Poetry and Democracy: Part One

In conjunction with The Poetry Coalition’s March 2019 joint programming exploring the theme “What Is It, Then, Between Us?: Poetry & Democracy,” The Common presents four weekly features this month, each addressing and extending this national—and international—conversation.

In the first installment we offer Lawrence Joseph’s “In That City, In Those Circles” and “The Beauty of Boys Is” by Vievee Francis.

 

LAWRENCE JOSEPH

In That City, In Those Circles

In that time, in that place, a few cars, a bus, on Belle Isle
seen from this side of the river, dark blue icy river,
on the other side of the Belle Isle Bridge Uniroyal Tire’s
bright silver smoke blown over the river to Canada,
time-bound, space-bound, a distinctive industrial space,
Ford Motor Company Dumping Station, the O-So Soda Pop
warehouse, Peerless Cement, railroad tracks on
the bridge to Zug Island—the smell from Wayne
Soap enough to make you puke—Ideal Bar, icon,
Black Madonna, blood-red slash down her right cheek,
Pulaski, Copeland, Home, Melville streets, City of Detroit
Wastewater Treatment Plant, two large sludge ponds,
two slaughterhouses, one for pigs, one for cows,
ratcheted up, the empire news, unprecedented the rise
in energy prices, armed forces placed on nuclear alert,
plans are being drawn up to occupy regions of Kuwait,
Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, surpluses deposited
in New York banks, so-called petro-dollars recycled
in high-interest loans to Mexico, Brazil, Argentina,
and not too long after that, really, millions of barrels a day
cut off again, British Petroleum declaring force majeure,
major contracts cancelled, the Rotterdam spot market
is soaring, the second oil shock fully underway,
Arc of Crisis, the State Department’s name of the policy
implemented to spread tribal and religious instability
in the Near East and Soviet Union’s southern republics,
intrinsically curved, the gravitational field, S-curved lines,
glue sprayed, vinyl top stretched and trimmed into place,
lead solder put into the crack between the roof and body,
fury of truth, its enigmas, its blinding illuminations
marked in the margin of Hayden’s American Journal,
Hayden’s Cosmic Ouija, the mathematics of its message
music, funky, sweet, Detroit music, on a multiple level,
the beat, deep, street-glazed, tempos extreme, churchy
sometimes, rhymes at the ends of and inside the lines,
music that is made for love, the first time we fall asleep
in each other’s arms, where, there, we are, and nothing else
matters, there, where the sidewalk heaves and is strapped
by weeds, front door boarded by two-by-fours, an address
only a 5, the other numbers missing, red-colored,
the dog, sniffing the rusted motor, picking up a scent,
“and these Maronite warlords,” he says—here from Lebanon,
my Armenian friend, long, late lunch, Grecian Gardens,
grilled lamb chops, green beans, roasted potatoes, a bottle
of Tsantali Rapsani—“they’re trying to force a tax on us
in East Beirut, to finance their militias”—Niggers Suck,
a sign, on the Southampton Street side of Finney High
the White Hoods hang out on, Black Killers, Errol Flynns
surrounded, switchblades, then gunshots, police in riot gear,
media coverage, front-page headlines, Free Press and News,
the incarcerated, burned with cattle prods, hit and hit
with blackjacks at the Second Precinct Station, raw, still,
in the air, twelve years ago, the twenty-fourth of July,
General Throckmorton’s five thousand paratroopers,
recently returned from Viet Nam, authorized
under the Insurrection Act of eighteen-seven, M-16’s, M-79
grenade launchers, lines of deployment set up directly
to the Pentagon, a state of war declared, in that time,
in that city, in those circles, occasions taken to call out fact.

 

VIEVEE FRANCIS

The Beauty of Boys Is

that they are not men,
that they have not settled into their beards and
remorse, their crow’s feet and givens.
There is not yet an investment in houses
settling onto their foundations, hair, or
yesterday. The boy senses his time is precarious,
growing shorter as he sprouts up, so he spends
time believing, in everything,
he climbs and
he tumbles and tunnels and spills and
puts to good use his stones and his quarters,
penknife and book, even the stick he uses
to defeat his awkward shadow. He will dream
into existence a raft, a rocket, a fort of mud.
From a cloud
a gift of horses.
From the sand
castle and moat,
kingdom and cause.
Every boy knows he is a lone king,
that above hover dragons
from which he cannot withdraw, and so he must
pull from his quiver the makeshift arrow,
so he must draw the bow, and not yet divided
from his body all is possible.
He looks up
toward a darkening horizon, certain. So certain.

 

 

Lawrence Joseph was born in Detroit, the grandson of Lebanese and Syrian Catholics who were among the first Arab immigrants to Detroit. He was educated at the University of Michigan, University of Cambridge, and University of Michigan Law School, and is the author of numerous books of poetry, most recently So Where Are We?, published in 2017 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. A Certain Clarity: Selected Poemsis forthcoming with FSG in March 2020. He is also the author of two books of prose, Lawyerland, a non-fiction novel, published by FSG, and The Game Changed: Essays and Other Prose, in the University of Michigan Press’s Poets on Poetry Series. His awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. His poetry and prose have appeared in magazines and journals in the United States and internationally, and have been widely anthologized. His work has been translated into several languages. He is Tinnelly Professor of Law at St. John’s University School of Law, where he teaches labor and employment law, torts and compensation law, and law and interpretation. He lives in New York City.    

 

Vievee Francis is the author of Forest PrimevalHorse in the Dark, which won the Cave Canem Northwestern University Poetry Prize for a second collection, and Blue-Tail Fly. Her work has appeared in numerous journals including PoetryWaxwingBest American Poetry 2010, 2014, and 2017, and Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of African American Poetry. She was the recipient of the 2016 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award.

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