Before Our Eyes.

Author:Skeel, David A., Jr.

Before Our Eyes. By Lawrence Joseph. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1993. Pp. 72. $18.


In his 1936 essay, The Irrational Element in Poetry, Wallace Stevens suggested that since the beginning of the first World War the "pressure of the contemporaneous" had become "constant and extreme."(1) No longer could poets ignore the contemporaneous, the urgent social, political, and economic crises of the time; poetry must address and respond to these pressing issues. The poet's task, Stevens insisted, is to take the contemporaneous as her subject. But only as her nominal subject. Her primary subject must always be the "poetry" of the contemporaneous.(2)

Far more than most of his peers, Lawrence Joseph(3) has created a poetry of the contemporaneous. With Before Our Eyes, his third and most powerful book of poems, Joseph continues to take as his themes the pervasive, destructive realities of our time. Again and again he returns to Detroit, the city of his childhood, a city that evokes images of industrialization and its decline, of racial tensions and urban blight. Lebanon serves as a second, recurring motif in the poems, often associated with religious violence and, as Joseph himself is the grandson of Lebanese and Syrian immigrants,(4) with questions of racial identity, family history, and memory itself. Images of New York form still another insistent motif: New York as the legal and financial capital of the nation, New York as a city of the alien and dispossessed.

While the discussion that follows will allude to each of these characteristic themes, the motif with which I will be most concerned in this review is law and legal discourse. Focusing on the ways in which. law informs the poems -- both directly and, more interestingly, indirectly -- yields important insights into Joseph's poems and the relationship between law and poetry generally.

My choice of motifs, and of Joseph's poems as an occasion to talk about law and poetry, is not accidental. Unique among contemporary poets, Joseph is a lawyer and a law professor.(5) This in itself suggests that his poems may provide an excellent vehicle for assessing some of the intuitions offered in recent years by law and literature and by movements such as legal storytelling that have, at least in part, developed from or in reaction to law and literature.(6) But Joseph's connection to this discourse goes even further. To an extent that is striking and at times uncanny, his development as a poet and a lawyer precisely tracks the emergence and growth of law and literature.

While its antecedents go back at least to the legal realists, the law-and-literature movement is usually traced to the work of James Boyd White and others in the early 1970s.(7) Joseph had completed his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan and returned to the university to attend law school at this time.(8) During this period, he also began to write many of the poems that later comprised his first book, Shouting at No One,(9) a passionate and often lyrical discourse whose nominal subject is the urban realities of Detroit.

In the early 1980s, after five years clerking and teaching in Detroit, Joseph left Detroit for New York, where he practiced in the litigation department of a major New York law firm for several years before accepting a teaching appointment at Hofstra Law School and subsequently moving to St. John's University School of Law. Most or all of the poems of Joseph's second book, Curriculum Vitae,(10) were written during these years. Much more than in the first book, law becomes an important, often explicit, motif in Curriculum Vitae.(11)

The poems of each of Joseph's first two books bear witness to many of the intuitions that have emerged from law and literature, legal storytelling, and other developments in legal academia in recent years. From the earliest poems, his work has explored the marginalizing effects of law and other social institutions, a concern that has come to dominate debate in law and literature and other areas.

Joseph's approach to these issues has never been simply that of a reporter, however, or even that of an advocate. The poems of Curriculum Vitae, and still more those of Before Our Eyes, reflect an increasingly complex aesthetic. Joseph continues to take the contemporaneous as his subject. Yet, as the highly refracted quality of the poems and their constant attention to the status of language as language suggest, Joseph is obsessed with what Stevens called "the poetry of the subject."(12) It is in this tension between the subject and the poetry of the subject that the poems of Before Our Eyes achieve their intensity and their power.

The review that follows consists of three Parts. In Part I, I briefly discuss some of the similarities between law and poetry. I focus in particular on the increasing attention both poets and legal theorists have given to the situated, contingent nature of language. As has been frequently pointed out, however, the law has direct, instrumental consequences that distinguish it from poetry and other literature in important respects. In Part II, I use the analysis of the first Part to inform my discussion of the poems in Before Our Eyes. I argue in this Part that Joseph's experience as a lawyer has had an important influence on his poetry. In addition to including several poems that deal explicitly with the law and legal discourse, the book as a whole shows an awareness of the coercive effects of legal, social, and economic relations that is unusual in modernist poetry.

Throughout my discussion of the poems, I emphasize Joseph's perception of himself as a modernist poet. Unlike many postmodern theorists, who have rejected the possibility of knowledge or a coherent concept of self, Joseph refuses to abandon the quest for both. His treatment of these issues has intriguing implications for recent debate about legal storytelling. I briefly consider these implications at the end of the Part.(13)

Finally, I turn in Part III to a puzzle raised by the exploration of law in Joseph's poems: Why do so few other poets address legal issues and discourse in their poems, despite the modernist credo that poetry must deal with pressing contemporary realities? I reject the view that the law is somehow unpoetic, arguing instead that legal language is surprisingly rich, even musical, and that certain legal concepts are inherently poetic. I suggest that, in addition to the practical barriers to both practicing law and writing poetry, the dearth of poetry about law reflects a tendency even among critical theorists to distinguish between one's "real" self and those aspects of life that, like the practice of law, are seen as inconsistent with or irrelevant to the self.



    The history of law and literature and of developments that have furthered or responded to it can be seen as an increasingly ambitious assimilation of literary theory and practice into legal discourse. In the infancy of law and literature, its advocates insisted that literary sources could be used to further legal analysis;(14) these and other commentators subsequently made the simple yet profound observation that because law, like literature, is unavoidably linguistic in nature, literary insights into the situated, contingent, often ambiguous character of language were as applicable to legal texts as to literary ones.(15) Recent law-and-literature commentary, much of it critical of the preoccupations of earlier law-and-literature analysis, has focused increasingly on the tendency of legal discourse to exclude the voices of outsiders.16 While its relationship with law and literature is a somewhat oblique one, legal storytelling adds yet another page to the merging of literature and law. Legal storytellers not only draw upon literary insights, but they also employ literary techniques.17

    By itself, such an account might suggest that literary theorists have always appreciated the nature and limitations of language, and that lawyers and legal theorists have finally begun to catch up. In many respects, this perception is accurate; yet, as the brief sketch I give below of lawyers' and poets' changing perspectives on language will suggest, lawyers' apparent tardiness also highlights important distinctions between law and poetry.(18)

    In the nineteenth century, both lawyers and poets viewed language as objective and transparent -- primarily a vessel the writer used to transmit her message.(19) Legal and poetic discourse differed in important respects, however. Whereas nineteenth-century poetry was explicitly subjective, legal writers remained outside of their text altogether. Legal discourse, unlike poetry, was supposed to be entirely detached and objective.(20)

    In poetry, the advent of modernism in the early twentieth century completely altered the way poets viewed poetry and poetic language. As modernism challenged the validity of received traditions, literature, and religion, modernist poets began to question the relationship between subjective -- that is, personal, aesthetic, or otherwise associated with an identifiable "self" -- and objective "reality."(21) No longer could one see the poet as standing outside a poem and acting upon its language. Rather, as Joseph has recently pointed out, the subjective realm of the poet was displaced into the poem itself, so that the poet was, and is, every bit as much a part of the language of the poem as is the objective realm she describes.(22)

    In law, legal realism attacked traditional legal theory in very similar terms. Unlike modernism in poetry, however, legal realism only partially destabilized the relationship between subject and object. Although rejecting the view that traditional legal categories correspond to "objective reality" in some metaphysical way, the legal realists merely replaced one view of "objective reality" with another.(23) For legal realists, objective reality...

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