The Bard of New Jack City: The Poet Lawrence Joseph’s Brilliant Record of Detroit

  The Observer and the poet Lawrence Joseph, two Detroiters living in New York, were talking in a café in


The Observer and the poet Lawrence Joseph, two Detroiters living in New York, were talking in a café in Battery Park City.

“You asked me about the connection between Detroit and New York,” Mr. Joseph said. “Detroit is the great modern city. And it becomes metaphorically the great industrial city. Céline writes about two cities when he comes to America in Journey to the End of the Night: New York and Detroit. Why? In 1932, when he writes perhaps the first great international novel of the 20th century, why does he choose New York and Detroit? What are your central metaphors internationally in 1932, when you’re going into a Depression? The center of the United States was Detroit and New York.” He slapped the table. “And I’m aware of that. Is Detroit still the center? It doesn’t matter. Detroiters will tell you that it is. And the world seems to think it’s pretty important.”

“I think the disintegration only makes it more important.”

“Absolutely. I would agree with that entirely.”

“I was in Detroit three years ago,” The Observer said, “Just before my parents lost the house in the suburbs. And I went down to the street my mother grew up on, on Dobel right between Forest Lawn and Mt. Olivet cemeteries. The block was three quarters burnt down, but her house was still standing. There were people living in it. I spent my first Christmas in that house. A year later, someone told me it had been burned and stripped.”

“The store my uncle and dad had,” Mr. Joseph said, “which I write about, was burned in the riot of ’67.” He paused. “Violence. The violence of American society allows this kind of thing to happen. My father went to work for A&P and still worked nights at that store. That was after the ’58 recession, which knocked out 200,000 auto jobs and closed Studebaker and Packard. I was 10 years old. I was aware of recessions when I was,” another pause, “4. Everybody in Detroit was aware of recessions. Everybody. Are they aware of them now? Yeah, yeah. And everyone talks now about the country going into a double-dip recession; how long has Detroit been in a double-dip recession? How much of your lifetime has Detroit been in a recession? I wanted very much to record what I was perceiving. No one else was really recording that.”

Mr. Joseph writes often about Detroit, but violence is his major topic—from the changing landscape of Detroit to the concrete caverns below Canal Street, in the neighborhood he has called home for 30 years. In conversation he’ll quote Wallace Stevens, Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, Bellow, Brecht, Baudelaire, himself. He’ll say poetry is “the supreme fiction”—hats off to Stevens—or he’ll say it is the best way to tackle “the mysterious circumstances of being,” paraphrasing Bellow. Like Stevens, Mr. Joseph is a lawyer. Law is hardly a day job. He has been the subject of a major symposium on law and literature by the University of Cincinnati Law Review. Columbia Law Review devoted an entire issue in the winter of 2001 to Mr. Joseph’s remarkable 1997 “nonfiction novel,” Lawyerland. A new collection of prose, The Game Changed, which comes out in November, is a sort of guide to his body of work, a great footnote to a long and serious career in letters.

He was born in Detroit in 1948. His grandparents, Lebanese and Syrian Catholics, came to the United States in the early 20th century. At Ellis Island, his grandfather adopted the last name Joseph, derived from Mr. Joseph’s great-grandfather’s first name. “I might have been born in Beirut,/not Detroit, with my right name,” He writes in the biographical poem “Curriculum Vitae,” from the collection of the same name. “I am not Orthodox, or Sunni,/Shiite, or Druse. Baptized/in the one true Church, I too was weaned on Saint Augustine.” Mr. Joseph’s father owned a store with his brother called Joseph’s, “Your Neighborhood Grocer Since 1935.” It was burned and looted in the Detroit riot of July 1967. In 1970, Mr. Joseph’s father was shot in a robbery by a young drug addict. The store was sold in 1972. It remained on the corner of John R and Hendrie—abandoned, graffiti covered—until the city demolished it in 2008.

“No one made me live there,” Mr. Joseph said to The Observer, evenly. In his Detroit diary of 1975—parts of which are included in The Game Changed—he writes: “All of us—the girl, eighteen, on the bus reading an old paperback edition of Crime and Punishment; the respectable liars; the lost; the fuck-offs; the cool crooks; the blessed—all of us, our lives are here.”

Mr. Joseph moved to New York City in 1981. Detroit has remained present in his poems, but enriched by the contrast and connections of Manhattan. “Now years have passed since I came/to the city of great fame,” he writes, again in “Curriculum Vitae.” “The same sun glows gray on two new rivers./Tears I want do not come.” He writes of New York the same way he writes of Detroit, brooding but objective, simply noticing things. Lawyerland is a series of almost Socratic dialogues between an “I”—some approximation of Mr. Joseph—and various lawyers. Mr. Joseph calls it “truthful” instead of “factual.” It takes place entirely below Canal Street. Each chapter is a different character’s rumination on something much larger than law. Talking about the prison attached to the federal court building, one character almost seems to be quoting one of Mr. Joseph’s poems. “That damp, musty, almost puky smell—no question about it, it’s still there. Any undertaker will tell you that you never get the smell completely out of a tomb.” In “Why Not Say What Happens,” a poem about modern New York, he writes: “I’m only an accessory to particular images.”

