remembered through a litany of streets as well:

[…] Drive Woodward to Seven Mile,
west on Seven Mile to Hamilton, Hamilton south to the Lodge
Freeway, then the Lodge downtown, and measure the chaos,
drive Mack Avenue east to Seminole, south on Seminole
to Charlevoix, then west on Charlevoix to Van Dyke, south
on Van Dyke to East Jefferson, and remember what isn’t. (17–18)

What remains present to the poet, or what is gone and can only be remembered: in either case, as Joseph tells us in the last poem of the volume, “What More Is There to Say?,” “in the envisioned heart / inmost issues take the form // of a credo” (64). Envisioning his heart and its inmost issues — this is the way in which Lawrence Joseph remains true to himself, and to his poetic calling. 

1. Lawrence Joseph, Into It (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2005), 52, 65. The present review is based in large part on the premises I establish in my essay on Into It, “Ground Zero Baudelaire,” which appears in the special Joseph feature in Jacket2.

2. Louis Zukofsky, “A” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), 214. Thanks to Mark Scroggins for providing the source of this quotation.

3. Lawrence Joseph, So Where Are We? (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017), 19.

4. See, for instance, the poem “Some Sort of Chronicler I Am,” from Before Our Eyes (1993), in Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos: Poems, 1973–1993 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), 160–63.

5. Walter Benjamin, “Theologico-Political Fragment,” in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott (New York: Schocken Books, 1986), 312.