Lawrence Joseph is a lawyer-poet (since 2003 a law professor at St. John’s University), a Catholic poet, a metropolitan-and-other-hyphenates poet. He was born in Detroit in 1948, his grandparents Lebanese and Syrian Catholics who arrived in the first wave of Arab immigration to the city, his Detroit-born father inheriting the family grocery store but having to work as a meat cutter on the side to keep afloat. His youth was a mix of Fordism—Gramsci’s term, Joseph is always quick to point out—jukebox soul, and violent unrest.
A formative moment for him and his writing came in 1970, when his father was shot and almost killed in a robbery at the store: to some extent his early work pivots around those brutal minutes, approaching and withdrawing from them. Sometimes the poems do so explicitly—“I learned blood from my father/fallen to a wooden floor,/a thief’s bullet inside him”—and sometimes in their tone of barely concealed rage.
The poems of his first collection, Shouting at No One (1983), are terse, short-lined, and conversational, if “Are you talking to me?” counts as conversation. Joseph here is prickly and on the move, lugging his woundedness around as fuel. There are competing impulses vying for supremacy: defiance, retribution, and the urge to bear witness. Holiness and a Catholic childhood supply the imaginative backdrop to a rather more immediate Sodom and Gomorrah in the shape of his adolescent Detroit, its riots and industry, the city burning indignantly with worker exploitation, and later simply burning.
The narrator of these poems is aware of the need to respond to the aggression of capitalists with a degree of pressure. He’s also aware of the need for salvation and escape; an Augustinian “Lord, make me pure, but not yet” is the subtext to some of the more overtly tough-guy-with-notions moments, heard as a muted allusion in “Not Yet,” which may take its title in part from that prayer:
I don’t want
the angel inside me, sword in hand,
to be silent.
The narrator of these early poems is hurt enough to achieve escape velocity: Joseph moved away from Detroit after studying literature at the University of Michigan, first to further study at Cambridge and later to take up a legal career (in part specializing in employment) in New York City, where he still lives. For all that, there is no definitive escape, in life or in the poems, from the memories of those formative, enervating years in Detroit: “The city is the shadow/strapped to my back.” Detroit is figured here, and throughout the early work, as a double of the left-behind Syria and Lebanon of Joseph’s bloodline, a haunting presence against which to measure each new landscape.
The short lines of a poem like “It Will Rain All Day,” its plain diction, its Denis Johnson–ish “truck drivers [who] sip whiskey/and don’t feel like talking” have a country or blues feeling to them, compared with Joseph’s later polyphonic symphonies, but their more plainly affecting addresses can still create a subtle and symbol-laden atmosphere:
I can make
the hills with white hair
and the clouds breaking into blackness
my own, carry them with me
like the letters and icons
immigrants take in suitcases
to strange countries.
His poems at this point are conspiratorial, direct, as concrete as Saint Thérèse’s small roses or Saint Agnes’s red cheeks. The young Joseph worked in factories, at assembly plants, and these experiences, too, find their way into the debut collection, as conduits toward the sought-for salvation and as evidence of a lifelong quest to uphold his own and others’ dignity. “In the Tenth Year of War” begins: “I bend/over the machine. Heat/and oil/tune my inner ear. I’m/not ashamed.” Through its fractured lineation the poem plays out a narrative of work as a purifying, or at least a clarifying, process—a purgative heat that takes the place of outward intervention: “I prayed for help/and no one came,/I danced before the machine.”
In Curriculum Vitae (1988), his second book, many of Joseph’s concerns are the same, but his writing begins to open up to more of the world. There was self-awareness in his poems from the start, but here it’s front and center—the title poem acting as its name suggests, achievements standing in for personality in a somewhat denser syntax, before ending on a self-diagnosis at once favorable and grounding:
I frequent the Café Dante, earn
my memories, repay my moods.
I am as good as my heart.
I am as good as the unemployed
who wait in long lines for money.
