AD: These poems are constantly thinking about abstraction and violence—more specifically, about how turning the particular into the abstract enables economic cruelty (think of bundled mortgages) and actual bloodshed (think of the label “enemy combatant”). What are some of the languages you find most useful for thinking about abstraction? Marxist theory is clearly one. Is theology another? I’m reminded again of that line about God fitting the world “in a very particular sense.”
LJ: The sort of abstraction and abstract language that you speak of—a reified language that separates thoughts and ideas from their factual content—is hideous and destructive. The languages I place beside and against it are languages of perception and critique, fact and detail—types of langage certainly found in theology and in Marxist theory—and a language, “in a very particular sense,” of “facts of feeling,” sensuality, intimacy.
Then there’s law, the language of law I’ve lived and worked in for nearly forty-five years. Legal language is rooted in realpolitik, in power. It includes distributive languages of labor and finance capital, languages of race and gender, war, crime and punishment, bodily injury, contractual transactions, individual rights. It maps our entire social space. It’s a language of facts, abstract rules and doctrines, rhetorical tropes, analysis, argument. It’s a language I know and have practiced, taught and written on, and I know how to use it for my purposes when I write.
Also important to me is a language of intensely focused moral witness and judgment, a “moralist language”—found, for example, in the writings of Albert Camus and Simone Weil, and in the work of one of the greatest American moralists, if not the greatest, James Baldwin. The truth of a poem is in its language, what its language tells us about the truths of life itself. Put that truth—put the language of poetry—against Andrew Bacevich's recent description of the language of "the powerful," who, as Bacevich forcefully says, "reveal truth only to the extent that it suits them," because the "exercise of power necessarily involves manipulation and is antithetical to candor." Poetry's language—as I say in my prior book of poems Into It—resists and is against "the turgid language of pseudo-erudition," the language of "false-voiced God-talkers and power freaks" who "think not at all about what they bring down."
AD: In the title poem of So Where Are We?, you describe a feeling that many of us will recognize: “Too much consciousness / of too much at once, a tangle of tenses // and parallel thoughts.” And, as you’ve said, you imagine all of your books as forming one long poem. So I’m wondering: how has the experience of consciousness changed from your first collection, published in 1983, to now? And how has your own poetry changed, either formally or thematically, in response to this?
LJ: My first book, Shouting at No One, is set in Detroit in the seventies, and, among other things, tracks the breakdown of the Fordist paradigm of industrial capitalism. “In That City, In Those Circles,” a poem in So Where Are We?, re-visions that time, and another, “Here in a State of Tectonic Tension,” presents physical landscapes and metaphorical geographies of industrial and post-industrial Detroit. The techno-political economy of Fordism—Antonio Gramsci’s word—changed the world. Born in Detroit shortly after World War II, I inherited the city’s histories of labor and capital, class and race, violence and civil conflict. My father’s and uncle’s small grocery-liquor store in Detroit was looted and burned in the July ’67 insurrection, fifty years ago. I was nineteen years old. I’d just finished my first year at Michigan, and worked the afternoon shift that summer at Pontiac Truck and Coach, dry-sanding paint-primered bodies of Chevrolet vans. When I came to New York City from Detroit in eighty-one, my practice as a lawyer included direct experience with the workings of finance capital. This coincided with the United States’s escalating military involvement in the Middle East.
These histories have been and continue to be an integral part of my work. For almost thirty-five years, my wife Nancy and I have lived in downtown Manhattan. After the bombing of the World Trade Center, we were evacuated from our apartment, located a block from Ground Zero. We returned to it after six weeks, and we still live there. This and the United States’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 are present throughout Into It. So Where Are We?’s title poem begins with the question, “So where were we?”, going back then to where Into It left off. The book takes on our continuous wars and warmaking, the economic collapse, racist hatred and violence, the oligarchic state’s redistributions of wealth, the acceleration of cyberspace—digitalized time, digitalized space—by technocapital, which, as I say in “A Fable,” the first poem in the new book, is now “permanently, digitally, // semioticized, virtually unlimited // in freedom and power, taking // billions of bodies on the planet // with it.” For me, the challenge is as it’s always been—to make poems that resist the pressures of reality. In times such as ours, the challenges are greater, the stakes higher than ever.
AD: This book, like your others, is interested in scale, in thinking about how the local (all those NYC landmarks, all those NYC streets) connects, or doesn’t, to the global (“Ramadi, Mosul, Falluja, Tel Afar, Raqqa”) and to the cosmic (“solar masses / spiraling into spacetime”). How do you think about the relationship between scale and poetic form?
LJ: The relationship between scale and form is a matter of composition, and composition is the act of making, of forming a poem through its combination of images, thoughts, voices, and sound patterns. The local, global, cosmic are imaginatively connected in what I think, see, feel. But, in a poem, what is presented as large or small, abstract or detailed, depends on the poet’s perspective, how a poem’s thoughts, themes, motifs, languages, are juxtaposed, associatively sequenced. Each poem presents its own issues of rhythm, meter, lineation, rhyme, syntax, its own world of formed language and thought. Poems written in stanzas allow for shifting perspectives in different ways than poems written in parts or in single blocks of metrically lineated language. So Where Are We?’s final words are, “Thickening, the mists,
this early morning; repeated, sounds
of foghorns we hear from afar.”
The book ends with a visual image, a thought, sounds, repeated.
AD: Melville provides the epigraph to this book: “Not ignoring what is good, I am quick to perceive a horror, … and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul.” Why Melville? What is it that attracts you to him? Is it his metaphysical imagination? His grounding in New York City?
LJ: It’s from the first chapter of Moby Dick—the ellipses mark several pages between the first and second parts of the quotation. It seemed to me an apt introduction to the book. The “I” in the poems doesn’t ignore what’s good, is quick to perceive a horror, and, in making the poems, is swayed to his purpose by “wild conceits”—“two and two there” floating into his “inmost soul.” In the inmost soul! Melville’s Confidence Man and Bartelby the Scrivener also make an appearance in my book of prose, Lawyerland. Melville lays down an American template. The lust for power, violence, hatred—slavery, imperial expansion, the destruction of nature, murderous aggression, injustice, greed, corruption—he absorbs it all and finds the language and forms of language he needs to fulfill his vision. Also, Melville was born a few blocks from where Nancy and I live, so he and I share more than metaphysical, and metaphorical, territory.
AD: The book ends with a poem titled “What More Is There to Say?” So let me conclude by asking: what more is there to say? What do you plan to work on next? Any plans to return, as in Lawyerland, to the novel form?
LJ: If you try to write about what’s going on, you always have more to say. I’m always working on the next books of poems. To paraphrase Octavio Paz, a poet can’t help writing poems, and knows it. I’m driven to write poems. I also write prose—essays, criticism, journal, diary, notebook entries, legal scholarship. I have one collection of essays and assorted prose pieces, and am putting together another. Lawyerland is a poet’s prose book—what I needed to say I needed to say in prose. I’m not sure what generic category it is—in composing it, I found myself inventing my own prose form. Philip Roth defined a novel as “a piece of synthetic prose based on play with invented characters. These are the only limits.” Lawyerland fits within that definition. I’m presently working on a book of prose that also fits within that definition, and have another one much in mind.