… Peck Slip
to Water Street to Front Street
to Pine, to Coenties Slip to Pearl
to Stone Street to Exchange Place,
the light in majestic degrees.
Joseph moved to New York City in 1981 and has lived there ever since. For years, he lived steps away from the Brooklyn Bridge in a co-op he rented. In 1994, he and Nancy moved to Battery Park City, where they still live on the thirty-third floor of a rent-stabilized apartment building. From Joseph’s study, he can see the Hudson, Ellis Island, and the ever-expanding skyline of Jersey City. He’s a few blocks away from Zuccotti Park, the site of the Occupy Wall Street movement; he’s even closer to the World Trade Center.
On a blustery February afternoon, Joseph and I walked around his neighborhood together. Joseph loves to walk—Elie said that they’ll often meet for coffee only to stroll around Manhattan together for hours—and his poems offer readers an imaginative introduction to his various neighborhoods: “Water Street, // South Street Seaport, seated outdoors, late June, / early evening, strips of bright silver-pink clouds, // trio of bass, keys, drums; or, let’s say, / Water Street, Bridge Café, that February // gray winter day, table in the back, near / the window, up along Dover the Bridge.” In real life, I had barely set foot in the area. As a reader of Joseph’s work, I’d spent ages there.
We walked and talked for several hours, frequently stopping on benches to look at the water—first the Hudson, then the East River. Several of the locations, restaurants and landmarks mainly, were familiar to me from Lawyerland, Joseph’s formally sui generis nonfiction novel that captures how lawyers talk (boisterously and endlessly) and what they talk about (power). Joseph is an inveterate note-taker. Most lawyers are, he told me. No matter where he goes, he has Post-its with him so that he can jot down an image or scrap of overheard conversation. When the weather is nice, he frequently reads and writes in the many parks surrounding his apartment, with the skyline behind him and the water before him.
Lower Manhattan is haunted by many ghosts, some literary (it’s the place of Melville’s birth—Joseph brought me to the spot), some political (Alexander Hamilton is buried at Trinity Church), and Joseph’s recent work grows out of this place where, as Elie put it to me, “literature and the hurly burly of politics meet.” Of course, the area around Joseph’s apartment is most haunted by September 11, 2001—a national trauma that was also a personal one for Joseph. That morning, he took the subway to St. John’s and learned about the first plane hitting the tower when he got to work. He tried to get in touch with Nancy. The phones didn’t work. No one could tell him anything, and the area around their building was cordoned off. It was more than a day before he was able to find her. She had been in the apartment the whole time.
It took two years before Joseph could write about the event. In a way, his entire legal and poetic careers had been preparing him to respond imaginatively to the attacks. For years, he’d been writing about downtown Manhattan. For years, he’d been writing about American empire, the “millions, millions / plunged and numbed by dreams of blood.” For years, he’d been writing about terror and violence and power. “And then you add the Arab thing,” as he puts it in an essay.
In Into It and So Where Are We?, Joseph speaks of war with ferocity and precision. The title poem of So Where Are We?, made up of twenty-two unrhymed couplets, begins by bearing witness to the forms of violence that constitute our national landscape: America’s foreign wars that are so frequent and widespread that it is often difficult to keep them straight (“What year? Which Southwest Asian war?”); the financial speculation that harms the economy and the lives of those who participate in it; the scope and velocity of destruction that dwarf the human scale: “The point at which // a hundred thousand massacred / is just a detail.”
How should we meet such injustices—the specific acts of violence that can so easily be ignored or elided? Joseph suggests an answer in the final movement of his poem, where he shifts from the Federal Reserve, a space sacred to capital, to the Church of the Transfiguration:
Ten blocks away the Church of the Transfiguration,
in the back a Byzantine Madonna—
there is a God, a God who fits the drama
in a very particular sense. What you said—
the memory of a memory of a remembered
memory, the color of a memory, violet and black.
The lunar eclipse on the winter solstice,
the moon a red and black and copper hue.
The streets, the harbor, the light, the sky.
The blue and cloudless intense and blue morning sky.
By the end of the poem, we are in a different realm—not just in spatial terms but in formal terms as well. When describing the violence against which this poem sets itself, Joseph writes predominantly enjambed lines, running the second line of a couplet into the next stanza: “a tangle of tenses // and parallel thoughts.” In doing so, he finds a formal analogue for the kind of blurring and bleeding, the erasure of difference, that his poem represents.
By the poem’s end, though, this muddle of tenses and stanzas gives way to something cleaner, clearer, more precise. We move from enjambments to end-stops; from abstractions to particulars; from an inability to locate ourselves in time and space to concrete images of the natural and the human-made that are located precisely. Color and detail enter into the poem. Distanced analytical vision gives way to sensuous vision—those blues and reds and coppers. We end not with our thoughts about the things of the world but with the things themselves. This formal shift marks a kind of moral shift in the poem, too: justice and love arise from an encounter with the individual, with a refusal to fall into reification. As William Carlos Williams, one of Joseph’s poetic lodestars, put it, “No ideas / but in things.”
To greet violence with justice and love, Joseph suggests, is to display this kind of vision: exact, precise, and particular. And it is no accident that this shift toward the exact, precise, and particular comes about after the poem encounters the Church of the Transfiguration. We might say that the poem is itself transfigured after this encounter: it shines forth with the repeated Marian blues of the last line, with the hues of city and sky. Joseph writes that the God of the Transfiguration, Christ, is “a God who fits the drama / in a very particular sense.” By this he seems to mean that Christ fits our human drama because of how he suffered, because he too was attuned to injustice and suffering. But Christ also fits our drama in a very particular sense because of his incarnation into the world of the senses. The Transfiguration shows the human and fleshly made radiant with divinity, just as Christ’s life tells the story of the transcendent made concrete.
As we talked around lower Manhattan, we talked about many things: the future of the church and the past of the city (many of Joseph’s sentences began, “That building used to be…”) and the manic, improbable American present. Joseph is often righteously angry at where we are as a country and as a species. As he said to me, “The planet is being pillaged, and, with impunity, laid to waste by capital, by an unfettered greed for money that rules our entire socio-economic system.” But in the time we spent together, our eyes and conversation kept coming back to the water and the winter light reflecting off its surface.
Joseph thinks of himself as writing one long poem across many books. It’s a book on war, certainly. But it’s also, to quote his poem “On Nature,” a “book on love.” A Certain Clarity registers, without flinching, America’s current hellscape: “violence from the terror felt, // violence in the suffering, violence / in the mind, collectively modified.” We need poets to confront such violence, and Joseph has been doing that for years. But A Certain Clarity doesn’t end with war. It ends, as so many of his poems do, by looking toward the water and the sky that he loves:
So what more is there to say? Many times
the mass of the sun, solar masses
spiraling into spacetime, radiating
energy in gravitational waves, the edges
of the islands soft in the black-gray sky,
on this side of the Battery, near the ferry,
a small bird’s footprints, here, in the snow.
New moon, mauve cloud, sea level
higher than normal, the harbor again,
green and gray, punctuated by waves
lashing about. Thickening, the mists,
this early morning; repeated, sounds
of foghorns we hear from afar.