So Where Are We?
City of Our Dreams

By Lawrence Joseph

Atria Books | 2018

Reviewed by Sally Cobau

Lawrence Joseph

I want to talk about the poetry collection So Where Are We? by Lawrence Joseph.  I have only lived in big cities for short periods of time, and I have never lived in the city of all cities: New York.  So, I do not know the street names Joseph frequently refers to or the restaurants, cafes.  However, the intimacy with which he describes the landscape is virile and alive; it’s as if he is describing a long friendship.

I don’t think it’s without care that Joseph’s poems often focus on the natural—the elemental—parts of the city.  Barges and waterways.  A sliver of sky painted violet (consciously painted by himself, the poet).  The “Hudson River, black and still.”  “The landscape turns yellow…”  This homage to nature, entwined in the moving, pulsing world is reminiscent of poet’s past and reminded me specifically of Walt Whitman, although the feeling of the poems are quite different.

Seeing nature for New Yorkers may be more “significant” than for someone like me, because from my perspective nature is abundant—I look out the window, view endless sky and a field where the cows have left because they’ve eaten all the grass (the cowboys have moved them once again).  I feel sorry for people who live in cities sometimes because they are not immersed in the natural world.  And I’m sure they also feel sorry for me…

In his opening poem, “A Fable,” Joseph writes about water:

“Great bronze doors of Trinity Church, hours
told by the sounds of bells.  A red
tugboat pushes a red and gold barge
into the Narrows.  A bench in the shadows…”<

The humble barge is a common motif in So Where Are We?   The poems are hinting at a different time when goods were transported by water rather than transported in the nether realm of cables and computers.  This metaphysical stance—what are we as humans now? —what are our goods, if not coffee, tea, and spices?  Mere bytes and megabytes—a hustling manipulation of cyber entities? —infiltrate the book. The poems are about our cultural identity and highly evocative: So, where are we?

Where are we as a country now?  (I scan the Op/Ed section and find this: “Is the United States Too Big to Govern?” asks one op/ed contributor.)  Our country has grown so unwieldy that at times it does seem impossible to govern.  And yet we communicate in a blink of an eye.  We are connected as a country—as a world-with astonishing speed, and yet our tissue is cancerous.

 So Where Are We? traces our discomfort back to 9/11.  It also poses a more piercing question: Where are those who got killed in 9/11?  Joseph writes:

“So where are we The fiery
avalanche headed right at us—falling
flailing bodies in midair—
the neighborhood under thick gray powder—
on every screen.  I don’t know…”

The lines beg the question: where were you when this tragedy happened?  How were you affected, frozen into this time, like the bodies jumping from buildings, frozen on our screens, with the mind-numbing crystallization of truth of this magnitude burrowing into our skulls, forming us, changing us.

The victims are ash, vaporized.  That’s where the missing are.  According to a New York Times article written around the anniversary of 9/11, only about 40% of those who died in the tragedy have been able to be identified through science.  One could ask why this matter.  Why does a scrap of metal revealing a DNA trace matter?  But it does to the families of the victims who want closure and a tangible record of their loved ones.  It makes sense.  I want pieces of my children—their baby teeth, dirty still, under their pillows—even though they breathe and walk and bounce on the trampoline.  It is unfathomable how I would manage their non-existence.

Watching the ending of Avengers: Infinity Wars gave me a creepy feeling.  I have no interest in Superheroes except for the fact that my kids love them, so because they love them I too love them in the way you love things for your kids.  But the ending…  I found the ending amazing.  Even though my daughter’s friend was crying because she was so upset by the vaporization of the Superheroes (she couldn’t stand it!), I felt that I understood something—the filmmakers were giving a nod to 9/11, to our panic and uneasiness, our downright shitless fear about what happened.  So, I found the ending scary, provocative and oh-so-good.  In short, I’m excited that our art—high and low, if you feel like making that distinction—is finally coming around to 9/11 in ways that aren’t didactic or obvious.

Joseph is also exploring how fragile or malleable our memories are.  One thing was for certain—that day in September was described as heavenly, radiant, a cloudless, perfect September day:

“The streets, the harbor, the light, the sky
the blue and cloudless intense and blue morning sky.”

What do we do about this perfection?  Where are our memories housed?  Joseph writes, “…What you said—/the memory of a memory of a remembered/memory, the color of memory, violet and black.”  Again violet.  A favorite color of Joseph’s.  When do our memories become stories we tell ourselves?  When do memories flash, erotic and new in our minds, recreating us?  Likewise, where would we be without our memories, even if memories just become memories of memories?

Joseph recounts the poet William Blake in his work.  Blake was a champion of worker’s rights in England in the 18th century.  Like Blake, Joseph questions the morality of economic greed in the face of human suffering.  In “Visions of Labor” he writes about an injury to a worker’s hand when he describes the end of a thumb being nearly scraped off and the thumb getting infected.   For obvious reasons this poem reminded me of other horror stories of laborers—some desperate and illegal, some not—being worked to the bone and sacrificing their bodies to the machine.  It seems strange, absurd that in an industrialized, automated world these accidents can still happen.

Similarly, in “In a Post-Bubble Credit-Collapse Environment “ Joseph writes about the “have’s” and “have not’s.”  There is the illuminated Stock Exchange and then there is the downtrodden, a person hauling her sleeping bag, “bananas, figs” etc.  And a man in a grungy yellow t-shirt eating from a garbage can.  The disparity of lives is touched upon here, but it is in actuality global that warming that will kill us all in the end, when the ferocious hurricanes come and other global “equalizers “disrupt our daily lives.

And then there is war.  The poem “Syria” is not only a heart-wrenching look at war with all war’s cruel manifestations (her voice/lowered, almost a whisper— “a decapitated/body with a dog’s head sewn on, for example…”).  But, it is also an examination of how we are complicit in ongoing wars and how we are taught to think that: “Yes, I know, it’s much more complicated than that.”  Or so, we are led to believe.  But when do the atrocities outweigh our subtle, erudite responses?  These are the questions that Joseph asks.

Lawrence Joseph is a lawyer, as well as a poet.  He writes, “As I said, I’m a lawyer. Technically   speaking.”  Perhaps being a lawyer gives his poems more grit and nerve.  I’m not sure.  There are poets who ride it out quietly from the wilderness, and then there are poets who write in the murky thick of things.  Joseph resides in the murk.

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