This review appeared in Bloomsbury Review five years ago.
Lawrence Joseph, Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos: Poems 1973-1993. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005) 180 pp. ISBN 0-374-12517-1 (paper), $16.00
Lawrence Joseph, Into It, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), 67 pp. ISBN 0-374-17569-1 (hardcover), $22.00
The grandson of Lebanese-Syrian immigrants, Lawrence Joseph grew up in working class Detroit, where his father owned a small grocery store in the ghetto. As a young man, Joseph worked in his father’s store and on automotive factories, yet he also attended the University of Michigan, where he won a Hopwood Award for poetry. He later attended law school and Cambridge University and then worked as a lawyer, yet his outlook has been irrevocably shaped by his knowledge of the daily life of the wage slave.
Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos brings together Joseph’s first three books: Shouting at No One (1983), Curriculum Vitae (1988), and Before Our Eyes (1993). The first book is very much the portrait of the artist as a young man: the shopkeeper’s son (seen in the knowledge that his father will be shot and his uncle stabbed by robbers, that the shop itself will go up in flames during the Detroit riots), the loved grandson, the Catholic boy, fearful of the desire that grips him.
Before the altar of God
I spent hours on my knees.
I felt God’s anger
when my semen spilled into my hand.
I ate God’s body.
I promised never to sin.
[“There Is A God Who Hates Us So Much” p. 46]
A multitude of characters populate these early poems: his grandmother with her perfume and her squirrel collar coat, his father giving credit to the poor that would never be repaid, the erstwhile Bible Belt minister drinking gin while working on the assembly line, a black former schoolmate who wrote poetry and was killed in a case of mistaken identity, an Iraqi on the assembly line, silent except for prayers sung to Allah. Joseph sees them with compassion and with anger on their behalf:
It’s not me shouting at no one
in Cadillac Square: it’s God
roaring inside me, afraid
to be alone. [“It’s Not Me Shouting At No One” p. 60]
The role of angry prophet was one that came early to Joseph. In the title poem to Curriculum Vitae, he notes, “In the fifth grade Sister Victorine, / astonished, listened to me recite / from the Book of Jeremiah.” [“Curriculum Vitae” p. 69] This sense of being appointed to judge the world’s sins can teeter on the edge of megalomania, as in “Let Us Pray,” but there is always an acknowledgement of his roots.
Outside the house my practice
is not to respond to remarks
about my nose or the color of my skin.
“Sand nigger,” I’m called,
and the name fits: I am
the light-skinned nigger
with black eyes and the look
difficult to figure . . . [“Sand Nigger” p. 92]
Joseph goes on to describe himself in terms that have served to explain Middle Eastern politics to me since I first read them years ago:
. . . Lebanese enough
to be against his brother,
with his brother against his cousin,
with cousin and brother
against the stranger. [“Sand Nigger” p. 92]
Working in his father’s store, Joseph had seen the nickel–and-dime economy of the poor. Several of the poems in Curriculum Vitae are still set in Detroit, but other poems deal with economic realities in New York, where Joseph was working in a Wall Street law firm. The descriptions are reminiscent of Henry Miller’s days at the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company.
You put Byrdman on hold. Polen
wants you in his office immediately.
The lawyers from Mars and the bankers
from Switzerland have arrived to close the deal,
the money in their heads articulated
to the debt of the state of Bolivia.
[“Any and All” p. 113]
Joseph left corporate law to become a law professor, but his Wall Street experiences gave him an insider’s view of multinational companies and international business. This knowledge is carried over into the poems in Before Our Eyes. His Jeremiads become ever larger and sharper, full of economic understanding. Joseph’s downtown stint gave him something else: the landscape of lower New York enters his poems. Not since Hart Crane has a poet so made the landscape and the light of New York City’s harbor his own.
A flake of light moved. The great
watery lilac haze.
[“A Flake of Light Moved” p.127]
Now that his new book, Into It, has been published, Joseph has become the]flaneur of an irrevocably changed landscape, “the vista, a city, / the city, taking a shape and burning . . .” [I Note in a Notebook” p. 11] 9/11 hit him hard: his apartment was across the West Side Highway from the World Trade Center.
Irreal is the word. I know of no
defense against those addicted to death. God.
My God. I thought it was over, absolutely
had to be. What am I supposed to feel?
Images that, after that, loop in the head.
[“Unyieldingly Present” pp. 36-37]
The Middle Eastern problems he heard about through distant cousins back in the old country have come knocking on America’s door, and things that sounded like paranoid musings in his past books have become fact.
The technology to abolish truth is now available –
not everyone can afford it, but it is available –
when the cost comes down, as it will, then what?
[“I Note in a Notebook” pp. 10-11]
Nothing but the same resistance
since the time of the Gracchi –
against the arrogation by private interests
of the common wealth,
against the precious and the turgid language
of pseudoerudition (thugs,
thugs are what they are,
false-voiced God-talkers and power freaks
who think not at all about what they bring down).
[“When One is Feeling One’s Way” pp. 6-7]
Yet another latest version of another
ancient practice – mercenaries, as they were once known,
are thriving, only this time
they’re called “private military contractors.”
[“Why Not Say What Happens?” p. 25]
Joseph’s early poems were full of the smells and sounds of his childhood. As the quotes above indicate, his language has become much more abstract. Vision is the only sense operating now, it seems; sounds and smells are vaguely remembered, not vividly experienced. Joseph has become the transparent eyeball that Emerson envisaged. This emphasis on the visual carries over into the writing of a poem; like Montale, Joseph sees the poem as a visual-aural object of emotion and feeling. Such an aesthetic can lead to lines which resemble prose simply chopped up and arranged in short lines:
A sort of relationship
is established between our attention
to what is furthest from us
and what is deepest in us. The immense enlargement
of our perspectives is confronted
by a reduction in our powers of action, which reduces
a voice to an inner voice inclined to speak only
to those closest to us . . . [“Inclined to Speak” p. 12]
If the music is sometimes hard to hear, it’s still there, assaulted at every moment by the cacophony of a 24/7 information age. Clear-seeing, angry, occasionally bitter, Joseph is a prophet without much honor in the land of the military-industrial complex. But unless we heed his message, we are lost.