Saturday, August 25, 2007

Lawrence Joseph's "Sand Nigger," "About This," and "News Back Further Than That"/Poetry After "The Game Changed"



A Lebanese-American lawyer from Detroit, Lawrence Joseph emerged in the 1980s as a poet whose work was inflected by the working class storytelling of Philip Levine (another Detroiter) and his own ethnic roots. A poem such as “Sand Nigger” dramatizes the Levinian influence, articulated to the cultural experience of Arab American (Lebanese Christian) immigrants:

“Sand Nigger”

In the house in Detroit
in a room of shadows
when grandma reads her Arabic newspaper
it is difficult for me to follow her
word by word from right to left
and I do not understand
why she smiles about the Jews
who won't do business in Beirut
"because the Lebanese
are more Jew than Jew,"
or whether to believe her
that if I pray
to the holy card of Our Lady of Lebanon
I will share the miracle.
Lebanon is everywhere
in the house: in the kitchen
of steaming pots, leg of lamb
in the oven, plates of kousa,
hushwee rolled in cabbage,
dishes of olives, tomatoes, onions,
roasted chicken, and sweets;
at the card table in the sunroom
where grandpa teaches me
to wish the dice across the backgammon board
to the number I want;
Lebanon of mountains and sea,
of pine and almond trees,
of cedars in the service
of Solomon, Lebanon
of Babylonians, Phoenicians, Arabs, Turks
and Byzantines, of the one-eyed
monk, saint Maron,
in whose rite I am baptized;
Lebanon of my mother
warning my father not to let
the children hear,
of my brother who hears
and from whose silence
I know there is something
I will never know; Lebanon
of grandpa giving me my first coin
secretly, secretly
holding my face in his hands,
kissing me and promising me
the whole world.
My father's vocal chords bleed;
he shouts too much
at his brother, his partner,
in the grocery store that fails.
I hide money in my drawer, I have
the talent to make myself heard.
I am admonished to learn,
never to dirty my hands
with sawdust and meat.
At dinner, a cousin
describes his niece's head
severed with bullets, in Beirut,
in civil war. "More than
an eye for an eye," he demands,
breaks down, and cries.
My uncle tells me to recognize
my duty, to use my mind,
to bargain, to succeed.
He turns the diamond ring
on his finger, asks if
I know what asbestosis is,
"the lungs become like this,"
he says, holding up a fist;
he is proud to practice
law which "distributes
money to compensate flesh."
outside the house my practice
is not to respond to remarks
about my nose or the color of my skin.
"Sand nigger," I'm called,
and the name fits: I am
the light-skinned nigger
with black eyes and the look
difficult to figure--a look
of indifference, a look to kill--
a Levantine nigger
in the city on the strait
between the great lakes Erie and St. Clair
which has a reputation
for violence, an enthusiastically
bad-tempered sand nigger
who waves his hands, nice enough
to pass, Lebanese enough
to be against his brother,
with his brother against his cousin,
with cousin and brother
against the stranger.

*

I first became aware of Joseph when I came across “About This,” which appeared in the Michigan Quarterly Review around the time of the Persian Gulf War. Two things struck me about “About This.” First, it was one of the very few poems to have emerged in a poetry journal within a year of the war (the journal is dated Spring 1992). Second, it was a poem that broached the messy and not immediately “poetic” realm of capitalism and consumption as part of the puzzle of global conflict. Clearly, wars have predated capitalism; yet, the poem seemed to probe, anxiously, the subjective position of those of us in privilege and how that privilege may, if not cause, then fuel, global conflict. This poem is suggestive of the influence of political poets such as Robert Lowell, but it also contains the seeds of a new direction of Joseph’s poetry, away from a poetics of autobiographical narrative and toward a poetics of consciousness itself.

“About This”

I surfaced from my reflections to see
Wartime. YOUR BANK ACCOUNT AND FUCKING COUNT

a sign on the mirror of Le Club Beirut
an obvious object of interpretation during

quote, the month that shook the world—
and here and in Paris the fashion news

this season color runs riot. Once again,
in the midst of my delirium, my companions

on the subway, those who clean offices
all through the night, close their eyes,

Ash Wednesday faced, much less anxious,
even more anxious than I am. That beauty’s

green-gray eyes slanting like a cat’s
must feel the battery of world views.