A similar urge toward self-analysis informs “That’s All,” as well as the sort of wide-ranging references that would come to characterize Joseph’s later work. In a short poem of tight couplets he refers to atomic machinery, the First National Bank, and Céline’s visit to the Ford Rouge foundry before rounding on himself: “I don’t know why I choose who I am:/I work and I remember, that’s all.” The last line is a good summation of Joseph at this point, labor and memory the two themes holding up his increasingly discursive, knottily loquacious sentences.
His nonfiction book Lawyerland (1997), which recreates the conversations lawyers have among themselves, away from their clients and any pretense of professional virtue, includes a discussion about a colleague who speaks in perfect subclauses and parentheses. One gets a sense, in the longer lines of Curriculum Vitae, that Joseph’s oral skill is similarly dense and resourceful, especially in poems like “An Awful Lot Was Happening.” The poem is tied to spoken English while testing its dexterity and forcing it to keep up with much more stimulation:
What, or who, collides in you beside whose body I sleep?
No work at Tool & Die, Motors, Transmission, or Tractor
while the price of American crude rises another dollar.
There really wasn’t enough work anywhere.
As he writes, delightedly, breathlessly, later in the poem, “An awful lot was happening and I wanted more.” Joseph by this stage was pivoting away from being a personal poet. While his father’s grocery store shooting was the event that hurt him into poetry, by his second collection he had begun to look elsewhere for reasons to continue writing, toward global cities and events, further into his reading in the arts and law. He chose not to “save my pity for myself” but to use his own experience of violence and injustice to prompt a look outward, to become a camera, not a diarist.
Before Our Eyes (1993) brings a further shift in Joseph’s work toward a more painterly approach. The “morality of seeing” mentioned in the title poem is its new guiding principle: “For the time being/let’s just keep to what’s before our eyes.” In many ways this third collection introduces what has become Joseph’s later style—a mix of long and short sentences, generally arranged either in couplets or in long blocks of lineation. The lines have gotten a bit longer and are now full of conversational turns-on-a-dime and diligent clarifications—“By written I mean made, by made I mean felt”—as well as the perennial desire “of forming/imagined language resisting humiliation.”
This is the book in which Joseph’s early directness is forced to accommodate his many other strengths—his wit; his broad, engaged knowledge of politics, commerce, and philosophy; his descriptive eye—and is bolstered and emboldened by them. Joseph is more willing to mix different kinds of rhetoric and voice together in these poems that are as much about the act of capturing as they are the things under their gaze: “The point is to bring/depths to the surface, to elevate/sensuous experience into speech/and the social contract.”
Where the early poems channeled, at least in part, “the voice howling in you,” from this point on there is a more explicit sense of the poem as linguistic performance and conversation, heeding Wallace Stevens’s statement that “poetry is the subject of the poem.” Again, that self-awareness:
Some sort of chronicler I am, mixing
emotional perceptions and digressions,
choler, melancholy, a sanguine view.
Through a transparent eye, the need, sometimes,
to see everything simultaneously.
These are poems concerned with the largest-scale systems and procedures, studying the “moneymakers” and wars, the movements of troops and our march toward a technological present. “It’s every man for himself,” but, paradoxically, the poetic ego is suppressed. While they consider corruption and self-interest, the poems avoid archness or stultifying cynicism. Mostly this is because of Joseph’s talent for the telling visual perception and his willingness to risk sentiment by bringing in moments of beauty—often named directly—as counterweights: “Beauty needled into awareness/without me, beauty always present in//what happened that instant her silhouette/moved across the wall.”
A lot happened, not least in Joseph’s adopted New York, in the years preceding Into It (2005), and one of the results is that the earlier, never entirely vanquished anger of the first books became even more evident. Where an expressive rage was once aimed from up close at the factory owners and thieves, those who would exploit labor and attack the Joseph patriarch, here the avenging, biblical anger is an instrument in the great conflict against larger, less concrete, but no less dominating foes—“technocapital” and “pseudoerudition” among them. The language and narrative structure of the poems had to be remade again, to echo this shift toward their more civic and global horizons.
