If it answers to now, if it’s sufficiently fearless and adaptable and capacious, why not write the same poem again and again – in couplets, in slabs, in measured stanzas, in irregular numbered parts, in plump quatrains? Why not saturate the thing with fact, with horror, with beauty, with violence, with throwaway colloquial titles, with smeary cut-up technique? With the poem mirroring a fast walk (in New York City) or a slow drive (in Detroit); a short lyric documentary film with snatches of Motown and inner voiceover; a dustbin full of bundled-up news we’d rather forget, or something even more abstract and uncontrollable (a facility, a medium, a pulse); and the poet a vagrant, a collector, a compulsive notetaker, a Cassandra, a Louis MacNeice for the 21st century?
This, I believe, is the case with Lawrence Joseph, whose A Certain Clarity: Selected Poems, is out this month (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28). Joseph was born in Detroit in 1948, the son of Syrian and Lebanese immigrants. He studied literature in Michigan and then at the University of Cambridge, married the painter Nancy Van Goethem, moved to Lower Manhattan and became a law professor (tort and employment); he is just now on the verge of retirement. That’s one way of trying to describe his career, though it won’t get you very far with his poetry; almost uniquely among contemporary American poets, Joseph doesn’t retail privities, doesn’t chase the minuscule scraps of sublimity left to us, doesn’t retreat to his literal or figurative cabin in the woods. Readers of his work may be tempted to conclude: this poet doesn’t have a personal life. That’s because what the poems give us are the past fifty years – Joseph’s adult lifetime – in terms of event, public policy and the evolution of civilisation: the Detroit Race Riots, the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Twin Towers, globalisation and the internet, archaic and experimental weapons, from stones to ‘steerable/bombs, unprecedented precision, flexibility,/cost,/one, two/trillion’, from axes to ‘those low-flying A-10 Warthogs/… each of them, firing/one hundred bullets a second’. Then on to turbo-capitalism, the 2008 slump, Occupy Wall Street, toxins in the water in Flint, Michigan and beyond, Hurricane Irene and the flooding up and down the East Coast, the wars in Lebanon and Gaza and Syria and Afghanistan and Iraq (twice). I remember saying to myself long ago that if you are looking for a poetry that lucidly and systematically offers a sense of this world as a place where things go continually wrong, there is no one but Lawrence Joseph. It’s as though, instead of famously not doing so, Jane Austen had written only about the Napoleonic Wars, or Kafka about World War One.
In Joseph’s poems, anything could go anywhere. It’s a principle that provides a sort of unity. Jump-cuts in every direction, continuity by leaching. Mingled, mangled, maximal diction, anything from the technical jargon of finance to street speech and graffiti. Highly specialised things – ‘hyper-violence’, ‘info-time’, ‘narco-capital’, ‘anarcho-capital’ – though also a continual reversion to old plain-speaking biblical favourites such as ‘killer’ and ‘thief’. “But after all, I’m a lawyer. So I can never get/away from evil,” Kafka said – Franz Kafka, legal officer,/Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute, the Kingdom/of Bohemia.’ Poems that sometimes have an element of the cuttings book or cento. Numbers and names, figures for casualties and costs, individual, representative cases: ‘Nebuchadnezzar’ (code for Saddam Hussein); ‘one, Samer Qawass’; ‘Weasel Boy’; ‘Saint Sorrow’; ‘the rich boy general’; ‘teamsters from Midland’; ‘the Undersecretary for Imperial Affairs’; ‘but, first, back to Henry Ford’; ‘she quoted Pound’. A mirror to the species. Joseph has written five books of his stark and beautiful poems, from Shouting at No One (1983) to So Where Are We? (2017), and one strange book of prose, Lawyerland (1997), a sort of La Ronde for the legal profession.
Over time, Joseph’s poems have become less physical, less present and more spectral, reality in them more sampled and synthesised. They have participated, seemingly, in the digitisation of everything. Their violence has become more remote, more ubiquitous, more notional. The early Detroit poems have a confrontational grime, a deindustrialising poverty that makes them a pendant to the contemporary music of Springsteen or the films of Scorsese (Greetings from Ashbury Park and Mean Streets both came out in 1973, the year Lawrence began publishing poems). These early pieces have something personally stirring that’s absent from the later Joseph, or maybe sacrificed in the interest of greater speed or scale. Inevitably, some of what’s lost is the snarling pathos that inheres in any good early poem:
She just sat there
and watched blood spray from her cut wrist all over
her room in the La Moon Manor Hotel. You just
shake your head. You’re not surprised.
Because, when you’ve been here long enough
no one can make you believe the Black Cat
Dream Book provides your winning number.
Heaven answers your prayers with dust and you swallow it.
Alone, early morning, on the Wyoming crosstown bus,
you feel the need to destroy, like everyone else,
as the doors open and no one comes on.
(‘When You’ve Been Here Long Enough’)
There is a cosmic joke somewhere, though few of the people in these poems can be relied on to get it.
Joseph’s later work, which begins with Curriculum Vitae (1988), finds a way to move the world without so much as an Archimedean pivot. He has less need of a place of purchase, or anywhere particular to stand: perhaps being in Manhattan is enough. ‘Everything attaches itself to me today’; ‘I work and I remember, that’s all’; ‘Some sort of chronicler I am’. He invokes ‘Pasolini’s desire to make, to write, an intricate,/yet rational mosaic, byzantine and worth, at least,/a second, or even a third reading’. It becomes slightly unusual for his poems to be anchored even by something as random as a walk from Brooklyn Bridge to Battery Park City. It is a strange fact that these maximal and unmistakeable poems still run on a kind of negative capability: ‘Me? I’m only an accessory to particular images.’ Even in passages or whole poems where Detroit reappears, it is a spectral Detroit, a negative Detroit, like Joyce’s Dublin, only now decreated, like a non-existent game of dominoes:
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.
Ionic pillars carved with grapes and vine leaves no longer
there, deserted houses of gigantic bulk, in which it seems
incredible that anyone could ever have lived, no longer there,
Dodge Main’s nocturnal gold vapours no longer there,
the constellated bright lights reflected on the Rouge River’s
surface no longer there.
(‘Here in a State of Tectonic Tension’)
Within the poet’s head is a bandaged dream, a masking-tape-fused assembly line of rubble and horror, Apollinaire’s heartbreaking ‘brin de bruyère’, made of tickertape. ‘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,’ the voice deadpans. ‘Is it true, the rumour that the new/instruments of equity are children, commodified?/That the Attorney General has bit off his tongue?’ Facts and fears ricochet inside the head, with savage bottom lines and awful details, the spliced voice sometimes remembering to assure us it’s that of a poet: ‘Poetry/I know something about,’ it says. ‘The act of forming/imagined language resisting humiliation’. This imagined language takes on the world in its own terms: the language of newspapers and reports, of chemicals and weather, of beggars’ euphemistic pitches and the latest technology, ‘ein tragischer Stil, Krisenstil, hybrid und final’, as Gottfried Benn put it.
So what more is there to say? Many times
the mass of the sun, solar masses
spiraling into spacetime, radiating
energy in gravitational waves, the edges
of the islands soft in the black-grey sky,
on this side of the Battery, near the ferry,
a small bird’s footprints, here, in the snow.
New moon, mauve cloud, sea level
higher than normal, the harbour again,
green and gray, punctuated by waves
lashing about. Thickening, the mists,
this early morning; repeated, sounds
of foghorns we hear from afar.
Only a planetary dystopia is capable of generating lines like these (from the closing of ‘What More Is There to Say?’): so beautiful, so garish, so tenderly valedictory.