I do, and believe Nebuchadnezzar in his bunker
religiously is watching himself on Cable

Network News. Where’s my sense of humor?
Prices are soaring in the futures pits.

There—over there are the Asian refugees
starting to tear apart the sewage pipes

under the villa to moisten their lips.
Here I squint into the twilight’s blazes,

into stabs of dazzling dark radiations,
a set of sights attending my sun bath.

One of us, very old, stop uncontrollably
Laughing, sighs, sighs, three, four times,

before starting in again. That rickety one
staring hard at the digital disc player

on display in The World Financial Center’s
Palace of Palm Trees covets precision.

Gold (the old favorite in times of stress)
has lost most of its post-invasion gains.

Enough of a shooting war, enough military
expenditures, there may be no recession.

Is it true, the rumor that the new
instruments of equity are children, commodified?

That the Attorney General has bit off his tongue?
Those are—nails! that maniac wearing

winged-tipped shoes, turning a tattooed
cheek, throws at us while we talk about evil

outside, over burgundy, at the Cloisters.
This is August and September. This is wartime

bound to be, the social and money value
of human beings in this Republic clear

as can be in air gone pink and translucent
with high-flying clouds and white heat.

*

The reference to "counts"--bank accounts and fucking counts--against the backdrop of a war where our leaders professed "we don't do body counts"--echoes uncannily. In a war that employed the language of corporate production, the desire to efface the "bottom line," the outcomes, was never more terrifying.

With Into It (2005), his fourth book of poems, Joseph has shed almost completely the autobiographical, in favor of a poetics that hearkens back to the great modern writers of consciousness. So it’s entirely appropriate that Wallace Stevens provides the epigraph to Joseph’s book, Wallace Stevens quoting Henry James. It is an interesting moment in poetry, when poets as different as Joseph, Jorie Graham, and Michael Dumanis reach back into the Stevensian sound- and land-scape to make sense of the ongoing wars on terror. What makes Joseph’s book so engaging—and why it appears to have garnered more attention than his previous work—is that the book shows how a poetics of consciousness is capable of becoming a poetics of conscience. In the wake of the attacks of September 11th, 2001 in New York City (where Joseph lives and works), Joseph’s book is able to move deftly between poems of evanescent landscape and meditations on human depredation—as if to capture that uncanny aspect of the gruesome attacks, happening on such a clear, beautiful autumn day.

Going through the book, I note about half the poems functioning as “landscape” (both outer and inner scapes), and half functioning more or less as political poems. The landscapes include: “In It….,” “When One…,” “The Bronze-Green…,” “The Pattern-Parallel….,” “On That Side…,” “August Absract.” Three poems that appeared in Jacket are of this style and subject: http://jacketmagazine.com/28/joseph-l-3p.html

Some of the political poems: “I Note in a Notebook,” “Inclined to Speak,” “Woodward Avenue,” “What Do You Mean, What?,” “Why Not Say What Happens?,” “In a Mood,” “Unyieldingly Present,” “News Back Ever Further Than That,” “Rubaiyat,” “Metamorphoses.”

David Wojahn, in his article, “Maggie’s Farm No More: The Fate of Political Poetry,” argues for Joseph’s relevance as one of the very few successful political poets of our age. Wojahn aptly discusses how Joseph’s political poems employ not only collage (as was typical of Vietnam-era war resistance verse), but also Old Testament language and rhetoric, multiple voicings, etc.:

The speaker seems to be desperately trying to bring order to his surroundings, but no fragments can be shorn against these ruins: the poems often sound like a radio playing on the scan mode. Yet references to two events are alluded to obsessively in the collection, and in a perverse fashion act as leitmotifs which give the individual poems and the book itself a cohesive form. As a consequence of the World Trade Center attacks and the second Iraq War, Joseph insists in the book’s penultimate poem, “the game changed.”