He didn’t want to talk about Philip Levine, who was just named America’s poet laureate and who, The New York Times said, writes “Whitmanesque poems about working-class Detroit.” Mr. Levine left Detroit when he was 26, moved to bucolic Fresno, and didn’t publish his first collection until almost 15 years later. For that, his poems are laced with an often precious nostalgia—“We stripped in the first warm spring night/and ran down into the Detroit River/to baptize ourselves in the brine/of car parts, dead fish, stolen bicycles,/melted snow.” Such wistfulness is absent from Mr. Joseph’s more brutal work, which is unforgiving like Detroit itself (romanticizing swimming in the Detroit River is as pointless as celebrating a skinny-dip in the Gowanus Canal or Newton Creek). Mr. Joseph’s language resembles the bluntness of the violence he records. He is not abstract, favoring a more direct and frightening voice. His poem about the riot of 1967, “There Is a God Who Hates Us so Much,” from the 1983 collection Shouting at No One, is far less a celebration of his city than a eulogy: “Father shouts until his throat cracks,/the river stops in its sludge,/I pray to know what to pray for.”

That final line that presents prayer as a series of questions is crucial. Many poems follow this logic of framing smaller questions and answers into one larger question. In a later collection, 2005’s Into It, the poem “Woodward Avenue,” named for the country’s first paved road and the mainline that runs straight into downtown Detroit, presents even the most passive reference to the riot as a brilliant illumination of its chaos and wide-reaching violence: “Am I not correct in saying that for purposes of insurance there was considerable dispute as to whether it was a war, a riot, or an insurrection?” The riot went on for days. Entire sections of the city were burned, as if cut out and replaced with ash and cinder, the remnants of which still remain. There were 43 reported deaths, at least 2,000 destroyed buildings, and some $50 million in reported damage, though the statistics fluctuate in both directions. Mr. Joseph was 19 at the time. By most accounts, the events began at a club on 12th street, the city’s center for black commerce, when a party was broken up by the cops and a man named William Scott II tossed a beer bottle at a police officer and shouted, “Get your goddamn sticks and bottles and start hurtin,’ baby!” It is worth noting here that the riot, in the years directly following it—and perhaps still, officially—was called the Great Rebellion. Does it bear mentioning that in conversation Mr. Joseph will often frame his answers as rhetorical questions followed by answers in the affirmative?

The riot, like his father’s store, like the sludge of the Detroit River, is a sustained metaphor in Mr. Joseph’s work. He mentioned to The Observer that all his poems—and his prose—could be read together as one long poem. If that’s true, then “Woodward Avenue” is an inevitability: that question about what to call the riot, how to contain its madness within language, is a kind of deferred response to his first poem about the summer of ’67, “Then,” the one that opens his first collection, Shouting at No One. The way he deals with what he said to The Observer was the “astonishing nature of this environment”—Detroit, on fire—is at first so casual it is nearly humorous: “You would have simply shaken your head/at the tenement named ‘Barbara’ in flames/or the Guardsman with an M-16/looking in the window of Dave’s Playboy Barbershop.” The very symbols didn’t match up and Mr. Joseph is initially cautious. And yet, by the poem’s end, he discovers the fiery nature of his voice, that initial submission to the violence around him giving way to ferocity: “This can’t be,” he writes just a few lines later. “You wouldn’t have known/it would take nine years/before you’d realize the voice howling in you/was born then.”

While he was writing his first book of poems, Mr. Joseph was clerking for Justice G. Mennen Williams of the Michigan Supreme Court and, after that, teaching on the law faculty at the university of Detroit School of Law. He was keeping an extensive diary of his observations of Detroit. Migration into the city had stopped and the population was shrinking. It was the height of a major depression. The city was crumbling around him. It had crumbled around The Observer in a different way—he was younger—and it would crumble again for other people after that and be different again. A poem during this time, “It Will Rain All Day” offers a bleak street-level view:

“I pass the bar with ‘Fight Poverty—/Drink & Dance’ scrawled in white paint across its windowless front,/and then a block-long building, windows knocked in, wires ripped/from the walls, toilet bowls/covered with dirt and spiderwebs./It will rain all day.”

“It had to feel dire to be writing about the city in 1975,” The Observer said, sitting across the table from Mr. Joseph in the café in Battery Park City.

“No,” he shot back. “It didn’t feel dire. ‘Our lives are here,’” he said, quoting himself and repeating the line like an incantation.

“Our lives are here,” he said, slapping the table to the words’ rhythm. “Our lives are here.”

The Bard of New Jack City: The Poet Lawrence Joseph’s Brilliant Record of Detroit