A Poetic Witness to the American Imperium | Sojourners

A Poetic Witness to the American Imperium

Unarguably heavy words roll easily off poet Lawrence Joseph's tongue.
Lawrence Joseph gestures with his hand as he looks off camera
Lawrence Joseph during an interview in 2002 / Chester Higgins Jr. / The New York Times

HISTORY HAS PAID personal attention to Lawrence Joseph, a Maronite Catholic from Detroit. In 1967, when Joseph was 19 and just finished with his freshman year at the University of Michigan, his father’s grocery-liquor store was looted and burned during the Detroit Rebellion. The five-day uprising of Black people reacting in part to police abuse and brutality and its fierce suppression by law enforcement and the National Guard made him “acutely conscious of America’s deeply systemic violence.”

Joseph, a poet who was also a lawyer who taught at St. John’s University in Queens, N.Y., and at Princeton, was living a block from the World Trade Center in 2001 when the two planes attacked. He and his wife had to evacuate their apartment. It was weeks before they could return. In the title poem of his 2017 volume So Where Are We?, Joseph writes:

flailing bodies in midair
the neighborhood under thick gray powder—
on every screen. I don’t know
where you are, I don’t know what
I’m going to do, I heard a man say;
the man who had spoken was myself.

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