Editor's note: Lawrence Joseph has submitted a letter to the editor.
The sky changes color often in Lebanese-American poet Lawrence Joseph’s watercolor of the World Trade Center explosions, Into It. In the title poem he writes, “the sky, blue, almost burst.” A palette of other shades parade through his poems. One is “The bronze-green gold-green foreground.” In another the sunshine is pink. And in “On That Side,” somehow, the poet winds up on “Green Dolphin Street.”
While Joseph’s poetry doesn’t address the bombings directly, each poem has bits and pieces of WTC shrapnel embedded in it—like the “newspaper, old, caught in a gust of wind,” or the president “with the eyes of a lobster.” The towers’ kaleidoscopic crumbling act is in the poems’ subconscious; in the foreground is—what else?—sex. Joseph wants to make love and war. So, an airy romance is sketched in, in an almost comic-book manner “one scene and then another” (“I Note in a Notebook”). As the towers fall and burn to the ground, the poet and his lady friend with the tanned legs are out painting the town vermilion.
Sexualizing Sept. 11 isn’t that odd in light of the tendency to eroticize war in Western literature’s canon, yet Joseph feels the need to defend it in “Inclined to Speak.” He writes, “of course it’s genocide,” as he touches on the Brechtian notion that “to write about pleasure—in times of killing is a crime.” He counters Brecht’s conviction by alluding to another poet, Paul Celan: “what kinds of times are these when a poem is a crime because it includes what must be made explicit.” Joseph’s summation: “our inner voice is inclined to speak only to those closest to us.” Joseph errs on the side of subtlety, though, refusing to articulate how the “inner voice” of lovers ends war, beyond the “the world’s fucked-up, fuck it, let’s fuck” pleasure principle.
For example, the poet’s lover asks more questions than Kyra Sedgwick, but this woman is not a closer; she rhetorically poses too much naiveté, such as “why, why in this time of so many claims to morality/ the weight of violence/ is unparalleled in the history of the species”—which only enables and encourages the endless subterfuge of Joseph’s aging philosophy professor persona, drunk with gaudy erudition and a lust for gluttonous abstractions (beauty, the answer, if you must know). Couple the philosophical foreplay with the heavy-handed pop-ups of Venus and Apollo in an unusual amount of poems, and—voilà—the war and sex connection, Joseph’s “painting of something solid rather than the solid thing itself” in “Why not say what happens?” emerges as the most enduring of all human constructs.