February 2006

Nicholas Gilewicz

poetry

Into It by Lawrence Joseph

Ernest Hemingway famously remarked that to get past writer’s block, he would remind himself, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” In theory, all else would follow. Of course, this glosses over two important questions: whether a writer has knowledge of truth and whether a writer knows how to express it.

In his new volume of poems, Into It, Lawrence Joseph asks, “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?” This quest for one true thing, one item of surety, drives all of his new poems, which find truth to be slippery “in the era of after, of postmodernism.” What happens, then, is that Joseph’s work becomes a refreshing document of the struggle for truth.

This struggle makes Into It a very intimate book, one that counterintuitively and productively sidesteps confessionalism. In “Why Not Say What Happens?”, the longest of Joseph’s numerous attempts to ratiocinate the attacks of September 11 and his life in that context (the towers came down mere blocks from his Manhattan apartment), the speaker explains, “I’m only an accessory to particular images.” What happened can’t be explained in any acceptable way, but preserving the events and the emotional landscape, and even the struggle to understand, are in themselves moving. In the same poem, he cites Wittgenstein -- “the limits of my language/are the limits of my world” -- and sketches the aftermath of the attacks with simple and evocative detail: the “sweet/cherrylike smell of death,” “tourists snap pictures,” “A bugler slips onto the site and plays ‘Taps.’”

At the same time, when Joseph stumbles upon a potential truth, he doesn’t shy away from stating it clearly and almost aphoristically: “It doesn’t take much these days to be a prophet.” “Irreal is the word. I know of no//defense against those addicted to death.” And somehow, he maintains humor; in a meandering alternative account of events surrounding our recent wars, “History for Another Time,” Joseph writes:

Look, it’s on the record.
When asked to explain a personal motive
he may have had for the war, the President
unzipped his fly, took out his quite sizable member,
and replied “Motive? You want my personal motive?
My personal motive is right here.”

Regardless of whether one agrees with that assessment of President Bush’s rationale for war, Joseph’s sets Into It in a rational, complex and yes, occasionally funny sensibility. In that respect, it diverges somewhat from Joseph’s earlier work, collected in the simultaneously released book Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos: Poems 1973-1993. Those poems cover topics as diverse as wrestling with his Syrian Catholic faith, working through being an outsider among outsiders in “Sand Nigger” (probably Joseph’s most famous poem), and growing up in his hometown, the impoverished and riot-stricken Detroit of the 1960s. The young Joseph really does seem to carry the weight of the world on his back, occasionally to the detriment of some early poems.

So it’s unexpected to see him engage terror in a way that demonstrates personal emotion without personalizing terrorism - he doesn’t seem to fear that terrorists are out to get him individually. But he does fear for the world in general. From “Rubaiyat”:

...How many

corpses are counted and for what reasons?
...

...What? War

as a living text? Cyberwar and permanent
war, Third Wave War, neocortical war,
Sixth Generation War, Fourth Epoch
War, pure war and war of computers

to process it, systems
to represent it, war of myth
and metaphor, of trope and assent,
war of hundreds of millions of televisions

...Now... what now?

Things, needless to say, do not look good. Into It is just that -- into the world, and the poems that compose it are very much of the world and of this time. Joseph presents information cleanly and evocatively, and in doing so most effectively displays his search for truth and reason in a world whose operators, be they Western governments or Islamist terrorists, don’t value them very much. The essential pleasure of reading Joseph is recognizing that, in this world, there’s at least one other person trying to figure out how to live, what’s true and what’s right. Joseph is past trying to write “one true sentence.” He just wants to find one truth.

Into It by Lawrence Joseph
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 0374175691
80 pages

Codes, Precepts, Biases and Taboos: Poems 1973-1993 by Lawrence Joseph
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 0374125171
208 pages