So Where Are We?
So where were we? The fiery
avalanche headed right at us—falling,
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.
What year? Which Southwest Asian war?
Smoke from infants’ brains
on fire from the phosphorus
hours after they’re killed, killers
reveling in the horror. The more obscene
the better. The point at which
a hundred thousand massacred
is just a detail. Asset and credit bubbles
about to burst. Too much consciousness
of too much at once, a tangle of tenses
and parallel thoughts, a series of feelings
overlapping a sudden sensation
felt and known, those chains of small facts
repeated endlessly, in the depths
of silent time. So where are we?
My ear turns, like an animal’s. I listen.
Like it or not, a digital you is out there.
Half of that city’s buildings aren’t there.
Who was there when something was, and a witness
to it? The rich boy general conducts the Pakistani
heroin trade on a satellite phone from his cave.
On the top floor of the Federal Reserve
in an office looking onto Liberty
at the South Tower’s onetime space,
the Secretary of the Treasury concedes
they got killed in terms of perceptions.
Ten blocks away the Church of the Transfiguration,
in the back a Byzantine Madonna—
there is a God, a God who fits the drama
in a very particular sense. What you said—
the memory of a memory of a remembered
memory, the color of a memory, violet and black.
The lunar eclipse on the winter solstice,
the moon a red and black and copper hue.
The streets, the harbor, the light, the sky.
The blue and cloudless intense and blue morning sky.
• • •
“So Where Are We?” is the title poem of So Where Are We?, forthcoming from FSG in August. So Where Are We? begins where Into It, my last book of poems, left off, amid the global violence unleashed by the World Trade Center terrorist attacks.
My reaction to the terrorist bombings includes an intensely personal dimension. My wife Nancy Van Goethem and I lived (and still live) a block from Ground Zero. I left her on the morning of September 11 to go out to Queens, where I teach at St. John’s University School of Law, shortly before the first plane hit. Nancy spent the night of September 11 in our apartment; it was more than twenty-four hours before I saw her again, when, late the following morning, I was able to get to our apartment. We were then evacuated from our apartment for over two months.
“So where were we?” and “so where are we?” I heard on the street; I made a note of them, as a way of rhetorically structuring the poem, as I often do with what I hear spoken.
There’s a couplet in Wallace Stevens’s poem “An Old Man Asleep,” in Stevens’s last book of poems, The Rock: “The self and the earth—your thoughts, your feelings, / Your beliefs and disbeliefs, your whole peculiar plot.” I’ve always liked Stevens’s notion of his “whole peculiar plot,” because that, to me, is what, imaginatively, the whole of my work is—my whole peculiar plot. This sort of plotting is something I’ve always done, not only within the poems in each book, but also within each book in relation to each of the other books. I see myself—as Stevens, and as Eugenio Montale and Louis Zukofsky also did—writing, plotting one long poem, in Montale’s words, “a poetic-painterly-musical production,” incarnated in forms of compressed emotional expression.
From the beginning, my poems have plotted the language of economics, politics, labor, capital, racism, war, issues of beauty, intimacy, and love—as Adrienne Rich said, “That kind of language.” “So Where Are We?” and So Where Are We? plot this round of the one long poem.
Lawrence Joseph is the author of five previous books of poetry, including Into It; Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos: Poems 1973–1993; and Before Our Eyes. He is also the author of two books of prose, Lawyerland, a novel, and The Game Changed: Essays and Other Prose. He is Tinnelly Professor of Law at St. John’s University School of Law, and has also taught creative writing at Princeton. Married to the painter Nancy Van Goethem, he lives in New York City.
YOU MAY ALSO LIKE:
Read all of our Poetry Month coverage here