Here’s an example that Wojahn quotes, from “News Back Even Further Than That”:

I
Dust, the dust of a dust storm;
yellow, black, brown, haze, smoke;
a baby photographed with half
a head; the stolen thoroughbred
the boy is riding bareback attacked
by a lion; the palace, fixed up
as a forward command post—“This,”
says Air-War Commander Mosely,
“would make a pretty nice casino”:
why is such a detailed
description necessary?
that smell in the air is the smell
of burned human flesh;
those low-flying A-10 Warthogs
are, each of them, firing
one hundred bullets a second.

II
The President refuses to answer a question
he wasn’t asked. The President denies
his are the eyes of a lobster.
The map is being drawn: Mosul in the north,
Baghdad in the center, Basra in the south.
The news back even further than that:
“He Says He is the Prophet Ezekiel.
In the Great mudflats by the River Chebar.
He Has seen, He proclaims, Four Angels,
Each with Six Wings, on a Fiery Wheel.”
Collaborators cut into pieces and burned to death
in public, on spits, like lambs. In spray paint
across the armored personnel carrier:
“Crazy Train,” “Rebel,” “Got Oil?...” There,
on Sadoun Street, in a wheelbarrow, a coil
of wire, carpet, rolled, Persian, antique.

III.

“I’ve just been to see her. It’s made her
mad—angry, yes, of course, but I mean mad,
truly mad. She spoke quietly, quickly—
maniacally. ‘Wargame, they’re using wargame
as a verb, they didn’t wargame the chaos—
chaos? Do you think they care about
the chaos? The chaos just makes it easier for them
to get what they want. Wargame!
What they’ve wargamed is the oil,
their possession of the oil, what they’ve wargamed
is the killing, the destruction,
what they’ve wargamed is their greed...’
Had I noticed that Lebanon has become
an abstract noun, as in ‘the Lebanonization of”?
‘It may just as well have been two or three
atomic bombs, the amount of depleted
uranium in their bombs, the bombs
in this war, the bombs in the war before this—
uranium’s in the groundwater now,
uranium is throughout the entire
ecology by now, how many generations
are going to be
contaminated by it, die of it, be poisoned by it?...’
War, a war time, without limits.
Technocapital was a part
of our bodies, of the body politic.
She quoted Pound—the Pisan Cantos—
she couldn’t remember which—
there are no righteous wars.
‘There is no righteous violence,’
she said, ‘it’s neurobiological
with people like this—
people who need to destroy and who need to kill
like this—and what we’re seeing now
is nothing compared
to what we’ll see in the future…’”

In the wake of the attacks, I found myself hyperaware of my own Arabness, and recall catching paranoid glances from strangers who seemed to accuse me of the attacks. Even more strangely, I felt as if, somehow, maybe I was responsible for these attacks—the pictures in the newspaper looked almost like a bunch of cousins. As if I were looking at a Warhol rendering of a family photo album (the women, weirdly, excluded). It is, from a rational standpoint, absolutely ludicrous; my sense of the world is so different from the attackers that I feel as if they are from a different universe. The Lebanese are, in a sense, quite a different bunch than the Saudis, but identification is identification and reductively, absurdly so. Once, on an international flight, an elderly white woman across the aisle stared at me nearly the entire trip—and her eyes grew wide and neck crane as I, slowly removed my shoes. What could I say?

For this reason, I find it quite fascinating that, at the very moment that I felt I could no longer “hide” my Arabness, could “pass” as white, Joseph has moved to a more universal voice, a voice that may be inflected by such experiences but does not feel entrapped by them. Perhaps his geographical proximity to the attacks, paradoxically, enabled Joseph to feel part of the “we” of the attacked than I, safely in flyover Ohio, had felt. Perhaps his own poetic journey would have moved him toward a verse that is not explicitly autobiographical, even if it emerges from his life. The stance is worth noticing—it demonstrates his courage, his belief in the art, that he neither falls back on identity—(as I have been tempted to do, now that Arab and Arab American voices are desired, on some level, to be heard, if only to explain what is happening)—nor rejects it entirely. A self-proclaimed moralist—no small task for a poet—Joseph creates a vision of theological depth, but without the exclusivism of our tribal faiths. Instead, he gives voice to the voices that both reflect and deflect from what may be his own subjective position; he suddenly, as Whitman exhorted himself, comes to “contain multitudes.”

*

Hear/see Lawrence Joseph read at Boston College in 2006

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