History and Language

How to approach—I mean adequately approach—the devastating reality of Ground Zero from Ground Zero? What happens to perception, history, language, syntax and grammar—to say nothing of lungs, flesh and brain—at that level as the second airliner rips into the swaying tower filled with human beings and bursts into flame? Don’t the rationalities and assurances of words—even the sturdiest of them—begin to implode and vaporize at that level? What words will suffice to say what happened, then or in the aftermath of history which we are all still sifting through, in light of those other suicide bombings in Baghdad, Jerusalem, Kabul, Beirut, London, Amman?

“What of it?” the poet/witness Lawrence Joseph asks in his new collection, Into It. Yes, what of it?

Nothing but the same resistance
since the time of the Gracchi—
against the arrogation by private interests
of the common wealth,
against the precious and the turgid language
of pseudoerudition….

In his other life Joseph is a professor of law at St. John’s School of Law in Queens, N.Y., living with his wife, the painter Nancy Van Goethem, in Battery Park City, at the mouth of the Hudson, in the very shadow of what were the Twin Towers. For the last quarter of the 20th century, the towers dominated the windblown prow of Manhattan. On Sept. 11, 2001, a Tuesday morning, Joseph (like thousands of others) said goodbye to his wife and left for work. He would not see her for another 24 hours. And when he did, the landscape would be irretrievably changed, as would the foundations of the American psyche. Billions of words (and dollars) would be (are being) spent trying to understand somehow what happened then and what continues to this day to happen.

Joseph is no stranger to violence. He grew up in the mean streets of Detroit and has written of that world trenchantly and poignantly. Born in 1948, the grandson of Lebanese and Syrian immigrants, he was baptized in the Maronite Catholic rite but raised a Roman Catholic, attending parochial schools in the city. His family owned and worked a grocery store at the corner of John R and Hendrie from the late 1930’s until 1972, when its modest doors were finally closed. During the Detroit riots of 1967 the place was looted and burned. Three years later, someone high on heroin shot and wounded Joseph’s father during a bungled holdup. The shell of the store is there, but boarded up now and pockmarked with graffiti. Still, it is the place Joseph calls home, the place to which his poems have so often returned.

Like Philip Levine, that other Detroit poet, Lawrence’s first three volumes of poetry—just reissued in a single volume as Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos: Poems 1973-1993—are filled with references to that world: the 7-Up Cadillac Bar, Our Lady of Redemption Melchite Catholic Church, Seminole and Charlevoix and Mack Avenues, junkies, addicts, the race riots, the Ford and Chrysler Freeways and, of course, the blood on the floor in Joseph’s Food Market. Even here, in this new volume, placed squarely among the ruins of lower Manhattan, Joseph keeps returning to that other world for whatever solace it can bring him.

But the violence in the aftermath of 9/11? How record it, how speak of it? “How far to go?” he opens this volume:

I have to, I know,
I promised. But how? How, and

And where? It was cold. The sky,
blue, almost burst, leaves burnished

yellow. Nearing Liberty, Liberty
and Church Streets. So it happened….

But what? What did we learn? The “fact that a compound,/ 1,3-diphenyl propane, forged from the fires’/ heat and pressure, combined with the Towers’/ collapse, has never been seen before”? That? Or the cynical realization of our powerbrokers that another reality has risen phoenix-like from the rubble and ash and metal and charred bone, one that has shaped American policy in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria and Guantánamo—namely, that “the technology to abolish truth is now available—not everyone can afford it, but it is available.” Unreal city, a city on fire, not there, but here. Here in America.

Joseph’s poems from his first volume, Shouting at No One (1983), were closer in manner and syntax to Philip Levine, or to the William Carlos Williams of Spring & All. Or Amiri Baraka:

I think about Thigpen again.
On the floor in an apartment
on Boston Boulevard, he knows
he’s going to die.
I see the record of the criminal court.
Thigpen opens the door,
sees a gun in his face,
pleads, “I don’t have
nothing to do with this!”

But the new work has changed. It has had to. For one thing, his insider’s 1997 transcription of the world of New York lawyers aptly called Lawyerland has intervened. Here is an excerpt from that book, in all its grittiness. We recognize—don’t we?—this voice:

“You know,” I said, “I’ve never been able to figure you criminal-law types out.”

“Figure this,” Robinson said, lifting his middle finger.

“Seriously,” I said. “It’s not only that you’re always around crime, which is one thing. But you’re always around criminals. No matter which side you’re on….”