The poems of Into It veer between choppy, question-heavy talkings-out-loud—like the title poem’s spare couplets—and the encyclopedic sequence of “Why Not Say What Happens?” with its episodic, kaleidoscopic portrait of September 11. Something like an Impressionist painter’s evidence for an inquest, the poem is suffused with light and color, and soldered together from various points of view and kinds of diction: the language of the street and of the terror cell, with the first person treated as a via negativa—“Me? I’m only an accessory to particular images,” Joseph writes, while noting ruefully that “it doesn’t take much these days to be a prophet.” He notes that “the limits of my language/are the limits of my world, said Wittgenstein,” even as he tries to push the limits of his own.
“The intent is to make a large, serious/portrait of my time,” Joseph writes in Into It, and the candid declaration is startling. In interviews and his critical prose Joseph has more than once mentioned the importance, paraphrasing Saul Bellow, of addressing “the mysterious circumstances of being alive at this time in America.” To do this he has found a way to contain several different registers of language within single lines or across the larger structures of his stanzas, and he has created “a separate/palette kept for each poem.”
In attempting to address what it’s like to be alive in his time, Joseph has taken on the challenge of writing about the fracturing of consciousness occasioned by the growth of technology, while trying to preserve what doesn’t change. He has balanced an evangelist’s desire to bring everything back to the eternal, the inalienable, with an up-to-the-minute lyricism and complex, sometimes jargon-laden or at least specialized diction: “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?” In “Once Again,” he writes, “the poem is the dream, a dream technique;//the primary soul-substance/on which our attention is fixed.”
Joseph’s work has always had something in common with the earliest poems of Robert Lowell—their Boston-as-hell visions, their need for the intruding acts of a God to save their narrator from the brimstone of their impossible, Miltonic dilemmas—though with a lighter touch and a much less bombastic articulation. And like Lowell, Joseph has managed to tether his visions of the world to his own self, writing about the particular people and places he most wants to guard against the alienating violence being done to language and freedom in the name of global war and hypercapitalism. To achieve this he has been an exemplary perceiver, sparing with his first-person framings (“never use the word ‘I’ unless you have to/but sell it cheaply to survive”) though thinking his way into ambitious public address via the specific:
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…
From his earliest poems, Joseph has fought against the danger of helplessness, of being reduced to the status of bystander, and by So Where Are We? (2017) the forces capable of reducing us are more various and intrusive than ever. These are poems set, as one of the titles has it, “In a Post-Bubble Credit-Collapse Environment,” where modern serfdom involves the control of information and capital. There are long-distance wars, some in the old Joseph homeland of Syria, and an anesthetizing against death and violence—the caliphate rises, as do the seas.
Against “the point at which/structures of cruelty, force, war,/become ontology,” Joseph attempts to keep building poems, at times growing prophet-like in declaring the wrong turns taken and the need for repentance or reckoning: “The analog/is what I believe in, the reconstruction/of the phenomenology of perception/not according to a machine.” His precise, legal speech at this stage of his development gives him a lexical command capable of cataloging his “strong impressions of eternity” together with his exacting distinctions: “As I said, I’m a lawyer. Technically speaking,/is a head blown to pieces by a smart bomb a beheading?” This linguistic brio can shade into dark humor or self-mockery, but it is always accompanied by “God adumbrations,” Joseph’s occasional interruption of the narrative or argument for visual and colorful description, reflecting his belief, via Bonnard, that “our God…is light.”
At their best, these later poems are able to combine the full weight of what is felt (the anger of Joseph’s earliest voice) with a rare virtuosity of public speech. He builds a language that aspires to take in the complexity of the world, through both conscious explanation and self-suppressing, reverent looking. These poems begin, for all their eloquence, their talking out loud about perception itself, to fall quiet in the face of the light, which is God, “the God to whom/an account must be rendered.” The anger that formed the voice to start with, amid the blood of the family grocery store in Detroit, has spent a lifetime finding ways to articulate itself with dignity against the many enemies of the self in this world. The bosses may have changed, the labor shifted, and the landscapes altered, but Joseph continues to dance before the machines, to work and remember in order to survive.