This month we welcome back one of the most crucial and distinctive Anglophone poets, Lawrence Joseph, whose sixth collection, So Where Are We?, will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in August. “In One Day’s Annals” appears in this book, as does “In That City, in Those Circles,” first published in issue #10 of The Common. Joseph is also the author of two books of prose, the genre-defying Lawyerland (FSG), as well as The Game Changed: Essays and Other Prose, from the University of Michigan Press’s Poets on Poetry Series, which presents Joseph’s estimable talents as an essayist and critic.
Joseph was born in Detroit in 1948 to first-generation natives of the city; his grandparents, Lebanese and Syrian Catholics, were among the first Arab immigrants to the United States. Educated at the University of Michigan, the University of Cambridge, and the University of Michigan Law School, Joseph is Tinnelly Professor of Law at St. John’s University School of Law. He lives in New York City with his wife, the painter Nancy Van Goethem.
Joseph is singular in American poetry. A pronounced poet-chronicler, a risk-taker and truth-teller—casting a sometimes hot and sometimes cool eye—Joseph has positioned himself as a poet on the periphery while remaining profoundly centered in our common social, spiritual, and aesthetic realities. A poet, as John Ashbery has written, of “great dignity, grace, and unrelenting persuasiveness,” Joseph expertly combines images, ideas, and the language of political economy, labor and capital, racism and war, with expressions of great beauty and physical and emotional intimacy. As an Arab-American, Joseph identifies with those pejoratively identified by race or ethnicity. He also brings his knowledge and experience as a lawyer and legal scholar into his poems, mapping disparate social spaces, creating narrative intersections among people from widely different social classes.
Joseph presents—to paraphrase Adrienne Rich—violence, brutality, and cruelty not merely as dramatic occasions for the poet, but as manifestations of structures of power to be revealed and dismantled. Infused with a fierce, uncompromising moral vision, Joseph’s is a poetry of committed attention, and passionate, unintimidated resistance.
IN ONE DAY’S ANNALS
Inscrutable the Muse Who Selects My Fate;
Breaking News Graphic, Word of the Attack
Spreads; History of the Great Exegesis;
The Gospel According to Saint Matthew;
Truly Stupendous Levels of Hatred;
and others, too many to mention, each
with their own characters, dialogues, scenes.
In his eternity, up to his waist in a pool
of green liquid poisons, the president who
raises his eyebrows, blows out his cheeks,
purses his lips, feigns surprise, smirks.
In one day’s annals, seen through Sweet
Revenge’s windows, Carmine Street’s
gold dusk light, purplish bronze shielding
Teardrop Park turning a misty gray, slipping
on the ice, falling, headfirst, onto Rector Street,
Number Two subway train’s lights go out—
he continues to play—lights on again—
he finishes, lifts his guitar and kisses it—
on one of fifteen years of Wednesdays,
millions of gallons of untreated sewage
discharged from the North River Wastewater
Treatment Plant’s pipes into the Hudson
and Harlem rivers. What’s clear,
delicate, beautiful, what’s ugly, horrifying;
but why we go to the end of the night
is for no other reason than another
moral to the story, the primal paradise
the body remembers, elemental stasis
of infinities of light and of time, hypostatic.
Lawrence Joseph’s most recent books of poems are Into It and Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos: Poems 1973–1993. He is Tinnelly Professor of Law at St. John’s University School of Law and lives in New York City.