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Thinking About Empire and Economy, With a Lawyer’s Mind and a Poet’s Words

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A CERTAIN CLARITY
Selected Poems
By Lawrence Joseph

“A Certain Clarity” presents selections from the six books of poetry Lawrence Joseph has published between his terrifying 1983 debut and 2017: an intensely realized, intimate epic of modern American life. Born in 1948 in Detroit to Lebanese Catholic parents, educated at Michigan, Cambridge and Michigan again, where he trained as a lawyer (he currently teaches law at St. John’s University), Joseph self-consciously joins that outsize American tradition of poets-with-professions, poets like Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams, from both of whom he has learned much — but, crucially, not too much.

From his first collection’s prologue in heaven, in which the not-yet embodied poet is punished for merely amusing his celestial auditors (“you will be pulled from a womb / into a city”), his founding myth has been of myth disgorging on actuality. Later indelible violences — the Detroit riots of 1967; his grocer father shot by a would-be robber three years later — mark, in lived time, the moment “the voice howling in you / was born.” In the thick of lower-middle-class American life, Catholic, Arab-American, “the racial on me all the time,” the voice of Joseph’s early poems claims what has been imposed on it: Detroit, family, that mixture of inclusion and exclusion where the nation’s racial hierarchies collide. (As when an important early poem appropriates, for the self, a racial slur for black Americans, modified for Arabs.)

Within these pages, decades compress. The terrorist atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001, a block from Joseph’s current home in Lower Manhattan, arouse horror and indignation. So too — in keeping with Joseph’s Catholic antiwar instincts — do the years of war, American and otherwise, in their wake. “Facile equivalences / are to be avoided,” he writes; so too, he implies, are facile disequivalences. The local and intimate find their place on a global scale that the writing strives to bring close. Perhaps most surprisingly intimate are the effects of transformations in the structure of American capitalism, transformations coinciding with the poet’s 1981 migration from the center of one dominant industry — one empire — to another: from Detroit (“the capital of a new planet, the one / on wheels”) to Manhattan, metropolis of contemporary “technocapital.” Each city, in its time, contains both the center and “peripheries of the imperium.” Each glows with weird grandeur, fed by the human cost.

Not the first poet to meditate on political economy and empire, Joseph is distinguished by his knowledge, which is not merely technical. Like his 1997 prose study “Lawyerland,” a novelistic portrait of the trade in eight freewheeling, anonymized conversations, his poetry favors blunt words and has an ear for meaty talk. (“Lawyerland” makes unnerving reading today. Asked to explain his burgeoning work in “mortgage securitization,” one subject offers, “I’m not sure I know what it is,” then adds that, when the mortgages stop being paid, “we’ll do what we did when all the junk from the ’80s went bad — we’ll just shift over to bankruptcy.”) No less than John Ashbery’s, Joseph’s poems soak up and savor common phrases: “By the way,” “Tell me about it!,” “So where were we?,” “Put it this way,” “Who talks like that?,” “Is what it is.” And they have talk’s way of skating on thinnest ice: More than one poem ends up in a drastically different place from where it began, abrupt shifts testing the pressure talk can sustain: “I know — you’d prefer I change the subject,” he tells us: “(I know how to change the subject).”


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