“I don’t know if there is anything to figure out. Some deep personal pathology, maybe. Maybe something to do with my father. Or maybe it’s just some deep need to get as close as I can to the whole thing…. I can’t remember where I saw it. Somewhere along the way, ‘The criminal law represents civilization’s pathology.’ If you ask me, that’s what should be written across the front of the Tombs. Tattooed on your Buddha! Maybe I’m just trying to figure civilization out. A noble purpose, after all!”

Cross that vision of New York in our time, and then consider Robert Lowell’s vision of New York in the late 1960’s, a world captured in the nightmarish, unhinged, dignified language of his blank-verse sonnets, as in this one describing the rioting and student strikes that shut down Columbia University back in the spring of 1968:

A patch of tan, then blood-warm rooftile, and tan
patch and sky patch, as the jigsaw flung some mosque of Omar
to vaultless consummation and blue consumption….
Columbia this May Day afternoon;
the thickened buildings look like buildings out
of Raphael, colossal classic, dungeon feudal;
horses, higher artistic types than their grooms,
forage Broadway’s median trees, as if
nature were liberated…. The police
lean on the nervous, burnished horses, show they,
at least, have learned to meet and reason together.

It is our version of Swift’s Houhnymns, his proud, rational horses, repelled by the very smell and sight of the Yahoo hominids who ride their backs. A patch of tan, then blood-warm roof-tile. Cézanne? Or something more ominous? Something closer to the world according to Picasso’s Guernica, the fragments more numerous—and heavier—than anything in Eliot’s Waste Land.

“Who restricts knowledge?” Williams asked 60 years ago in the opening book of his tragic American epic, Paterson:

Some say
it is the decay of the middle class
making an impossible moat between the high
and the low where
the life once flourished….knowledge
of the avenues of information….
The outward
masks of the special interests
that perpetuate the stasis and make it profitable.
They block the release
that should cleanse and assume
prerogatives as a private recompense.
Others are also at fault because
they do nothing...

Levine, Lowell and Williams. Lawrence Joseph finds himself in very good company as a bleeding witness to our times. But the sardonic humor with which to counter the public lies distributed to The New York Times and CNN, and the human ache and the search for something like peace—to these this poet has given a local habitation and a name. 

He hopes he’ll be able to confer
with the Shah of Iran in Cairo.

The Shah? Really? No one’s said a thing
to me about it,” his response to the response
of a diplomatic press correspondent.
Poetry’s not what’s made impossible

by it—laughter is. Is it even
farce?—the translator, for example, who,
because of threats, is wearing a bullet-proof
vest and a large pair of army goggles

for disguise, the sniper who slides
a condom over the muzzle of his gun
to keep the sand out. I try to get
the chronology straight…. I look

out on the harbor, in the blue light.
I type into my machine. Perhaps
a glance at the newspaper. I listen
closely and I don’t listen at all....

Another day dawns over Manhattan, with news from Baghdad that five more American soldiers have died near the Syrian border, along with one hundred Iraqi civilians in the aftermath of explosions detonated by two suicide bombers while the faithful were hunched over at prayer. And the wind blows in from the still-majestic Hudson, lifting old newspapers rife with their own sad news across the empty spaces where two towers once stood. Requiescant in pace.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

Native American protestors hold hands with parishioner Nathanial Hall, right, during a group prayer outside the Catholic Diocese of Covington on Jan. 22, 2019, in Covington, Ky. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
The furor over a chance meeting between Catholic high school students and Native American protesters underscores the need to listen and learn from indigenous voices.
Marlene LangJanuary 23, 2019
The staggering parliamentary defeat for Prime Minister Theresa May, seen here leaving 10 Downing Street on Jan. 23, pushed the country even further from safe dry land. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
After the stunning defeat of Theresa May's exit deal, Scotland is looking anew at independence, and the U.K. government fears economic disaster.
David StewartJanuary 23, 2019
Michael Osborne, a film director, documents the damage from a mud slide next to his home in Los Angeles on Jan. 18, after three days of heavy rain. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
The conceit of California-as-disaster-movie is ridiculous. But maybe watching our fires and mudslides helps other states consider both their own fragility and their underlying strength.
Jim McDermottJanuary 23, 2019
A commitment to religious liberty demands that effort be devoted to resolving, rather than exacerbating, any real or apparent tension between religious obligation and civil duty.
The EditorsJanuary 23, 2019